Persecution

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Next week we will begin the season of Lent. And yes, every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. It is closing time for our sermons series on the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes remind us that in our weakest moments, God is with us, blessing us. God is on our side. When we mourn, when we refuse to push others around, when we are filled with mercy, God is on our side. Some of these beatitudes mention human characteristics. Others talk about our condition. Still more consider our disposition. Today we conclude our sermon series by looking at how God blesses those who are punished by others for doing what is right. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

As has been our practice, we need to start by asking what it means to be persecuted. The Greek word we translate as “persecute” is διώκω (dee-o-ko), which literally means to make someone run away or cause someone to flee.

When I was a young man, probably in middle school, my older brother said to me, “When girls see you, they run.”

I responded, “Yeah, they run toward me.”

Women running away from me because they find my looks less than appealing isn’t persecution. Even what my brother was doing, I wouldn’t classify as persecution. That was teasing. A second meaning is to pursue someone in a hostile manner. Jesus specifically says that those who are persecuted, chased after, because of their righteousness are blessed.

We as Mennonites should pause a bit when we hear Christians today talking about being persecuted. Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe that religious persecution is alive and unfortunately well today. But much of what Christians in the United States call persecution today is an inconvenience, not persecution.

During the Protestant Reformation there was a lot of hatred between groups. Of course, it was hatred in the name of Christ! The Catholics didn’t like the Protestants, and the Protestants didn’t like the Catholics. But at least they had one thing in common. Nobody liked the Anabaptists! Recall that from the middle of the 16th century through the middle of the 17th century, somewhere around 2,500 Anabaptists were martyred for their faith. Our spiritual forbearers were drown in the river, burned at the stake, and beheaded. Some were placed in headstocks, others had tongue screws placed in their mouths. All because they thought that baptism should be the choice of an adult.

Even here in the United States, where we have “religious freedom,” many Mennonites have experienced persecution. Meeting houses and churches have been burned to the ground. Mennonites who refused to fight in wars were not permitted to sell their crops at certain granaries; some were tarred and feathered. That’s persecution.

That’s why I think that we Mennonites might want to help other Christians remember that just because everything isn’t as we would like it to be, that doesn’t make it persecution. If you are buying gifts in December and the store clerk says to you, “Happy Holidays,” that’s not persecution. If they refuse to sell you something because you are a Christian, that’s persecution.

Or one of my favorites was from the Christmas before last when Starbucks chose to not include the traditional pictures of Santa Clause, reindeer, and Christmas trees on their coffee cups and some Christians claimed that they were being persecuted.

You know, because Santa, reindeer, and Christmas trees play such an important role in the Christmas story, found in the Gospel According to Nobody.

If you are not permitted to live out your faith because someone forcibly or legally prevents you from doing so, that’s persecution. For instance, consider prayer in school. For a public school to not sponsor public prayer or to not have a paid staff person lead prayer is not persecution. It might be inconvenient and it might not be your preference, but that isn’t persecution. But if the school says that students are not allowed to pray in school, that is persecution. There’s a difference between not sponsoring prayer and not allowing it.

When we use the word “persecution” to describe every inconvenience we have to endure, the word loses something. And to be honest, I find it disrespectful to those who died for their faith, and even those who had to suffer financial and social costs. I may be just getting old, but I’m a little bit bothered when people use really strong language to refer to an inconvenience. For instance, sometimes my children will say that they are starving, you know, because they haven’t eaten in like three hours. No, you are hungry. Or after a favorite sports team loses, people say that they are depressed. I had a distant relative commit suicide last week after losing a battle to depression. No, you’re disappointed.

Starving? Depressed? Persecuted? I suggest we not use these words too lightly. Your coffee cup may not have Santa Claus on it, but my ancestor was burned at the stake. Please don’t cheapen their sacrifice.

I want to come back to a part of this verse that some people tend to forget about, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We can’t leave out the “because of righteousness” part.

I’ve heard many Christians quote this beatitude to encourage themselves and like-minded Christians in their work in times when they are feeling rejected by others. The other famous go-to passage is to paraphrase Jesus, “Remember, Jesus said that the world would hate us because it hated him first.”

I have shared before some of my interactions with very forward and pushy Christians. I at least attempt to be kind in my response to people I find to be absolutely rude. When people tell me things like the version of the Bible that I use is demonic because I don’t use the King James Version, when they tell me that I need to accept Jesus and be baptized in their church to go to heaven, or when people place door hangers on our church inviting our members to attend a thriving church with a strong program for children, I try to at least listen to them and smile nicely. Obviously, these things hurt my feelings, and I can get angry. And I try really, really hard to not respond in anger.

I don’t always succeed, but I try.

Not everyone will respond in a kind manner when told that they use a demonic Bible or that they are going to hell if they aren’t baptized in the right church and in the right way. So sometimes these pushy Christians are met with some pushback. Names are called, insults may be thrown. People get defensive. Anytime you question someone’s firmly-held beliefs, they may get angry.

I would argue, though, if you are telling someone some of these things that I have highlighted here and they push back a bit, you are likely not being persecuted for righteousness’ sake. You are being persecuted for being a jerk.

I read an article online this week about persecution, and it said that if people leave the room when you enter, if you are never invited out with friends, and if people don’t seem to enjoy your company, it might be that you are being persecuted for your faith. But check your deodorant first.

Jesus goes on in verse 11, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

One of the greatest persecutions of Christians in the early years came at the hand of the Roman Emperor, Nero. In 64 AD, a great fire broke out in Rome and devastated a large portion of the city. Some accounts claim that Nero started the fire himself as a way to clear out dilapidated housing. But when things got out of control, Nero needed a scapegoat. So who did he go to? Nero blamed the fire on this small, but growing, group of men and women who claimed to follow a resurrected, homeless Jew.

This is when we start to see Christians fed to the lions and killed in the gladiatorial arenas. Nero said something false about the Christians, and they paid for it.

But one of my favorite stories probably originated as gossip. In the first century, there were a number of rumors going around about these Christians. It was said that they practiced incest and cannibalism. Husbands and wives often referred to each other as brothers and sisters. And when they got together for a meal, they spoke about eating the body and drinking the blood of some guy named Josh.

Two take home points: We must remember that just because everything isn’t coming easy to us doesn’t mean we are persecuted. And just because people don’t like us also doesn’t mean that we are persecuted. But there are times and there are places where it is against the law to be a Christian. There are times and there are places where Christians are put to death. Just over two years ago, 21 Coptic Christians in Libya were beheaded by ISIS. Their only crime was being an infidel. I for one am proud of those Christians who refused to recant their religious convictions knowing that it may cost them their lives.

Blessed are the persecuted. When you are faithful, when you follow Jesus, God is there with you. When you love your enemies, and even your enemies don’t appreciate it, God is there. When you stay firm in your beliefs, even if it causes you to lose friends, to lose money, to lose social status, or even to lose your life, God is there.

Jesus finishes the Beatitudes by saying in verse 12, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

You know what, Jesus. You almost had me. But then you came along and said to rejoice in being persecuted? What’s up with that? And when were the prophets persecuted? There are two times in the book of Jeremiah where he uses the word “persecuted,” but even if they weren’t always respected, when were they persecuted?

Now recall that the Greek word dee-o-ko literally means both to cause someone to run or to chase after. I wonder if Jesus isn’t doing a little play on words here. Much like I turned it around when my brother said that girls run when they see me, maybe Jesus is saying that when people see your faithfulness in the midst of persecution, they will follow you, chase after you. Not with the intention of hurting you, but with the intention of learning from you.

Remember the story of the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia. Meserete Kristos Church began in the 1950’s as an effort from Mennonite Mission workers to set up hospitals and schools in this region. In 1974 a communist party came into power, and the Meserete Kristos Church of about 5,000 people had to go underground as religion was outlawed. They held their worship services in secret, baptizing under the cover of night. 20 years later, the church emerged and they had their first meeting in a stadium with an estimated 50,000 members. Today the Meserete Kristos Church numbers close to 500,000 people, making this the largest Anabaptist denomination in the world.

Blessed are the persecuted, for though some people may try to chase you away, others will run after you, pursuing you, as you run after Jesus

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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