From our Gospel reading, these words: Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?” Thus far our text.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

As you’ve heard, “Standing in Persecution” is the theme for this morning’s service. So let’s begin with a definition of “persecution”: The Miriam Webster Dictionary defines “persecute” as “to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; specifically: to cause to suffer because of belief.” Persecution, in its various forms, has been around as long as sin, and continues to be a serious problem all over the world.

But I need to be honest with you: I’m not really sure how big a deal this is for any of us here, personally. How much are we really persecuted for our faith? Compared to what Jesus had to experience, and compared to what many Christians around the world have experienced—and continue to experience— do we really even know what persecution feels like?

I recognize that we do experience some forms of persecution. Many believe our government is determined to undermine, even destroy our Christian faith. I suppose there’s some truth in that, but I do not believe that it has become a matter of blatant persecution… at least not yet. We continue to enjoy a level of religious freedom that very well may be unprecedented in the history of the world. We should count our blessings, and we need to pray and work for those freedoms to be maintained.

At the same time, we do live in a culture where some people look down their arrogant noses at those of us who they judge as being small-minded followers of myths and legends. Sometimes we might even be ridiculed for our beliefs. I am curious: how many of you feel like you have been publicly ridiculed for being a Christian? I have never personally experienced that, at least not that I can recall. If I have, it has been in a more subtle form of ridicule.

Honestly, I believe Satan sometimes uses this perceived threat of ridicule/persecution to make some of God’s children feel ashamed of our faith at times. We hesitate to publicly declare we are Christians, or even to share our faith with others in the hopes of being used by God to draw them into a relationship with our Savior, because we are afraid of how they might respond. What if they do ridicule us? What if they judge us as pushy, or narrow-minded? What if they verbally attack us?

Such fears can undermine Christian witness, and we need to challenge that mentality and urge and support one another in learning how to live out our Christian faith and convictions in the public square, willing even to suffer ridicule if necessary in the name of Christ. But the fact of the matter is that when we seek to live in the way of Jesus by living radically gracious and generous lives, and seeking to share God’s love through actions as well as words, God will draw others to Himself. And if we occasionally suffer ridicule or persecution, so be it. We need to stand strong together in mission.

Back to our starting point: Compared to what Jesus had to experience, and compared to what many Christians around the world have experienced—and continue to experience— we have a lot to be thankful for! You have heard, and will continue to hear, about the persecution Jesus suffered. And you have likely heard of the wide-spread and horrific persecution suffered by the earliest follows of Jesus. But I wonder how many of us are aware of how wide-spread and horrific persecution continues to be for many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world right now.

According to an organization called “Open Doors,” which seeks to serve persecuted Christians worldwide, on the average every month 322 Christians are killed for their faith, 214 church buildings are damaged or destroyed, and 722 forms of violence are committed against Christians in the form of beatings, rapes, imprisonment, abductions and forced marriages. That’s an average of over 1200 people persecuted for their Christian faith every single month.

Open Doors defines CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION this way: Christian persecution is any hostility experienced from the world as a result of one’s identification as a Christian. From verbal harassment to hostile feelings, attitudes and actions, Christians in areas with severe religious restrictions pay a heavy price for their faith. Beatings, physical torture, confinement, isolation, rape, severe punishment, imprisonment, slavery, discrimination in education and employment, and even death are just a few examples of the persecution they experience on a daily basis.

Here is just one example: February was a deadly month for Christians living in Egypt’s North Sinai, as seven Christians were martyred in about a three-week period. Nearly 120 families have fled the Sinai city of El-Arish as a result of the recent attacks, and many are now living in a refugee camp in Ismailia, 125 miles southwest of El-Arish.

According to The Pew Research Center, over 75% of the world’s population lives in areas with severe religious restrictions (and many of these people are Christians). Also, according to the United States Department of State, Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ.

So, if we are going to talk about “Standing in Persecution,” this needs to involve two things. First, we must be willing to stand strong against the various forms of persecution that we might face in our part of the world. Secondly, we must stand in support of our brothers and sisters in Christ who face very real and dangerous forms of persecution every day. We can stand with them in prayer, asking our Father every day to strengthen and protect them. We can also stand with them by supporting those who seek to be used by God to deliver them from persecution, such as Open Doors, the Voice of the Martyrs, and Samaritan’s Purse.

God’s children must stand together in the face of all types of persecution, from subtle ridicule to blatant acts of violence. We stand together in the strength of God’s presence, and with trust in Paul’s words from our Epistle reading: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.

   April 2019   
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