Homily for The Geneva School
“Bless are you when men persecute you”
April 1, 2015
Mr. Clark has been reminding us recently that in the Beatitudes Jesus lays out a way of being in the world that characterizes Jesus’ disciples. He has further said that Jesus isn’t giving us a list of things we can do to get him to do nice things for us; he is calling together a new people—a renewed humanity—to follow Him into the world, because He wants to extend His gracious rule of the world through people who look and act like what He says in the Beatitudes (and indeed what He says throughout the whole Sermon on the Mount).
Today I discuss the longest and the last of the Beatitudes – both ideas (longest/last) should get our attention. And of course, it’s probably the most objectionable principle as well. Anyone want to be first in line to sign up for persecution? I think not. None of us wishes for such things.
But if we go with what Mr. Clark has said, persecution is a way of being for followers of Jesus. It is the normative experience of Christians throughout the ages and the overwhelming experience of Christians in recent decades around the whole world. Think about the hundreds, probably thousands, of Christians in the Middle East killed recently for their faith. The words of Jesus come true for them. In John 16:1-4 Jesus says, “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.” When Egyptian Christians were killed recently, the last words on their lips was the name of Jesus because they remembered and trusted.
In the scope of Christian history, we live in a rare, small bubble of relative peace, prosperity, and safety. Don’t get used to it. If you hold fast to the faith once and for all delivered through the ages, if you hold fast to the Gospel that says all people are profoundly sinful and need a savior, you will be persecuted.
In fact, twice in the last couple of weeks I have been accused of not being a Christian because I having gently and lovingly sought to tell people things they did not want to hear. I’ve been called a judgment hypocritical Pharisee and a non-Christian (along with a few expletive deleted words). In the not so distant past, I engaged some younger adult 20-somethings on Facebook regarding our society’s current changing beliefs about sexual expression, same-sex marriage, etc. I graciously sought to represent historic Christian beliefs and practices, unquestioned by all Christians everywhere until a very few years ago by some people here in our country. In short order, I was called a bigoted, close-minded, mean, nasty old man whose ideas would die with me, someone of whom the younger generation would be embarrassed a few decades from now. One said he hoped I would die sooner than later and that my ideas would die with me. Wow!
So let’s look at what Jesus and the New Testament have to say about this. First, if we are living as Christ lived, persecution is inevitable. It’s not “blessed are you if” but “when.” Philippians 1 says that to us is given not only to believe in Christ but to suffer for his name sake. Later in Phil. 3 Paul list four concepts that should be aspirations for every believer: “That I may know Christ, and the power of His resurrection; that I might share in His suffering, becoming like Him in His death.” And then 1 Peter 4 says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.”
So this brings us to a second point: why we should suffer persecution: for righteousness sake. The beatitude does not merely say you are blessed when you are persecuted, but when you are persecuted because you live like Jesus lived. When Jesus came into the world, He shone light into people’s darkness. But John’s gospel reminds us that people love darkness and get pretty ticked off when a light exposes their deeds of darkness. So it is with the followers of Jesus. In John 15 Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
Two things we draw from this. First is that if the world loves you, you are probably not living or speaking like Jesus. There is a guy, Rob Bell, former pastor of a mega-church in Michigan, who recently came out in favor of same-sex marriage and is now Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual counselor – the world and media love him for his tolerance his willingness to embrace new realities and his “forward thinking.” He said “if the church keeps resisting same-sex marriage it will continue to be even more irrelevant.” Well, let me gently say that Mr. Bell has missed something pretty important – Jesus never intended to be “relevant” and cool and hip to the times – He intended to be revolutionary. To save people from their sin.
The second thing we see from Jesus words is that we should not rejoice if we are persecuted for being jerks. He said, “Blessed are you when men persecute you and revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you FALSELY on my account. For example, the Westboro Baptist church – no glory in being persecuted for being angry jerks who are unkind . . . even if you are right on a social issue (which too often they are not!). ]
So first, we learn that persecution is inevitable, second that it is blessed when related to our righteous living in Jesus’ name. But third, what should our response be? Two responses: first, Rejoice and be glad. look at the Apostles in Acts 5:41-42. “and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”
Second response to persecution, pray! In Romans 12 Paul tells us, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” The if possible is key. Sometimes truth requires that you say things, in love, that people will simply hate. But Jesus calls us to “turn the other cheek” when someone strikes us, and to pray for the very ones who persecute you.
Finally, there are blessings that come to us in persecution when we live like Jesus (when we display humility, meekness, mercy, and a hunger for righteousness).
First, persecution for righteousness sake shows that we have Identification with Christ. We already mentioned Phil 3:10. When the apostles were persecuted and rejoiced, and prayed for their oppressors, they were identifying with Christ. They were being like Him. So should we when we receive persecution.
And second, persecution for righteousness sake gives us further purification into Jesus’ image. In 1 Peter 1:6-8 the apostle says, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Then in 1 Peter 5:10-11he concludes by saying, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
The promise there is that just like difficulties make us stronger, persecution is like a sub-set, a particular kind of intense difficulty. And Peter tells us God will restore us, confirm our faith through such things, strengthen us in such things, and establish us – that is, make us steady, and immovable.
None of us wishes for such things. Makes me think of Gandalf speaking to Frodo at Bag End at the beginning of LOTR. When Frodo says he wishes the events swirling around the ring had not happened to him Gandalf replies, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Ladies and gentlemen, if we live like Jesus, we will see persecution. None of us wishes for such things, but we must decide, when it does happen what we will do, how we will respond, to the times that are given to us. May God give us grace to identify with Christ, rejoice in God, and pray for those who persecute us.