This sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Riverdale, Toronto on Sunday, November 17th.
A Sermon on Being a Witness at the End of the World.
“This will give you an opportunity to testify…Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” (Luke 21:13, 33).
Father in heaven, gather us into the passion of your son Christ Jesus by your Spirit, that our life together may be an eternal word that testifies to the Word. Amen.
At the very beginning of the second century St. Ignatius of Antioch was being led captive to Rome where he would meet his martyrdom by being fed to wild beasts in the Colosseum. There are some really wonderful icons and works of art that picture Ignatius being eaten by lions. At any rate, as he was being led to Rome he wrote a few letters, one of which was to the church there in Rome. He writes, “I am afraid that your affection for me may do me harm.” The harm that he foresaw their affection doing was to attempt to intervene on his behalf and save him from his impending death. He exhorted them to remain silent and make no attempt to rescue him: “For if you are silent and leave me to my doom, then am I a word of God; but if you set your hearts on my physical existence, I shall again be a mere cry.”
“Then am I a word of God.” Not the Word of God, of course, but a word of God. In our reading from Luke today Jesus tells his disciples, “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict,” (21:12-15). Well, actually, that last line might be better translated literally: “for I will give you a mouth and a wisdom.” The disciples will testify or, bear witness, to Jesus he says, but they will not be left to their own devices to do so, Jesus himself will give them a mouth. And indeed, the early Christians much like Ignatius, did become a word of God, a testimony, a witness. Jesus gave them a mouth. We see this quite clearly in Acts (Part II to Luke’s gospel). The early Christians suffered just as Jesus predicted. They were handed over to the religious councils, they were thrown in prison, they were persecuted and brought before kings and governors. Consider the first Christian martyr, Stephen. We read of his story in Acts 6-7. Some of those who belonged to the synagogue would argue with him but we are told, “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke,” (6:10). So, they seized him and brought him before the council (6:12). Indeed, as Jesus foretold, this presented Stephen with an opportunity to testify and that he did. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he gave a lengthy speech at the conclusion of which he accuses the religious leaders of opposing the Holy Spirit and refusing to keep the law which they received. Luke tells us that when they heard these things, “they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen,” (7:54), then they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death. Following Stephen’s death “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison,” (Acts 8:1-3).
Now two things that are worth noting here. First, the Greek word that is translated “testify” in v13 is martyrion which comes from the root martys. This is obviously where we get the word martyr. Thus, Ignatius’ actual death as a martyr, as well as Stephens’, was a testimony. What did they bear witness to? To Jesus. That is, as Ignatius was being devoured by lions, and as Stephen was being stoned to death, they imitated or rather shared in Christ’s own passion. Perhaps no where is this clearer than in the words which Stephen speaks at his own death: “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died, (7:59-60). This, of course, echos Jesus’ own words from the cross: “Jesus said, “Father, forgive them: for they do not know what they are doing”…Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last,” (Luke 23:34, 46). Luke ends his gospel with the resurrected Jesus opening the minds of his disciples to understand the scriptures and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem,” (24:45-47). Jesus then continues, “You are witnesses of these things,” (24:48). Indeed they are. Indeed Stephen was who, at his own death, “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said,” I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56). The second thing to note is that their bearing witness, our bearing witness, is a gift. It is not something we muster up the strength to do: “Today I will testify to the risen Jesus!” “No!” says Jesus. A) You won’t have to try to bear witness, “they” will give you plenty of opportunities when they arrest you and persecute you and so on, and B) you’re not to bother preparing your defense in advance: “for I will give you a mouth and a wisdom.” And, indeed, we are given his Spirit who dwells in us richly. “My words will not pass away,” for I will make you my words. In Christ Jesus, we become eternal words that bear witness to the Word.
And just here, we must adjust our gaze from the disciples who suffered to Jesus. Because while Jesus does indeed predict the suffering of his followers, those words who testify to Christ, these words in Luke are really about Jesus. After all, Christians will suffer all of this persecution, because of Jesus (Luke 21:12): “You will be hated by all because of my name,” (21:17). The suffering of the words bear witness to and share in the suffering of the Word. The signs and the persecutions that we see in our reading from Luke today are not simply an apocalyptic catalogue of woes to be poured out at a later date. What we see is a picture of the dying and rising Saviour who reigns in the midst of universal shipwreck. Jesus tells about the destruction of the temple, but is Jesus simply concerned with cursing the temple? In John 2 after clearing the temple the religious leaders demand a sign from Jesus to prove that he has the authority to do such things. Jesus answers them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” (2:19). No doubt a confusing answer for Jesus’ opponents but John continues on to explain: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body,” (2:21). In light of this, Jesus’ prophecy concerning the destruction of the temple would seem to refer not only to the actual temple, which was destroyed in 70AD, but more-so to Jesus’ own death and resurrection. The cross casts a shadow to which the end of time itself conforms. Indeed, the predictions which Jesus made regarding the persecution of the church is the pattern of Jesus’ own passion. He was betrayed by his friend Judas, denied by Peter, beaten, arrested, and handed over to the Jewish Council. He is brought before both the governor, Pilate, and the king, Herod. Jesus himself is the testimony that is proclaimed to all nations, the testimony of the cross, Jesus’ own martyrdom. He is silent before his accusers. I could continue on, but I think you get the point. “However much Jesus may be using conventional, end-of-the-age imagery here, he is proclaiming that his own end in his death and the resurrection is the key to it all,” (Robert Farrar Capon). And while he was also speaking of an end beyond the next few days, he radically refigured it by making himself, dead and risen, the cornerstone of it. That is, Jesus is the ultimate end to which the end conforms.
The crucified and risen Jesus stands at the center of time and takes up all things into himself. In the life Jesus lives he fulfills all of scripture, past and future events, and indeed all of time which is taken up into Christ as Paul writes in Ephesians: “[God the Father] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth,” (1:9-10). Those of us who are in Christ have arrived at the end, because Jesus is the end: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end,” (Rev. 22:13). And because Jesus is the end, that is, the goal of all things and the fulfillment of all things, he will reign forever, “and of his kingdom there will be no end,” as Luke told us all the way back in the very first chapter (1:33). We are those on whom, as Paul wrote, the ends of the ages have come (1 Cor. 10:11). And, because it is the end, it entails judgement. Christ’s death and resurrection is judgement by grace, standing as God’s ultimate, vindicating sentence on the whole world.
Judgement, this is something else all of our readings from this morning have in common. Our reading from Isaiah is about God’s glorious New Creation, and is immediately preceded by a passage about the righteousness of God’s judgement. From this mornings Psalm: “Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity,” (98:8-9). Thessalonians is set in the context of “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1) who will judge righteously (1:5-12). In Christ, who is the end of the world, judgement has come into the world, and it is good. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately,” (21:9). That is to say, Jesus saves the world in its death, not out of it. “But the end will not follow immediately.” Redemption involves neither the rejection of the world in its folly nor the remedying of that folly by a heavy-handed intervention. Rather, redemption “consists in letting the folly go all the way into death and then bringing resurrection out of that death,” (Capon). “For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth: the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind,” (Isaiah 65:17). And of course, the Christian life is entered into via the death that is baptism, in which our life and our death is taken up into Christ’s death and his resurrection life. In which our old clothes are drowned and we put on our new clothes, the risen Jesus Christ. Therefore, when the church proclaims that the future is amenable to reform, that the kingdom can be built here by plausible devices, by something other than the mystery of Christ’s passion, we are simply blowing a lot of hot hair. Sooner or later, the world is going down the drain; “only a Saviour who is willing to work at the bottom of the drain can redeem it,” (Capon). The world does indeed have a future and the church alone anticipates and proclaims that future, “but the future is neither pie on earth nor pie in the sky. It is resurrection from the dead – and without death, there can be no resurrection,” (Capon).
The disciples as well as the world, you and I as well as our neighbours, have been and will be caught up in the passion of Jesus. This is the end of the world, and we are witnesses to it. Jesus said that his words will not pass away. We, like Ignatius, are his words if we are in him and if we persevere and regard trials, indeed, regard our whole life together, as an occasion not for our own promotion or preservation but for death, our death in Christ’s death, that the very life of the church may be a testimony, here at the end of the world. Amen.