“This will give you an opportunity to testify….”
Prayer: Father in heaven, gather us by Your Spirit into the passion of Your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, that our life together may be an eternal word that testifies to the Word. Amen.
At the very beginning of the second century St. Ignatius of Antioch was being led captive to Rome where he would meet his martyrdom by being fed to wild beasts in the Colosseum. On the way, literally to his death, he wrote a few letters, one of which was to the church there in Rome. He writes, “I am afraid that your affection for me may do me harm.” The harm that he foresaw their affection doing was to attempt to intervene on his behalf and save him from his impending death. He exhorted them, therefore, to remain silent and make no attempt to rescue him: “For if you are silent and leave me to my doom, then am I a word of God; but if you set your hearts on my physical existence, I shall again be a mere cry.”
“Then am I a word of God.” Not the Word of God, of course, but a word of God. In our reading from Luke today Jesus tells his disciples, “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict,” (21:12-15). Well, actually, that last line might be better translated literally: “for I will give you a mouth and a wisdom.” The disciples will testify or, bear witness, to Jesus he says, but they will not be left to their own devices to do so, Jesus himself will give them a mouth. And indeed, the early Christians much like Ignatius, did become a word of God, a testimony, a witness. Jesus gave them a mouth. We see this quite clearly in Acts (Part II to Luke’s gospel). The early Christians suffered just as Jesus predicted. They were handed over to the religious councils, they were thrown in prison, they were persecuted and brought before kings and governors. Consider, for example, the first Christian martyr Stephen. Later on today look up the account of his persecution and martyrdom in Acts 6-7 and note the way in which it resembles Jesus’ own persecution and death.
There are two things that strike me here. First, the Greek word that is translated “testify” in v13 comes from the same root from which we get the word martyr. That is to say, Ignatius’ actual death as a martyr, as well as Stephens’, was a witness to, a testimony of Jesus. As Ignatius was being devoured by lions, and as Stephen was being stoned to death, they imitated or rather shared in Christ’s own passion. It’s worth mentioning here, I think, that our lives simply are words.
Your life, my life, our common life, is a testimony to something. It just is. The question becomes, how can our life testify to Jesus Christ?
How can we, individually and together, live in such a way that in the good and the bad and the ugly we are pointing others to the risen and living Jesus? On that note, the second thing that strikes me here is that their bearing witness, our bearing witness, is a gift. It is not something we muster up the strength to do: “Today I will testify to the risen Jesus!” “No!” says Jesus. A) You won’t have to try to bear witness, “they” will give you plenty of opportunities when they arrest you and persecute you and so on, and B) you’re not to bother preparing your defense in advance: “for I will give you a mouth and a wisdom.” And, indeed, we are given his Spirit who dwells in us richly. “My words will not pass away,” for I will make you my words. As we stay close to Jesus and rely on the Holy Spirit, we become eternal words that bear witness to the Word.
And just here, we must adjust our gaze from the disciples who suffered to Jesus. Because while Jesus does indeed predict the suffering of his followers, those words who testify to Christ, these words in Luke are really about Jesus. After all, Christians will suffer all of this persecution, because of Jesus (Luke 21:12): “You will be hated by all because of my name,” (21:17). The suffering of the words bear witness to and share in the suffering of the Word. Indeed, the predictions which Jesus made regarding the persecution of the church is the pattern of Jesus’ own passion. He was betrayed by his friend Judas, denied by Peter, beaten, arrested, and handed over to the Jewish Council. He is brought before both the governor, Pilate, and the king, Herod. Jesus himself is the testimony that is proclaimed to all nations, the testimony of the cross, Jesus’ own martyrdom. He is silent before his accusers. I could continue on, but I think you get the point.
The disciples as well as the world, you and I as well as our neighbours, have been and will be caught up in the passion of Jesus. This is the end of the world, and we are witnesses to it. Jesus said that his words will not pass away. We, like Ignatius, are his words if we are in him and if we persevere and regard trials, indeed, regard our whole life together, as an occasion not for our own promotion or preservation but for death, our death in Christ’s death, that the very life of the church may be a testimony, here at the end of the world. Amen.