“By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Have you ever noticed how many times Jesus’ words don’t seem to match the easy believism that is so prevalent in modern American Christianity? When I was a part of a campus ministry we were told to share the Good News of Jesus, have them pray a sinner’s prayer and then give them assurance of their salvation. So we would strike up a conversation with someone, share a tract called the Four Spiritual Laws, have them pray the prayer at the end of the tract and then assure them that they have now inherited eternal life. Then we would move on to the next guy. Of course we did not say it this way, but the implication was that it did not really matter what they did from that point on because they had just prayed the sinner’s pray and were going to heaven. And yet Jesus says, “By your endurance, you will win your souls.”
Deitrich Bonhoeffer called what we did in the Campus ministry, “cheap grace.” Cheap grace says all you have to do is to sign up to enter the race. You may even buy some new running shoes, get a number and line up with the rest of them but that is all that you have to do. And yet it seems from this Gospel that Jesus is saying that you have to not only have to enter the race, but that you have to run it and finish to get the prize.
This idea of finishing the race shows up in other places in the New Testament. James 1:12, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him …” Turn to Revelation to John 2:10 and see these words given to the Church at Smyrna “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” In fact the idea of being a faithful witness to the end is the major theme of the Revelation to John. Matthew 24 is a parallel passage to our passage today and in Matthew Jesus says, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Now I certainly don’t want to imply that Jesus is teaching that we are saved by our works or by our own efforts. St. Paul is quite clear that we are saved by grace through faith. I believe that the Gospel before us is not about faith verses works; rather it is about faithfulness verses unfaithfulness.
Let me offer this analogy. The easiest part of a marriage is the day you make your vows to one another. The real test is being faithful to those vows year in and year out until you are parted by death. If you think that all you have to do is to make a vow and then you can coast from there, your marriage probably won’t survive. You have to work at it every day to die to self and to live for that other person. And so it is with following Christ. If you think that all you have to do is get baptized or pray a sinners prayer and then you can coast from there, your faith probably won’t make it. You have to work at it every day to die to self and to live for Christ. You have to be faithful to your vow to Him until you are united by death.
This Gospel begins by Jesus giving a prophecy about the destruction of the temple. Jesus says not one stone will be left upon another. Jesus’ prophecy happened as He predicted. In fact ancient historians tell us that the Romans not only burned the Temple and knocked down its walls but they even dug up the foundations so that it could not be rebuilt. Jesus goes on to warn of other horrible things like wars and famine and pestilence and terrors and great signs from heaven. Not surprisingly scholars are divided in how these words are to be interpreted. Some say these words were also fulfilled and some take these words to be predictions about the future or what is called the end of days. I frankly don’t think it matters which way you interpret these words because the application of this teaching remains the same. If it is about learning a lesson from the past or preparing for the future, the call to endurance is the same.
In the midst of chaos, about which they could to nothing, Jesus warns the Church of two great dangers that do fall within their control. The first is deception and the second is their response to persecution. In Matthew’s version of this Gospel Jesus says that because of deception and persecution the hearts of many will grow cold, which it to say that many will stop loving and following Him.
That is happening all around us. Just this week I read a very sad blog of a young woman who has gone from being a serious follower of Jesus to now declaring herself as an atheist. Most of the comments were how brave she was to come out of the closet and to admit it. I did not share their admiration because it broke my heart. It also reminded me that none of us are impervious to having our hearts grow cold. So how do we be a people who will endure to the end?
Jesus said, “Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name saying, ‘I am he!” and “The time is at hand!” Do not go after them.” Beyond insane men like David Koresh or Jim Jones, who actually claimed to be the Christ, we have more subtle versions of what Jesus was warning about in our day. Just turn on your TV and you will find no shortage of guys who may not claim to be Jesus but certainly claim to be the next best thing and will unashamedly claim to be his mouthpiece.
Years ago my parents were attending one of these guy’s churches in Orlando and when I went down for a visit I went to church with them. The preacher got up and said that he had not prepared a sermon but that we were going to get it through him directly from God. To top it off he said that he was going to preach on the Trinity, which is a topic that makes me tremble no matter how much time I have to study. I thought to myself, “This is going to be rich.” And it certainly was, rich with heresy. Thousand are being led astray by these kinds of false prophets. I have literally heard them say that God is powerless to act on the earth until we give Him permission to do so. Do really want that kind of power? Another very famous preacher said that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. I wondered what version of the Bible he was reading.
Of course we in the Anglican Communion have had our share of false prophets. The Anglican Church in North America was birthed because of false prophets who claimed that God was doing a new thing. So we are not exempt from this threat.
The question then is how we steel ourselves so that we are not led astray by those who claim to come in Jesus’ Name but in actuality do not. Our collect today points us in the right direction. It is by reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting the Holy Scriptures that we are better prepared to avoid deception. I read that Federal Agents are trained to pick out counterfeit bills by becoming so well acquainted with the real thing that the fake ones become obvious. When we have spent considerable time with the true apostles and prophets contained in the Holy Scriptures then the counterfeit apostles and prophets will be easy to pick out. I love the group of people in the Book of Acts, called the Bereans. They received the Apostles’ teaching with joy, which meant that they were teachable. But then the text says that they went home and searched the Scriptures to see if the things that the Apostles were saying were so. Teachable but not gullible.
But here is the rub. It takes work to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures. It is not something that comes to us automatically. You must be in a disciplined study of God’s Word if you truly expect to get anything out of it. I have spent my adult life studying God’s Word and it seems like I am still learning something new every week. God’s Word is living and active and so it stays current with us on our journey.
An Anglican Bishop in the 19th Century named J C Ryle was famous for his intense study of Scripture. His publisher said of him that he was a one-book man, so steeped in Scripture that if you cut him he bled Bible. Bishop Ryles said. “It is still the first book which fits the child’s mind when he begins to learn religion, and the last to which the old man clings as he leaves the world.” That cannot be said of any other book. It has been given to us to make us wise for salvation and the more we truly know that book the least likely we are to being led astray. It is how we endure to the end.
The other warning that Jesus gives is about how we are react in the midst of persecution. That may not be a significant threat to us in America right now, but the Church around the world knows how applicable are Jesus’ words. They are particularly meaningful to the Coptic Christians in Egypt who are being burned out of their churches or to the dozens of Christians killed this month in Syria by Islamist rebels or to Pastor Saeed who has recently been transferred to a particularly brutal prison in Iran, the kind of prison where people are never seen again. I read this week of 80 people being executed in North Korea for the offense of owning a Bible. These are not isolated incidents. The 20th century saw more Christians killed than all the previous centuries combined and if things keep going as they are this century could well be bloodier still.
Further, we should not be deceived into thinking that persecution could never happen here. It is increasingly popular to mock Christianity where they would not dream of mocking any other religion. Awhile ago I was reading a post on my son’s face book where his friends were bemoaning the fact that a couple of amendments in their state did not pass. One of his friends said that they failed because of all those people who read the Bible and then he went on to say, “I hope they die, die, die.” Evidently tolerance and diversity don’t apply to Christians.
Additionally we are seeing more and more examples of people moving from thinking that Christianity is irrelevant to thinking of it as the source of problems. Just like the Romans blaming early Christians for all manner of societal ills because they had angered the gods, so today we are being blamed for anything that you can put the word “phobia” behind. Pop culture leaders like Bill Maher and Michael Moore spew so much hatred towards Christianity it is little wonder that a kid today would hope that Christians “die, die, die.”
But it goes deeper than just pop culture. One Christian commentator is drawing attention to an important change in rhetoric that we need to watch. People are using the expression “freedom of worship” now in place of “freedom of religion.” That sounds like a minor word change but the difference between the two is being played out in some places in Europe and Asia. People have freedom of worship so they are free to attend Church. But they do not have freedom of religion so they are not allowed to have home Bible Studies or to evangelize or to speak about their faith in public. Fr. Midgett told us last week of two evangelists in England who were arrested for street preaching. Why? Because taking a moral stand based on your faith can be said to fall fall under the rubric of “hate speech.” That kind of thinking is coming to America if it is not already here.
So what are we to do in the midst of opposition? How do we ensure that we remain faithful? How do we endure to the end? Jesus points us in the right direction when He says, “Settle it therefore in your minds, not to meditate beforehand how to answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which not of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” In other words Jesus is telling us to trust Him. And why should we trust Him? Because He has got it under control! That is precisely the message in the Revelation to John to the persecuted Church. We are to be faithful to the end because God is in control; not the false prophet, not the beast, not the dragon…God. The Lamb upon the throne reigns supreme and since nothing can separate us from His love, we have nothing to fear.
Today’s Gospel is not an easy one to hear but I can’t think of a more important message for us to receive. We must endure to the end and we will endure to the end if we will not be led astray by false prophets because we know the words of the true prophets. We will endure to the end if we trust that Jesus has it under control. Study the Bible and trust Jesus. Study the Bible and trust Jesus. That is how we endure in the last day. Come to think of it that is also great advice for getting through next Monday. But can it be that simple? Study the Bible and trust Jesus? Let’s give it a try and see. Amen.