On 15th November, the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 116, 2 Corinthians 4, John 15:18-25.
Some years ago, a British company coined the slogan: “Does exactly as it says on the tin.” They intended to convey that, in a world of over-inflated advertising claims, they were telling the truth about their products. The slogan became so well-known that it has now passed into the language, meaning that something is exactly as it appears to be, or as it claims to be. Meanwhile the company in question has had to abandon the slogan in the cause of honesty as they sell products in tubs and tubes as well as tins!
Christianity doesn’t come in tins, tubs or tubes, but there is no doubt that the idiom: “Does exactly what it says on the tin” can be applied to it. No one can accuse Jesus of exaggerated claims or dishonest advertising. The first disciples probably didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for when they answered Jesus’ call to “Follow me.” Jesus made huge efforts to help them to understand just what the impact of following him would be. In the passage from John today he says: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” Reading on a little further to John 16:2 Jesus says: “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” And in John 16:33: “In the world you will have tribulation.” In Matthew 24:9 we read: “Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.” In many places we can find something similar to this from Luke 9:23: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Within families all will not be plain sailing for disciples: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” (Matthew 10:35-36). Indeed, in Luke 14:26 Jesus says: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
Although the first disciples may have been ignorant of the implications of following Jesus, no disciple since then can make that claim. We can read the gospels where Jesus’ own words about discipleship are recorded. As Jesus promised, pretty much as soon as he ascended, the reality of persecution became apparent for his followers. We can read the stories of those down the years who have followed Jesus and suffered as a result. We remember them on special days in the lectionary. Discrimination, wrongful arrest, torture and death have been the lot of Christians for two millennia. Martyrdom has been considered as a great privilege for a believer, bringing with it the promise of a heavenly crown.
For those of us who live in tolerant nations, it’s unlikely that martyrdom will be our end. We may suffer some persecution within our communities. Our families may think we are weird for believing the Christian message. Occasionally, people lose their jobs because their conscience as Christians won’t allow them to do something they are asked to do. That is probably as far as it goes. You might almost think Christianity does not do what it says on the tin!
St Paul was one of that first generation of Christians who learnt what Jesus had said would happen to his followers, and who experienced it first-hand. Reading his story in the book of Acts gives an insight into all that he suffered in the cause of a ministry which he recognised as a gift from God. Despite this, twice in the section of his second letter to the Corinthians that we have read today, Paul says, “we do not lose hope.” In the battle between the god of this world and the one true God, discouragement is one of the weapons used against Christians to plunge them into darkness and despair.
Christians in around 50 nations suffer regular persecution in various forms yet manage to hold on to their faith and hope. Alfa, a 92-year-old convert in Senegal, survived a fire sweeping through his village, killing a woman and two children and destroying homes, a church, livestock and food. Despite the Christians being mocked by nearby Muslims and facing starvation, he and others hung on to their faith. Even when offered food to convert to Islam, they refused. Alfa says, “I believe that God never abandons his children.”
Among those 200 or so teenage girls who were kidnapped from Chibok in Nigeria last year comes another story of faith in the face of great pressure. The Boko Haram militants forced the girls to convert to Islam and it’s thought that many were married to Boko Haram fighters. Monica stands out in that group. She refused to renounce her faith. Her captors buried her up to her neck and stoned her to death.
In Uganda, George Mwanika is left to care for eight children. George is a convert from Islam and had been warned to return to Islam. One day a group of attackers went looking for him. When they didn’t find him, they murdered his wife. His brother Samson was also killed for being a Christian. George continues to receive death threats. He fears for his life and that of his children but he is standing firm in his faith. He said, “We are seeking God’s protection and his peace. May God give me the courage to continue sharing the love of Christ to those who are lost.”
St Paul recognised that we are fragile beings, jars of clay, but he also recognised our glorious future. He looked beyond what he could see to what awaits us beyond this life. Monica’s parents have taken comfort by doing the same. Her father, a pastor, says, “To die for the sake of Christ – that’s the happiest thing for me. I’m grateful she didn’t change her religion. She trusted in God.” Her mother is sure that Monica is now safe in heaven as she chose not to convert.
Today, as we sit comfortably behind our computer screens, thousands upon thousands of Christians are suffering for their faith. Their courage in the face of persecution is a challenge to us all: a challenge to uphold them in prayer; a challenge to live out our faith boldly; a challenge to deal with the difficulties of life from the perspective of eternity.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor