I had no idea when I first planned on this being the day we would welcome twenty new members to Living Water that in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus would talk about the subject of Christian persecution.
In any case, you should know that this is not an abstract topic.
Open Doors USA, a Christian organization that offers support to persecuted sisters and brothers in Christ, defines persecution as “any hostility experienced from the world as a result of one’s identification as a Christian.” Open Doors estimates that worldwide, each month:
- 322 Christians are killed for their faith in Christ;
- 214 churches and church properties are destroyed; and
- 772 forms of violence--including beatings, abductions, rapes, arrests, and forced marriages--are perpetrated against Christians.
That might make people wonder why anyone would want to be a Christian. And yet, millions of people come to faith in Christ each year.
I am not a media basher, but much of the media likes to say that Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion. But that’s true if you only count the number of people born Muslim. The fastest growing religion by conversions in the world is Christianity.
And this growth is led by the numbers of Christian conversions that are happening in places where Christians face daily persecution, whether from their governments or their neighbors, places like China, Nepal, and Ethiopia.
But, it must be said that, as hostility toward and ignorance about Christ and His Church grow in North America, even here, where we face no persecution, we can feel apprehension, if not fear as followers of Jesus about being overt in the expression of our faith.
Today though, Jesus tells us: “Don’t be afraid.”
And He tells us why we shouldn’t be afraid, too.
Let’s take a look at our gospel lesson for this morning. Jesus begins by citing things that would happen--and have happened many times in the twenty-plus centuries since--to His disciples: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
Nobody can accuse Jesus of painting a rosy picture of Christian discipleship! Not only does Jesus call us to die to our sins and our old selves and be subject to the reconstruction of our characters He wants us all to undergo so that we can be, sometimes painfully, more like Him in His love, integrity, kindness, and righteousness...He also says that, during our lives on this earth, as we follow Him, people we know and love may turn on us.
Every person in this sanctuary probably has experienced this. I know that in my own life, there are people in my life, many of whom I’ve known for years, who view me as a humorless, naive, judgmental, party-pooper. Now, I suppose that there are times when I am a humorless, naive, judgmental, party-pooper, although I hope I’m not. But it seems to me that those who “know” me and think these things don’t really know me. They just know that I hang out with Jesus and they don’t want to get too close to that.
Some years ago, I was appointed by the county government of the community in which we lived to a committee charged with addressing the use of drugs by young people. There were about twenty-five of us on this committee. At the first meeting, the chairperson went around the room, asking people what they thought was the fundamental reason for the drug problem in our community.
There were many answers: family disintegration, the influence of media superstars, poor communications, a predisposition to addiction, poverty, affluence. In truth, each of those factors play some role in the use of drugs. But I don't think that they're the fundamental reason.
When the question came to me, I said that I thought it could ultimately be traced back to a disconnect from God.
When you are connected with God, you know how highly prized you are in God's eyes and are more resistant to abusing the gift of your life.
When you're connected with God, you're also connected to Christian community; God and His people can help you to make healthier, life-affirming choices.
No one is immune to addiction, of course. No family is. But, without God, people aren't living in hope. They're trying to fill holes in their souls that can only be filled by God.
After I'd said my piece...crickets. I could almost hear my fellow committee members saying, "There goes the guy in the collar."
As the question continued around the circle, one other person offered a similar answer. His name was Reggie. I came to find that Reggie is an amazing man, the leader of a program designed to help people get out from under addiction, himself recovering from an addiction. "You know," he said, "I agree with the pastor."
We didn't win any people over that day. But I learned a valuable lesson on how difficult it is for people to accept the practical application of faith in Jesus to everyday life.
At some level, I suspect that most people are afraid that if they get close to Jesus, He will win them over with His love:
- they’ll come to see Jesus as God-enfleshed;
- they’ll become grateful that despite His sinlessness, He died for their sins, and they’ll repent;
- they’ll come to believe that Jesus rose and that He can give them new lives;
- they’re afraid they’ll start surrendering their lives to Him each day.
I know that when I was an atheist, I didn’t like being around authentic Christians. When you’ve drawn your identity from things like your favorite sins, your sense of self-reliance, your winning personality, your brains, your work ethic, it’s tough to admit that Jesus even died for your sins, that even you need to come to the foot of the cross and confess sin, and trust in Jesus to live.
The good news of new life for all who believe in the crucified and risen Jesus will always clash with the human ego.
But for all who dare to hear Jesus’ call to follow Him, that good news will never clash with truth.
And it will never clash with joy, even in the face of persecution.
Jesus continues in our lesson: “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. [If Jesus, our teacher and master, faced persecution and then, death, who are we as people He has saved from eternal death and darkness, to be spared from persecution and even death as we follow Him here on earth? Jesus continues:] If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!” On this last point, you may remember that some of Jesus’ opponents once said that the only way Jesus could cast our demons was in the power of Beelzebul, another name for the devil. Jesus made mincemeat of that logic by pointing out that the devil would hardly act against his own self-interest in that way.
Then Jesus says something curious: “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.”
As one Bible scholar points out, you would expect Jesus to say something like, “Don’t be afraid. I’m with you always." Or, "Don't be afraid. I’ve overcome the sin and evil of this world.”
And, in fact, Jesus says those things elsewhere.
But not here, when telling His Church how to face persecution.
Instead, Jesus seems to say that we shouldn’t be afraid because one day, at the end of the age, when He comes to judge the living and the dead, everything we’ve ever done, said, or thought will be laid open for everyone to see.
That’s supposed to make me feel less afraid? I don’t know about you, but there are plenty of my actions, thoughts, and words I’d just as soon nobody else knew about.
In one way or another, I’ve violated every single one of the Ten Commandments and I’d just as soon those weren’t paraded before the whole world on Judgment Day, thank You very much.
Well, maybe all of our sins will be paraded before the universe at the judgment.
But we don’t need to be afraid when we have put our trust in Christ, when we’ve repented for our sin, and grasped the grace only Jesus can offer.
That’s because the thing that will also become visible at the judgment is whether we have taken refuge, life, and hope from Jesus Christ, whether we’re clothed in His righteousness and stand naked in our own sin.
And when our conscience, or the devil, or the world accuse us for our sin, the disciple of Jesus can take the example of Martin Luther, who advised: “...when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’”
Jesus goes on: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”
Look, Jesus is saying, the most that those who persecute you is take your earthly life. That’s nothing to fear!
The One we should fear, reverence, and follow is the God revealed in Jesus, the One Who can send us away from Him, life, and eternity.
But when we trust the One Who made us, saves us, died for us, and rose for us, we know that we are eternally in His care.
None of us is perfect. We all sin. I sin.
Just in the past few days, I have unconsciously and reflexively sinned and it was only after God pricked my conscience that I knew I needed to repent before the only One Who can forgive me and set me on the right path.
That’s why, for centuries, Lutheran Christians around the world have come to God daily in repentance and faith, to daily be revived by the God seen in Jesus, to daily surrender to the One Who gives life to the repentant.
That’s why you and I confess our sins and receive assurance of God’s forgiveness given through Christ each Sunday morning.
As the prodigal son learned, the question isn’t whether we have wandered from God. Everyone of us is prone to that. The question is whether we keep coming back to the God Who reaches out to us as He has reached out to us through Jesus from cross and tomb and as He still reaches out to us from His throne in eternity.
Our daily coming back to Christ will also be revealed at the judgment. And to all who have trusted in Christ from our King in this way, He will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Matthew 25:35)
Along the way, in this life, Christ will be with us.
He will forgive us.
He will give us the gift of the Church from which we mutually draw strength and to which we are each accountable.
He will meet us every time we read His Word and pray in His name.
He will meet us every time we worship with others in His name, every time we receive the sacraments, every time we tell a neighbor the good news of new life for all who believe in Christ, every time we serve our neighbor in Jesus’ name.
All of these things--gifts of grace--Christ does for us, no matter what the world does to us.
And then, one day, after we have passed from this life, the ultimate truth about fear will be revealed. Do you know what that truth is? It’s this:
The only thing to fear is a life without Christ.
Not contempt or indifference from neighbors.
Not our lapses into faithlessness for which we repent.
No, the only thing to fear is life without the Life-Giver Jesus Christ.
May you never have that kind of fear. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message prepared for worship today.]