In Syria, a man was arrested and accused of being a Christian. He confessed that he was, and they bound him and began to transport him to the place of execution. The journey took some time, and he got to know the soldiers who were guarding him. He treated them well, but they returned kindness with blows.
As they traveled, the prisoner grew afraid. Not, I imagine, as I would be – afraid of pain and torment. No, this prisoner grew afraid that he might renounce Christ.
Now this is a true story, and it could be and is happening in our day. But this particular man lived long ago, at the dawn of Christianity. His name was Ignatius, and as a young man in Ephesus, he had John the Beloved Disciple as his teacher. Ignatius went on to become a bishop in Syria, and he wrote a series of letters on the journey to Rome. He asks that nobody pull any strings, using their influence to get him off. It seems so strange to modern ears, but this great bishop saw himself as not yet a disciple of Jesus.
I shall willingly die for God, unless ye hinder me.… Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep, I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. [Epistle to the Romans]
Ignatius repeats this idea in the next chapter, that he is on the path to discipleship.
Now I begin to be a disciple…. Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.
It seems masochistic, this reveling in the torments of martyrdom; his language is graphic, but the real point is that he sees the challenge of being a disciple precisely in facing the worst trials of this world. One thing alone matters: “Let me attain to Jesus Christ.”
For us, life is good. We have remarkable comforts. And we’re still coasting on the fumes of Christendom, a world where the churchly institutions yet provide us with some security and protection, even if that time is quickly running out. Is this our focus: “Let me attain to Jesus Christ”? Can we look ahead to the crosses, embrace them, and say, “Now I begin to be a disciple”?
In the Gospel lesson we just heard, Jesus says, “You will be My disciples.” The ESV renders it “Prove to be my disciples” – “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” This translation is not wrong, but it seems to suggest that being a disciple depends on how much fruit we bear. What’s really going on here?
Jesus speaks these words in the Upper Room. He has just washed their feet. He has assured them that He is the way, the truth, and the life. He’s promised them the Holy Spirit. He’s just said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” Don’t be afraid! So when He now talks to them about bearing fruit, it’s not to bring back fear. He is giving them courage for the trial ahead – a lesson St. Ignatius would learn well, enabling him to face martyrdom knowing that there were better promises in store for him.
Jesus is preparing them for how God is going to work on them. He is going to cultivate them as branches on a vine, that they will become the disciples He has already called them to be. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”
Pruning hurts – at least, if you’re the branch. No one wants to be cut. When the Father comes at us with His knife, we shrink back, timid. When He begins to cut away the things we love that we shouldn’t, we can become angry. When He takes away things dear to us, we weep. But the Father knows what He is doing. He is the master gardener, and He is pruning us for our good, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. He’s making us into true disciples.
And soon it feels like we have nothing left, that we are bereft of everything we trusted. At that point, the Lord has us in a place where He can work. To you He says just what He said to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you; for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
When everything has been pruned, when we are cut and bleeding and it seems like everything is lost, then all we have to cling to is the Word. But God’s Word is powerful. By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made; by the Word of Jesus water became wine, and dead men came forth from their tombs. In many ways I think of Mary as the premier disciple, because when she hears God’s Word, she simply says, “Yes; Amen; I am the Lord’s maidservant.”
We know what fruit Mary bore; and what great witness came through the martyrdom of disciples like St. Ignatius. But what fruit does God have in mind for you? The specifics are different for each of us, but Dr. Luther has a beautiful summary of what it means to bear fruit. Here is how he describes it:
It is clear enough what fruits the true branches in Christ will bear. First of all, a Christian must give expression to his faith, praise and thank God, and profess and extol before all the world the benefits received from Him. And then a Christian must perform works of patience; he must bear and suffer all sorts of evil, while he himself does good to everyone, serves, counsels, etc. These are the fruits which Christ … has in mind. [LW 24:208-209]
That’s a pretty good summary, don’t you think? Confess Jesus to the world, and be patient when you suffer evil.
There is more evil to come for us. We live in a world of outrage. It’s important we not become part of that culture of rage. It can happen even in the church, where we are at war with each other over power and control. But the deeper into this we sink, the more we turn away from being disciples of Jesus. The love of Jesus is in giving Himself away.
He lays down His life for us; and He calls even enemies “friends.” Isn’t it amazing that when Judas comes to betray our Lord, Jesus says to him, “Friend, why have you come?” Some think that’s irony, that Jesus knows Judas doesn’t come in friendship. But I believe this shows us something deep in the heart of Jesus: He calls even His betrayer His friend. His friendship is always open, even to the end; and He lays down His life for His friends … and His enemies.
That’s all we have to offer the world. The cross of Jesus. So when people ask us what is Lutheranism, show them this painting. Luther’s not important. He’s off to the side. The greatness of Luther is in that one finger, pointing to Jesus and His cross. There is the One who lays down His life for friends and enemies alike. You are by God’s grace called to be His disciples; by God’s grace you will become His disciples; and by God’s grace He will prune us to bring forth fruit – confessing His name to the world, and bearing evil with patience.
Keep pointing to Jesus, dear brothers and sisters. He is all we have. And He is all we need. +INJ+
Preached on Friday, June 22, in Orlando, Florida