Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Homily on The Feast of St. Barnabus

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:16-22 ESV).

Several weeks ago we confirmed our confirmands, and they made some big promises. They promised before the congregation that they would rather die than give up on worshiping the true God in weekly worship. They vowed to be martyrs for the Christian faith, and to suffer all, rather than fall away.

Who knows what was on their minds that day? Parties? Shaking down Gramma for some confirmation money? Who knows? But when you were dressed up in your own confirmation robe, perhaps you didn’t really know what you were signing up for either. Tonight Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves. They will be beaten, thrown in prison, tortured, and killed for believing and confessing their faith in Jesus. For Christians it’s a dangerous world out there.

There used to be at least a perception that we lived in something of a “Christian nation” here in our country. That notion of course is debatable, but at least the perception is disappearing. This is not the 1950’s anymore. We’re not in Kansas anymore. Things are very quickly changing. And our world is beginning to look more like the first few hundred years of Christianity – where Christians were simply not tolerated. Right now it’s a more subtle persecution, being marginalized. Oh you believe a marriage is between a man and a women? You’re intolerant, a bigot, and a hate monger. You actually believe God created the world in six days? You don’t believe in evolution? Well then you’re just stupid or backward.

To be sure our situation is not that bad, at least not compared to Christians around the world. 300 Christian Nigerian school girls are still missing or dead, captured by radical muslims. Twelve Christians are killed every hour for their faith – these days mostly in Africa.  Today we pray for them, and even though we cry, we know that our God is a God of love, whose business it is to take us away from this valley of tears to Himself, whether it be at natural death or through martyrdrom.

Today we observe the historic remembrance of Barnabas, a man well acquainted with persecution. We wrap the altar, pulpit, and lectern in red because he himself was violently put to death for his preaching and teaching. His blood was shed after the likeness of Christ. After the 12 disciples and St. Paul, Barnabas is no doubt the most central missionary preacher of the first century, instrumental in spreading the Gospel far and wide – especially to our own barbarian ancestors who were busy worshiping rocks and trees.

Barnabas was interested in bringing the Gospel to the gentile world. He started actually with Saul and played an important role in Saul’s conversion. Do remember that Saul was something of an “Adolf Hitler” in the first century – persecuting and killing Christians wherever they could be found. After Saul became St. Paul, Barnabas was the only apostle with the courage to go see this murderer who had now become a Christian, and to employ his talents in the service of Christ – preaching Christ and proclaiming the Gospel.

The name Barnabas literally means “son of encouragement” and that’s what he was. The Scriptures say that Barnabas was a “good man” and “full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.” He encouraged peace and harmony in the early church. He picked up His cross and followed Jesus. He sold his land and gave it to the church to help care for the poor. He hated his life to keep it. He laid down his life in order to take it up again. He believed the Gospel which he himself preached.

But for all of those followers of Jesus we are not spared a cross but given one. Our enemies are constantly at war with us. The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh always threatening to destroy us. Whether we live in the first century or the twenty-first, the spiritual warfare is much the same. This sinful and violent world has always been inhospitable to the Gospel. Perhaps it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if persecution did increase in our own country. By and large our freedom has been taken for granted. We really don’t know what we have until you have to suffer and die for it – which are brothers and sisters in Africa know too well, as we are busy sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

In our Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that they are being sent out as sheep in the midst of wolves. He is telling them plainly that they will be beaten, scourged, hunted down and tortured to deny His name. Frankly sheep are easy prey for wolves, and sheep are meant to be eaten. Yet he promises that they should not worry what to say at the awful moment but that the Holy Spirit will give them their words, namely that they would not deny their Lord at the point of death.

Just like Jonah in the belly of the whale, believers will not ultimately be consumed – not by enemies – not by suffering – and not by death. Following Jesus you will walk through the belly of the earth into much greener pastures, bathed in heavenly light. By the blood of the cross you are confirmed as His own. Confirmation-vow breakers are restored, and sins are forgiven. You are buried with Him through Baptism into death. You are raised with him through baptism in the resurrection. Into new life, free from sin, you can step out from death’s dark shadow by the call of the Gospel. God loves sinners. Like Barnabas, you can be considered a son and daughter of encouragement – light of the world and salt of the earth.

The Lord says “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). In the words of Paul, your own “slight momentary affliction is preparing for you an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Cor. 4:17). From Calvary itself, we know that God works the very greatest things through suffering and martyrdom.

Someday, when I gain a little encouragement of my own, I am going to change our big sign in front of the church to say simply, “Come and die with us.” Perhaps it would turn a few heads. Yet what better hope could we have than to simply die and rise with Jesus? Amen.

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