Do you know anyone who has a persecution complex? Anyone who thinks that everyone is out to get them? Anyone who thinks they are always right and others are always wrong?
Jesus closes his Beatitudes with this: “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).
Sometimes, the church can have a persecution complex. I’ve seen this in interviews I’ve done with Christian movie makers and musicians. “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.” Are there other options? Like what if no one went to the movie because it wasn’t any good or if no one bought the music because it wasn’t their style?
The Apostle Paul says there is real persecution we face when we follow Christ. He wrote in II Corinthians 4:8-12: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”
Paul writes this as a man in chains, a disciple of Jesus who had a personal experience of meeting Jesus – and who was ultimately put on trial because he continued to hold to his faith. Paul experienced the beauty of the gospel and the way that it would be received by others. But it still seems somewhat abstract, doesn’t it?
“Persecution” isn’t quite concrete enough.
Paul and theologians like the 20th century pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that our faith couldn’t be truly understood or explored unless it was lived out. There was a direct correlation between what we believed and what we did. If we claimed Christ but didn’t live like it, or didn’t share it, then it wasn’t really faith, they said. These men said that our faith must be passionately pursued – and lived out – in spite of the cost.
In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, and the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.”
I remember a t-shirt I bought once at our swimming championship. It said “Nothing good comes easy; nothing easy is good.” It was about hard work and effort that lead to results in the pool. But it’s also a parallel to our lives in faith. While we can freely accept Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf – Jesus died on the cross and did the heavy lifting for us – there is hard work in pursuing Jesus through the way we live our lives.
But that can be a bit abstract, can’t it?
So consider this story from Paul’s life, found in Acts 16:16-40. Here, Paul and his mentee, Silas, are planting churches and sharing their faith when they are followed by a woman possessed by a spirit. Because of the possession, the woman has the ability to tell the future – and a slaveholder uses her powers to make money. She’s sick – and she’s a slave. After being followed by this woman for days, Paul rebukes the spirit in the name of Jesus and she is made whole again.
When the slave owners saw that she was no longer profitable – she could no longer tell the future because she’d been made whole and freed from the possession – they had Paul arrested. They accused Paul and Silas of stirring up a revolt against the Roman laws which wasn’t what they had done at all. Paul and Silas were arrested, beaten, flogged, and thrown into prison.
Now, here’s where things get really interesting. Paul and Silas respond to this persecution – this inappropriate punishment – by … singing. While they sang hymns, the doors of the prison burst open, an earthquake ripped through the foundations of the prison, and every prisoner’s chains broke open.
The jailer rushed in to recapture the prisoners but found they were all escaped except for Paul and Silas who knew they hadn’t done anything wrong. The jailer was going to kill himself, having failed his duty and knowing he’d be punished, but Paul interceded on his behalf. He not only begged the jailor not to harm himself but also proceeded to share his faith in Jesus Christ. Their example in the midst of persecution led to the salvation of the jailor’s family, and to the redemption of their ministry by their example.
Paul was hard pressed on every side, but not crushed.
Is that enough to convince you? Or does that still seem like a fable from another time?
The history of the church is full of stories of people whose faith drew them into confrontation with powers outside of their control, but how with great courage, they persevered. The church’s list of martyrs is numerous, but it seems alien to us in the U.S. where our faith is “safe” and often easygoing. Today, let us consider martyrs past and present to consider the cost of discipleship we would be willing to pay in our own lives.
In 155 AD, Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna, who had a vision that he would be burned alive as Roman forces cracked down on Christians. In hiding, Polycarp was discovered when two slaves gave up his location under duress. But when soldiers arrived to arrest them, the eighty-six-year-old theologian refused to run and instead provided hospitality to his captors, asking only for an hour to pray before being taken into custody. Over the next few hours, he was pressed to renounce Christ and refused, again and again, until he was finally lead out into the middle of the crowded amphitheater and burned at the stake.
In 1536, William Tyndale was hung for daring to translate the Bible from Latin into English. You may recognize the name because Tyndale Books is one of the most prolific publishers of the Bible in the world today.
Polycarp and Tyndale were persecuted, but not abandoned.
In the 1940s, amidst Nazi persecution of Jews, Corrie ten Boom’s family began a ministry to rescue their Jewish friends and neighbors, ultimately starting an underground railroad of sorts for those fleeing the Nazi regime. This is the same statement made by others, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Confessional Church pastor, whose Cost of Discipleship I referenced above. See, Bonhoeffer wasn’t merely a poet or theologian, but he actively struggled with how Christians should respond to persecution – and evil – right up until the day when he was hanged for his efforts against Hitler’s Nazi party.
In film The Insanity of God, out now, Nik and Ruth Ripken shared their story of missionary living, and triumph in the face of tragedy. Called to missions out of rural Kentucky, the Ripkens first served in Somalia, where anti-Christian persecution killed one-hundred percent of the people that the Ripkens discipled in their faith. During the same period, their son died from a lack of appropriate medical care. In the face of dangerous persecution – and personal loss- the Ripkens withdrew from Africa, doubting the presence and power of God in situations like that. But in their exploration of faith by others in Communist countries like Russia, the call of God’s heart began to embolden the Ripkens in the midst of their grief.
In the film, Ripken says, “Now, I’m in deeper dangerous, because the Bible is coming alive. Satan had tricked me into believing that the Bible was an old book, with things that God used to do. And here I was experiencing the Bible in the present tense, with the things God did coming alive.”
Corrie ten Boom and the Ripkens were struck down, but not destroyed.
Even in the face of persecution, these people – and thousands like them – have held to the promises outlined in the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the merciful, the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God.
Blessed are those who hear the call of God in their lives and answer.
Blessed are those who recognize the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and live each day to honor that sacrifice with their lives.
Regardless of the consequences.
I wonder today what it would look like for us to answer the call of discipleship from Jesus, to respond passionately and powerfully.
What do we stand to lose? Is it our sense of security? Is it our status in society? Is it our financial stability? Is it the respect of some people around us? Is it friendship?
The final Beatitude says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” Not blessed are they but a direct remark from Jesus to his disciples – that they are blessed when they are insulted, persecuted, or falsely accused because of Jesus.
And so are we.
So, I must ask: are you insulted, persecuted, or falsely accused because of Jesus? Is your way of living, thinking, loving, and communicating so alien from what the world expects that you are the subject of conversation?
Not because you have a fish on your car but because the Icthus is a sign of your lifestyle.
Not because you go to church but because church goes with you when you walk out the door after worship.
Not because you can recite the Scripture but because the Scripture lives in you.
God asks us to lay down our lives – daily – to answer the call of discipleship. Will we answer? Will we go where we’re called to go?
Jesus says there is blessing to be found in the persecution – blessing to be found in the challenge.
Our faith comes with a price.