Christ’s kingdom is a cross kingdom. Saints Paul and Barnabas were stoned in Lystra for preaching the Gospel in Acts chapter fourteen. In the face of bearing witness to Jesus Christ, Paul encourages the Christians there and elsewhere by saying through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 116: I believed, even when I spoke: “I am greatly afflicted.”
Christians throughout the ages have dealt with persecution by continuing to remain steadfast to Jesus Christ, ready to suffer even death rather than deny Him before men. In the wake of recent societal changes, however, it seems some Christians are ready to take their ball and go home, so to speak. There have been calls to retrench into local Christian communities in order to take care of each other and forsake the world.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, however, does not call us to sound a retreat, circle the wagons, and hide in our homes and church buildings. We shouldn’t become scared or angry that the world thinks it does God a service by barely tolerating Christians among them. Christ has previously said this would happen. Christ has also provided for rich consolation when it does happen.
Jesus tells the apostles before His ascension that you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. There’s more to the word “witness” than merely opening your mouth and telling the Good News about Jesus. “Witness” also means to be ready to shed blood, if necessary, for the sake of confessing Christ. Confessing Jesus as Lord is more than making some sort of testimony about what you believe. You confess whenever you read a Bible story to a child. You’re passing down the ancient confession of the Christian faith by relating the family stories; God’s family’s stories.
The Holy Spirit is with that confessed word you speak, whether to a child or to an adult. Jesus calls Him Comforter and Spirit of truth in today’s Holy Gospel. The Holy Spirit is first called a Comforter because He brings consolation against the evil spirit who rules in the world. You know there’s an evil spirit in the world because of the way people react when Jesus Christ is confessed. Some people tend to recoil in anger. Perhaps they are confused. Perhaps they have had a bad experience among Christians. Perhaps they simply despise any notion of God. No matter what the reason, as Jesus says, they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.
Jesus also calls the Holy Spirit the Spirit of truth. The Spirit opposes all lies and false arguments. Jesus gives the Spirit Who makes you sure and convinced of the truth. Granted, though, that very few are argued into Christ’s kingdom. Apologetics, the practice of defending the Christian faith using Scripture to make logical, sound arguments for the Christian faith, has its place. Nevertheless, it is the preached Word of God, the Word of God confessed with the lips, used by the Holy Spirit, that changes the hearts of mankind. The truth in the preached Word sets them free.
Jesus says to His apostles, you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning. Of the eleven with Him at that time, ten of them will die a martyr’s death; a death of witness to Jesus Christ.
Bearing witness to Jesus is more than opening your mouth and talking about what you believe. Bearing witness to Jesus also means to suffer. This suffering doesn’t necessarily have to take place on the gridiron, as St. Lawrence the Deacon died, or on an upside down cross, as St. Peter reportedly died. Suffering for Christ’s sake also happens on one’s deathbed, or even in a prolonged sickness. The sick person bears witness that Jesus will bring them comfort in affliction. The truth proclaimed to them that Christ has died, risen, and will come again, is borne in their bodies as they suffer pain.
It’s hard for us to see it when we’re right there next to one who suffers, or are even the one suffering. “What have I done to deserve this?” often comes to our mind. Your witness in suffering is united with the suffering of Jesus Christ. As He bore your griefs and carried your sorrows, so you carry His wounds within you, for you are baptized into His death and resurrection. Whether you die or whether you live, you belong to the Lord. You are a witness in life and in death, in health or in sickness. Where the world sees a pitiable sight, you see a lamb of the Good Shepherd who waits for healing, either temporal healing or ultimate healing in death.
The Holy Spirit also strengthens churches, especially when they suffer. Wherever the Lord sets up a church, the devil sets up a chapel next door, so to speak. You have seen it play out in this congregation, or in another congregation, through the years. You see and hear the divisiveness among God’s people. The wounds remain fresh even as the years go by.
In the midst of the chaos of Satan destroying a congregation, there stands the Comforter of priceless worth, ready to draw God’s people back to the preached Word, back to their baptism, back to the Lord’s Supper, back to forgiveness and salvation. No one congregation on earth is perfect. No one pastor on earth is perfect. The Church is full of 100% sinners and 100% saints. All the more do we cling to the Word of Christ confessed from lectern and pulpit. The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us in Christ’s church, keeping us connected to the Savior.
Then there’s our life among our neighbors. Satan seems to set up a playground in the home. He seemingly moves mothers, fathers, and children like chess pieces. He sets everyone against each other. He makes everyone look like fools. Most of all, he sets up every obstacle to keep them from hearing the witness of Jesus Christ in the Divine Service. Before long, everyone at home is at war, and the Lord God is an unwelcome presence there. It can happen even in the homes of widows and widowers, even unmarried people. Why does God want me here? I’m worthless. It’s all a mess, and it’s all my fault.
The Holy Spirit must take up the sword of truth, the Word of God, and bear witness with that Word. He might say, “Whoa! Why are you up to talking like that? Can’t you think of anything but sin, death, and damnation? Take your eyes off this frightening sight. Don’t you know the man named Jesus Christ, of Whom it is written: conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, descended into hell, and on the third day rose again, and ascended into heaven?
“Why do you think this happened? Was it not that you might have consolation against death and sin? Stop being frightened and so despondent; you have no reason! If Christ were not with you and upholding you, and had not done these things for you, then you would have reason enough to be frightened. But He says, ‘Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ For that reason He suffered death for you, and for your consolation and safeguarding He is seated now at the right hand of His heavenly Father.”
There’s your comfort. There’s your witness. The Spirit witnesses Jesus Christ in the preaching of His Word and in His sacramental gifts. Jesus does not leave you as an orphan. He comes to you today in this place, in these gifts, and your heart rejoices. Do not be afraid. Do not sound a retreat. You are His witness. He will comfort you and speak His truth. You live, even in death, for Jesus’ sake. That is your confession, and it is good because Jesus is good.