that we were privileged to hear this morning at St. Paul's (at least, those of us who remembered that there was only one service and it was at 9...)
Sermon for the Feast of St. John, Apostle
John 21:20-25; I John 1:1-2:2
Rev. William Gleason
“Christmas is for martyrs.”
I remember when I first heard that statement. It was roughly twenty years ago at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Olivet, Missouri. The Reverend Professor William Schmelder was the preacher that Sunday, the Feast of St. Stephen, the day after Christmas. The notion that “Christmas was for martyrs” was something that had never entered my mind before. It was for me one of those mind expanding moments a person experiences in life. Christmas took on a new perspective for me that day. Before that, I thought of Christmas in the typical way. It meant the birth of the Savior, of course, with all the wonder and joy that go with His Holy Nativity; the things we sing about in our Christmas carols and hymns. It meant giving and receiving gifts, decorating homes, and gathering with family and friends for fellowship and festivity. Christmas sights and sounds included nativity scenes, angels and shepherds, wise men, carols and Christmas trees, holly leaves and ho-ho-ho. But never martyrs.
I remember, too, how he introduced that profound idea to the congregation. He said that the Church, in her wisdom, established these three feast days following Christmas that recognize the martyrs Stephen, John, and the Holy Innocents. The words of our Lord, “Wisdom is proved right by her children,” fit so perfectly here. For who could have thought, centuries ago when these holy days were fixed by the Church, that December 25th would change from the solemn observance of Christ’s Incarnation to the silly celebration of Santa Claus? However the transformation of December 25th came about, December 26th, 27th, and 28th remain today as wise correctives to the world’s corruption of Christmas. The holy martyrs tell us that Christmas does not celebrate our fellowship with family and friends, but, as St. John says, it celebrates our fellowship with God.
And it’s not that martyr feasts put some kind of damper on our joyous celebration. Quite the contrary. They redirect us to our source of true joy and perfect love: Jesus Christ and His Word. To understand that connection between Christmas and martyrdom is to understand the Church’s wisdom in honoring the holy martyrs. That knowledge is also the path to repentance, faith, and zeal in our own witness of Christ.
To get that connection we must remember what the word martyr means. It is from the same Greek word, martyr, which means to give witness or to testify. Immediately we see how the truth is central to its meaning, for what is the purpose of giving a witness of something if not to testify of its truthfulness. So, a martyr is one who testifies of the truth. And the greatest testimony for the truth is dying for it. Thus a martyr is one who gives his life for the truth.
St. John was such a witness. He wrote in our Gospel lesson, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness (Greek: martyrwn) about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony (Greek: martyria) is true.” That was John’s martyrdom. And although John was not killed for the truth, as was St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents, he nevertheless gave his life for the truth. He was willing, like all of the disciples, to lay down his life for Christ. His willingness, like that of all the disciples and martyrs, came from the Holy Spirit who gives grace to endure all suffering for Christ…even death. Yet, our Lord willed that John remain in exile on the Island of Patmos until he died a natural death. But while there, John testified of Him who is the Truth, Jesus Christ.
What about your witness of Christ? How would you describe it? Or better yet, how would others describe your witness, for they are the ones who see and hear it? Let’s face it, when we compare ourselves with St. Stephen (the martyr in will and deed), or St. John (the martyr in will but not in deed), or the Holy Innocents (the martyrs in deed but not in will), we would probably fall squarely into a fourth category: martyrs neither in will nor deed. And even if by the Holy Spirit’s grace we might pray for the courage to give our lives for Christ, still, we sure hope it never happens! Imagine yourself tied to a stake and there is a torch ready to set aflame the wood piled around it. Or standing before a firing squad. Or threatened with a gulag in freezing Siberia. Or having a jihadist’s sword tickling the back of your neck as you kneel helpless before your potential executioner. And the question is put before you: are you a Christian? Will you renounce Jesus? Your life depends on your answer. What do you say? I know that I shudder with fear when I imagine how I might respond at such times.
Perhaps those scenarios are too extreme to imagine. What about some more realistic questions to answer for Christ, the everyday choices to make for His sake, like: Are you getting up for church today? Where shall we sleep tonight, your place or mine? You’re not going through with that pregnancy, are you? Wal-Mart won’t go broke if I sneak this item out without paying for it. Hey, pornography doesn’t really hurt anybody, does it? You’re not actually going to do what your mom tells you to do, are you? Does it really make a difference if I read my Bible and pray every day? These, and countless more, are the questions we face each day that affect our witness for Christ, whether we live for Him or deny Him. And just like the extreme tests we could face, our lives depend on how we respond.
John, The Holy Apostle and Evangelist wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Let us put this into context: “If we say that we can confess Christ by our own strength and will, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our own inability to trust and follow him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” My friends, it does not matter the severity of the temptation. Whether you face the flame of a burning stake or the fire of lust, whether you feel the cold edge of a sword against your neck or the warm comfort of your pillow on a cold Sunday morning, our witness for Christ never depends on our own strength, will, or reason. Only Christ, His Word and His Spirit can overcome sin in our lives. Only Christ, His Word and His Spirit can equip and empower us to believe and confess His Name in the face of testing. Only the proclamation of Christ and His word grants fellowship with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. And blessed are those who hear and who keep that Word, for they will overcome the flesh, the world, the devil, and the grave by the power of Christ.
And that includes times of testing and temptation. John said, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” There you have it, the truth spoken plainly. The Word of Christ that the Apostles proclaimed has power to keep us from sinning. Avail yourself of that grace. When you are tested or tempted, flee to Christ and His word for strength and guidance to persevere in holiness. He can and will help you.
“But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” That word is not a license to sin. It’s not a loophole for our flesh to squeeze through. How can you tell? Note the active, present tense of the verbs. “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” That means our relationship to Jesus is a living and active one. We cannot remain connected to the Living Vine, and make choices that lead to death. We cannot remain married to the Holy Bridegroom, and follow the adulterer’s path. Or as John said it in the Epistle, “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.”
Again, “He is the propitiation for our sins,” Jesus is the payment, the ransom price for our sins. He is even now our Advocate before the Father and the Propitiation for our sins before God, therefore “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” That Light is Christ. That Light took on our flesh, so that John could see it with his own eyes and touch it with his own hands, and so that it could bleed on a cross for the atonement of our sins. And now that Light is the Gospel of Christ which we see and hear and touch and taste. We walk in that Light when we hear it preached, wash in its baptismal waters, eat and drink it at the altar, and confess to one another that our fellowship is through the blood of Jesus, God’s Son.
But John adds, “He is the propitiation…also for the sins of the whole world.” This brings us back to our witness: for why witness if it is not to make known to the whole world its salvation? Why should we testify, if not to tell all people of their Savior? And if our trust is in Him who is the Resurrection and the Life, why should we fear death and the grave? If our hope is in Him who cleanses us from all sin, why should we let sin rule over us? And if we enjoy fellowship with the Father and Jesus, His Son, why would we not want everyone to share in that fellowship?
Yes, Christmas is for martyrs. Not just Stephen, and John, and the baby boys of Bethlehem, but for you, too. You are no less equipped than them. You have the Gospel of grace and forgiveness; you have the Holy Spirit; and you have fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ, who calls each one of you “His beloved disciple.” “To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”