Away With the Atheists

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In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In the middle of the Second Century, about 155 AD, there was an 86-year old man named Polycarp. He was bishop of the church in Smyrna, in modern-day Turkey. There was a persecution going on where they were rounding up prominent Christians, leaders of the Church, and trying to get them to renounce Christ, to recant their faith, to repent of being Christians. They tried to get them to swear allegiance and fidelity to Caesar as Lord instead of Jesus as Lord. They tried to get them to say, “Away with the atheists,” that is, away with the Christians, who didn’t believe in the Roman gods. So they arrest Polycarp and take him to Rome and try to get him to recant. They say, “Think of your age. You’re 86; are you sure you want to go through with this?” Deny Jesus, they said. But Polycarp said, “I’ve been a Christian for 86 years. Do you think after all, I’m now going to blaspheme my King?” They tried to get him to swear fortune to Caesar and say, “Away with the atheists.” He looked at the crowd gathered there; then he looked up to heaven and groaned. He gestured to the crowd of those who worshiped Roman gods, and he said, “Away with the atheists.”

Away with the atheists. That’s what Jesus is doing when He looks up to heaven, groans, and puts His fingers into a man’s ears, then puts His spit on the man’s tongue. He’s doing away with atheists, one at a time. Opening ears so they can hear Him. Loosing tongues so they can confess Him. Opening eyes so they can see Him. Sometimes it takes a little longer. In the next chapter, Jesus puts His hands on a blind man’s eyes, and when He takes them off, He asks what the man sees. He says, “I see people, but they look like trees walking around. Jesus puts His hands on the man’s eyes again, and then he can see clearly. But Jesus is doing away with those who foolishly say in their hearts, there is no God. They are not necessarily intellectually foolish; many smart people have been atheists. They are morally foolish: to deny their creator; to deny their Lord, in whose image they have been made. Jesus is doing away with those who think He’s a mere miracle worker, a mere healer. He takes the man apart from the crowd. He does this to show who He is and what He’s come to do. He is not doing magic tricks. He is demonstrating the fact that He is the Son of God. He is the fulfillment of Isaiah 35. He is the recompense of God, come in the flesh to save sinners by opening eyes, unstopping ears, giving the lame new legs, and loosing the tongue of the mute. Luther somewhere says that there are two things that belong to a Christian: ears that are opened and a tongue that is loosed. Ears that are open to the Word of God coming into them, and then that same Word comes out of the mouth in a confession of praise to God.

Jesus does these things to show what He has come to do for all people. If He were merely a healer or miracle worker, He would be a failure, since not everyone at that time was healed, and not everyone today is healed. People still die, even those who are miraculously healed. No; Jesus heals bodies to show that He will raise those bodies in perfect health. This is why He tells people not to say anything, because it will lead to more people simply thinking that Jesus is merely a healer. At this point in the story, He has not finished what He has come to do; He has not yet died; He has not yet risen. This is all about the resurrection, and the resurrection encompasses everything. In fact, if there is no resurrection, if things will not be made right in the new creation, then this is simply too much for me. If there is no resurrection, we should all rather be atheists. If there is no resurrection, then things will never be made right, and we should eat, drink, and die, because there is no point. Believing Christ doesn’t make things easier; it makes things harder. You feel the tension between faith and sight more severely; you feel the tension between the promise of Christ and what you see more acutely. Things weigh more heavily on you because you know how things should be, how Christ has promised they will be, what He has done, and you don’t see it.

Whatever else may be said by Christians, or taught by the Christian Faith, it is the resurrection that is the beating heart of it all. If every prayer that we pray for the healing of bodies is not a prayer for the resurrection of those bodies, then we have made Jesus into a miracle worker or some sort of magical healer. In fact, I would go so far as to say that every single prayer we pray is a prayer for the resurrection, for the new creation. Every petition of the Lord’s Prayer itself will only have its fulfillment in the resurrection. This is why we groan in the earthly tent, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling (2 Corinthians 5:2). This is why we groan inwardly, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Even the creation groans in eager longing; even the Holy Spirit Himself intercedes for the saints with groans too deep for words. We groan under the weight of this broken creation and our broken bodies. We groan under the burdens of simply living life in this world. But Jesus groans, too. Not just with us, but for us. He groans because He takes up our cause in His own flesh. He groans as He bears with the sin in the world and the unbelief. He groans at the destruction death has wrought in His creation, at the blind eyes, deaf ears, and dumb tongues.

He groans, and dies, and rises. And this is why we do not lose heart. This is why we are of good courage. Because Jesus has done all things well. He has done all things well. His promises that we believe are as good as if we already saw them. When the Son of God says “Be opened,” eyes and ears and tongues are. When the Son of God rises from the dead, and you are joined to Him, then your resurrection is as good as done. So for Christ’s sake, away with the atheists. Away with the atheist in my own chest, who doesn’t believe that God’s Word will do what He says, who believes Jesus is optional, a last resort for when we can’t figure out any other solution. Away with the atheist who doesn’t want the gifts of Christ. Away with my deaf ears and bound tongue. Be opened!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/5/15

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