Today, we joined congregations around the world in recognizing the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. I hadn’t become aware of the very real persecution that millions of Christ followers face every day until about ten years ago. Until that point, I had just assumed that persecution was something that happened during the Roman Empire and then occasionally in the wilderness by savages (not unlike the story of Jim Elliot and colleagues); but that’s it. I didn’t realize how widespread it really is.
Since my eyes were opened, I believe one of my God-given callings is to help raise awareness within the local church about how real persecution is and how we have a responsibility to support, encourage, and pray for our brothers and sisters who face persecution every day for believing the same thing that we do here.
After today’s service, a friend came up to me and told me that I had opened her eyes. She had no idea persecution was going on to the extent that it is. Praise God! That’s one more person who has been mobilized to support and encourage those facing persecution.
I have spent many hours researching real-life stories and looking for real-life ways we can support the persecuted church. I’m not bringing this up to say “Oh, look at me – you’re so lucky that I did this.” No, I mention it only because I have found so much information and so many helpful ministries that there was no way I could cram all of it into a 20-25 minute message (by the way, if you want to listen, go ahead and click here to listen). Over the next few days, I plan on adding more stories and links to ministries – so check back often!
Imagine what it would be like if you went to work one morning and came home to discover that everything you owned had been intentionally destroyed in a fire. Imagine finding out that you had been targeted by the community because you had chosen to follow Christ. Imagine your friends and neighbors experienced the same thing on the same day. In all, imagine 61 people being injured and over 500 people losing their homes in the attacks. Sounds like something that would have happened nearly 2,000 years ago when the early church faced systematic persecution at the hands of Rome, right? In an age of supposed age of tolerance and acceptance, attacking someone because of their faith sounds like something from the Middle Ages, doesn’t it? This event didn’t happen 2,000 years ago, 200 years ago, or even 20 years ago. This story of the systematic destruction of the homes of Christ followers happened less than 2 months ago in northern Nigeria. False charges were brought up against the minority group of Christ followers as an excuse to harass and persecute them. The “attackers burnt down all eight church (buildings) existing in the community, homes and businesses in the area, displacing innocent victims.” (VOM – News)
Or imagine you’re a missionary. You’ve established a business school to equip future entrepreneurs to establish small businesses. In the process, you also share how you have chosen to follow Christ when the opportunity arises. You know you have to be careful with how and when you share your faith because although the government claims to allow freedom of religion, that is hardly the case. Christian students attending universities have been threatened with expulsion. Several pastors have been exiled, beaten up, heavily fined, and imprisoned. And congregations have been intimidated and forbidden to meet. Participation in these illegal church meetings has resulted in fines, the seizure of family possessions, and reductions of salaries. Most of the other missionaries have already been expelled from the country. What do you do? A friend of mine we’ll simply refer to as Paul recently faced such a situation in central Asia. After months of harassment and false accusations from the local police, his business school has been forced to close – not only affecting his ministry presence but severely hindering the economic future of his students. In all likelihood, he and his family will have their visa revoked and will be expelled from the country.
We’d like to think these are merely isolated incidents. We’d like to think that in an age of ‘tolerance’ and religious freedom; the persecution of Christ followers around the world is something that only happens on the rarest of occasions. Unfortunately, that is not the case. It is estimated that this year alone, between 160,000 and 173,000 Christ followers will die at the hands of their oppressors. And over 200 million followers of Christ will be persecuted, arrested, tortured, beaten, or jailed. In many nations around the world, it is illegal to own a Bible, share your faith, change your faith, or allow children under 18 to attend a religious service (VOM – Prisoner Alert). Persecution of the church is not just a few isolated incidents, but it is happening to many Christians around the world right now. If I did my math right, as we meet here this morning, nearly 20 people will be killed for the same reason we have gathered here this morning – following and worshiping Jesus Christ.
And this is just what Jesus said would happen. Turn with me to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 6. Luke is one of the four accounts we have of the ministry of Jesus Christ while on earth. It’s found after Matthew and Mark, before John and Acts. If you don’t have your Bible with you, you’re welcome to use the one in the pew in front of you. Luke 6 is found on page in that Bible. Jesus has recently called his disciples to follow Him. To leave everything they had and join Him in establishing God’s kingdom on earth. And they do. They leave everything and follow Him. As they travel around the countryside, Jesus heals many people, casts out demons, and works other miracles as well. He also teaches what God’s kingdom is supposed to be like. This passage in Luke 6 is part of one of Jesus’ larger sermons usually called the Sermon on the Plain, because – well, they were standing on a level place when Jesus started to teach about the kingdom again. Just like the Sermon on the Mount was on a mountainside, the Sermon on the Plain is on a level place. As Jesus is describing what it looks like to be part of the kingdom of God, it’s not what everyone thinks. It’s not a glamorous activity. In fact, he says in the first part of his sermon that following Jesus will be difficult. It could even cost you everything you have. Read Luke 6:22-23
Following Jesus is not always an easy task. Yes, He said His yoke is easy and His burden is light. But He also said things like this – “People are going to hate you and persecute you because of Me.” It’s not exactly the kingdom of God the Jews were expecting. And for many of us, I don’t think it’s the picture we like to paint when we invite others to follow Christ, is it? “Come, follow Jesus. People will hate you, hurt you, and want to kill you.” But for now, that’s part of the deal. And Jesus makes it very clear from the beginning of His ministry – things are going to be tough, but God will be glorified through them.
And so after Jesus has been crucified, come back to life, ascended into heaven, and established His church – is it really any surprise that they faced persecution from the religious and political leaders of the day? Of course not! But when you look at the circumstances surrounding the birth of the church, you could very easily think that public reaction against Jesus and His followers would have caused the early church to disappear into history. I mean, look at what they faced. You could be arrested for talking about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many were stoned, beaten, imprisoned, and murdered in an attempt to get the Christ followers to stop talking about Him. And then Rome stepped in. And if there’s one thing Rome knew how to do well, it was how to make dying a sport. It’s well-known that Christ followers would be sewn into animal skins and tossed into pits of lions, in order that they may be torn apart for public amusement. There are also accounts of Emperor Nero dipping Christians in oil, lighting them on fire, and using them as live human torches to light his dinner parties. The punishments for following Christ could be strange, sick, and twisted. And the remarkable thing is that as the persecutions increased, the numbers of those who chose to follow Christ increased exponentially.
As we see in the book of Acts, Paul was once a persecutor of the early church. He ‘breathed murderous threats’ against the early church. But in a dramatic example of the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the persecutor became the persecuted because he had become a follower of Christ. On several occasions, he was beaten, stoned, and left for dead. Sometimes, there would be rioting in the streets because of his message. And he was thrown into prison on numerous occasions. And every time he experienced hardship, his example served as an encouragement to the rest of the believers. Listen to what he told his friends while he was in prison – Read Philippians 1:12-14
Paul’s imprisonment served as an encouragement to those who knew the persecution he faced. Paul served as a reminder that the call to follow Christ is the call to give up your own life. And they faced the all-too-real threat of losing their lives for the sake of the gospel. Taking that threat into consideration, they continued to proclaim Christ with boldness. And the gospel continued to spread. God’s kingdom continued to grow.
Living here in the United States, it is likely that we are not going to face the threat of being imprisoned for the gospel. It’s fitting that today is not only the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, but it is also Veterans Day. It is a day for us to remember the sacrifices made so that we could continue to be the land of the free – including the freedom of religion and the freedom of assembly. Because of those guaranteed freedoms, we don’t face the threat of a government systematically seeking to destroy our faith and crush our beliefs like is happening in many countries around the world today. Although there is no immanent threat to our life, the examples of our persecuted brothers and sisters remind us to remain bold in our faith. If they can continue to live in obedience to Christ under the threat of death, we can face whatever persecution we face with that same strength and peace. No matter the form of persecution – rejection, harassment, or even death – the call to take up your cross is the call to follow Christ with reckless abandon of our own will and desires.
According to Voice of the Martyrs, there are more Christian martyrs from the 20th century than from the preceding nineteen centuries combined! That means the infamous age of persecution under the Romans discussed earlier did not produce as many martyrs as our current age. The hostility towards Christians has continued to increase, in spite of the common idea that this is an age of tolerance.
If you really think this is an age of tolerance, tell that to the 5 million Sudanese Christians who have lost their homes and possessions and remain ‘refugees’ in their own country because of the assaults of radical northern Islamic forces that have been occurring since the mid-90s.
If you really think this is the age of tolerance, tell that to the Christ follower in Iran who started a tailoring business to make ends meet. She shared the gospel with three young ladies as she taught them to sew. One of the ladies’ parents were not happy about this. When her family found out about her Christian faith, they began to beat her and threatening her if she didn’t leave her faith. They told her, “If you don’t return to Islam, we will keep beating you until you die.” This young lady didn’t want to give up her faith, so she ran away. Her parents began looking for her and immediately went to the businesswoman, thinking she was hiding the young lady. They told her that if she didn’t send their daughter back to them, they would close down her shop and would arrange to have her killed. In Iran, as well as other Islamic states, the penalty for converting from Islam is death – so, in the government’s eyes, they had the right to have her killed.
One day while she was working in her shop, the young lady’s family barged in and broke all of her equipment. Ladies from the family started beating her. They kept telling her she forced their daughter to turn away from Islam. They eventually went to the police and she was taken to court because of all that happened to her. The judge said she was the guilty one and she would not be able to have any of her equipment fixed. He also said the persecutors had the right to attack her, and if she continued spreading the news of Christ, he’d come down on her more severely the next time.
If you think this is the age of tolerance, tell that to the people in China who are not allowed to own a Bible, Christian literature, or even participate in a church other than the official state-church. They are forced to meet underground – in homes, caves, wherever they can – so they can praise God together and evade the police who do not allow such acts of faith. Our brothers and sisters in China are often harassed, arrested, beaten, fired form their jobs, locked in labor camps, and sometimes even killed for their devotion. Yet the gospel continues to spread. Daily, the house-church movement continues to grow. As China tries to tighten its grip in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, the churches in China multiply daily!
You may be asking, “So what? What does that have to do with me right here in east central Indiana?” Well, it has everything to do with us right here, right now. As a follower of Christ, you are part of the Body of Christ – and that’s not limited to just the people in this room. The Body of Christ is worldwide and growing every day. And just like our physical bodies, when one part of the Body of Christ feels pain, we are all affected. In the final verse to his letter to the Colossians, Paul encourages them to “Remember my chains” (Col. 4:18). The call is the same to us today. As we are part of the Body of Christ, we need to remember the chains of our brothers and sisters around the world.
So what can we do? Most of the persecution is half a world away. It’s not like we can all hop in a jet and go over there, demanding that the persecution stop. The first thing we need to do is the most important thing we can do. We need to continue to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world. Pray that they may continue to be bold in the face of persecution. Pray that God will continue to give them strength and peace in the midst of the dangers they face. And we need to continue to pray for their protection, as well.
Another way to get involved is to send resources to our persecuted brothers and sisters. In many of these countries, owning a Bible or piece of Christian literature is illegal. In spite of the danger they face, these growing Christ followers are starving for the Word of God! They are begging for someone to continue sending Bibles and other resources to them so they can continue to grow in their faith and live their lives with confidence in the face of persecution. (Open Doors gift-matching…$4 Bibles)
We also need to continue to encourage missionary efforts in the persecuted areas. In the age of technology, where an image or a video can be sent around the world in a matter of seconds, there continues to be entire regions of the world that have barely been penetrated by the gospel of Christ. The need for support of overseas missions could be greater than it has ever been before. Next week, we’ll have an opportunity to hear from one of the missions we support at Cowan Christian Church – Ron Morse will be here from the North Burma Christian Mission. I believe he will be able to challenge in ways that I cannot because he has seen the persecution first-hand.
We also need to allow the example of our persecuted brothers and sisters challenge us to take our faith more seriously. They are a startling reminder that the price of following Jesus Christ is not cheap. It’s not a road that can be traveled lightly. There will be trials and persecution of all kinds. In the end, it could cost us everything – even our lives. It’s the example of our persecuted brothers and sisters that encourage us to press on towards the prize, knowing full well the costs involved. It is with that same confidence that we face the perils of following the Lord in all things.
In our workplaces, neighborhoods, the marketplace, homes, and everywhere we live our lives, may the boldness of the persecuted church serve as an example to us and empower us to preach the gospel at all times in all circumstances, regardless of potential punishment. May we continue to remember the chains of Paul and all of the Christ followers who have faced persecution because of their faith in Him.
*I’m sure you can tell from the audio that I’ve been battling a cold for the last few days. To tell you the truth, when I woke up Saturday morning, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to talk on Sunday. Fortunately, my voice improved (some). I promise, I sound much worse than I actually felt! I did happen to follow everyone’s advice after the service and just go home and take a nap. Sunday naps are great, aren’t they?