Text: Acts 4:1-12, John 10:11-18 V Cantate (4th Sunday of Easter)
In the name of our Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us, dear friends in Christ: A couple of weeks ago we had as our Gospel reading the story of the disciple who is widely known as “doubting Thomas”. He’s the one who was not present when Jesus first appeared to the disciples, and who said that unless he could actually handle the wounds in the hands and side of the Lord’s living body he would refuse to believe that he had risen from the dead. As you recall, it was eight days later that Jesus appeared again, and this time Thomas was present. Then, standing in the presence of Jesus, and surrounded by his already believing friends in the relative safety of a locked, private room in which no unbelievers or enemies were present, Thomas made his confession of faith in Christ when he declared: “My Lord, and my God.”
In today’s first reading, it’s Peter who is confessing his faith in Christ; but the circumstances are quite a bit different. He’s just spent the night in a different kind of locked room: a prison cell. He was thrown into it along with the disciple John because they had been caught talking to a large crowd on one the temple courts about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. That made the Sadducees extremely angry. They were the dominant political and religious party among the priests and rulers of the Jewish people. It’s best to think of them as the theological liberals of their day in that they tended to be very worldly minded and didn’t take the Scriptures very literally. And to a certain extent they mixed their theology with Greek philosophy. The upshot was that one thing they rejected out of hand was the biblical teaching of the resurrection of the dead. They didn’t believe that anyone would ever rise from the grave. To them the afterlife could only be a spiritual thing, if indeed there even was an afterlife, which most of them denied. Oh, and Sadducees made up about eighty percent of the Sanhedrin, which was the seventy member ruling council of the Jews – the same ruling council that under Caiaphas, the high priest (also a Sadducee), condemned Jesus and pressured Pontius Pilate into crucifying him. So when they heard Peter and John talking about Jesus (didn’t we get rid of that guy once and for all?) and saying he had risen from the dead (blatant heresy!), well, they considered that two strikes against them. They had the disciples arrested on the spot.
But it was late in the day and there wasn’t any time to deal with them. So now, early the next morning, having spent an uncomfortable night in a dark, stinking cell wondering what might happen to them, Peter and John are forced to stand trial before the same assembly of corrupt, Christ-hating officials that gleefully and illegally condemned Jesus to death. To say that the court leans heavily against them would be a monumental understatement. And to imagine that they might get anything resembling a fair hearing would be pure fantasy. And mind you, it’s only been two or three months since Jesus was crucified. The memory of what happened to him – what he suffered at the hands of these men – is very fresh in the disciples’ minds. There’s no question but that the same thing or something very similar might happen to them before this day is over. And for Peter, at least, the memory of how easy it was to escape any kind of trouble simply by denying that he knew Jesus is there. Surely that temptation is calling to him again. As he faces the angry men before him, he could say it was all a mistake. He could take back what he said – claim he didn’t mean it or that he changed his mind; that he was sorry and would never say anything about Jesus or his resurrection again. Why, then they’d probably let him just walk away with a stern warning.
But no; this day Peter will not tuck tail and run. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter had tried to stand in his own strength; and it failed him. Doubt and fear overcame him, and he came to realize just how weak and pathetic he was. But things had changed since then. Now he understood what Christ’s death was all about: the sacrifice of the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world – that took away his sin. Now he had seen the risen Lord Jesus; and more importantly, he had received Jesus’ words of peace and forgiveness. Peter had been restored. And on the day of Pentecost, he had received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit from on high, an outpouring that strengthened his faith and made him bold – willing to suffer whatever the enemy might throw at him – so that now he stood before the bitter enemies of Jesus and fearlessly confessed the truth about him. “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified—God raised him from the dead. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
So, two confessions of faith in Christ, one by Thomas, the other by Peter; confessing the same truth but under vastly different circumstances. And on this day we will hear three more confessions of faith in the Lord Jesus as the young men before you declare their trust in and allegiance to Christ the crucified and living Lord. And let me suggest that if we were to draw a comparison, the confession of faith they will make is somewhat analogous to the first – to that of Thomas. Not that they doubted beforehand like him; but in the surrounding circumstances. I mean, sure, they may think it a little intimidating to stand in front of the congregation and be in the spotlight; but their confession will be made among family, friends, and well wishers who share their faith in Jesus and who will rejoice in hearing the words they say. There’s no threat here. No one’s going to become angry or throw them in jail and punish them. Here it’s safe to confess faith in Christ—and it’s good that they do it.
But what will matter vastly more is the confession of faith in Christ they make after this day – the confession of faith they make from this day forth before the world – before the world that is becoming increasingly hostile to Jesus and those who believe in him. Sure, there’s always been opposition to the Christian message; but the truth is that many of us grew up and lived most of our lives in an era in which it was easier to be a Christian. It was the accepted norm in our culture. It was taken for granted that most people held some version of faith in Jesus. That’s no longer the case. And recently the enemies of the Church of Christ have grown more strident and aggressive in their vitriol directed against believers. Times have changed. And as time goes on we can only forecast that the enemies of the Church will become even more forceful and antagonistic.
But I don’t want to sound like an alarmist. Some would-be prophets of our age seem to think that any day now the wholesale slaughter of Christians is going to suddenly begin in this country. I don’t see anything like that happening in the foreseeable future. The chances of any one of us facing the kind of trial that Peter did – to be called upon to confess Christ knowing that it might get you tortured or killed – the odds of that are pretty low. Nor is it likely that these three young men will have to face the trial of the three Jewish boys, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to deny the Lord by worshipping an idol the king of Babylon had set up. It won’t be like that—though I hasten to add that there are places in the world where things like that are happening, where Christians are suffering terribly and some are dying for their faith. And it needs to be said that in a short time these three young men, like all who have been confirmed before them, will swear to suffer all, even death, rather than renounce their faith in Jesus. So we can’t remove the possibility altogether. It’s a contingency we should be prepared for. But no, for the most part in our day and in our culture the attacks will be more subtle. There will be slow and steady pressure to renounce the faith or portions of it. There will be incentives to give in to compromise, to bend here and there. There will be ridicule and exclusion and prejudice – all designed to destroy the faith of the faithful by attrition, by slowly wearing it away and killing faith one small step at a time.
And I don’t need to tell you that it happens all too often – that so many well meaning and faithful youth stand where these three will, before the altar of God, and they proclaim their faith with sincerity. They make their promises fully intending to keep them—we’ve all known people like that who then slip away. Be it from spiritual lethargy, the cares and concerns day to day of life, the temptations and influence of the world, the deceptions of the devil, or some combination of them, the result is the same: They end up falling from the faith, effectively denying the Lord who bought them with his holy, precious blood. Like lambs who wander too far from their shepherd, they become easy prey for the wolves.
So the question is: how do we prevent that from happening to these three – or to any one else who’s stood where they will and made the promises they will make? How do we ensure that the relatively safe confession of Christ made at Confirmation remains the confession of a lifetime, and that it is strong enough to endure both the fiery trials that are possible and the slow attrition that is certain?
It begins by recognizing just how needy and weak we are. When Peter tried to stand on his own, he fell. Though he swore up and down that he would never leave Jesus or forsake him, he ran like a coward at the first sign of trouble, and when threatened by the accusation of a little servant girl, he swore that he’d never known Jesus. The same is true of us. Weakened as we are by our sin, there’s no way any of us can remain faithful by our own powers or abilities. That’s the mistake so many people make. They get to a certain point in their spiritual development and imagine, “I can take it from here. I don’t need any more.” But the moment you stop feeding the spirit, it begins to starve.
So we begin by recognizing that we can’t go it alone. There’s a reason Jesus calls us sheep and himself the Shepherd. We’re not going to make it without him. And as you know, I have the candidates for Confirmation prepare papers in which they answer specific questions about their faith in Christ. And one thing all three said emphatically is just how sinful they are. (I don’t imagine that their parents or siblings would disagree either.) Wrote one, “I am able to do nothing but sin.” That pretty well sums it up. If we recognize that all we do is sin, we’ll be forced to look outside of ourselves for salvation and the strength to stand and for everything else we need.
And these three know to whom to look: the Lord Jesus Christ. Wrote one, “Jesus is God’s Son … he came to earth to die for the whole world and take away our sin.” Another wrote, “Jesus Christ is God’s Son who was born into the world to suffer the price of the sins of all people.” And they know exactly how the Lord Jesus accomplished our salvation. One of them wrote, “Jesus Christ is my Savior who took away my sins by dying on the cross. He took my burden because I could not possibly take my own sins away. He … loves me so much that he suffered and died for my sins so that I [would not suffer death in hell forever].”
As important as it is to know to whom to look, to Jesus, it’s also vital that we know where to find him. Jesus is not just some esoteric idea we carry in our minds, nor is he a warm feeling we have in our hearts. No. Jesus comes to us concretely and meets with us in discernable space and time so that we can hear his voice and know actually him. And again, these three young men have shown that they know where to find Jesus. One confirmand wrote this: “Jesus is the Word of God. And that is the Word God spoke to create light and darkness, land and sea, and all the creatures.” He understands that hearing God’s Word is hearing the powerful, creative voice of the Good Shepherd. Wrote another of the Church, “It’s a holy place where God is. It really is his house. God is present there.”
They understand too that their faith in Christ is not something they can generate in themselves, rather that it is a gift of God worked in them by the Spirit. One wrote this: “The Holy Spirit is in the words that I believe. The Holy Spirit opens my heart to faith so that I may believe and be saved.” All three explained how the Holy Spirit first gave the gift of faith to them in Baptism through the water and the Word by which they were cleansed of sin and made the children of God.
It is this faith in Christ given in Baptism that they will be confessing today both with their words in a very short while, and also with their actions. You see, going to Holy Communion is an act of confession. It expresses one’s helplessness and sin – that’s why we go. It expresses the need to receive what’s being offered: the forgiveness of sin. And it expresses who it is that’s giving it: Jesus Christ himself through his body and blood sacrificed on the cross. So just going to Communion and seeing the importance of it speaks volumes. One confirmand wrote, “I believe that at Communion [I will be] eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood.” Another said, “I need his blood and body to be redeemed and saved.”
And so this, primarily, is how they – and everyone else who claims to be Christian – both confess the Lord Jesus and are strengthened in the faith to stand. They do it by recognizing their need and coming to where Christ is, where his Word is, where his Sacraments are, where his death for sin is proclaimed, where his forgiveness is conveyed, and where his life and his Holy Spirit are given. And by continuing in this pattern and way of life in the Church they will continue to grow healthy and strong, fed by their Good Shepherd in green pastures and led by him to quiet, life giving waters. And doing this, they will learn to confess Christ in yet other ways. They’ll learn to confess him in their acts of kindness and charity, as one wrote, “I can show God’s love for everyone through my actions.” They’ll confess him before friends and neighbors who need to hear the Good News, as another said, “On earth my goal is to help people and tell them about Jesus.” They’ll be empowered like Peter to confess him in the face of opposition and threat. And they’ll be able to confess their faith in Jesus in times of tragedy and loss, when someone they love passes through the valley of the shadow of death, or when they face that time themselves. Then they’ll be able to see beyond the grave to the hope of glory and eternal life with Christ that all three expressed so clearly in their papers.
This is how they will confess Christ today, and God strengthening them by his Word and Spirit, all their days. May our gracious God and Father keep us with them in the true faith, that we too may confess Christ in time and eternity. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!