Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,
Last week, during my Christianity Explored Class, the class and I spent sometime reflecting on the importance of Christ’s resurrection.
The resurrection, of course, is the central claim of the Christian faith. There is no Christianity if Christ did not rise from the dead.
Now to say that someone who has died, is now alive again, is a big claim to make.
For me, the most compelling piece of evidence for Jesus’ actual physical resurrection is found in the witness of the early disciples.
No one abandoned ship. They all shared the same story. They received no financial gain or special honour for doing this. In fact, they were persecuted for it. But even in the face of persecution, they continued to bear witness to what they had seen, heard, and touched.
With the right incentives in place, most people are willing to promote a lie. But, when push comes to shove, literally, most people drop the lie. Its just not worth the suffering.
But in the case of the disciples, they all carried on with the ministry of Jesus.
I’m sure, in those early days of being insulted, ridiculed, and imprisoned, the disciples thought back to what Jesus told them on the hillside in Galilee.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
This is the only beatitude that is a double beatitude. Jesus repeats himself. In the first expression, Jesus’ blessing is general. He’s speaking to “Those people”. His audience is the abstract, “they who belong to the Kingdom of God”. But in the second expression, Jesus switches the pronouns. Now he’s talking directly to the disciples. Blessed are you, when people insult and persecute you.
Darrel Johnson wonders why Jesus repeats this beatitude. He asks:“Is it because it is the one He [Jesus] knows we would rather not hear? Or is it because this is the one Jesus Himself felt the most? (Darrell Johnson, pg 129)
Whatever the case, the message comes through loud and clear. Life with Christ in the Kingdom of God, is not a stroll down easy street. You will be belittled, labelled, ostracized, and in some cases, physically attacked.
Blessed are the suffering ones. Congratulations to those who get fed to the lions. Three cheers for religious refugees. Yours is the Kingdom of God.
Before diving into why this is the case, a note about suffering and persecution. Not all suffering is beatitude suffering. Not all persecution is blessed.
Sometimes we suffer in life for being sinful, or foolish. If you show up for work late a few days in a row, and the boss fires you. That’s not beatitude suffering. That’s called being a poor employee.
And if you lose your best friend, because you shared one of their personal stories widely, that’s not blessed persecution. That’s what you get for being a bad friend.
We’re not supposed to rejoice in this kind of suffering. Instead, we should repent, recommit ourselves to God’s ways, or wise up.
Other times, we suffer or are persecuted, and it just feels so random. A cancer diagnosis. This is suffering, but not beatitude suffering. Back pain. Chronic headaches. A really destructive and incompetent co-worker. A child who is bullied because they are tall, or short, or they have trouble reading. This isn’t blessed suffering.
Sometimes the suffering we experience in life is at the hands of someone else’s sin or foolishness. Maybe you were abused as a child. Or suffered a brain injury, having been hit by a drunk driver.
This kind of persecution and suffering is not the kind that Jesus tells us to rejoice in. Instead, we can lament the brokenness of the world, and pursue Justice, when that is appropriate.
Jesus is really talking about a specific kind of suffering in this beatitude. The kind that comes to us because of our association with him. The kind that comes because we are pursuing the things that matter to him.
Jesus told us this would happen. He said: A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also…. They will treat you this way, because of my name…” John 15:20-21
It didn’t take long for the persecution to begin. Days after Pentecost, Peter and John were imprisoned for sharing about the resurrection. Not long after that, Steven, was stoned because of his faith and witness.
Many of the apostles were martyred. So was the Apostle Paul. The recipients of Peter’s letters in Asia Minor were persecuted Christians. Its likely that they had been uprooted from their homes and property in Rome, and scattered eastward against their will, because of their faith.
And on and on it goes. There has never been a time when Christians were’t being persecuted for bearing the name of Christ. In fact, the 20th century was among the worst centuries for Christians.
Its estimated that on average, 454,000 Christians died every year in the 20th century. They died because of their faith. (Darrel Johnson, pg.131)
The World Evangelical Alliance estimates that some 200 million Christians in 60 countries face persecution or our denied basic rights, because of their commitment to Jesus Christ.
The seriousness and prevalence of this kind of persecution was witnessed by the world a few years ago, when 21 coptic Christians were martyred for their faith on a beach in Lebanon.
We can be thankful that this kind of persecution does not happen in Canada. But, even here, in Canada, we are experiencing what appears to be the slow erosion of our religious rights and freedoms. We’ll see where things are 20 years from now.
And even if we don’t experience hard persecution in your life, perhaps you have been insulted because of your faith. Its not exactly easy, to wear your faith on your sleeve these days.
What is it about Jesus?
I think at the heart of it, is that the Kingdom that Jesus brings is different from the Kingdom of this world. The world says, “I am my own.” Jesus says, “You are not your own.” The world says that “the path to wholeness is through individual expression and through actualizing your potential.” Jesus says that “the path to wholeness involves picking up your cross and following me.” This is an offensive message that people would rather not entertain.
In addition, God’s Kingdom confronts the power structures that have learned to benefit off the brokenness of the world. In ancient Ephesus, Paul’s ministry began to threaten the local economy. The local economy was built around maintaining the worship of Artemis, or Diana. The salesmen and craftsmen who sold religious paraphernalia began to take a financial hit as the gospel took hold. People weren’t buying up their goods anymore. So they protested Paul’s presence in the city.
Its not like Paul was intentionally trying to subvert the economy. He was simply preaching Christ. But that had an impact on the economy. An impact that was threatening to some.
One of the reasons that the Chinese government is trying to keep a tight lid on the Church in China, is because they worry about the control they’ll lose if a large percentage of the people come to submit themselves to a power they consider to be greater than the state.
Jesus, and those who belong to Jesus, don’t fit into the world as it is. We fit better into the world that God is making. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”
The other kind of suffering that Jesus is blessing in the beatitudes, is the suffering that comes because of our commitment to Christ’s Kingdom and its righteousness.
We’ve already learned about righteousness in this sermon series. Righteousness is all about right-relatedness. Its about integrity, wholeness, and justice, in these four fundamental relationships. When Humanity fell in the garden of Eden, our capacity for living righteously was seriously impaired. And nearly all of the mess that exists in the world is a result of these relationships being broken or strained.
But Jesus came to heal these relationships. He came to restore our relationship with God, ourselves, each other and the earth.
Sometimes pursuing righteousness will earn us honour in the eyes of the world. For instance, no one is going to persecute you if you serve the homeless dinner on Christmas day—except maybe your mother in law, who’s mad because you didn’t go to her house.
Thankfully, many avenues of righteousness seeking are applauded and encouraged.
But, occasionally, in our pursuit of righteousness, we run up against resistance.
Paul and Silas experienced this first hand. While preaching in Philippi, they encountered a slave girl who was possessed with a spirit. She was a psychic, essentially, a fortuneteller. And she made her owners a lot of money.
This woman followed Paul and Silas around for days. Finally, Paul prayed for the girl to be released of her oppression. “In the name of Jesus, I command you to come out of her.” The spirit departed the girl immediately.
This was a great freedom for the girl. But it was a great pain in the neck for those who owned the girl. She was a cash cow. They were invested in this girl’s spiritual oppression.
A lot of people are highly invested in the old order of things.
In 2006, a Christian lawyer in Honduras took on up a high profile and dangerous case. He was fighting for the rights of security guards, who worked for a big and corrupt company. That were being exploited and unfairly treated.
Dionisio, the lawyer’s name, worked for AJS—Association for a More Just Society. As the court case progressed, the pressure against AJS mounted. They received death threats. Knowing the risks, Dionisio continued the fight.
He was shot and killed in his car, one morning, on his way to court.
This mural hangs on the wall at AJS’s office in Honduras. Dionisio leaves behind a wife and son.
Underneath the mural you can find these words from 1st John: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Now one can see why enduring persecution for Christ’s sake is an honourable thing. But do we really need to rejoice and be glad in it? What is so blessed about persecution?
Well, for one, for the persecuted ones, heaven will be heavenly. There is a rewards banquet coming in which the persecuted ones will receive their moment of glory. The goal of our witness, of course, should never be about building up rewards in heaven. If that’s your aim, you’ve missed the point. But it is true that the greater the suffering on earth, the greater the joy in heaven. The victory is all the sweeter, if you’ve lost blood in the battle.
Secondly, the persecuted ones join a great crowd of witnesses. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Moses, Deborah, Elijah, John the Baptist, Mary, Jesus. These are the prophets. They were all persecuted or insulted for their role in bearing witness to the Kingdom of God. And when you are persecuted for your faith and witness, you get to be counted among them. I remember reading Corrie Ten Boom. Her and her sister were stripped naked prior to being put into the concentration camp. Then they remembered that Christ had been stripped naked too. In a strange, but real way, that realization lifted them up.
And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, persecution for your faith and witness is a sign that you’re on the right track. Its confirmation that Jesus is at work in your life. And the you are part of the righteous new order that God is establishing. So while its painful, and uncomfortable, you can have the inner assurance that God’s kingdom is alive and well in you.
None of this will happen, of course, if you choose to keep your faith to yourself. You will never be persecuted for living a quiet, safe life. But if you take up the call to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be an artist of peace. Then beware. You will be treated as he was treated.
But there is no better place to be than following after our suffering saviour.
For as Christ has shown, the valley of death is not the end. But the beginning of new life in the Kingdom of God. And though our lives may be a series of good Fridays, Easter morning is on the horizon.
Take heart, Jesus said. In this world you will have trouble. But I have overcome the world.