Holding firm in the face of threat

Pentecost 25

Luke 21:5-19

Marian Free

Holy God, in good times and in bad, give us the confidence to believe that you have our welfare at heart. Amen.

I don’t know if your can imagine what it would be like to come to church unsure if you would make it home alive, or what it would be like if you could not work because you professed a faith in Jesus, or how it would feel if your family, feeling that your loyalty to them had weakened, felt no need to protect you against discrimination or worse – handed you over to those who might take your life. That it is what it is like for many, many Christians in the world today.

On July 29 this year, four bombs hit two churches in Kano, Nigeria. Forty five people were killed in those attacks. Many churches in the northern parts of that country are protected by high walls and other security measures, but that does not keep worshipers safe from those who would ram vehicles laden with explosive into the gates, or from the snipers who would target worshippers as they leave the compound. Christians in Nigeria have been the targets of attacks since at least 2009. On September 22 this year a suicide bomber struck an Anglican church in Peshawar in Pakistan just as the congregation were leaving the service. At least eighty four were killed, including many children, and up to 200 people were injured.

Coptic Christians have been targeted in Egypt since the establishment of military rule because of a belief that they supported the overthrow of the President. For months now there have been demonstrations in Indonesia against the appointment of a Christian to a Government position in a largely Muslim area of Jakarta. This, despite the fact that the Indonesian constitution protects religious freedom. In all these instances, and in many others, believers have lost not only their places of worship, but also their friends and family members. It must be terrible to live under such constant threat. In such situations believers require both faith and courage to persist in the practice of their faith.

It is difficult to imagine what it must be like to know that attending church may be a fatal decision. What must it be like to return home from church knowing that your wife, husband or children had been killed simply because they chose to join you in worship on that day. From our position of relative acceptability and respectability, it is difficult to conceive what it must be like to feel under constant threat because of one’s faith. Yet not only is this a reality for today’s Christians in many parts of the world it was also (albeit to a lesser extent) the reality for the Christians whom the New Testament addresses.

In the first century, the systematic persecution of Christians had not yet begun but there were many ways in which believers could feel persecuted and isolated. Their profession of faith increasingly set them apart from members of the Jewish faith and prevented them from socializing with their Gentile neighbours. A belief in one God meant that believers could not participate in worship of the Emperor which put them at risk of being accused of treason and being unable to take part in the worship of Greek and Roman gods excluded them from the trade guilds and therefore prevented them from working at their chosen professions. Early believers could feel vulnerable, oppressed, isolated and at risk.

Today’s gospel addresses such a situation. Jesus, is looking forward to the future and suggests that it holds a number of possibilities – the destruction of the Temple, the possibility of wars, earthquakes, famines and plagues, and the likelihood that those who choose to follow Jesus may experience exclusion and persecution. He suspects that the unifying symbol of Judaism (the Temple) will fall, that life will continue to be filled with trauma, disaster and conflict and that those who choose to follow Jesus can expect a life of rejection, conflict and discrimination. Even those who might be expected to protect them (their families and friends) will abandon them to their fate, or, worse, actively hand them over to the authorities.

Jesus is aware of the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem and he has the foresight to warn his followers that their association with him will lead to similar consequences – betrayal, being handed over to the authorities and being put to death. He does not promise that because of their faith their lives will be saved or that God will be able to protect them from harm – just the opposite. He knows that following him will almost certainly put the disciples on a trajectory of conflict with their families, their friends, with the synagogues and with the rulers. Just as he cannot escape his destiny, so his followers must accept that their own lives may be in jeopardy if they continue on this course.

Jesus offers no false hopes, he does not pretend that being his disciple will lead to acceptance and respect. He tells it how it is. Life will remain very much the same – there will be no end to warfare and natural disaster. Believing in him will not mean that those who believe will be spared the tragedies and trials of this life. In fact, it might even make it worse. The disciples are to be under no false illusions as to what the future might hold. That said, persecution will provide an opportunity to bear witness and Jesus himself will give them words to say that not even their opponents will be able to contradict. Furthermore, and most importantly, if they hold fast they will preserve their souls. Whatever may happen in this life, their eternal life is secure. If they hold fast to God, God will hold fast to them.

The key to understanding this passage then is perseverance and promise. Life does not always work out the way we had hoped or planned. Our faith does not provide a guarantee that we will be protected from the difficulties and calamities that are part and parcel of human existence. We are assured however, that God will not abandon us, and that if we keep faith with God we will inherit eternal life. Our faith may not provide protection from the exigencies of this life, but it does give us the fortitude to accept what life throws at us and the confidence that a better life awaits us.

It is this confidence that gives our fellow Christians the courage to go on when they do not know whether the next time they worship will be their last. Those who live in places where persecution is a current reality can find the resolve to continue knowing that Jesus did not promise a life of ease and comfort but rather predicted that violence and hatred were a reasonable expectation for those who followed him.

We will almost certainly not experience persecution as a result of our faith. Our church is unlikely to be bombed and we will not be beaten up in the street. We are among the blessed, we have homes, enough food to eat, peace and security. Our tragedies are of a different kind. Believing “that not a hair on our head will be lost” gives us the courage to hold fast when our child dies, when our home is swept away by flood or when we are diagnosed with a terminal illness. Our faith does not waver in the face of disaster because we know that in the final analysis nothing is more important than our relationship with God and our eternal salvation.

Thank goodness our faith is not put to the test in the way that it is for so many throughout the world. Thank goodness we can worship without fear and go about our business unimpeded. May God give us strength and courage to face the ups and downs of our lives and may we remember daily in our prayers those whose faith places them in constant danger and whose courage and steadfastness in the face of persecution is an inspiration and challenge to us all.

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