“Pastors sue mayor over subpoenaed sermons.” This was not a headline from a satirical newspaper.
In October 2014, the city attorney of Houston demanded that a handful of local pastors turn over their sermons for investigation. (The politics behind this should be sought out only as a cure for insomnia.) The pastors refused and hired their own attorneys to sue the mayor’s office for
“violating their voting rights.” The injustice of someone reading his sermon was too much for one pastor, who said, “When the subpoenas came and they asked for my sermons, it was not just an attack on me, but the beginning of attacks on minorities and that is why I stand here right now.” Thankfully for him, in May 2017, the Texas legislature passed a law “protecting” pastors from subpoenas like these.
Picture these pastors and their lawyers at their modern-day press conference. Compare your mental image with an engraving of a second-century conference between the Roman emperor and a man named Justin. Justin, too, has been subpoenaed for teaching the Christian faith, but he doesn’t hide behind thick layers of attorney. He holds out an open book for the emperor to read.
Justin was born in Samaria to an unbelieving Gentile family. His passion for philosophy led him to study the Scriptures. Through the Word, he came to faith in Jesus and acknowledged His teaching to be the “true philosophy.” Justin moved to Rome and started a school for Christian doctrine.
Justin is known for his two Apologies (“Defenses”) of Christian doctrine, which he addressed to the Roman authorities. The Apologies give us glimpses into the worship practices of early Christians; for example, how they baptized and received Holy Communion. The Apologies confess that the Word of Christ is not the opinion of a fallible philosopher, but the “power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:16 NIV84). For the Jew, Justin demonstrated that Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy; for the Gentile, he argued that Jesus is the Source of true knowledge, in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
Justin made powerful enemies. He was falsely accused of advocating treason, atheism, and divorce. He and several of his students were arrested. At his trial, he refused to “repent” of his teaching. As long as Christians had life in them, Justin told his accuser, they were to instruct the human race in divine doctrines. These were the doctrines he loved, and he was willing to die for them. In the year 165, Justin and his students were put to death for the name of Christ. That is why the Church calls him “Justin Martyr.”
When the mob came to arrest our Lord in Gethsemane, He did not call on legions of angels to protect Him, but called His enemies’ attention to His open teaching: “When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53 ESV). Later that night, He confessed to Caiaphas: “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in the synagogue and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret” (John 18:20 ESV).
The Risen Savior commissioned His disciples to be public witnesses of His teaching. He promised them the same troubles He had faced: “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40 NKJV). But He also promised them help in the day of trouble: “When they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11 ESV). Whether they are untying a colt or on trial for their lives, Jesus gives His followers the Word to say. His teaching is an open book.
In his Second Apology, Justin Martyr wrote, “No one trusted in Socrates so as to die for doctrine, but in Christ.” In Justin’s confession, we hear the faith of “doubting” Thomas: “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16).
For further reading: 1 Kings 22:1-40; Jeremiah 26 and 36-38; Daniel 3 and 6; Luke 19:29-36; Acts 4:1-31, 5:12-42, 6:8-8:1, 17:16-34, and 24-26; James 1:2-17; 1 Peter 4:12-19.
Rev. Christian Eisenbeis
First Trinity Lutheran Church