From the Vesper’s petitions for the Commons for Martyr’s: “Lord, hold us fast to preaching the gospel even in the face of opposition, persecution, and scorn.” Christian preachers are often tempted to let go of the Gospel when confronted by entrenched opposition. Like water seeking the fastest and easiest route downhill, preachers are coaxed toward taking the most direct path to the dilution of Christ’s teaching and, ultimately, a betrayal of the Spirit that animates us. We see and hear this when preachers begin preaching a Prosperity Gospel—Jesus wants you to be rich!—; or when they begin preaching a Zeitgeist Gospel—Jesus wants us to “fit in” with our times so we can witness from within;—or when you hear the Gospel of Identity Politics—being American, Black, Gay, Male or Female, Left or Right is preached to be more important than being faithful to Christ. All of these, of course, are dodges, ways around the difficult demands of what Jesus teaches us to be and do. They allow us to sift out the hard stuff and celebrate that which most tickles our bored ears. True martyrs (not self-appointed martyrs) present us with an extraordinarily hard reality: they believe the Gospel and die proclaiming it. Could we do the same if called upon to do so?
St. Boniface, an eighth-century English Benedictine bishop and martyr who served as a missionary to Germany, wrote to a friend, “Let us be neither dogs that do not bark nor silent on-lookers nor paid servants who run away before the wolf…Let us preach the whole of God’s plan…in season and out of season.”* Though this sounds benign enough, Boniface died doing it, or rather died because he did it—he barked and refused to be hired as a religious P.R. man for Zeitgeist, Inc. Paul found himself in a similar position. Paul reports in Acts that he was seized by the Jewish leaders in the temple and almost killed because “[he] preached the need to repent and turn to God, and to do works giving evidence of repentance.” Should we be shocked that Paul would find himself the target of the powers-that-be? Not really. Jesus warned his disciples that they would follow him to the cross if they persisted in preaching his word. And it is persistence that most often gets the Gospel preacher and believer into trouble.
Jesus says, “A hired man, who is not a shepherd…sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away…” The wolf attacks the sheep, killing one or two and scattering the rest. Why does the hired man run? Jesus says, “This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.” A preacher hired by Zeitgeist, Inc. will do the same—cut and run when it looks as though the wolves of persecution, opposition, and scorn come bounding down the hill. The good shepherd will stay and fight. And though he will never lose, he may sometimes die.
There’s almost no chance that anyone here this evening will be called upon to die for preaching the Gospel. In the U.S. in the 21st century, the Zeitgeist has learned more subtle ways of tempting us away from the Good Shepherd. Perhaps the most powerful temptation comes from the devil of freedom, or more accurately named, the devil of choice. Dangling before us the illusion of unfettered choice in a marketplace of unlimited options, the devil of choice coaxes us with a powerful sense of entitlement, a sense of being owed our comfort, our liberty. And so, we stand dumbfounded in the Wal-Marts of religious goods and services, the Winn-Dixies of spiritual options, and we pick and choose. I will preach mercy but not justice; love but not responsibility; forgiveness but not sin. I will preach heaven but not hell; faith but not obedience. With a shopping cart full of our hodge-podge choices, we check-out and pay with our souls, and then go out preaching a gospel half-bought. If our souls must be the currency with which we purchase a spiritual good, let that purchase be our eternal lives with Christ. As the Dogs of God, we can do nothing less than die while ferociously barking the Gospel just as Jesus taught it.
* from the Office of Readings, St. Boniface