Easter 2 – (Series C)
“Christ is Still the Lord of His Church”
April 28, 2019
Sermon Text: Revelation 1:4-18
So it wasn’t long after we celebrated the wonderful Feast of Easter and Christ’s resurrection from the dead that we were treated to the news of the bombings of churches in Sri Lanka by militant Muslims that killed over 250 people and injured hundreds more. Not long after that, insult was added to injury as the media in lockstep treated the attacks as an attack on humanity in general, and not an attack on Christians in particular just as they were celebrating the high feast in our Church Year.
If we have been in careful study of the words of Christ, we should not be surprised by any of this. “You are IN the world, not OF the world,” He said. “If they hated me, they will hate you,” He promised. We in the western world have been somewhat spoiled over the past few centuries. We have grown up watching respectful news reporting and the kind thoughts of society around us towards our worship and activities. Our schools and places of work give us holidays for our High Feast days. But over the course of thousands of years, taking the whole world into account, what we have experienced is the exception to the rule. Generally speaking, from Abel being murdered by Cain to Noah and his family being saved all by themselves to lonely Old Testament Israel in the middle of the Middle East to Rome’s persecution of the first Christians to Christians in the 20th century being martyred by the tens of thousands by Muslims in Africa and Communists in Russia and China to what we see today, the true people of God have been an outnumbered, misunderstood, and persecuted minority. We should not be surprised by what we are seeing, for it is really just a sad return to what is normal in the world.
It’s just that the timing this week was a little hard. To go directly from our great celebration of the greatest thing that has ever happened in the history of the entire world to the news of these bombings, plus the way the news was treated, was more than a little disconcerting.
We find the Apostle John in a similar kind of situation in our text from Revelation this morning. Consider John for a moment. It has probably been about 60 years since John first bore witness to Christ risen from the dead, 60 years since John saw Jesus ascend into heaven, when the disciples first asked, “Lord, will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?,” 60 years since the gift of the Holy Spirit and the creation of the Christian Church at the Feast of Pentecost. 60 long years of waiting and hoping, 60 long years of eager anticipation that this might be the day that Christ returns to finish everything, 60 long years of hearing the news of the martyrdom of all his fellow disciples and so many others, 60 long years of putting up with the hatred and the lies of both the Romans and the Jewish religious leaders, 60 long years that had come to this – imprisoned as an old man on the lonely island of Patmos for bearing witness to Christ.
John knew a little bit about living with the highs and lows of the life of a Christian. He knew what it was like to joyfully worship his crucified and risen Lord, and he knew what was like to be hurt and frustrated by the facts that he saw on the ground in his daily life. The truth is, John knew more about any of this than any of us do.
That is why the Holy Spirit makes use of John is giving us His Revelation – look at our text, at what John reminds us of here. Verse 4 – grace and peace to you from Him Who is, and was, and is to come – our Lord was around long before any of our current problems and pains appeared, and our Lord will still be here to wipe the tears from our eyes when all those problems and pains are just a memory. Verse 5 – grace and peace to you from Jesus Christ, the ruler of the kings of the earth – all these earthly things that trouble you, even the mightiest kings of the earth, are still subject to Him – from Jesus Christ, Who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood.
This is the only thing that is really important. One of the most profound and potent aspects of Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross is Luther’s discussion of the hiddenness of God. Luther taught that God is often hidden, His ways unknown and beyond understanding. When you are considering why this bad thing happened or why that pain and suffering is allowed, don’t look too deeply for the answers, because those topics are things that God has hidden from us – we don’t need to know, we don’t need to understand, and we trust our Lord to do what is right in all circumstances. What God does and what God allows is righteous and good quite simply because it is He Who is doing it and allowing it. Luther always pointed people to what we can know about our God, what we can be sure of, what God in His mercy has revealed to us. That is the all-important thing that John points us to in verse 6 – Jesus Christ, the Son of God, loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood. Our faith is simple. That truth is all we know, all that we have to know. That’s why the one, whole celebration of Good Friday and Easter is so important – because that’s all there is. Christ our Lord died on the cross for our sins, and God our Father put His stamp of approval on that sacrifice by raising Christ from the dead on the third day. That’s all that matters. That’s all we know. That’s all we focus on. The rest is a mystery to us, and because of what Christ has done for us, we trust Him in His goodness to take care of all those details that we don’t and can’t understand.
John continues on to remind his listeners that Christ is coming back again – “Look, He is coming with the clouds, and ‘every eye shall see Him.’” The Lord says, “I Am the Alpha and the Omega,” the A and the Z, the first and last, the beginning and the end and everything in between, “Who is, and Who was, and Who is to come, the Almighty.”
John goes on in verse 9 to remind us of who he is and who we are in this world – “John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that is ours in Jesus …” These are three important aspects of our experience as God’s people living in this world, and every Christian shares in these three things, whether we like it or not. Number one, we as brothers and sisters in Christ all share in the suffering that our Lord promised would come upon His Church in this world. Number two, we all share in the kingdom of God, the kingdom to come at the end of the world and the kingdom that is ours right here, right now, as our Lord creates a people for Himself right here, right now through His means of grace. And number three, we all share with John in the patient endurance of what we suffer here in this world, as we wait for our Lord to return. Patient endurance. We don’t get what we want right now. We don’t get what we think is fair right now. We don’t get to have things our way. We keep enduring and waiting and hoping for Christ to come back soon as we feast upon the Word and Sacrament to keep our faith, hope, and love alive.
And so we patiently endure. Two things should be clear from this. One, we should expect things to be more than a little rough down here. And two, we are a forward-thinking people.
How many of us of are really living in those two truths? How many of us really accept that things are going to be rough and are okay with that? How many of us are forward-thinking instead of being backwards-looking? The church in America is falling down on these points. How much of what drives us is caused by a nostalgic wish to have things the way they used to be? We remember when our churches were full, when our Sunday schools were full, when the media and world around us treated us with respect.
But the truth is, the good old days were never really all that good. For example, I can remember 40 years ago when St. Peter’s in Joliet cut its rostered membership in half by getting real about who hadn’t been in church for years. And the world has never respected us. At best, they tolerated us while muttering under their breath about us. Even in the so-called good old days, things have always been rocky for the people of God. It’s okay to fondly remember some things about them that we miss, but some things are gone that are not coming back.
Instead of investing energy wishing for some magic bullet that’s going to bring back 1982, God’s people should be investing their energy asking, “What does Christ want for His Church in 2019? What does Christ want from me in 2019?” We should be working to make 2019 the best year that it can be in our church, in our families, and in our own lives. Because what lies in our future is far better than anything that lies in our past. Let me say that again. Islam and Muslim apologists may be out of control. Political correctness may be out of control. The world’s antagonism towards the Church may be getting worse and worse. And our churches may getting emptier and emptier as the years wear on. But remember who we are. We are the people who have the kingdom. We expect and even rejoice in our sufferings. And we patiently endure. And like the old man John exiled out to some lonely island in the Mediterranean, we know that what lies in our future is far greater than anything that lies in our past.
In our text, Jesus appears to His beloved disciple to give him a revelation of what is to come. Christ dictates a letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor to discuss with each the details of what has happened in the past, how things are now, and what He is calling them to do next. Your homework for this afternoon, and I am very serious about this, is to go home and read through what Christ has to say to each of these seven churches, in Revelation chapters 1 through 3. Go home and read Revelation chapters 1 through 3. And then read it again tomorrow. Each of these churches was unique, with unique plusses and minuses and unique challenges, and Christ treats them each as individual churches with their own needs. Read through those chapters, more than once, and ask yourself, where does St. Paul’s in 2019 fit in? More importantly, ask Jesus in prayer, where does St. Paul’s in 2019 fit in? What parts of those letters remind you of things at St. Paul’s? What does Christ require of St. Paul’s, not back in 1975, but in 2019? What does Christ require of you today?
John is confronted by his risen Lord, the first time he has seen Him in 60 years. For 60 years, John has remembered all that his Lord did and said. For 60 years, John has prayed to his Lord, talked to him just as he did when Christ walked the earth. For 60 years, John has served his Lord, not perfectly, but he has done the best he could for the Lord he loves. For 60 years, John has rejoiced with his brothers and sisters in all that their Lord has done for them and given them. For 60 long years, John has told others about his Lord, to the point of being exiled to this lonely island because he wouldn’t and couldn’t keep his mouth shut. And for 60 long years, John’s most treasured dreams, both awake and sleeping, have been dreams of seeing his risen Lord again.
And now, after 60 long years, Christ appears to John once again, and John falls at his Lord’s feet as if he were dead. And Jesus reaches out and gently lays His right hand on John and repeats one of the core messages of His Incarnation and His life on this earth: “Do not be afraid.”
Then He reminds John of the same thing that He reminds us of this morning. “I Am the First and Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I Am alive forever and ever! I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
When we see what is going on in the church and in the world today, it would be easy for us to fall into the kind of thinking that God is a watchmaker, that He created the world and wound it up like the old watches and clocks and then He walked away to let things run their course without His involvement. But Christ is not a watchmaker. Christ is a heart that is continually pumping His blood and His life into His Church, always with us, always watching over us, always enlivening our faith, always involved in this world through us His patiently enduring people.
“Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of time.” Christ is the Lord of His church. It is His church, not ours; it is really all about Him, not at all about us. When we get to the nuts and bolts of what St. Paul’s should be doing next, we should always be asking, not how do we hold on to what we have, but, how do we best serve our Lord, how do we best maintain a witness to the community around us, the real human beings who live and work within five miles of this spot, and how do we best walk with all the other churches around us? We are the church, and this church belongs to Christ, not to us. Christ always has been the Lord of His church, Christ is the Lord of His Church now, and Christ always will be the Lord of His Church. In Him, we trust; Him, we serve; and us, He will always love and care for. Amen.
“Christ is Still the Lord of His Church” 4/28/19 Rev. Richard Bellas, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Lockport, IL