The following sermon was preached in the seminary’s Chapel of Martin Luther by Dr John Stephenson on the Festival of St Simon and St Jude, Wednesday, 28 October 2015.
St Simon & St Jude 2015
Send out Your light and Your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise You with the lyre, O God, my God. (Ps 43:3-4)
Rich irony hovers over this morning’s rite of Holy Communion. In a pointedly, if not pugnaciously Lutheran move that might have something to do with the 31st of October being only three days away, the fixed parts, the so-called Ordinary of the Divine Service, are being paraphrased with a series of elaborate chorales from the sixteenth century (LSB setting five). But at the same time, whether by design or by accident, today’s Introit comes from the very Psalm that stood at the beginning of the ancient Mass to which Luther took his pruning shears. Perhaps this feature of our service attests a deep level of Christian unity that persists despite the multiple divisions that have scarred the face of Western Christendom for five centuries.
Simon and Jude knew already that these words from the 43rd Psalm and the ancient Western Mass are much more than a hollow wish. In Jesus Christ our Lord they are an answered prayer, even a fulfilled prophecy. Jesus is the Light of the world, He is the Truth per se, His sacred manhood is the place where the whole fullness of Godhead dwells bodily. On at least two occasions He brought Simon and Jude to a holy hill, once when He called them to Himself on the mountain where He appointed twelve of His disciples to be the patriarchs of the New Israel, and a second time when as the Risen Lord He empowered them to carry out the Great Commission. And Christ has brought all of us to His holy hill as He has fulfilled the great prophecy of Isaiah by lifting us up to “the mountain of the house of the LORD that has been established as the highest of the mountains,” which is a figurative way of talking of the one holy Church that will abide forever.
The whole sermon at the ordination of our brother Joseph, now Pastor Singh was based on just eight of the words that have been so long and so appropriately prayed at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist: “I will go to the altar of God.” Joseph had been assisting at Our Saviour, Etobicoke, for several years in the capacity of a deacon; he had been engaged in outreach, in catechesis, and even in preaching. Pr Johnson nailed down for his flock what would be different about Joseph from the moment of his ordination. Once invested with the office, Pr Singh would go to the altar of God to celebrate Holy Communion, to feed Christ’s sheep with the cleansing, refreshing sacrificial banquet of His body and blood. Of course, Pr Singh would not be the only one who would go to the altar; he would invite and welcome the people to the sacred place, to God’s holy hill, to God’s dwelling. Not by accident does the Church call this service our heaven on earth, the Eucharist or thanksgiving: “I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise You with the lyre, o God, my God.” May the Lord sustain Joseph in his ministry, and grant that his labours bear much fruit for His Kingdom.
Of course, Simon and Jude preceded Joseph by many centuries in their joyful march to the altar, and it goes without saying that their ministry of the Word culminated for their converts in their celebration of this holy sacrament. It’s a remarkable thing that, although Simon and Jude were invested with so high an office and carried out such important work, and notwithstanding the fact that they will one day sit on thrones to judge the twelve tribes of the New Israel, we nevertheless know next to nothing about them. From the way the evangelists describe him, Simon, who features as Apostle #10, was initially one of those 1st-century Jews inclined to engage in guerilla warfare against the Roman occupiers. And as we wonder what Jude had to do with the letter of Jude and whether he was related to the Holy Family in some way, we note that the evangelists describe Apostle #11 in negative terms as Judas not Iscariot. By the will of God Apostles #10 and #11 were spared the limelight.
The Early Church remembered Simon as a missionary to Egypt and Jude as a missionary to Mesopotamia, and both of them as having undertaken a joint mission to Persia, where they died as martyrs. So the difference Christ made for Simon included the fact that in his struggle for God’s Kingdom he laid down his own life rather than taking the lives of others. Now mention of the martyrdom of Apostles #10 and #11 demonstrates the truth of our Lord’s words in the upper room included in today’s Gospel: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. … If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you.”
Perhaps the sombre topic of martyrdom strikes you as a radical departure from the joyful words of the Psalmist that have been much prayed in the Western Church. But no, “I will go to the altar of God” is an exclamation of much depth and many levels, and the altar in question also includes the disciple’s sharing in the fate of his Lord, which the world views as a defeat while heaven celebrates it as a triumph. When they gave their lives for their Lord, Simon and Jude, along with many other ministers in subsequent centuries and with many more between now and the Last Day, experienced a fulfilment of the mysterious, perplexing, but entirely true words of the Apostle Paul, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24).
With Simon and Jude and with an innumerable multitude, we go once again to the altar of God, as Lutheran Christians accustomed to certain distinctive hymns, as Western Christians who fitly pray the 43rd Psalm as we prepare for the holy mysteries, above all as disciples of Jesus Christ whom He leads to His holy hill to participate in the sacrificial banquet of His body and blood for our cleansing and our refreshment, as baptised members of His mystical body called to give ourselves unflinchingly in His service as we walk the way His providence has prepared for us.