Sunday, July 24, 2011


Thanks to the work of Dan Clendenin, David Lose, "Starters For Sunday," Mary Hinkle Shore, and Paul S. Berge.

Accounts of modern-day persecution across the world are taken from the website of International Christian Concern,

Genesis 29:15-28
Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country — giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."
He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

Romans 8:26-39
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced 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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

No one is really sure how the church in Rome started. Catholic tradition holds that the Apostle Peter started it. Other scholars think that, on the day of Pentecost, some of those who responded to Peter’s message of salvation in Jesus Christ had been pilgrims from the Jewish neighborhoods in Rome. Returning home, they shared the good news of the Messiah, and the church grew.

Whatever the case, life wasn’t easy for these Christians. Already hated for being Jewish, they found themselves more and more distrusted by their friends and family in the synagogues of Rome. What’s more, they lived in the very heart of the Roman Empire, a culture which welcomed the religions of all people, with one stipulation: once a year, every Roman citizen had to offer incense in worship to the god Caesar. And while Julius Caesar himself had exempted the Jewish people from this act of idolatry, as the Christian congregation grew to include people from outside Judaism, these new members found themselves experiencing increasing persecution, increasing pressure to compromise their newfound faith in the one true living God, in favor of this one small act of conformity, the pinch of incense to Caesar.

A rich man could have bought his way out. After all, one simply needed a certificate signed by a priest of Caesar, saying the act of worship had been completed. But the Good News attracted those needing hope. Slaves. Women. The desperately poor.

What’s more, by the time Paul wrote his epistle to the Roman church, the Emperor Nero had assumed power, and it was obvious to anyone with a pulse that this Nero was a raving lunatic. Things could only get worse. Though these Christians didn’t know it, the horrible persecutions which would follow the burning of Rome were less than a decade away.

Imagine not knowing what to do. Quietly sneak out to the nearest temple of Caesar, make the offering, get the certificate, and hope no one in the congregation noticed? Or stand firm and wait for their master or some Roman soldier to take note of the lack of certificate, and face the terror of the Roman judicial system? Leave your family, already malnourished and scraping by day by day, without any means of support? How do you pray about such a thing? How does hope function in that place where it’s no longer an intellectual pursuit, but a matter of life and death?

It’s hard for Western Christians to comprehend, this idea of our faith being a matter of life and death. Believing in God is still socially acceptable, and, for many of us, the idea of attending church, the idea of being a Christian, is the expected norm. We tend to look at people of other religions, or no religion at all, in the same way that the average Roman looked upon the Christian during the first three hundred years of the Church’s existence – with suspicion, distrust, occasional hostility, and perhaps a tinge of fear.

Yet for many, many modern-day followers of Christ, many here-and-now residents of the Kingdom of God, worshiping Jesus Christ means risking exile, imprisonment, torture, and even death.

In Vietnam, the government continues to pursue “Plan 184,” a systematic process to persecute Christians. Montagnard Christians, particularly, continue to endure torture, imprisonment, beatings, and even forced renunciations of their faith and death at the hands of the Vietnamese government.

In Pakistan, some one hundred and fifty Christians are currently in prison for breaking harsh anti-blasphemy laws. Even Muslims who disagree with the law are in danger. The governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, was gunned down after denouncing the law. His killer was cheered and showered with rose petals as he was led into court.

In Iran, the Supreme Court has upheld a ruling which forces Evangelical pastor Yosef Nadarkhani to choose between renouncing his Christian faith or be put to death by hanging. His attorney, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, faces nine years in prison and a ten year ban from practicing law for his efforts on Yosef Nadarkhani’s behalf.

On July 10, the All Christian Fellowship Mission church in Suleja, Nigeria was bombed by extremists as members were leaving Sunday service. Three people died in the blast.

It is to this that our Epistle reading this morning speaks three great words of enduring, eternal hope.

The first hope is the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is always present even in our sorrows because the Holy Spirit prays with us and for us to God. What’s more, the Spirit is active when we don’t know what we need… and even when we do not know we have a need! God knows, even when we do not!

The second hope is the hope of God’s providence. The idea of being predestined here is not about some being “in” and others being “out” – too many theologians have spent far too much time on this idea, coming up with convoluted explanations of things like “double predestination,” where those who are doomed to Hell go there no matter what, and the Elect are chosen whether they like it or not. Rather, the Word assures us that God is present in all the matters of this life. Our past, present and future are arenas of God’s action on our behalf.

The third hope is the reminder that God’s providential history is shaped by the cross of Jesus Christ. In the gift of the Son we realize that God is always and absolutely for us. The text does not deny that there are principalities and powers, forces that seem strong and sometimes destructive as well. People have been getting arrested, imprisoned, hated, beaten, and killed for the sake of Christ since Day One. But these powers can never separate us from God’s love.

You may have noticed that I am using the words “we” and “us” a lot, and in light of how I painted we who are Western, American Christians at the outset, it may seem odd. If this word is primarily for those being persecuted, or having to make difficult life decisions for or against belief in Christ, why not use “they” and “them?”

Hear the Word of God from our Epistle reading this morning: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.”

“…the firstborn within a large family.”

The message of the Kingdom of God is not one of a replacement of empire, not a new kind of governance or a different way of thinking. We are a family, all of us, and – even more than that – a body, bonded together in the deep and abiding love and grace of God in Jesus Christ. In this context of the Kingdom of God, we cannot, no matter how much we try, no matter how our denominations or creeds or doctrines or theologies differ, no matter how many miles are between us, no matter how many oceans separate us, ever be “us” and “them.”

When one of us is persecuted, be it in Pakistan or Turkey or Egypt or Mexico, we all are persecuted. When one of us is not free, be it in Saudi Arabia or China or Vietnam, none of us are free. When one of us is beaten, be it in Mexico or Nairobi, all of us feel the blows.

So when one of us is silenced, the rest must speak. When one of us is restricted, the rest must move on their behalf. Speaking the truth to power, acting in ways which enhance the lives of the downtrodden, forgotten, neglected and marginalized, these are all Kingdom actions! Suffering is not some kind of Stoic exercise in endurance, hoping that someday things will be better. No, that suffering is a call to action. After all, we are, as a body, as a cohesive unit, as a Kingdom, not simply called to be “more than conquerors,” we already are more than conquerors! This idea that Paul has talked about elsewhere in the Book of Romans, this concept of sharing in the sufferings of Christ, has a point to it! “To preach the Message of good news to the poor, …to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, ‘This is God's year to act!’” (Luke 4:18-19, Message)

But let’s be honest: maybe we don’t endure persecution. Maybe the closest thing to hate we experience is someone disagreeing with us over infant baptism. But we do suffer. Sometimes quietly, and sometimes everyone knows, but we hurt. And I know I cannot speak for you, but there have been times in my life where I have wondered if God still loved me.

If you take nothing else away from this sermon today, take this: the answer to that question, for me and for you and for everyone is a resounding, emphatic, enthusiastic “yes!” Nothing can ever separate us from God’s abundant, extravagant, effusive, ebullient, exuberant, overflowing, unconstrained, and unreserved love! Not death, not life, not angels, not presidents or kings or bosses or juntas, nothing in the present or in the future, not powerful people or things or thoughts or movements, not height, not depth, nothing anywhere ever no matter what, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Take that joyful Good News, and live in it… and give it out, all the time, out there, beyond these walls and that door, to everyone, everywhere.



  1. Just what I needed to hear. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for stressing the concept of family, one body in Christ. It is so easy to lose sight of our responsibility to others when they are not our neighbors, much less someone we know and care about. But when we realize that we are all one family under God, our love can grow...We realize that we are responsible for speaking out on the behalf of the persecuted, for showing love even when it is not the favorable response. When we all begin to act as the "firstborn within a large family", heaven help those who have never been overwhelmed by love because that's what will be coming for us! all of us.

  3. I wonder if there is a speck/plank lesson in here. Not that the persecution of Christians internationally does not occur (it does) and not that it is not horrible (it is) but rather: what can we do in those instances except talk about it and blog about it and feel sorry (or righteous) about it?

    All the while, Christians actively persecute others right here, in our home country, in the name of our Christ, on our turf. Christians protest (and try to stop) the building of a Muslim community center. White Christians foster a culture of violence on the news with extremist talk about "taking" our country "back" from "those people." Christians tell LGBTQ people that they are sick, perverted, sinful, separated from God. This soul-crushing spiritual violence feeds directly into real-life violence toward LGBTQ people (including self-inflicted harm).

    And so yes, we can acknowledge and reject the violence happening to Christians a world away, but we can't do much else about it. What we can do, and perhaps what we need to focus more on, are the ways in which WE are the oppressor, the ways in which Christianity is a dominant and violent force in the lives of many people in the USA and Christianity-fueled American imperialism is a violent force in the lives of many people internationally.

    I'm more interested in the ways I can take action than the things I can righteously pontificate on which are outside of my control (or at least outside of that which I am actually going to engage).