Standing up to persecution
7th After Trinity Mark 6: 14-29 Ephesians 1: 3-14
If you look at the entire course of the church’s history, you will soon see that the majority of Christians across the world have at one time or another been persecuted. Go back to the first three centuries of the church and see how believers suffered under the Roman Empire until the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD. Look at the church in Saharan Africa and the Middle East and how it was almost completely obliterated by the advance of Islam from the 7th century onwards. Consider the tragic history of the Reformation and the counter-Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries, and how Christians persecuted each other. Those are just a few examples of persecution over the centuries.
And of course persecution is a terrible reality for many Christians even today. It has been estimated that “Up to 200 million Christians today are living in situations where they face discrimination, persecution or oppression because of their faith in Jesus. That’s ten percent of the worldwide Christian population”. Our gathering here this morning would in many countries of the Middle East or Asia be deemed illegal. Your attendance here would be noted by the police, and information passed to your employers, your teachers, your family. Your right to decent housing or a suitable job would be severely curtailed. In some cases you would be thrown in prison, in others you and your family would be subject to bouts of apparently random violence.
But it couldn’t happen here, could it?
I don’t want to be too alarmist but there is growing evidence of low-level harassment, discrimination in employment, loss of funding, restrictions on what we are and not allowed to say. Just this week it has been announced that the Sunday trading bill is about to be overturned to allow people to shop 7 days a week. The media seems to be carrying a constant stream of stories about people who have been sacked for wearing a crucifix, or offering to pray for a client. This is the reality of life in Britain in 2018, and it’s only going to get tougher.
So are you ready? When the crunch comes, will you stand up and be counted a follower of Christ, or will you simply melt away into the crowd?
Which leads me straight on to our reading for this morning, from the gospel of Mark. We must take on board that this gospel was written to Christians in Rome around 70-75AD who were suffering immense persecution. Mark of all the gospel writers’ mentions in the temptation of Jesus when he was in the wilderness that he was with the wild animals? Think gladiators, think lions, and think early Christians - you get the idea. In the collapse of Jerusalem in AD70 the Romans ran out of wood to crucify Christians so they nailed them to the walls of the city. It was a terrible time. And when Mark’s audience heard about the fate of John the Baptist - which of all the gospel writers, Mark describes in greatest detail - they could not help making comparisons with the experiences some of their own number had suffered. Mark’s account of John the Baptist’s death is an important lesson about what it means to make a stand for your faith, and the cost that may be involved in making that stand.
So, bearing in mind all that I’ve said so far, what can we learn from the life and death of John the Baptist? Herod’s father had murdered the innocents in Bethlehem when Jesus was a baby. Now his son allowed someone he liked to listen to, someone he underneath respected be executed because he made a rash promise to a dancer when we was probably drunk. Then he couldn’t lose face and back down on his promise to give her anything she asked for.
Sometimes we can get caught up in the moment, making promises we wish we hadn’t and sometimes making promises we have no intention of keeping. Sometimes we find ourselves in a situation we can’t back out of, it so often starts with the simple stuff, the odd gossip here the odd rumour there, then we want to back off but we also want to stay part of the in-crowd, if we make a stand now they will think I am a goodie-goodie. We know what we should be standing up for, deep down we know what is right and true, but like Herod we sometimes do not want to loose face. It is one of the many flaws of human nature that we have to do battle with.
Herod didn’t change, when Jesus was brought before him at his trial, he went along with the crowd when deep down he knew that Jesus was innocent. Rather than stand up for what was right he passed the buck onto Pontius Pilate. But enough of Herod, what about John, extraordinary birth, extraordinary life, extraordinary message – Repent and be baptised, and now extraordinary death.
We are not told what John said when the executioner came for him, but Mark leaves us in no doubt that John was a holy man, a righteous man and the kingdom of which he had preached and the forgiveness that he had offered would win in the end. It is an ugly, brutal story that offers encouragement to stand up for what is right and true and it offers us hope. If we dare to think about it too much it seems a daunting even impossible task, but we are not facing life’s challenges alone.
Paul in his letter to the Church at Ephesus said: ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his children through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. Did you get all that? Theologically one of my favourite passagesbut it is a bit difficult to understand when you just hear it like that. In the original Greek that is all written in two sentences, and so much packed in to them. So listen to the words of Paul in my own “easier to understand” version:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Why? Because in Jesus Christ he has blessed us with every spiritual blessing:
In Christ he chose us
In Christ he loved us
In Christ he saved us
In Christ he adopted us as his children
Chosen, loved, saved, adopted – those four words describe how God deals with us, how he deals with people who sometimes disobey him, who often disappoint him and who are certainly not perfect: He chooses us to love us and save us and adopt us as his own. He chose us at the beginning of time, before the world was created. From the beginning he chose to be on our side, in other words: to love us for God is Love. It is not what he does, it is what and who He is. LOVE.
What Paul said in his complicated sentences was that the all-knowing, all-present, Almighty God of the universe made himself small and came to us as a baby in Jesus Christ, giving himself as a sacrifice on Calvary, so that he could look at you and see you as holy and blameless and acceptable in his sight. No matter what happens to us and how we experience ithe never leaves us alone. God the Holy Spirit is with us, guiding, teaching, comfortingand reminding us that we are still his children. We don’t need to be anxious about tomorrow or what the future may hold for us. We don’t need to worry about standing up for what we know is right for we are the chosen, loved, saved and adopted children of God and he has promised ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’
No wonder Paul’s opening sentence is: ‘praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us , praise be to God . Amen.