Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016 Year C
Text: Acts 9:1-22; Revelation 5:8-14
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
At one of our Lenten services a few weeks ago, we sang the familiar hymn “Lord of Glory, You Have Bought Us”. The third stanza of that hymn marvels in the mystery that Christ receives our charity toward our neighbor as though it were given to Him.
Wondrous honor You have given
To our humblest Charity
In Your own mysterious sentence
“You have done it all to Me.”
Can it be, O Gracious Master,
That You deign for alms to sue,
Saying by Your poor and needy,
“Give as I have giv’n to you”? (LSB 851:3)
Drawing on Christ’s own words from Matthew 25, “Whatever you have done unto the least of these my brethren, You have done it unto me,” Eliza Alderson captures in her hymn the unity Christ shares with His Church. Thus we, the least of these, are comforted knowing that God promises to remember the kindness others show us. Remember that the next time you are tempted to refuse help—in doing so you are robbing your neighbor of an opportunity to serve Christ and live out His or her faith. But the unity of Christ and His bride also means that our Lord feels every one of our hurts.
One of the fiercest assaults the devil can levy against a timid conscience is to tell you in the midst of suffering that Christ does not care. Through history the devil has led astray untold numbers through this trick. When you grieve, when you are faced with an unknown future, in the midst of political turmoil, economic uncertainty, poor health, or some other trial, the devil will tell you that God must not care. He will speak the lie that “The Resurrected Lord has left this world and not longer pays it any attention. Have you not loved Him in the least of these? Why then does He leave you in your suffering?”
Surely the early Christians must have faced these temptations in the time following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Not only were the apostles arrested for proclaiming the Good News of Salvation in Jesus’ Name, but Stephen, one of the Seven charged with caring for the least of these in the daily distribution of food, was repaid for his love toward Christ and neighbor in stone. In his dying moments, Stephen saw into heaven, but the question that the other Christian must have asked as they fled for their lives out of Jerusalem was, “Does Jesus still see what is happening on earth?” The devil would tempt them to say, “No.”
Saul, who approved of Stephen’s execution, was still breathing out threats and murder. Though he was a Pharisee and not a member of the priestly party of the Sadducees, Saul conspired with the High Priest against the Christians in Damascus. We know from Ananias’ response to the Lord that the Christians in Damascus knew about both Saul’s history and his plans for the future: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to Your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your Name.”
Saul approaches Damascus with evil in his heart. He is angry at the Christians and his anger would quickly turn into persecutions and even death for the faithful, except Christ intervenes, appearing to Saul on the road and saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me.”
Do not underestimate the significance of those Words for you. For here your gracious Savior reveals that not only does He receive the kindness shown to you but—because He has borne your flesh and you have been made a partaker of His death and resurrection in Baptism—He also receives your affliction. To comprehend the marvel of what Jesus says here, consider this: When the Israelites languished under the heavy hand of Pharaoh, God spoke to Moses from the burning bush saying: “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:7-8, ESV). Remember how the Lord won that victory for His people—the signs and wonders and the plagues with which He struck the Egyptians. But now Jesus speaks to Saul and speaks not of seeing His people suffering, but of His own suffering in His people’s affliction: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”!
Let those words sink in and bring you the comfort of knowing that whatever afflicts you, is borne by Christ. The resurrected Lord suffers with His Church. But do not misunderstand: Christ suffers with you by knowing and sharing your pain such that it is His own, but He does not suffer as one who in any way can be overcome. In His resurrection He remains eternally victorious. Therefore since you have been baptized into His death and resurrection, you also are already victorious over all afflictions no matter how much they sting or how long they endure.
Saint Paul would learn this himself. Jesus tells him, “Rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Except those aren’t Jesus’ exact words. It’s not that Saul will be told what he is to do, he will be told what “it is necessary” for him to do. Jesus speaks the same way of Saul’s future actions as He once spoke of His own when He said, “It is necessary for the Son of Man to be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise again.” The little Greek word translated “it is necessary” in Jesus’ passion prediction is also present in His instruction to Saul. Therefore what Saul is going to be shown about his own future is just as central to God’s plan for man’s redemption as Christ’s death and resurrection. Because God would not have the message of His salvation go unproclaimed.
Later, when Jesus speaks to Ananias, He uses the same language: “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much it is necessary for him to suffer on behalf of my name.”
It is Paul who will later give us the Lord’s assurance that all things work together for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. He can say that even after he has suffered shipwreck, stonings, and imprisonment for the sake of Jesus’ Name. Yet He can also say, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
And Saul, as you well know, becomes the great missionary and evangelist we know better as Paul. He suffers persecution and affliction throughout the rest of his life. The Lord’s plan is fulfilled as Paul suffers for the sake of Jesus’ Name. But the Lord does not leave him. Time and time again Paul is rescued from trial and affliction. He is spared from death when he is stoned in Lystra, and shipwrecked and bitten by a viper on Malta, and when the Jews in Jerusalem conspire against him. The Lord is with Paul and even shows him the same beatific vision as Stephen as he is caught up to the third heaven. When Paul dies, it is as a runner who has finished his course, an athlete who receives the crown, because the Lord not only endures the suffering of His Church, but He sees her through it. He provides the strength, the way of escape, and the final victory.
Thanks to another apostle, St. John the apostle and evangelist, that beatific vision is shared with us. The Lamb who was slain takes up the scroll in heaven and the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven cry out in a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And all the creatures throughout all creation reply, “To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
In your trials and affliction know this: Christ who has taken on Your sin and died in your place has conquered death. He holds all power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing and He who shares your affliction, your trials, your griefs, also shares His life, His strength, His victory.
For now, according to the unseen plan of God, it may be necessary for you to suffer for the sake of His Name. But the victory of Christ will be made known in your life and in the life of all who believe on the last day when sin is put aside, death and corruption are undone, and tears of sadness turn into shouts of joy.
In the meantime, Christ does not leave us without aid. So come, take food and be strengthened.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen!
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria