Words can be very powerful, can’t they? I am often surprised by what reaction I have when I read the Bible. There are times when I find myself feeling reassured and comforted, times when I find myself feeling hopeful and expectant, and times when I find myself feeling challenged and encouraged – often in equal measure. But there are also times when I find myself feeling quite uncomfortable. Today’s gospel reading is one of those times. It’s hard reading.
Let’s consider the passage in the context of Jesus’ day. The Jewish nation believed their promised Messiah would overthrow their enemies and reign in victory and peace. Yet it was always God’s intention for Jesus to have to come twice; firstly, as the suffering servant who sacrificed himself for us all; and secondly, as the risen and exalted conquering King. Jesus confirmed to His disciples that His first coming would not bring peace but would instead cause dissension among families and friends. So challenging was Jesus’ message to status quo and the religious authorities in his day that they plotted to kill him and crucified him. Jesus came to transform lives by the power of his Holy Spirit. John the Baptist knew this all too well when he said, “I indeed baptize you with water … but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16) Given the great emphasis on family harmony and community in Judaism, Jesus’ words here would strike the hearers strongly. Extended family lived in the same household more frequently than today, although not everyone would have had in-laws present.
Jesus’ coming forced people to make a choice; you can either accept Jesus as your Lord, Saviour and Redeemer or you can reject him. It is probably one of the few truly binary choices in life; there can be no shades of grey when it comes to following Jesus. Nevertheless, we still have a choice. In choosing to follow Jesus, there was a possibility that some would have to pass through the refiner’s fire and know some measure of persecution. His followers needed to be prepared to follow him even in persecution or when encountering the unbelief in the world. Salvation has always been free, but it’s never been cheap!
In today’s context, we are incredibly blessed in this country to be able to live out our faith in freedom. There are no restrictions or limitations that prevent us from coming together in fellowship. Churches in general are still viewed quite favourably by most communities; our service to the community is recognised and in many cases appreciated. It can be difficult because of that to engage with this passage; persecution for our faith is not necessarily something we are personally familiar with. Christian values are gradually being eroded though.
It’s not the same in all countries though. For many years, I have been a supporter of a charitable organisation called Open Doors. Open Doors works in over 60 countries, supplying Bibles, training church leaders, providing practical support and emergency relief, and supporting Christians who suffer for their faith. In the UK and Ireland Open Doors works to raise awareness of global persecution, mobilising prayer, support and action among Christians.
Its website features country profiles along with a ‘World Watch List’ which is Open Doors’ annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme levels of persecution. To give you some idea, according to Open Doors the 3 most oppressive countries for Christians are:
- North Korea
In North Korea, Christians are considered enemies of the state because they dare to believe in a higher authority than the Kim family. The North Korean regime demands absolute loyalty and obedience, and the Kim family are worshipped like gods. Portraits of the Kim family must be hung in all homes and schools. The first words parents must teach their children are ‘Thank you, Father Kim Il-sung’.
If a Christian is discovered in North Korea, they will be arrested and imprisoned in one of North Korea’s terrible labour camps. In the camps, Christians are worked liked slaves and often tortured; most are never able to escape.
Afghanistan is a tribal society, and loyalty to your family, clan and tribe are incredibly important. Islam is seen as part of Afghan identity, and leaving Islam is seen as a betrayal by families and communities. It is illegal for an Afghan person to leave Islam.
Those who decide to follow Jesus in Afghanistan must do so in complete secret. Those who are discovered may be sent to a mental hospital – their families believe no sane person would leave Islam. They may also be beaten or even killed by family members, or members of Islamic extremist groups like the Taliban.
Islam is an important part of Somali identity, and for a Somali person to decide to leave Islam and follow Jesus is seen as a huge betrayal. Where the Middle East has the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Horn of Africa has the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab. This group has stated publicly that it ‘wants Somalia free of all Christians’.
Most Somali Christians keep their faith completely secret. If al-Shabaab find someone who has become a Christian, the militants will often kill them on the spot.
There are certainly many parts of the world in which becoming a Christian means severing all ties with family. Sometimes, these families have even conspired with the government in the person’s death sentence. In more tolerant countries, families may deeply resent converts, shunning them and disinheriting them.
With perhaps a couple of exceptions I don’t know anyone in this country who has faced serious persecution and oppression for their faith. We may have heard of “religiously motivated” killings on the news, but I don’t think the perpetrators genuinely represent the religion they profess to follow, and their acts of atrocity have been broadly condemned by all faith groups.
In my own life, when I first spoke to my mother about exploring a call into ordained ministry her immediate reaction was that she was very upset. From her perspective I had a great job which I was clearly successful at and enjoyed – so why on earth would I want to turn my back on that to enter into ordained ministry? It didn’t divide the family though and after coming to various services I was leading she begrudgingly accepted that “I was in the right place.”
What has kept people in the persecuted church going is their faith, even under extreme adversity and that’s precisely what the passage from Hebrews speaks into. It speaks of “others [who] suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
It’s a great reminder that we should not seek to live our faith simply based on our experiences in the here and now. We have to live our faith mindful of what happens next and the glories of heaven. We have to live our life in light of the first coming of Christ and what he accomplished but mindful of his second coming. Jesus distinguishes between those who will not see his crucial place at the centre of human life and history, and those who as his disciples are beginning to glimpse, however dimly, the meaning of it all. We are to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Amen