Today, someone, somewhere in the world, will lose their life. It will not be as a result of hunger or disease. It won’t be a result of their age or infirmity. The loss of life will result from religious persecution. And they will not be alone. This tragic reality will be repeated over and over again, in many countries around the world.
This morning we begin a new series of messages. The theme is – Voices of Faith, and the topics in the series will be – In the Marketplace, In the Family, in the Political Arena, and this morning, Under Persecution.
There are many Scripture texts that we could reference this morning. We could turn to the book of Revelation, which is often understood as primarily referencing the future, but was written to strengthen and encourage the early church, which was experiencing a great deal of persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. In the early service, as the Call to Worship, I read the following passage from Revelation, which I often use at funerals, and which is one of the lectionary texts for today – Revelation 21:1-6 –
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."
6 Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
The text I have chosen for this morning’s message is I Peter 1:3-9. Peter was no stranger to persecution, as he was arrested on more than one occasion, was beaten, and eventually he lost his life as a martyr at the hands of the Roman Emperor. In our recent series of messages from the book of Philippians, I remarked several times that it was obvious Paul was near the end of his life, and that realization was a powerful factor in shaping the message of his letter. In Peter’s letter, there is also the backdrop of persecution, and while it doesn’t use that word in this passage, it is obvious as he writes –
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you,
5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy,
9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
1. The Reality of Persecution.
Perhaps you have seen the symbol in the picture above, which has become widely used on social media in recent months. The symbol is the first letter in Arabic for Narani, which means Nazarene, and was a designation that ISIS fighters began using last summer for Christians, as followers of Jesus the Nazarene. The symbol was painted on homes where Christians lived, or formally lived.
As ISIS fighters moved through Iraq and Syria, they began a violent purge of Christians from communities that had a Christian presence for many centuries. In some cases, ISIS gave Christians a matter of hours to flee their homes or face death. If they fled, they could only take with them a few items, leaving behind their homes and most of their belongings. As a way to express solidarity with those Christians being persecuted by ISIS, Christians around the world have taken up the Narani symbol.
According to a report by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, one-third of the world’s popluation (2.2 billion people) live in areas of the world where religious persecution increased between 2006 and 2009. (you can find the report at this link –http://www.pewforum.org/2011/08/09/rising-restrictions-on-religion2/). And some estimates, indicated in other research, put that number as high as 2/3.
While not all countries are experiencing this rise in religious persecution, it is becoming a daily fact of life for people of faith in the most populous countries, with two of the biggest offenders being China and India. China has been vigorous about cracking down on the house church movement, as the government fears the move toward freedom and independence that are natural outgrowths of the message of the Gospel. China, which is officially atheistic, only allows worship to take place in state-approved churches, which probably number somewhere in the amount of 20 million people. In the state-approved churches there are often government representatives present in the worship service, listening to what is said and monitoring that activities that take place. In contrats to the state-approved churches, it is estimated that 60 million people – and possibly millions more – worship in the house churches, which operate without government approval and whose leaders are often subject to harrassment and arrest. Chinese authorities have destroyed countless churches, often coming in the middle of the night with equipment to tear down the buildings.
The Middle East, obviously, is one of the most dangerous places in the world for those who are Christian, or members of other minority religions. ISIS, certainly, has become one of the primary threats throughout the region, but it is often government authorities who aid in religious persecution.
2. The Gospel Challenges Power.
Several years ago I read a fascinating article about some research that connected Christian missionary work and the rise of democracy around the world. The researchers discovered that where missionary work had taken place there was a corresponding rise in the spread of – or desire for – democracy. This should not come as a surprise. The gospel asserts that all people are created as free individuals, are meant to live in freedom, and are endowed with a God-given right to worship – or not worship – as their conscience dictates. Democracy and freedom is what happens when people hear the message that God has created all people as equals and that he desires that they live in freedom. Paul writes in Galations 5:1 that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
We were not created to live under oppression, or to be pawns of political bullies and tyrants. The early church faced much persecution because this message of equality and freedom made Rome uneasy. The Roman Empire was not interested in sharing power with anyone – even God. And, they were not about to allow freedom and democracy to threaten their grip on power.
3. Faith,Hope, and Love Wins.
The Christian faith was born under persecution. The theme of persecution is alluded to in many of the writings of the New Testament. I recently offered a series of messages from Paul letter of Philippians, which was written while he was in prison, awaiting execution at the hands of the Roman Empire. The book of Acts tells us the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and of how, on that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison (Acts 8:1-3).
Peter was no stranger to persecution. The book of Acts tells us that he was taken before the Sanhedrin for trial (4:1-22), that he was imprisoned (5:17-20), beaten (5:40), and imprisoned again (12:1-19). In this morning’s Scripture text, he writes that in this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine (verse 6-7). Peter is saying that even in persecution there is some kind of benefit that can be found. Who among us has not said, I wish I didn’t have to experience that difficulty, but, through that difficulty I learned…? It is the triumph of faith that can find something good, and even beautiful, even in the midst of suffering and persecution.
This is a lesson that persecutors do not learn – you cannot overcome thepower of faith, hope, and love. These great qualities of faith, hope, and love – the triumverate of Christian values – hold within them the greatest power on earth, and no amount of persecution can ever overcome them. This is what led the great church father Tertullian to proclaim that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. As much as the persecutors of the church tried to defeat it, they could not do so. No power held by an earthly kingdom can defeat the power of faith, hope, and love.
When Tanya and I were in St. Peter’s Square last May it was interesting to note the presence of an ancient Egyptian obelisk in that square. What in the world is that object doing in that location? That obelisk is one of a number located throughout the city of Rome. They were brought there by Roman emporers as a way to demonstrate their political might. To take such an object from another kingdom, another military power, was a way to show Rome’s superior military and political might.
Interestingly, that obelisk was probably one of the last things Peter saw as he was crucified. And look at what occupies that vast territory now. What was once a symbol of the might and power of Rome has now become one of the centers of the Christian faith. Not far from that location, at the Colloseum, a cross now stand in the place where the emperor’s seat was located. It would have been inconceivable, two thousand years ago, for anyone to imagine that a new religion, heavily persecuted by Rome, would not only survive, but thrive. The vast Roman Empire, which dominated the world, is long gone, but the Christian faith persist.
The Christian faith was born under persecution and has not just survived, but thrived.
4. Our blessing of freedom.
As we gather for worship this morning, and as millions more gather for worship across our country, we must remember that we are historic anomolies. For most of the history of our faith, people did not enjoy the freedom we enjoy to worship according to the dictates of our conscience.
Not one prevented us from attending worship today, and no one compelled us to be here.
No one will tell us how, or how not, to worship.
No one will tell me what to preach or not to preach.
No government regulators attend our worship.
No one will tell our congregation what we can and cannot do.
We need no government approval for what we do.
No one will threaten us for being here.
As Americans, we enjoy the gift of religious freedom, a bedrock principle of our society, but we cannot forget our brothers and sisters who do not enjoy the luxury of living their faith without the fear of persecution.
Perhaps we cannot fully appreciate what we have always had, but we must always advocate for the freedom of others, especially the most basic right of all humanity – the right to religious freedom.