Sometimes, I think that the Church has a persecution complex. We can convince ourselves in the holy huddle, the protective bubble of family and friends who think like we do, that ‘the world’ (whatever that is) is out to get us. And all of the misfortune and struggle we have is because we’re right and everyone else is wrong.
I’ve seen it happen with Christian movies and music. “Well, no one will play our CD because it’s too Christian to be on the radio,” or “no one will go to the movie because it says Jesus Christ is the only way.”
What if they didn’t go to the movie because it just wasn’t entertaining?
What if the DJs couldn’t play that song of the CD because it just wasn’t any good?
The other place I see it is in our national pride: I hear people say that we’re a Christian nation. Really? I believe there are Christians in leadership positions, and I believe that many of the Founding Fathers believed in God. But I’m not ready to say “America = God’s Chosen People.” Maybe that’s because I wonder about how well even the Church (big C) gets the Beatitudes, gets the way God wants us to live and interact with each other.
Re-read the final Be-Attitude with me today.
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.–Matthew 5:10-12
Jesus doesn’t say that simply wearing the shirt or claiming the name or sticking a fish sticker on it causes your persecution or struggle or hard ache to blessed. Jesus doesn’t say that going to church or saying grace before meals causes persecution.
Jesus is talking about people who will be beaten, killed, disenfranchised, disowned, and ignored because they follow him. Jesus is talking about the kinds of persecution that people are experiencing in the Middle East or in China today, just for saying that they believe that Jesus died for them.
Jesus says that it’s blessed when we are insulted or persecuted for righteousness’ sake. A few weeks ago, we looked at righteousness from God’s perspective, and saw that righteousness was about seeking more and more of God, and less of us.
That means the persecution isn’t about us so much as it is about God! We’re not being evaluated by critics if we’re up there being judged or persecuted, but the way God does things is being critiqued through us. That means that these people being imprisoned or killed for Jesus’ sake abroad are dying for what they believe.
Can you imagine being so like God or so much like Jesus that people thought critiquing you was like critiquing God?
Can you imagine giving up your life for something you believed in that much?
That’s a lot of responsibility. But today, I hope we can take a hard look at the writings of Paul, a man whose conversion to Christianity caused him to cross the aisle from Christian-murdering Pharisee to Christian-in-chains-for-the-sake-of-the-gospel. Paul, shipwrecked, snake-bitten, betrayed, nearly-let-go, and yet willfully stubborn to proclaim the gospel wrote a few things about life’s challenges.
In our Scripture today, from II Corinthians 4, Paul talked about the struggle with being persecuted. First, he said that he would not lose heart because he could see where God had shown up in the past. Can you see the places where God has blessed your life? That’s one of the tests about persecution for God: too often we only blame God for what is going wrong and we fail to recognize that nothing would actually go right without him!
Second, Paul says here that the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, that he has shared is the truth, not something he fabricated or made up. That what he has shared with people is not something he came up with on his own but the story and teachings of God through Jesus Christ.
Paul is saying that the problems they are having are because they love Jesus that much. He admits (third thing) that their lives are fleeting [have you seen the space/time model they showed in Cosmos? All of human history is a mere speck on the actual timeline of the world.] But because he sees the big picture he says that “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
Darrell Evans wrote the song, “Trading My Sorrows,” about this set of verses:
I’m trading my sorrow
I’m trading my shame
I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord
And we say yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen
I’m pressed but not crushed persecuted not abandoned
Struck down but not destroyed
I’m blessed beyond the curse for his promise will endure
And his joy’s gonna be my strength
Though the sorrow may last for the night
His joy comes with the morning
Paul knew that the promise of Jesus’ resurrection in and through us was greater than anything he could experience, even death. Think about his set of opposites from before: “hard pressed… but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
We all know someone who has experienced the slightest bit of friction, one small oil spot, and gone skidding off the rode. But we also know people who have encountered job loss, death of a loved one, financial instability, cancer, betrayal, war… and still stood strong.
Paul is one of those people, and he’s back at it in Romans 5:3-5: “But we also glory in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame.”
We’ve gone from persecution and struggle to finding joy there, to glorifying God because of the struggle.
I want us to stop and think about that for a minute. What’s the biggest struggle you’ve ever had in your life? Do you thank God for it? I’ll tell you that I have a hard time wrapping my mind and my heart around that.
It’s not easy to find joy in suffering because none of us wants to suffer.
But Paul sees that in these moments of struggle, that this is when he sees God the clearest. Maybe because he’s completely abandoned to God; maybe because when he’s locked up in a dark, cold prison cell on death row for years, God is all he’s got left.
It had to be lonely, and scary, and sad. To be guilty of something that you’d never give up, and to know that the law of the land wasn’t just, because your beliefs were true.
Paul keeps coming back to that though, that the inheritance of being in God’s family, of having been embraced by Jesus, is eternal glory! In Romans 8, Paul goes on to say that the suffering is something God can use for kingdom building. “And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” reads Romans 8:28.
Now, let’s be careful here: it does not say that God causes suffering or that God is pleased by suffering or that God wants people to suffer. It says that God works good in the midst of the bad; that God can use even the darkest moments of the soul to make the light shine.
Some of you have heard me raving about Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken, based on the life of a young man who became an Olympic athlete, a Navy airman, and finally a prisoner of war in the midst of World War II. [This is also coming to theaters as a movie directed by Angelina Jolie on Christmas.] Louie Zamperini was attacked by sharks while shipwrecked, shot down over hostile territory, deprived of his ability to eat, drink, or sleep, and saw the worst in humanity. But it’s this experience that finally drove him back to the arms of God because he recognized that God was with him to stay alive in the midst of it, not causing it to happen.
Sharks. Crashed plane. Shot at. Beaten. Made captive.
Paul and Louie have a lot in common! (Well, except for the plane…)
Paul wrote in Romans 8:35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?…. NO! in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Can I get an Amen?
The things you’ve had done to you because someone else decided to use their free will as a weapon, the things you’ve had done to you because you spoke up for what was right or you did something because it’s what Jesus would have you to do, the times you felt beaten down by a thousand little paper cuts or one giant paper cutter, Jesus was right there with you.
Nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ.
Not addiction. Or our past. Not suicide, or our doubt. Not our sins or our mistakes or our bad attitudes.
We are all still loved by Jesus.
Speaking of Jesus’ love, I want to get back to that whole “us” versus “the world” thing from the opening.
In John 3:16, Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” and he keeps encouraging us to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” Is there any room there for us against them? Or are we all in this together?
If we recognize that we can be and potentially will be persecuted for telling people about how much they’re loved or for doing things that run counter to the culture, then don’t we need to recognize that those who will do the persecuting are just neighbors who don’t realize they’re loved yet? That we might recognize that our sins are what caused Jesus to be nailed to the cross so that we’re not better than anyone else, but what we do since we met Jesus is what really matters?
I read a story about Will Muschamp, the football coach at the University of Florida. When he was younger, he broke his tibia and fibula, and doctors put a steel rod (temporarily) in his leg. When the rod was taken out, his mother had it put in a shadow box and gave it to him as a reminder of what he’d been through. In every office since he became a coach, it’s sat on a shelf for his players to see, as a reminder that everyone gets knocked down sooner or later, but it’s how they respond that shows their character.
What would it look like if we recognized that rather than being martyrs and throwing pity parties, or taking joy in how great we are compared to someone else, if we recognized that it’s our job to present the righteousness, the peace, the purity of heart by living out the Be-Attitudes, so that someone else can embrace it too?
That to be a disciple means we’ve got to stop complaining about problems, stop checking off the ‘been to church’ box, and do something proactive to show others how they’re loved by Jesus. That we might be God’s conduit of grace to them, that we might be the ones to introduce them to this whole notion of an omnipotent creator God who loved them enough to want to get to know them.
I think that means we better make sure that we are really, actually, truly, being loving, and about peace, and about kindness, and about being like Jesus.
Because it would really be unfortunate to be persecuted for just being yourself, and not for the right reasons.
Paul thought he was getting a bum deal when his name was Saul and the Christians were blowing smoke on his Pharisaical laws. Then he became a Christian and realized that with all Jesus had given up for him, there was really no room to complain.
So know this today: you are more than a conqueror when you follow in the dusty footprints of Jesus. You can be more than a conqueror in how you deal with the mundane and the massive, the grind and the struggle, the joy and the pain.
This week, when trouble comes, and we can be assured that great or small there will be trouble, how will you respond?
Will you be beaten down or find a challenge to be beaten?
You and God, not you alone?
Because nothing you or anyone else could ever do can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
That in itself is the blessing. And it’s time we used that blessing so that ‘the world’ would know it is loved by God, too.