Preaching to the saints of the Lutheran Church at Christ-Elkhart and Faith-Hugoton in Kansas since February 8, 2015. All sermons prior to that date were preached either at Trinity Lutheran Church-Layton or First Lutheran Church-Tooele, Utah.
Like Perpetua and Felicitas, we are baptized into martyrdom.
Like Stephen, as servants of the Word, we are called and sent into martyrdom.
This is not a martyrdom we seek, but, like faith it is a gift of God, not of works, lest any of us should boast.
Thus martyrdom, again like, faith, is not a choice or decision of men, but the will of God. I suppose one could go so far as to say martyrdom is the destiny of faith and faith is the life of martyrdom.
To hear and/or read the entire sermon preached to the Utah Circuit pastors for the commemoration of Perpetua & Felicitas, Martyrs, click on the MP3 link provided above.
The audio begins with the Old Testament Reading. The sermon begins at the 5:24 point of the mp3 file.
A servant of the Word and His folk,
For those of you who prefer to read or read along while listening, the preaching transcript follows below.
Nota bene: Sermons are meant to be heard, as per Romans 10:14-17. Let the reader understand.
+ Perpetua and Felicitas, Martyrs +
7 March AD 203
On March the 7th, some 1,810 years ago, Perpetua and Felicitas were martyred.
At the dawn of the Third Century, Roman emperor Septimus Severus banned conversions to Christianity. Among those disobeying that edict were Vibia Perpetua, a young noblewoman, and her maidservant Felicitas. Both were jailed at Carthage in North Africa along with three fellow Christians, Saturus and his pupils Revocatus and Saturninus.
Perpetua and at least some of the others had not completed catechesis and weren't yet baptized when arrested. Evidently, they received Holy Baptism before being taken to prison. She was also a new mother and a fairly recent widow. Felicitas (or Felicity) was near the end of her own pregnancy when arrested.
During their imprisonment, Perpetua and Felicitas witnessed to their faith with such conviction that the officer in charge became a follower of Jesus. For some time, doubts remained about their fates, but Perpetua had a vision of a golden ladder guarded by a fierce dragon. She climbed it, stepping on the dragon's head to do so. At the top, she found a green meadow with many white-robed figures. In their midst stood a Shepherd, who welcomed her and gave her cheese from the sheep's milk. She awoke understanding that martyrdom was assured but that she would triumph.
Perpetua's father came to plead that she recant her confession of faith and renounce Jesus Christ. This she steadfastly refused.
Roman law forbade the execution of pregnant women and Felicitas feared that Perpetua and the men being held at the same time would face martyrdom but leave her behind. However, she gave birth two days before the scheduled execution and was allowed to join her companions in the arena on 7 March.
The women first made arrangements for the well-being of their children. This was possible because the imperial decree only concerned recent converts to Christianity (or Judaism). Since those entrusted with their children's care were believers of long standing, they were safe from persecution, at least for the time being.
The accounts say that the five were first scourged at the crowd's urging. Then the men faced a boar, a bear, and a leopard while a wild cow was set against the women. After they were all injured, Perpetua and Felicity exchanged the kiss of peace before the Romans put them to the sword. One tradition holds that Perpetua showed mercy to her captors by guiding the sword of a trembling young gladiator to her own heart because he could not bear to put her to death.
The martyrs were interred in Carthage in North Africa and the story spread throughout Christendom. Later, a basilica was erected over their tomb. The story of the martyrdom of Saint Perpetua, Saint Felicitas, and their faithful companions has served for centuries as encouragement to persecuted Christians.
This year this martyrs’ day falls during Lent. It is the week of Oculi, “My Eyes” Sunday, in the Historic Calendar. In the Introit for this day we pray:
P: MY EYES || are ever toward | the | LORD,*
for he will pluck my feet out | of | the | net.
C: Turn to me and be gracious | to | me,*
for I am lonely and | af- | flic-| ted.
And the Tract, which takes the palce of the Alleluia verse preceding the Gospel, sings:
C: To you I lift | up my eyes,*
O you who are enthroned in the | heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand
of their | master,*
so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he
has mercy up- | on us.
When I came across these readings and this little section from “The Treasury of Daily Prayer” on Felicitas and Perpetua, and looking at these readings of the Introit and Tract and remembering them from this past Sunday about having our eyes on the Lord, I couldn’t help but thinking of St. Stephen and his martyrdom as well. According to Acts 7: 51-56, Stephen says:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
What a different mindset these people had in those early days of Christianity! This idea of martyrdom—we see them embracing it, looking to God, seeing the heavens opened, being encouraged by this. Not that they sought it out, but when they knew that it was a done deal, embracing it and looking forward to joining their Lord at the right hand of God.
Like Perpetua and Felicitas, we are baptized into martyrdom!
Furthermore, like Stephen, as servants of the Word, we are called and sent into martyrdom.
This is not a martyrdom we seek out. But, like faith it is a gift of God, not of works, lest any of us should boast—even of martyrdom.
Thus martyrdom, again like, faith, is not a choice or decision of men, but the will of God. Indeed, we are baptized into the martyrdom of Christ and His cross..
I suppose one could go so far as to say martyrdom is the destiny of faith and faith is the life of martyrdom.
All of it—faith, life, martyrdom—is found in, with, and under the body of Christ. Thus it is not ours, but His. And again, as such martyrdom is nothing we need or ought seek out, but something into which we are baptized and ordained that will seek us out soon enough as we preach, teach, and sacrament the Word to the people entrusted to our care--calling them to repent and be baptized; to confess and be absolved; to be delivered from their sin to go and sin no more.
As you well know, this ministry is not always well received. In fact, apart from the Holy Spirit it never is. So what we find is that it is not particularly appealing to those not yet of our faith community and not a pleasant ministry for us. And all too often it even causes distress and fracture amongst the faithful in our congregations when hard decisions have to be made in regard to the practice of our faith.
Unlike the early church martyrs we do not face the beasts. But we do face the prospect of folks voting with their feet and pocketbooks. We do not face the court of an emperor holding the sword over our heads--yet. But we do face the court of public opinion. We do not face the stake and flames. We do face the all too real possibility of being fired, regardless of what or Confessions teach regarding the Call and Office.
This is our martyrdom. And we do not like it very much, nor are we very good at it. We are too advanced and enlightened for such things in our day. We like to decide and have control over the hills we’re going to die on.
I’d like to propose that in light of the issues that face our churches, our district, our synod—the things that we like to put easy little labels on, like “Church Growth,” “Contemporary Worship,” “Transforming Church Network,” “Dispute Resolution Process,”—maybe we ought to take a look at these issues from the perspective of martyrdom: what it is that we are called and baptized into. Are we trying to ameliorate things for folks, take the sting out of ministry, and make it more appealing to the world and our recalcitrant sheep to avoid martyrdom? And, in the name of casuistry and “erring on the side of grace,” are we telling ourselves we do it so we can live to fight another day?
Dear Brothers, when it comes to the Word we’ve been given to handle and the practice of the doctrine that has been handed down to us for the sake of the sheep under our care, that’s not our hill. It’s Christ’s. And we have no choice. The hill we die on is already chosen and sealed for us. It’s set. It’s Christ’s hill. And we are also sealed in His kingdom with the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection and the Life of the world to come.
I don’t know about you, but my biggest mistakes over the years, the ones that still haunt me and keep me awake at night are the ones where I have given in, bypassing proper teaching and discipline and officiating ceremonies in places and at times where I ought not, baptizing or communing those who I had not had the opportunity to catechize or examine, all because I was afraid of losing a person, family, or more—a congregation—or losing them as a friend or a member.
Casuistry is not really about choosing to err on the side of grace. It is about faithfully exercising the office of the ministry in rightly applying Law and Gospel at the proper time—letting God sort it out when we preach it according to His word and teaching, and never shrinking back for the sake of saving our own necks. Saving our own necks has never saved a soul.
So hear once again the words of the Letter to the Church of the Hebrews 10:35-39 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. 37 For,
“Yet a little while,
and the coming one will come and will not delay;
38 but my righteous one shall live by faith,
and if he shrinks back,
my soul has no pleasure in him.”
39 But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. . . .
. . . not by making sure we don’t die on hills, but by being faithful to the Word and by “keeping our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”
Dear Brothers, let us pray with the martyr, Polycarp, who when he was bound and taken to sacrifice, prepared to be an acceptable burnt offering unto God, looked up to heaven and prayed:
O, Lord God Almighty, the Father of Your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by Whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who lived before You, I give You thanks that You have counted me worthy of this day and this hour; that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs and the cup of Your Christ, to the Resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body through the incorruption imparted by the Holy Ghost—among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice; according as You the ever truthful God have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me and now have fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise You for all things. I bless You, I glorify You along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with Whom to You and the Holy Ghost be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.
Insofar as this sermon is a true proclamation of the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ, it belongs to Him and His Church. Therefore its use is free to all who deem it worthy and beneficial.
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