SJF • Easter 7a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus prayer to his Father, “Protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
If you’ve watched any films or TV shows about modern crime dramas, you will be familiar with what is called the “witness protection plan.” It is no surprise that witnesses willing to testify against crime, particularly organized crime, put themselves and their families in danger by their willingness to come forward. Although the crime-boss may be in jail awaiting trial, there are plenty of henchmen out and about willing to see to it that the testimony is not delivered. And the vendetta may not stop with the conviction: even after the criminal is found guilty and sentenced, and put safely away in prison, the powerful urge for revenge against one who “turned state’s evidence” or merely told the truth will put the life of the witness in permanent danger of revenge.
So it is that police and state and federal investigators have taken special care of such witnesses — whether they are criminals who have turned on their former colleagues in crime, or virtuous citizens merely doing their duty in spite of the danger. The authorities have developed witness protection plans to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of these witnesses, both before and after they have given their testimony. Some such plans give the witnesses and their families whole new identities, a fresh start with a new name in a new city or a new state, far from the vengeful tentacles of organized crime, or the retribution of a fallen criminal.
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Last Thursday was Ascension Day, and this morning we heard Luke’s account of the events of that day from the opening chapter of his record of the Acts of the Apostles. Since Jesus is about to depart into heaven, the passage begins with the apostles’ understandable question about whether or not it is now the time for the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel. And Jesus tells them that it is not for them to know the time for such things. (And I note in passing that since we are all still here, and the Rapture didn’t happen on the Saturday before last, it was not for Rev. Harold Camping to know the time for such things either! Of course, now he says it will be in December; but in the inimitable words of our former President, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, well, you just can’t fool me twice!)
Jesus does tell his followers two things: first, they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and secondly, they will be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
I spoke last week about just how far the Apostles carried that message, as witnesses of Christ. What I didn’t mention was the fact that this cost most of them their lives in that process. In this church’s large stained-glass rose window, there on the west end behind you, the outer circle shows 12 roundels with the emblems of the 12 Apostles — and in seven out of ten the emblems reveal the means by which the Apostles died! In case you ever wondered why we have a stained-glass window portraying clubs, saws, spears, hatchets or knives, that’s why.
Clearly, the Apostles were witnesses in need of a witness protection plan! And you might at first be tempted to observe that whatever it was, it didn’t provide much protection! Not only the Apostles, but many of the Christians who heard and heeded their preaching and accepted their testimony, suffered persecution in those early days of the church’s life, and the persecution have continued still, even to this day. Peter himself, represented in our window at about four o’clock with a set of crossed keys, ended his life crucified upside-down. He wrote to the believers in his care concerning the“fiery ordeal that is taking place among you,” to assure them that there is nothing strange in this. Jesus had already warned that those who spread the Gospel would not always be welcomed with open arms, and that persecution lay before them. Peter acknowledged this, this sharing in Christ’s sufferings, persecution experienced not only by those to whom he wrote, but, as he assured them, the common experience of their brothers and sisters in all the world who were undergoing the same kinds of suffering.
Such was the fate of many who witnessed to the Gospel. So what happened to that witness protection plan? What happened to the prayer that Jesus offered to his Father, “Protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Dare we think that Jesus’ prayer would go unanswered. Dare we think that God would abandon his faithful witnesses to the prowling devil seeking someone to devour?
God forbid we should think such a thing! Nor should we think such a thing if we rightly remember that Jesus never promised his disciples, as the old song says, “a rose garden.” Their life in ministry would you not be a bed of roses, but a path of suffering and martyrdom. They would be reviled and tested and suffer, just as their leader, Christ himself, was reviled and tested and suffered. As Peter puts it, “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the spirit of God, is resting on you.”
It was not from temporal suffering that Jesus prayed to protect his witnesses — on the contrary their proclamation as witnesses would definitely bring them temporal pain and suffering. That wasn’t a threat, it was a promise! What Jesus prayed to protect his witnesses from was not temporal suffering but eternal death. His prayer was to protect them from the evil one who destroys both body and soul in hell, to protect them from the devil, who Peter told them “prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” —
— and it is the armor of faith that would protect them from the devouring power of eternal death and hell.
The Spirit of God, whose descent upon the Apostles we will celebrate next Sunday on Pentecost, was a witness protection plan that would save them, not from suffering but to eternal life: to the unity of God himself, the Son with the Father, that they might be one as God is one. And it’s a good reminder for us that at the center of that rose window is the symbol of God the One-in-Three. This witness protection plan would change them, not just in their names, but in their very selves — and they would be given new lives in a new country where they would be free finally and at last from sufferings, all the sufferings they had undergone, and most importantly from the ultimate suffering of eternal death.
This is the protection, that all of God’s faithful witnesses are promised. As we witness to the work of God in us, as we do the work that God has committed to our care, we will not always find favor with the world — in fact we will rarely find favor with the world! We will be thought mad for not heaping up wealth for our own pleasure and comfort; we will be thought mad for sharing with the poor and the needy, for giving food to the hungry, and for bearing with the abuse of those for whom power is the only sign of their worth. Truly they have received their reward.
But our hope is for a better and more lasting reward, a better and more eternal salvation, in the unity of the Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Those who remain faithful in their witness to the Gospel will be protected through the fiery ordeal of this world, and then restored, supported, strengthened and established as God’s own for ever. To God the Father be the glory, in the power of the Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+