Jesus was not one to hide the truth about the cost of following him. He never said that everything would go well, that his disciples’ troubles would be over, that life would always be fair from then on. Choosing to follow Jesus was a risky business during the years of the early Church and it’s still very dangerous for many people worldwide today. It can result in families turning against a believer, or neighbours attacking one another, or the force of the state being turned on Christian families. The good news is that in it all, Jesus is with believers.
On Sunday at the noon service the readings were Psalm 82, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56. My reflection is given below.
Yesterday evening my husband and I were driving home from a party. It had been a rather mixed day as far as weather goes, with rain showers and some sun. As we travelled we spotted the sun shining a deep gold though a gap in the clouds. It was getting low in the sky. An hour or so later many of the clouds had cleared and we were able to watch the sun turn from orange to red, creating pink clouds in the pale blue sky. Finally the sky turned red and mauve.As we watched this spectacle we quoted the weather lore rhyme: Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight; red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning. We wondered if it would really be true and sure enough we woke to a sunny day with lovely blue sky.
No doubt that little rhyme has been known for many years and passed down the generations. Those who spend their lives on the land become atuned to nature and its rhythms. Many years of observation lead to useful wisdom which has helped farmers and so on to predict the weather and act accordingly. In Jesus’ time it was no different. The farmers didn’t have meteorologists to give them an hour by hour forecast of what was to come. Instead they watched for the signs in the sky, the feeling of the wind, the behaviour of the birds, and they knew what was coming. Their livelihoods depended on it.
Jesus drew his audience’s attention to how accurately they could judge the weather but how slow they were to recognise the signs of the kingdom of God among them in his own person. For us there are still signs to look out for. Jesus is no longer here exercising his ministry in the way he did for those very special three years two millenia ago but he’s still present in his followers. He faced opposition and his followers continue to do so all over the world to various degrees. The very fact that opposition and persecution continue is a sign of the growth of the kingdom.
Jesus warned that his message would bring division, even among our closest relatives. Jews who become Christians are often classed as dead by their relatives. The family may even conduct a funeral and erect a headstone, so thoroughly do they perceive that their family member is now dead to them. Muslims who convert are often pursued by their relatives and killed for bringing dishonour on the family. Choosing to follow Jesus can lead to rejection and much worse. In the twentieth century there were more Christian martyrs than in all the other centuries put together. If anything, the situation is getting worse in the 21st century.
In Pakistan the Islamic militants see the Christian minority as agents of the United States. Loudspeakers from a mosque incited one incident in which Christians were burnt in their houses. Houses were looted or destroyed and six members of one family were burnt alive, the youngest being just four years old. Many Christians are not able to get jobs or education as easily as their Muslim neighbours. Often those wishing to get rid of Christians simply use the blasphemy laws to bring false charges and then intimidate judges so that guilty verdicts are declared.
In China authorities attacked a house church in Fushan. The factory they ran was destroyed as were the foundations of a new church. Personal possessions were stolen – phones, books, clothes, money – and the business licence of the factory taken away. Bricks were used to beat church members who were sleeping on the site. Some of those injured needed hospital treatment but the local hospital had been told to withhold treatment and give no blood transfusions.
In India, militant Hindus blamed Christians for some Hindu deaths. They burned homes, schools, businesses and churches. They killed many people and drove many others from their villages. In Egypt Christians often have to meet in secret for fear of persecution. Those converting from Islam are not able to change their religion on their ID cards. This means their children remain officially Muslim and must be educated as Muslims. In Indonesia, Nigeria, Eritrea, Vietnam, Iraq, Tanzania and many more countires, similar stories of persecution and suffering can be heard. You can find out more from http://www.releaseinternational.org
This may all seem far away from where many of us live. I only have experience of the UK of course. Here we are beginning to see less tolerance of Christians in many ways. Christian organisations are asked to deny their ethos in order to be given grants to do good works. Individuals are having difficulties at work, with some suspecting that they have not been given the chance for promotion because of their faith. Wearing a cross or other symbol of faith is often frowned upon. These types of incident cannot possibly be compared to the huge suffering of so many people around the world but perhaps they are another sign of the times, a sign that persecution may grow even in what we might think of as tolerant or enlightened nations.
I have a friend, a priest, who says that when preparing to preach we should ask ourselves what the Good News is that we have to share. You might wonder where that good news is in what I’ve had to say so far. Perhaps the greatest news is that those who are suffering have a shining faith despite it all. Their faith seems to grow through persecution. Another positive is that Christians wouldn’t be opposed at all unless there was something real and effective about their faith.
Jesus suffered, he told his followers to expect suffering and his apostles counted it a privilege to suffer for the sake of the gospel. It’s not something new, as the passage from Hebrews shows us. But what we know is that we have a great cloud of witnesses who have passed through this life and now cheer us on. We’re urged to look to Jesus who spoke of his stress in anticipation of his crucifixion but who persevered to the end and triumphed. He knows what all who suffer are enduring.
It’s possibly not a pleasant thought, but it’s likely that many of us are too comfortable, suffering very little on account of what we believe. The most authentic witness often seems to come from a time of suffering. Pastor Richard Wurmbrand said: ‘Suffering torments some souls, and drives some to despair and even suicide. Others are grateful for it. I have seen faithful prisoners dancing for joy. They have recognised God as almighty and in patience they show love toward the evil men who torture them. They know this love of God is irrefutable, it will conquer.’
It seems that same truth was discovered in the huge suffering of the Jews and others during World War II. This prayer was discovered in the clothing of a dead child at Ravensbruck concentration camp:
Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But, do not remember all of the suffering they have inflicted upon us: instead remember the fruits we have borne because of this suffering – our fellowship, our loyalty to one another, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble. When our persecutors come to be judged by you, let all of these fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor