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Third Sunday of Easter (1)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian martyr during the Second World War, says it so poignantly, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Tradition holds that the Apostles died in the following manner: Matthew suffered martyrdom by being slain with a sword at a distant city of Ethiopia. Mark expired at Alexandria, after being cruelly dragged through the streets of that city. Luke was hanged upon an olive tree in the classic land of Greece. John was put in a cauldron of boiling oil, but escaped death in a miraculous manner, and was afterward banished to Patmos. Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downward. James, the Greater, was beheaded at Jerusalem. James, the Less, was thrown from a lofty pinnacle of the temple, and then beaten to death with a fuller’s club. Bartholomew was flayed alive. Andrew was bound to a cross, whence he preached to his persecutors until he died. Thomas was run through the body with a lance at Coromandel in the East Indies. Jude was shot to death with arrows. Matthais was first stoned and then beheaded. Barnabas of the Gentiles was stoned to death at Salonica. Paul, after various tortures and persecutions, was at length beheaded at Rome by the Emperor Nero.
Polycarp (A.D. 70-155) was bishop of Smyrna and a godly man. He had known the apostle John personally. When he was urged by the Roman proconsul to renounce Christ, Polycarp said: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” “I have respect for your age,” said the official. “Simply say, ‘Away with the atheists!’ and be set free.” The aged Polycarp pointed to the pagan crowd and said, “Away with the atheists!” He was burned at the stake and gave joyful testimony of his faith in Jesus Christ.
Tertullian said it well: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”
How many times have we borne witness to this scene? Men and women of the Gospel attacked by their enemies for preaching the resurrected Christ? How many times have we seen this inevitable and inimitable skirmish between the horizontal and the vertical, the spiritual and the carnal, the things of man and the things of God? How many times have we seen this scene within and without the church, where servants of the Lord who have confessed with their mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead are confronted by those of the unsaved who want to give strict orders to “keep your mouth shut and not teach in his name”?
Here Peter and the apostles are confronted by the Sanhedrin and the high priest who issue this command, which in reality was a threat to keep silent. The high priest, his henchmen, and their Roman overseers would later gang up on the apostles to scare them into shutting their mouths about the risen Christ.
“How can you talk about a Christ that is risen when we just killed him? He is dead! He is dead! He is dead! We killed him and we will kill you if you don’t keep your mouth shut! How dare you speak about a man that we have silenced, that we have put to shame; a man that we hung on the cross and saw take his last breath? How dare you talk of a man whom we humiliated, crowned with thorns, made carry his own cross, pierced his side, stole his garments, and made a public disgrace? How dare you stand before us, Peter, and tell us that this same man is risen? That this same man whom we saw laid in the grave is now alive and living? What is this Peter? To say that he is risen to us is an act of treasonous revenge. How can you say that a man that we are responsible for killing now lives? Is this some kind of threat? Are you mocking the powers that be? For if you say he is risen, we take this to mean that he is coming back for those of us who were responsible for killing him! Your resurrection pronouncements are really, Peter, not innocent spiritual verbiage, but a declaration of war on the enemies of Christ! We command you to shut your mouth! We are giving you strict orders to keep your mouth shut! We do not want to hear anymore of this man’s teachings!”
How familiar are these words to those who proclaim his resurrection? The enemies of Christ issue their threats for the servants and saints of God to keep their mouths shut. For to talk of resurrection is to speak with a freedom that man did not originate. This kind of power can only come from God, for man has the power to kill but does not have the power to resurrect those who have been killed in his name.
We see this familiar scenario time and again, where the devil and the enemies of Christ issue threats to his servants to keep their mouths shut under the strictest orders. The caveat is really a veiled death threat.
I have seen it even in the church where servants of the gospel, the priests, are threatened by powers and principalities in the church, admonished and warned to do things man’s way and not God’s way. This confrontation between man’s way and God’s way is the continuing conflict in the church and is the axis of the power struggle of darkness and light.
Some people want to run the church man’s way rather than serve the church God’s way. Man’s way says we don’t talk about the dvil because he has gone out of style. We don’t believe in basic Bible study because it is too fundamental. The “strict orders” create a perpetual confrontation between people who say “what we do and don’t do” rather than ask “what God wants us to do.”
I have heard the story of one priest being confronted by parishioners because the gospel was preached on sin, fornication, adultery, and theft. “We are not used to hearing those kinds of sermons and we would rather you preach on love and forgiveness than on sin. We don’t want to hear any of your damnation sermons.”
What nerve! What audacity to have the gall to tell the priest what to preach! I have heard of laity who have been confronted by other laity because they were being “too holy,” or “too biblical” or “too spiritual.” Some churches have become so accustomed to doing things man’s way that they are completely subversive of God’s way.
There are always forces that seek to compromise the power and efficacy of the gospel. There are always forces that seek to negate and prevent the gospel of truth being preached in full measure. The devil always gives strict orders on God’s truth so that truth which ultimately disarms him and puts him on the run cannot go forth. There are always oppositional forces that are threatened by the gospel of Christ. They are threatened by a message of liberation and freedom, threatened by reconciliation and forgiveness, or threatened by the word of faith and truth. These forces are especially threatened because the gospel compels critical self-evaluation, and many of us are not willing to look squarely at ourselves.
The history of Christianity is replete with those saints of old who were willing to stand and proclaim the truth boldly and outright. They could not be silenced by the opposition. They refused to be cast under the spell of silence when God’s truth needed to go forth. We can see Peter and the apostles standing against the Sanhedrin and the high priest proclaiming Christ crucified and Christ risen! We can see Dietrich Bonhoeffer sitting in his jail cell saying, “No,” to Nazi tyranny and saying, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
We can see the countless men and women, known and unknown, who have stood on hallowed ground and said, “No” to evil and “No” to those men and powers who wanted to mute their allegiance to Christ with their veiled threats of terror and death. We can see them in, the church of Russia and the other communist societies that threatened death for being Christian.
The apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians proclaims in chapter one, verse ten, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
We are called to serve God and man, but a time may come when we must choose between them. As Abraham Lincoln once responded to the question is God on the side of the North with the response, Are we on the side of God? Will we side with those who want us to give up the fundamental tenets and power of our faith? Will we side with men when it means persecuting and destroying others in the name of religious belief?
Will we side with men or God when it comes to doing what is right, moral, and just? Are we willing to stand for the truth, die for the truth, and do what God has called us to do, or will we sit in sniveling silence? Will we compromise and sell out our faith? Will we side with those who are wrong because we fear for our own lives? Will we keep our mouths shut under strict orders because we have been told to do so?
Will we keep our mouths shut under strict orders in face of corruption, our own sin, discrimination, persecution, annihilation, destruction, famine, pestilence, iniquity, drought, hunger, disease, racism, poverty, hatred, psychological and sexual abuse, sexism, ageism, classism, genocide, homicide, fratricide, and suicide? Will we keep our mouths shut under strict orders about a risen Christ who lives in the present age? The same Christ who was raised from the dead who walked on water and healed the sick?
Shall we keep silent about the Christ who can raise us from our graves of doubt, hopelessness, faithlessness, and despair? Shall we keep silent in the face of those forces of opposition that still seek to mute and kill his spirit that lives within us? The same forces that killed him were defeated by his resurrection. Those same forces of cynicism, evil, and terrorism seek to kill him today through our forced silence about what he has done in our lives.
Are you complying with the strict orders to keep your mouth shut about the risen Christ, or are you proclaiming his resurrection in the fullness of his glory? Are you obeying man or are you obeying God? Have you given up, or are you standing up for the one who has stood up and given his life for you and continues to give us life even now? Are you keeping your mouth shut under strict orders, or are you standing and proclaiming the truth in Christ’s name?