Lessons: Acts 11:27-12:5, Romans 8:28-39, Mark 10:35-45
Hymns: LSB 518, 420, 760, 647, 644
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a high mountain and there He was transfigured before them. Jesus took Peter, James, and John to be closer to Him in the Garden of Gethsemane when He prayed on Maundy Thursday. After Jesus foretold the destruction of the Temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew took Jesus aside and asked Him when this will take place.
Who are these three men that spend the most time with Jesus and serve as His inner circle? And who is the fourth, Andrew? James and John are the sons of Zebedee. They are brothers. Peter and Andrew are the sons of Jonah, also brothers. Their fathers were fisherman, and all four were following in their fathers’ footsteps—until Jesus calls on them to follow Him. So here we have two sets of brothers that serve as our Lord’s closest disciples.
These men witness our Lord’s crucifixion. They also see the resurrection Christ on Easter Sunday. They are sent by Jesus as Apostles. They are sent to preach the Word of God. They are called to be faithful as they preach Christ and Him crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness of sins means access to Heaven.
You would think everyone would be filled with joy over their message. Why wouldn’t people want to hear that God has reconciled sinners to Himself, He receives sinners, He forgives sinners, and He grants sinners everlasting life and salvation? Why wouldn’t people want to hear that Jesus, the Son of God, has fulfilled every prophesy concerning the Messiah and that He has truly done what is necessary for us to achieve Heaven?
In our day, many have turned away from our Lord. They are no longer interested in hearing Him. They figure they are fine without God and the salvation He offers. Perhaps they think there is no God, or they figure they can devise their own way to Heaven. They have deceived themselves, for the truth is not in them.
Things were better in the Early Church, right? Since multitudes were fed by Jesus with a few loaves of bread and some fish, and a multitude became Christian at Pentecost, that’s how things always went, right?
Well, not exactly. While many were converted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, many did not receive Him. You would think those who did not want to receive Christ would desire to live peaceably with the Christians. Instead, they felt threatened by what they thought was a new religion arising among God’s people. And plus, Satan will do his best to destroy earthly peace for all who stand in the grace of God. And so he stirs up the ire of those who are not Christian.
In our reading from Acts, we hear of two groups who are opposed to the early Christian believers. First is King Herod. He laid violent hands on some who belonged to the Christian Church. So not even the government was safe for the Early Church. In fact, Christianity remained illegal in the Roman Empire until 313.
In our country, we are given the freedom to assemble. We have the freedom to exercise our faith. Yet that is being attacked from many angles. Christians are being forced to compromise on their values. Some Christian adoption agencies have closed because they will not follow the government’s mandates to place children in homes with same-sex partners. Small business owners, such as bakers and photographers, have been entangled in legal battles when they refuse service for same-sex couples. As Christians, we need to get to work to defend our Christian beliefs and practices, for it appears that our freedoms will continue to erode. In fact, many of the founders of our Synod came to America because the state-run churches in Germany were persecuting their own members who believed the entire Bible as the Word of God. The state-run churches were denying the efficacy of the sacraments. Churches were being shut down when the people refused to go along with the liberal, rational thinking of the day.
Despite this, we still believe God establishes government. Yet, governments often engage in activities contrary to the Word of God. God never sanctions government to be opposed to Himself. So, we respect our God-given government, yet we must not accept mandates contrary to God’s Word. We must obey God rather than men.
King Herod was not only violent against the early Christians, but he killed with the sword St. James, the brother of John, the son of Zebedee. James is the first Apostle who was martyred—murdered as a result of faithfully confessing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is believed that the rest of the Apostles were also martyred except for James’s brother, John. John’s life, however, was not easy. He was considered a fugitive due to his Christian faith and was exiled to the island of Patmos as an elderly man.
Prior to St. James’ martyrdom, the deacon Stephen was also martyred, as recorded in Acts 7. Stephen was stoned to death after preaching Christ crucified and risen. Ever since, Christians have been martyred. Some have suffered gruesome and agonizing deaths.
We will see St. Stephen and St. James, along with all the faithful who have gone before us at the Resurrection.
I’m sure martyrs could have been prevented, had they given in to the demands of their persecutors. Many could have spared their lives and prevented the grief of those who mourned their deaths—had they only conveniently given up their pure confession of the Christian faith.
But is this something we should do? Let others determine for us what the Bible should say and what we should believe? Or should we stick to the Christian faith at all costs? First, had the martyrs and persecuted survivors compromised their faith, Christianity would not have been preserved for so purely as we have received it. If no one stood up for the truth, then generations would pass by without knowing it. Therefore, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we must hold fast to God’s unchanging, life-giving Word. For the Word of Christ grants us eternal life. In it, we learn of our Savior Jesus, who laid down His life for us. We must not compromise on a single jot or tiddle. We must not give in to anyone who demands that we let go of a little bit of God’s teaching here or a little bit there. Satan wants that to turn into the snowball effect. Today there are entire denominations who still call themselves Christian, but do not preach Christ and Him crucified. And there is no salvation apart from Christ.
After King Herod killed James, he saw that it pleased the Jews. Sadly, as we heard in our reading, the Jews were the second group that was opposed to the early Christians. They were pleased that a man who converted from Judaism to Christianity was dead. They looked at him as a traitor. Yet, the real traitors were those who rejected Jesus as the Messiah. The entire Old Testament and the faithful who followed God’s Word in Old Testament times looked forward to the coming of Christ. Throughout the Old Testament, Jesus was prophesied as God’s Son who would take away the sins of the world—who would reconcile the world to the Father—who would open the gates of Heaven to all who believe.
Guided by the Holy Spirit, St. John wrote, “The world was made through [Jesus], yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:10-13). His own did not receive Him! Not only that, but they rejoiced at the death of St. James.
Since it pleased the Jews that James was dead, King Herod wanted more, and it gave him the thirst for blood. He had Peter arrested. While Christians were praying for Peter, God sent an angel to release Peter’s chains and get him out of prison. Peter then went to the house of Mary, the mother of Mark, where many were gathered to pray. After Peter knocked on the door, the servant girl Rhoda answered, saw it was Peter, closed the door with surprise, and excitedly told the others. They didn’t believe her, so Peter continued to knock. They finally opened the door and let Peter in. Herod, in his anger over Peter’s escape, ordered that the prison guards be put to death.
Herod’s behavior should teach us something. Never compromise on the Word of God. Those who demand that we compromise will never be happy when we do. They’ll keep on pushing us to compromise even further until we are left with a religion that bears little semblance to true Christianity. God calls on us to fight the good fight of faith. He never calls on us to replace God’s truth with something else. In fact, replacing God’s truth with something else is replacing it with nothing but lies. It is a dance with the devil that will always result in loss.
You may think martyrdom means loss, but it is not. Jesus has lost no one. The martyrs received the goal of their faith—the crown of righteousness, for Jesus paid for their sins on the cross. Gold is purified by fire, and Christians are strengthened through cross and trial. When we witness the bold confession of the martyrs, we too are emboldened to stand firmly on the Word of God.
If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31) Jesus has claimed us as His own. “Goods, fame, child, and wife, Though these all be gone, Our vict’ry has been won; The Kingdom ours remaineth” (LSB 656). In steadfastness, we look forward to the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18). Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen