Persecution: A Christian Tribulation
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Our text is the Holy Gospel reading which was read a couple of minutes ago.
Brothers and sisters in Christ last Sunday we heard Jesus tell us that in this world we will have tribulation, but to take heart, since He has conquered the world and earned us the victory. In today's Gospel reading, Jesus identifies persecution for His sake as a uniquely Christian tribulation.
The original setting in which Jesus uttered today's Gospel was the night when He was betrayed, just after the Last Supper, like several of our Gospel readings for the Sundays after Easter. He was preparing His disciples for His upcoming departures—His first departure was His suffering and death on the cross when He would depart the land of the living and dwell in the tomb; and then after He rose on Easter and dwelled with His disciples for forty days after His resurrection, His final departure would be in His Ascension to sit down at the right hand of God the Father, which we celebrated this past Thursday evening.
Jesus prepares His disciples for these departures by promising them that He wasn't abandoning them, that He wasn't leaving them as orphans. He promised before His death that He would see them again and bring them great joy, and then He promised before His Ascension that He would be with His disciples always through His Word and Sacraments, even though they wouldn't be able to see Him, and He promised to send the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to bring to mind everything He had said to them; the Holy Ghost would remind them of all the promises Jesus had made, which would give them strength for their ministry and keep them from falling away in the midst of persecutions that would come from the unbelieving world that hates Jesus and His Father.
But the Spirit couldn't be given until Jesus had died, risen, and ascended, so He wasn't with the apostles for Christ's first departure, His death, and we see in the story of Christ's Passion how poorly the disciples fare without Jesus and the Holy Spirit being with them. Jesus predicted that if the Shepherd would be struck down, the sheep would be scattered, and that's exactly what happened to those apostles. Even though Peter and all the apostles promised Jesus, "Even if all fall away from You, I never will," they had all fled for their lives; they had all fallen away in the face of being persecuted for the sake of Jesus. And that is the way it had to be, not only because Jesus had predicted it, but especially because only Jesus, acting alone, could answer for the sin of the world.
When our salvation was at stake, no other man could help; Jesus had to go it alone. All the sins of the world hung on the Man hanging on the cross. And when He died, He satisfied God's wrath against your sin and took your guilt into the grave, where He left it. Jesus rose on the third day to declare you righteous, holy, redeemed. Then, before He ascended, He gave His apostles the mandate to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins and to deliver salvation to sinners by Holy Baptism. And He told the apostles to teach future disciples everything that He had taught them, and ten days later, on Pentecost, He gave them the Holy Spirit to empower their ministry and bring to mind everything Jesus had taught.
One of the things that Jesus brought to their minds was the teaching of today's Gospel reading about being persecuted for the sake of Christ. He said, "I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. 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." Just as the unbelieving Jews thought they were serving God by killing Jesus—they thought He was a blasphemer and needed to be eliminated—so also would unbelievers continue to persecute and even kill Christ's disciples. They would face persecution first at the hands of the unbelieving Jews, then for several centuries from the Romans, then several centuries later from the Muslims, and the list goes on right down to this day in many parts of the world.
Jesus said that the Church would follow in His footsteps and be persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Earlier in John 15, He 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. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me." In other words, when Christians get persecuted for the sake of Christ, it's not caused by someone's personal hatred against the Christian, but it's the result of the unbelieving world's hatred of the One True God. Satan is the prince of the sinful world, and he is inherently anti-God, so we have a bulls-eye of sorts on us because of our allegiance to Christ. If the world and devil persecuted Jesus, how could we expect anything different for ourselves?
Jesus said another time to the apostles, "Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 10:17-22). Jesus here promises that even when Christians are persecuted, the Holy Spirit Whom Jesus poured out upon the Church would bring to mind all the things Jesus had promised in the Gospel so that first the apostles and then Christians of all ages could make a bold confession of faith even in the face of persecution.
As we read through the Acts of the Apostles, we see this persecution of the Christian Church almost from day one. In Acts 5, St. Luke tells us that the earliest Christians did not meet this persecution with fear, but in fact, they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Christ. In Acts 7 we see St. Stephen become the first martyr, losing His life for confessing Jesus as the Christ, the Savior of the world. We see him dying confident of his salvation and even praying that Jesus would have mercy on his persecutors (if that sounds familiar, remember that Jesus prayed from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"). Now you would think that persecution would have snuffed out Jesus and the early church, but Christ rose from the dead victoriously and the early Christians knew that oppression could not keep the Gospel down. In spite of all the persecutions, the Word of the Lord continued to draw more and more disciples into the Church.
In Acts 9 we learn that all persecutors of the Church are fighting a futile battle, as Saul (also known as Paul) found out firsthand. On the road to Damascus, Jesus manifested Himself to Saul, who had been persecuting the Church, and the Lord said, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" Here is the deep mystery of Christ in His disciples and with His disciples. Since Jesus said that He is with us to the end of the age—since He tells us that we are united with Him through Baptism and faith—this means that when anyone attacks Christians for their faith, they are actually attacking Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth. And what has always kept Christians from falling away and renouncing their faith has been Christ's presence with persecuted Christians, and the Holy Spirit's comforting words in the Gospel.
Jesus promises the same gifts to us when we face persecution, but widespread physical violence and deprivation of rights against Christians just doesn't seem like a very likely prospect in the United States, does it? Yet Christianity's favored status in our country is diminishing with each generation, so we must not be lulled to sleep by Satan's lie that persecution could never happen to us. We've seen a rapid de-Christianization of our culture in recent years, and only God knows whether or not the pace will accelerate. Like the first generation of disciples, we must be prepared to suffer for the name of Jesus Christ. The question is: are we prepared for such tribulation, or have we become sleepy and unaware? If we can't even hold the line on basic moral issues, then will we be able to stand firm when the Gospel itself is attacked? Is our commitment to Christ only skin deep, or does it run through our veins?
You sometimes hear people who grew up in harsher times talking about how soft we have become today — how spoiled we are with indoor plumbing, AC, food from grocery stores, access to good healthcare, and all the creature comforts that we take for granted, even though most generations in human history haven't enjoyed them. There is a parallel point to be made with Christianity in the United States — we have never experienced persecution for our faith, so there is a danger that we have become soft, spoiled, and lazy. But for the first Christians and for many throughout the centuries, their lives were filled with persecution for their faith. The apostles and many of the early Christians suffered under Jewish and then Roman persecution; then after Constantine legalized Christianity and eventually it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, persecution all but stopped for a time. But then came the barbarians, then the Muslims. More recently, in the 20th century, the communists persecuted Christians mightily. Stalin had over two hundred thousand Christian clergy executed, besides the millions of Christians he killed. We need to realize that there is no guarantee that the Constantinian-like protection we have enjoyed in the United States will go on much longer, especially with the rise of the religion of war and hatred, Islam a satanic cult of more than a billion people. "Slay the infidel!" is the rabid cry of Muslims when they actually follow what their Qu'ran says. Thanks be to God that the majority of Muslims don't practice the violence that their "holy" book calls for.
But there are some! Recently we have seen entire Christian communities being wiped out by Muslims in places in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. The danger of a democratic form of government is that when the majority of citizens in a country are adherents of Mohammed's religion of hate, they will oppress anyone they consider infidels. As Mohammed famously said, there's only room for one religion in Arabia, and since his day, Muslims have applied that principle to the whole world: there is only room for Islam. Wherever they are in the minority, they generally play nice and get along until they grow and gain influence, but once they gain sufficient numbers and power, they crush anyone who won't submit to their wicked idol Allah's supposed will.
Now I can't see into the future, so I don't know if you and I will ever be persecuted in a severe way for our faith, whether at the hands of Muslims or a secularist government. At a minimum, we will face ridicule from unbelievers, and it is possible that the federal and state governments will strip away some of our religious liberties, but these sorts of light persecutions are a far cry from what Jesus predicts when He says, "the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God." While we should never seek out martyrdom, and we should give thanks for the peace that we enjoy here, we also need to be ready should persecution come. And this is specifically what we pledge at Confirmation. Confirmation vows don't promise a limp-wristed, halfway commitment, but a full-blooded confession and willingness to stick out your neck for Jesus. As the confirmands pledged last weekend, by the grace of God, all of us should continue steadfast in our confession of Christ and in His Church and suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it!
I don't know if we will face persecution, even to the point of death, for being a disciple of Jesus, but I can tell you this: if that persecution does come, it will be a blessing to us. And this is perhaps the area where we are in need of reorienting our thinking the most. According to our Lord Jesus, blessings often times come in the shape of crosses, not in the shape of earthly peace, health, and prosperity. St. Peter says in our Epistle, "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." And Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:10-12).
No matter what comes in life, because of Christ's presence with us, because of the promises that He makes in the Gospel — the promises that the Holy Spirit comes through the Word of God to continually remind us of - because of our Lord's grace to us, we have nothing to fear. "The Kingdom ours remaineth." As we prayed in the Introit, the words of Psalm 27: "The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" The answer is: we need not fear anyone, or any persecution, or any afflictions in this life; instead, we have the Lord's promise that even the heaviest crosses we bear are working together for the good of those who are called according to His purposes. As St. Paul puts it so wonderfully, "I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39). Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.