When You Stand Alone

WHEN YOU STAND ALONE

 

MATTHEW 5:10-11

blessed are the persecuted

 

Things never end well when you try to get a girl to like you. At least, that has been my experience. Back in seminary, I dated a girl for about two and a half months. It was one of those relationships that you are in because the alternative of not being in a relationship and being alone seems worse. You know it’s bad when she says you are not manly enough and gives you Christian literature on being

“more manly.” So on our last date, I was feeling a little desperate to impress. We were walking out of my dorm apartment on the top floor of the dorm. She went down the steps first. So to impress her I decided to jump down a flight of stairs. I made it. Yeah, I know you are impressed. And so was she. So I decided, in my youthful exuberance, to jump down another flight of stairs. I made it again. “Who’s the man now?” I thought. The answer, of course, is I was. One more flight to go. So I jumped. It just so happened that I didn’t see the awning of the landing above me and I rammed my head right into it. Then I twirled around and hit the guardrail. I fell to the floor in a humiliated heap, bleeding out of the side of my forehead. We got some gauze and I still took her out to dinner and dancing. She broke up with me the next day. No surprise, the next day I felt pretty stupid explaining what had happened to the Doctor.

Why do I tell you this humiliating story? Because today we are talking about persecution. And I think this story makes a good point. The vast majority of the time, we are not undergoing what the Bible defines as persecution. The vast majority of the time we suffer because we make poor decisions. In other words, the vast majority of the time, we suffer because we are being stupid, not because we are being righteous. Few of us in America are martyrs – the Greek word martyr simply meaning a witness of Christ . Evoking a claim of persecution is serious, because it is a serious concept in the Bible, and it should not be done lightly. Just because things may not going our way, may it be in our family, our town, our state, or our nation, doesn’t necessarily mean we are being persecuted. But it is important that we know what persecution is. Because the Bible is clear that followers of Jesus will experience persecution, if some of us stop spending so much time trying to impress girls and more time doing the will of the Lord. Today, I want you to learn: 1. What persecution is, and 2. Why disciples of Jesus are persecuted.

What persecution is, is a fairly easy question to answer. The Greek word means to pursue someone relentlessly. In the Bible, persecution is most often physical, but there can be other forms of persecution, as well. Even with the most recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, whatever our view on that may be, we must admit that we Christians in America, and in fact many religious groups, are blessed in our ability to practice our religion largely unencumbered by Government intervention. And this makes America stand out among nations. And it is only fair that this freedom be applied to all religions in this country.

But around the world today, the same cannot be said for religious minorities, especially Christians. The plight of Christians in the Muslim world is particularly acute and is perhaps the most under reported story of our time. As Ayaan Hirsi, reports in her 2012 Newsweek article, The Global War on Christians in The Muslim World , “Christians are being killed in the Islamic world because of their religion. It is a rising genocide that ought to provoke global alarm.” In Iraq alone, Christians have fled persecution in such masses that the Christian population shrank from over one million in 2003 to half a million at the time Hirsi wrote her article. Jane Corbin, of the Guardian Newspaper, brings some different statistics and information to the story . He points out that Christians actually received religious freedom and protection under Sadaam Hussein. But when he was overthrown in 2003 they lost that protection . Corbin reports that as of 2015, over a million Christians have fled Iraq;, that is 2/3 of Iraq’s Christian population. Strangely, they have sought refuge under the rule of another mass murderer, that being Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Many Christians in the Middle East feel like they stand alone against the Islamic fundamentalism and the world has forgotten them.

So we see that the persecution of Christians is real. And it is far more systematic and intense than it was during the days of the Roman Emperor Nero, who was known for persecuting Christians. Now we must ask why, according to this passage, are Christians persecuted? I think this passage gives us three reasons that Christians are persecuted:

  1. Because of being known as Jesus’ disciples
  2. Because of righteousness
  3. Because they are like the prophets

First, we see that Christians are persecuted simply because they identify themselves with Christ, regardless of their lifestyle or behavior. This is because there has always been something offensive about Christianity’s claim, and Jesus’ own claim of Divinity, of being God. Not only his claim of being God, but his claim of being Lord, that is one who has authority over your decisions and your life. Many today are fine with a distance clockmaker God who blesses all your decisions or at least doesn’t care about what you do. Few are fine with a God that requires the allegiance of your heart, the submission of your life to His will. That is why so often the world has tried to pass Jesus off as just a great moral teacher. But as C.S. Lewis famously said in his classic book Mere Christianity:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on level with the man who says he is a poached egg- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Second, we see that Christians will be persecuted because of righteousness’ sake. Previously, in our series Back To Basics, we have discussed how righteousness includes both upright personal behavior and a concern for justice, especially for those who have no voice. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, does not give us the beatitudes just to frustrate us to the point that we cry out to God because we don’t believe we can ever be this way, though that may be one of our responses. He truly expects his disciples to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees. One of the major reasons for conversions to the early church was that Christians were known for taking care of the sick. When others would flee from the plague and leave their family members to die, Christians would risk their lives, even to care for complete strangers. Indeed, a Christianity today article reports that the top reason that Muslims to convert to Christianity is “the love that Christians exhibited in their relationships with non-Christians and their treatment of women as equals.” This is in spite of the deep and lasting memories of the Crusades in the Middle East and the general association of Christianity with the West in the Muslim world.

First Peter 3:13-17 lays out a clear vision for why Christians are persecuted: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s Will, than for doing evil.”

I think the phrase “gentleness and respect” is key to remember in our modern debates over faith, politics, morals, and culture. Christians may indeed be standing up for the Word of God. They might be right in fact, but they may be wrong in Spirit. As we talked about last week in our sermon on Blessed Be the Peacemakers, often conflict arises not because of the content of our message, but because of the content of our hearts, or our way of being, as the book The Anatomy of Peace puts it. Paul admonishes us in Ephesians 4:15 to speak the truth in love. But often when we speak the truth, our heart towards the other person is full of anger, resentment, wrath, bitterness, feelings of being slighted. We speak out of a desire to control, a desire to be right, a desire to win the argument. Our hearts are not full of love, for we feel no love. Often I think there is such a focus in the church on love being a choice and not just an emotion because, frankly, many of us are just mean people a lot of the time. Love is certainly more than an emotion, it is a choice, but if we never feel love towards others, we must question if we are actually making a choice to love, or if we are just deceiving ourselves.

Some of the greatest defenders of the Truth in the church, in my opinion, are also jerks. And it seems having strong convictions and being a jerk tend to go together far more than we would like. The world hates the Truth, but the world also hates a jerk, and if we are jerks, we won’t be able to tell if we are being persecuted for the telling the Truth or just because we are being Jerks. In the words of The Anatomy Of Peace, “Whether you’re talking about negotiators or anyone else, people don’t like dealing with jerks. They’d just as soon poke jerks in the eye as help them.”

Finally, we see that Christians are persecuted because they are like the prophets of old, who were persecuted in their day, though later admired by the Jewish people. To be a prophet in the Bible is to be one who is sent by God that sees both the current motivations of people’s hearts and also tells forth the future as much as God is willing to reveal the future to them. Though the Bible generally tells us to respect authority, tradition, and our Elders, prophets are sent by God to challenge authority structures when people misuse the power given to them by God. Often, the prophets were uneducated, outside of the traditional power structures. For example, the prophet Amos was a farmer and sheep herder.

Prophets did not seek persecution, nor do they seek the spot light. They have no natural office, no natural charisma, and no credentials. The Prophets stood alone, a voice crying out in the wilderness. Even today those gifted as prophets stand alone, except for the fact that God stands with them. To quote Erik Colbell, author of What Jesus Meant, “Righteousness is an exceedingly cumbersome thing because it means asking hard questions that others might not want to hear.”

Prophets convict the hearts of the wayward; they do not complain. There is a difference between speaking conviction and complaining. Their message does not include resentment on how they themselves are being treated. In the words of Billy Graham in his book The Secret of Happiness, “Life cannot lose its zest when down underneath our present discomfort is the knowledge that we are children of a King. Complaining becomes foolish; behaving in the manner of the world is unworthy; and love, gentleness, and meekness become the hallmark of God’s nobility” (Graham, 184).

I think Julie McKeighen, our missionary to Liberia, meets all these characteristics in a way I have rarely seen. She came to update us on her work about two weeks ago. We joked that we were glad that we did not have to pay her mileage from Liberia, but even if we had to, it would have been worth it, to hear her speak. Few times in my life have I been so convicted about my lack of conviction as when I heard Julie speak about her journey and her call. But she spoke not in a way that made others feel guilty about “not being serious Christians.” She spoke with righteousness, both in her words and in her Spirit, and I saw Christ in her in a way that I rarely see in myself. I have often heard folks in this congregation refer to Julie as a “gem,” one of “God’s special people,” a “true saint.” I sort of got a hint of what you guys meant when I talked to her via email, but when I saw her in person, I truly understood what it meant to lay down your life for Christ, for the courage of your convictions.

At the same time, she dispelled any notion that she was in any way special or unusual. When I asked her how she knew that this was God’s call on her life, what inspired her to make such a drastic decision, she simply said that God gives you what you need to follow Him. May that be conviction in your heart, coincidences in your life, dreams and visions, or even miracles. If you come to him with a broken Spirit and a contrite heart, the Lord will not turn you away, He will guide your steps. Many of us were astounded by the danger she faced in Liberia, especially with the Ebola outbreak. She responded by saying something along the lines of we all die someday, none of us know the day or the hour, so why not do something with our lives. As William Wallace said in the movie Braveheart, “Every man dies; not every man truly lives.”

One of the greatest stories I have ever read about persecution is the novel Silence by Japanese author Shusaku Endo. It is a historical fiction piece set during the actual persecution that the Catholic Church underwent in 1639 at the hands of the Japanese Government. The main character is Father Rodrigues, a Jesuit Priest who is sent to Japan to aid the persecuted church. He is captured by the Japanese Government and tortured mercilessly as they try to force him to recant and to stomp on an image of Christ. But he refuses, even while enduring pain that most of us cannot imagine. But his torturers finally break him, not by torturing him, but by threatening to torture his congregation members unless he recants and stomps on an image of Christ. So Father of Rodrigues, for the sake of those he loves, recants, and defames the image of Christ. Because he does so, his congregation members are saved, but the Catholic Church disowns him. He is allowed to stay in Japan while the rest of the priests in the country are cast out. At the end of the novel, one of his former congregation members, who also recanted under persecution, comes to him begging him to hear his confession. Though the institutional church no longer stood behind him, Rodrigues heard the confession of this suffering soul and offered him absolution in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. The narrator closes the novel with these last words, and I will close my sermon with them, as well:

“The priest had administered that sacrament that only the priest can administer. No doubt his fellow priests would condemn his act as sacrilege; but even if he was betraying them, he was not betraying his Lord. He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love. ‘Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.’”

It is my prayer that when we find ourselves standing alone that we will let our lives speak of Him, as well.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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