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Then Simon Peter interrupted, "Did your other followers have to learn this?"
...And Jesus wept. Uh-huh.
Funny? It was the young Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard who came home from church one Sunday after hearing the Beatitudes preached and asked, "Why did no one laugh? Was no one listening?" The unusual question was raised to call attention to the truth that these "Blessed are's" are not what we might expect.
What, after all, is particularly "blessed" about being poor, whether we think of material poverty or poverty of the spirit? How can one be considered fortunate in the midst of mourning or being meek, especially in a world that believes only the strong survive? Why would anyone be congratulated for being hungry or thirsty, much less hungering and thirsting for righteousness in a contemporary world of different appetites? Mercy? If valued at all, it is more as an ideal than a practice, and when called for, that person, more often than not, is thought to be mushy-minded, fuzzy-headed, or without nerve. Making Peace? Real peace? Not a peace one attempts to enforce with a gun (or a vote, for that matter) - that is not only hard, frustrating, and often futile work, but frequently will lead you to being mocked, called overly idealistic, unrealistic and even unpatriotic. Try being a true peacemaker; you will soon understand what being persecuted because of righteousness is all about. No wonder Kierkegaard expected a guffaw; he knew these assertions in our world are simply laughable. (1)
And now we come to the final Beatitude in our study: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." How laughable is that? Just like all the other Beatitudes: upside-down, inside-out. Almost nonsense. To us it would be far more plausible if we would read, "Congratulations to those whose pleasing and gentle lifestyle does NOT result in persecution..." After all, the Beatitude just before this one says, "Blessed are the peacemakers..." and what kind of peacemaker are you when you are somehow encouraging people to be less than peaceful toward YOU? It is not natural. But as we have been seeing through all the Beatitudes, none of them are natural. And because these attitudes are not natural, they cannot really become our character traits as Christians by working on them. As we have said over and over again, these are not so much SHOULD-BE-attitudes, but rather WILL-BE-attitudes once we have our spiritual head on straight. They are descriptions of the truly consecrated Christian.
Speaking of laughable, as I read and read and read in preparation for this sermon, a lot of the commentary and sermonizing on this one was laughable (if not "cry-able"). Much of it reflected some sort of blessing for the persecution that comes from being SELF-righteous, and that surely does happen. And deservedly so. One sermon (one of the better ones) noted a preaching instructor in seminary who used to listen to tapes of students' sermons from their pulpit assignments, if they so desired, so that he might offer hints for improvement. The teacher told of the time that he was talking with a student pastor who was bragging about the loss of members in his church since his arrival there. The young minister-in-the-making told the professor that the reason the people were upset and leaving was because he was a "prophetic" preacher. The prof quickly responded saying, "No, based on what I heard on your audio tape, it's because you're obnoxious." (2) Unfortunately.
As we know, from the beginning, those who professed faith in Christ were indeed at risk. There are incidents throughout the Book of Acts, for example, that reflect the problem. In chapter 4, Peter and John are hauled before the Sanhedrin following the healing of a lame man and their subsequent preaching. In chapter 5, the apostles were arrested and put in jail, but in the middle of the night, the jail doors were miraculously opened and our heros went back to the Temple to continue their preaching. In chapters 6 and 7 we find the arrest and murder of Stephen, the Deacon, following trumped up charges of blasphemy. In chapter 8, we have the account of a church-wide persecution and the escape of believers from Jerusalem through Judea and Samaria. The list could go on and on, but you get the point. As we know, regardless of persecution, the church continued to spread, but so did the attacks. By the time we come to the book of Revelation, we read an encoded account of the persecution that was rampant throughout the Roman empire during the reign of Diocletian along with a divine affirmation that it would not ultimately succeed, and, as we know, that is the way it turned out - the Roman empire is no more; the church of Jesus Christ continues to this day.
The empire-wide persecution of the church continued until the early fourth century when the Emperor Constantine was converted. From that point on, the officially-sanctioned attacks ceased, and wags have insisted that the church has gone downhill ever since. That is certainly worthy of further discussion, but time would fail us if we attempted it here.
Of course, there is still plenty of persecution of Christians around the globe today. In yesterday's paper, the headline appeared which read, "UN rushes aid to Christians chased away from Mosul." (3) The article told of some 13,000 Christians run off by threats and extremist attacks, a number that represents over half the community in a city where Christians have lived since the early days of the religion. Mosul, the second most populous in Iraq, is the site of the ancient biblical city of Nineveh and home to one of Iraq's five Presbyterian-Reformed congregations, this one established in 1840. Hard times. Hard times.
Two weeks ago, the New York Times reported from Borepanga, India that the family of Solomon Digal was summoned by neighbors to what serves as a public square in front of the village tea shop. They were ordered to get on their knees and bow before the portrait of a Hindu preacher. They were told to turn over their Bibles, hymnals and the two brightly colored calendar images of Christ that hung on their wall. Then, Mr. Digal, 45, a Christian since childhood, was forced to watch his Hindu neighbors set the items on fire. "Embrace Hinduism, and your house will not be demolished," Mr. Digal was told. "Otherwise, you will be killed, or you will be thrown out of the village." (4)
In truth, in many places on the globe, most especially in the Middle East, it is dangerous to profess your faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Millions and millions of Christians around the world live in societies that are openly hostile to their faith. "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Most of the persecution tends to be openly political rather than religious (with a few Islamic-fundamentalist exceptions). The attacks on Christians in the Balkans, in sub-Saharan Africa, and so on, are only nominally religious in nature - religious affiliation is used as a pretext for assaults. This is not persecution for the sake of righteousness, this is persecution for the sake of politics.
Speaking of righteousness, remember that, in the understanding of the Bible, righteousness is not tantamount to blamelessness, as we in our society might think of the word. If you remember our study of the Beatitude that says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," righteousness is a relationship word. Once again, Eugene Peterson gets it right in his paraphrase of the beatitude: "You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution." (5)
Perhaps no one in our day modeled that better than Martin Luther King, Jr. A half century ago, Dr. King preached a sermon in which he read from what he called a newly-discovered epistle from the apostle Paul to the church in America which he had just finished translating. (6) It was not only wonderfully creative in its approach, but wonderfully insightful as well. Paul (channeled through Dr. King) began by reflecting amazement at the scientific and technical advances of the 1900 years since his last letters, but soon lamented that those technological improvements had significantly outpaced any gains in our ethics and behavior. As he neared the end of the epistle, he began to deal with the subject that was dominating the news of the day - race. Listen:
Many persons will realize the urgency of seeking to eradicate the evil of segregation. There will be many Negroes who will devote their lives to the cause of freedom. There will be many white persons of goodwill and strong moral sensitivity who will dare to take a stand for justice. Honesty impels me to admit that such a stand will require willingness to suffer and sacrifice. So don't despair if you are condemned and persecuted for righteousness' sake. Whenever you take a stand for truth and justice, you are liable to scorn. Often you will be called an impractical idealist or a dangerous radical. Sometimes it might mean going to jail. If such is the case you must honorably grace the jail with your presence. It might even mean physical death. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing could be more Christian."Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." By the way, if you are not sure how political this Beatitude is, note the blessing - "the kingdom of heaven." That phrase does not leap out and slap us in the face because we live in a democracy, but those who live in a monarchy and those who lived under the powerful thumb of a Caesar or a Herod would have noticed this reference to another ruler right quickly. And remember as well, Jesus was not crucified because he was a nice man; he was crucified because he was a political threat.
I am sure you noticed that this final Beatitude is the only one made personal with an addendum. After Jesus says that those who are persecuted because of their right relationship with God will be blessed with a kingdom that transcends any this world has known, he adds, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Jesus makes this personal, so we should hear it personally.
When is the last time you experienced persecution because of your relationship to the Lord? Most American Christians would have to say never. The old question is asked again: "If being a Christian were a crime here, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" No, the church in this nation, and indeed throughout the developed world, suffers not active persecution but bored indifference. Attention is only paid to us when we battle among ourselves over hot button sex issues or another leader is exposed for some egregious criminal behavior.
Do you want to experience the blessing of persecution because of your relationship to the Lord? Probably not, unless you are a masochist. None the less, think what it got you in 2002 when, based on your Christian concern, you opposed going to war against a vastly overmatched enemy who had not attacked you. Think what it got you when you decried the torture of prisoners of war by your own government, the ones who were supposed to be the "good guys." Think what it gets you when, based on your understanding of God's concern for the "least" among us, you agitate for universal health care, or you raise your Christian voice against discrimination based on race or age or gender or sexual orientation. Go ahead, open your mouth in the name of Jesus. See what it gets you. Jesus says it will get you the same thing that those who previously opened their mouths in the Lord's name got. Dr. King comes to mind again. The question is, regardless of those anticipated consequences, can you, as a Christian, keep quiet?
Presbyterians have always spoken up. The one caveat would be this that comes from a General Assembly paper in 1966 called "The Theological Basis for Christian Social Action." (7) The paper notes that rarely do we find an unambiguously "Christian" solution to the complex political, social and economic problems we encounter, but that does not let us off the hook. We read,
The church and individual Christians will choose from the available solutions that one which seems most clearly to point in the direction of the will of God. To say nothing and do nothing because no single solution is perfect, is not to take a Christian position, but silently to support whatever status quo happens to prevail, or to leave change entirely to others - and thus refuse altogether to try to bring the will of God to bear on the life of the world."Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Indeed. Hear the Beatitude one last time in phrasing of Eugene Peterson: "You are blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God's kingdom. Not only that - count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens - give a cheer even! For though they don't like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble." (8)
1. Fred Anderson, "Why Did No One Laugh," sermon preached at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, January 30, 2005, http://www.mapc.com
2. Dale Tedder, sermon, "Persecuted for Righteousness' Sake," http://members.aol.com/OrthodoxUM/Persecuted.html
3. Warren Times-Observer, 10/25/08, A-6
4. Somini Sengupta, "Hindu Threat to Christians: Convert or Flee," New York Times, 10/12/08
5. Eugene Peterson, The Message, (Colorado Springs : NavPress, 2002)
6. MLK Papers Project Sermons: "Paul's Letter to American Christians" delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on November 4, 1956, © The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
7. Minutes of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church in the United States, 1966
8. The Message