May 2, 2002
Sixth Sunday of Easter

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21


"What's The Reason?"
1 Peter 3 13-22

When is the last time you underwent serious persecution because of your faith?

This question usually brings raised eyebrows in this land of , "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness..." where we affirm that every person has, "...been endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights."

We don't get persecuted for our faith in the West - do we?

Actually, there are people who live in our country who have been persecuted. Muslims around the country will tell you that they endured insult and rejection during the period after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Nevertheless, the policy of our nation, our laws and our cherished position is that every person has the right to practice their faith and worship as they please without interference.

This is not the case in many places in our world. The Christian Science Monitor carried a story relating the horror many have endured because of their Christian faith - frequently at the hands of governments.

In Boston, Sudanese refugee Francis Bol Bok has perhaps the most compelling story of all. Enslaved in Northern Sudan by Muslims as a seven-year-old boy for 10 years, he was beaten almost daily for his Christian beliefs. Mr. Bol Bok finally escaped in 1996.

Margaret Chu recalls the 23 years she spent in Chinese labor camps because she refused to renounce her Catholic faith. The hardest times, she said, were when she was forced to labor for 18 hours a day harvesting rice. Food was sometimes limited to grass or rice husks. Still, she prayed daily, using her fingers as a rosary, and somehow survived. "Here I have real freedom to believe in God, but my heart is still left behind in China with my friends still under the pressure," she says.

Mina Nevisa understands persecution this all too well. Her ordeal began one afternoon in 1982, when as a 17-year-old Iranian student, she felt something under a table at the Teheran University library. She reached down and pulled out a Bible, the first one she had ever seen written in her native Persian. Curious, she stayed up for the next two nights reading the book with a flashlight under a blanket, despite warnings from her father, an Islamic fundamentalist priest.

The discovery soon led to Ms. Nevisa's conversion to Christianity, denunciation by her parents and family, and - after the arrest and killing of members of her prayer group - her secret flight from Iran. In Europe, she received death threats after writing "Don't Keep Me Silent," a book about the persecution of converted Christians in Islamic countries. So in 1998 she moved again, to the United States.

***

The fact is that most of us have not endured any real persecution because of our Christian faith. Nevertheless, it takes place in several parts of our world and was simply a part of Christian living in the earliest church.  Our reading from 1 Peter is written to Christians who are regularly suffering persecution for their faith.  Although we are not certain of the date of the writing of 1 Peter, there are many who believe the persecution took place under the Emperor Trajan. (Which means the epistle may have been penned by Peter's amanuensis Sylvanius.)

Whether it was Trajan however, or the earlier Emperor Domitian, there is some compelling correspondence between Pliny the Younger, a governor  of one of the Roman provinces and the Emperor Trajan as Pliny tries to figure out what he should do with his investigation of Christians. The letter is written between 111 - 113 A.D. Pliny writes:

"... in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished."

1 Peter is addressed to Christian people who lived with the threat of death for their faith. And yet, rather than squelch the church or even slow down its growth, persecution actually resulted in a stronger, faster growing church. 

The book of Acts tells the story of persecution which broke out in Jerusalem under the leadership of Saul, who would later become the Apostle Paul. Paul stood by approving the death of Stephen, the very first Christian martyr. The writer of Acts reports, "...a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria." [Acts 8:1]

And what happened to the Christian faith?  Did it cease to exist? Did frightened Christians withdraw from the world and from the life of faith?

The story in Acts shows a persecuted church thriving and growing - even more so in the face of persecution.  "Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. [Acts 8: 3-4]

As a matter of fact the fierce enemy of the church, Saul himself was converted shortly after the death of Stephen and he became the chief missionary force for Christ in the early years of the infant church.

But persecution did not end with the end of biblical days, it was "on again, off again" in the first three centuries of the church's existence -- yet, the church never ceased growing. If nothing else, those early centuries are testimony to the power of God's Holy Spirit in the lives of the followers of Christ.

One of the strong leaders of the early church was a man named Tertullian, the son of a Commander of a Roman Legion. He was born in Carthage, North Africa in 150 AD. On the way to becoming an influential lawyer with all the advantages of Roman society's elite, he became a Christian and was one of the strongest voices for religious toleration and a powerful advocate for Christians in the young church.  It was Tertullian who first wrote that persecution only caused the faith to grow. He wrote that, the persecution of the church by the Roman authorities actually strengthened the Church of Christ: "It is bait that wins men for (our) school. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow: the blood of Christians is seed of the church."

***

What of the church in our time? In our town?

We do not live with a price tag on our heads because of our faith. And that is a good thing. ---  Isn't it?  None of us would be happy to see persecution like that which took place under the Emperor Nero or Trajan break out again.

At least most of us would not.  I do remember a pastor from years back who said  to the congregation one Sunday morning as he lamented what he saw as a lack of commitment in the modern church, "What we need these days is another good round of persecution where we would have to put our lives on the line for our faith!"

How would you respond to this idea?  Would you move or second the motion?

Actually some writers including C. S. Lewis have suggested that the devil shifted tactics in persecution. "Don't make it hard for Christians. Don't persecute them.  Make it easy to be a Christian... even respectable."  So the logic went in the malevolent mind of the Enemy.

In light of this "shift" in what it cost to be a Christian, it might seem as though the words of 1 Peter written to a suffering church would not have all that much to say to we modern Christians.  But this supposition would be wrong. There are two significant teaching that come from our text that need to very much play a part in our lives as contemporary Christians.

[1] We need to always be prepared to give a reason for our faith in Christ. The text reads, "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you..."  The world may not demand an accounting of our faith the way Pliny demanded an accounting and a renunciation of faith -- but there is still a need for Christian people who can articulate the faith in terms of how it brings great hope to our lives. It is true that we do this with our words - but it is also important (maybe even more important) to do it with the actions of our lives... important that we bear a sense of hope in Christ even in the tough times.

When you remain hopeful in the face of trial, your faith speaks volumes!

And remember the words immediately following the injunction to be ready to give an accounting of our faith. "... do it with gentleness and reverence." In other words the kind of "in your faith evangelism" we've frequently seen in our time - does not attract people to Christ, but turns them off.

Clue number one for a vital faith.  Remain hopeful in the face of trial and be ready to express or articulate  that hope when people want to know where your strength comes from.

[2] No matter what may be going on in the world around us. Whether we are living under terrible persecution, with tough circumstances or in relative peace -- the final outcome of all things is certain.  Listen once again:

"Jesus Christ... has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him."

To those early Christians, the message was, "No matter who is in power on this earth and no matter how much they may do to hurt and even kill us - Jesus Christ is even now at the right hand of God and every power and every authority shall one day answer to him!"

The message remains the same for you and me today. Times have changed, worldly powers have come and gone, circumstances are radically different. But this one thing has not changed. Jesus Christ is even now at the right hand of God and every power and every authority shall one day answer to him!"

And that is why we are faithful and hopeful - no matter what!


The three stories and more can be found at the Web Site of the Christian Science Monitor in an article on persecution of Christians.

The full text of this correspondence between Pliny and the Emperor Trajan is available. The site is maintained by the University of Pennsylvania.

See more on Tertullian


Notes On The Text

Connections in the texts

There is a common theme of "witness"   in the lectionary readings for today. 1 Peter asks us to "Always be ready to make your defense...  for the faith that is within you."  We are to "sanctify Christ in our hearts" and "keep our conscience clear."   Jesus asks his followers in the Gospel lesson to keep his commandments. While John focuses on the inner life of the disciples, it is this grounding in love for Christ that is the foundation of Christian witness.  In Acts, Paul gives witness to the people of Athens (without much response) and says God now asks "all people everywhere to repent."  (Bring their lives in line with the "commandants Christ gave.")   The Psalm of the day affirms, "I will tell what he has done for me."

John 14:15-21

* Loving Christ is the key to a vital relationship with God.  The "great commandment" is to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind." (Mk.12:30   Love of God is the vehicle by which God has access to our inner lives.  Keeping the commandments of Christ is the outward manifestation of this inward love.

* The inner voice (still, small voice - 1 Kings 19:12) is the voice of the Spirit which leads and guides.  The "outer voice" is the one connected with my perception of and reaction to the world. Taking time to reflect or "counting to ten" when angry is simply a way to still the outer voice long enough to let the inner voice have a chance.

* "If you love me...." Not a conditional clause in the rhetorical sense... "If you love me you will...  but if you don't love me..."  There is congruence between the believer's love of Christ and keeping of the commands / words of Christ.  To love Christ is to keep his commandments -- to keep his commandments is to love him. (Gail R. O'Day in   NIB)

* The "Advocate"  = "Paraklete in English or / paraklhtos - literally "one called near" - advocate, helper - thus the widely used, "one called alongside to help."  Comes from parakalew - "to call near" or "to call along side of".   The intent of Jesus here is to say that although he will not be present with them to teach, encourage, lead and shepherd, he will send "another"  paraklete (helper, leader, encourager etc.) to be with them for all time.  The key is another.   The Spirit who is to come and live within them will be present for them when Jesus is gone  -- the Spirit will be what Jesus would be for them  -- if he were here in the flesh.  It is important to understand that we can not "connect" with this inner Christ without getting in contact with this inner voice.

* "I will not leave you orphaned..."   The word used, "orphanos" means "without a father".   William Barclay points out that the term was also used of a disciple who had lost a beloved teacher. Plato had said when Socrates died, his disciples, "thought that they would have to spend the rest of their lives forlorn, as children bereft of a father, and they did not know what to do about it."  [DSB - John p.196]

* The repetition of the relationship between loving Christ and keeping his commandments drives home the fact that Jesus is absolutely concerned that the key element in the "witness" of the Christian community is not going to be in its "words", but in it's lifestyle.  Just prior to our text, Jesus was telling his disciples they would do the works he was doing and do even greater works.  Taken together, these texts put forth the very bold assertion that the Christian community is to be to the world what Jesus Christ would be if he were here in the flesh.  His presence (indwelling) in the disciples / community is, in fact, his continuing presence in the world.

* "...I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you..."  Nowhere is there a stronger statement of the intimacy between God, Christ and believers.  Furthermore, the love which exists between Christ and the believer and between God and the believer, as Jesus speaks of it here is unsurpassed in religious literature.  This is a love which can never fail.  In a world which searches desperately for lasting love, this passage can be a "Godsend!" This drives home the dramatic revelation of the Almighty God of Creation as "Abba Father" in the ministry of Christ.

* The commandments Jesus asks his disciples to keep are surely grounded in the "new commandment" he gave to them.  (I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. -- John 13:34)  This fits in well with the Great Commandment (Mt. 22:37) See the alternate sermon idea below.


1 Peter 3:13-22

Exploring the theme of "witness", Peter is saying that there is no witness in suffering "deserved" punishment for wrongs done.  It is unjust suffering which gives witness -- especially when that witness is done with "gentleness and reverence".  This was the exact secret of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.  Hard to do -- but powerful.

In the beginning of the letter, the writer encourages the Christians who have been scattered about Asia Minor to stand firm in their faith. In the beginning of the letter, he reminds them that their lives are now built on the foundation of the "living hope" which is theirs on account of the resurrection of Christ.

"Be eager" to do good - who would want to harm those who do good - but as the letter of Pliny the Younger quoted above shows - there will be times when doing the good will bring about persecution. "Even if you do suffer," Peter says, "you are blessed."  This calls to mind the blessings Jesus promised in the beatitudes (Matt. 5:10) to those who would be persecuted because of him.

The readiness which is encouraged to "make your defense against anyone who demands from you an accounting" points to the common knowledge among Christians of the kind of interrogation that they may be subjected to. Pliny's letter to Trajan shows that this was not uncommon. Pliny in his letter goes on to say that he let those who "cursed Christ" and worshiped the Emperor were allowed to go free. The final encouragement is two fold: If Christians are to be persecuted - it is an opportunity for strong witness to the faith.  And should the worst occur - then they are more intimately connected with the suffering and death of Christ.

The concluding verses root the Christian's hope and commitment in Christological truths. The death, resurrection and ascension of Christ means that the final outcome of all things is firmly in the grasp of the one who is at the right hand of God "with angels,  authorities and powers made subject to him."


Acts 17:22-31

This is the famous "Sermon on Mars Hill," Paul's one and only sermon preached in Athens that we know of.  The preaching style of Paul in this sermon is a classic "when in Rome" application of Christian truth. In other places Paul enters the synagogue and takes his hearers through the Old Testament foundations of Christian faith. In Athens, however, he begins with the religious orientation of the people he is preaching to. He does not begin with condemnation, but with affirmation of the religious orientation of the Athenians. Then he begins to exegete their traditions and weaves into that the good news about Jesus Christ.

I can not give the source, but I've heard several times the thought that, "The preacher must exegete the congregation before s/he exegetes the scriptures for the congregation."  The gospel needs to be applied - not imposed.

Paul takes the sense of searching that is behind the Greek Pantheon and the monument to "an unknown God" and begins to address their longing. He quotes one of their poets who has affirmed that we are all children of God and then points out that this God now expects us to respond to the truth of the gospel.

In the end, Paul's mission to Athens was the least successful of all his work in Macedonia. For the intellectual Greeks, the gospel was "foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:18-25) and for the Jews sit was "a stumbling block."  In this place "between a rock and a hard place," Paul hammered out the beauty of the gospel which addresses the longing of the ages.

 


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship  

Leader:   Cry out with joy to the Lord, all the earth.
              Worship the Lord with gladness.
              Come into God's presence with singing!

People:  For the Lord is a gracious God,
              Whose mercy is everlasting;
              and whose faithfulness endures to all generations.

A Prayer of Confession

Eternal God, in whom we live and move and have our being, your face is hidden from us by our sins, and we forget your mercy in the hardness of our hearts. Cleanse us from all offenses and deliver us from proud thoughts and vain desires. With lowliness and meekness may we draw near to you, confessing our faults, confiding in your grace, and finding in you our refuge and strength; through Jesus Christ your Son. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Who is the one who can condemn us, for it is Jesus Christ who has died for us. Jesus Christ lives for us and prays for us. Sisters and brothers, know that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have the mercy and grace of God. Receive the good news that your are forgiven in Christ. Amen.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

O Divine Redeemer, Your love toward us came at such a cost. How much you must love us! We can not begin to fathom just how deeply we are loved. Can a child possibly become aware how much a mother or father loves them? They are so unaware. Do they fully understand what grief and sorrow comes to a parent's heart when they are wounded?

O God, it is in our experience as parents that we more fully understand Your love for us. How it must break Your heart when we persist in doing the things that finally erode the meaning and the joy of our lives. When we see our children heading in directions that will be their undoing, it worries us so. Yet, we can not control the what, where, how, when, or why of their living without doing damage to their persons. Is this what free will does to Your heart?

God... help us to listen today. Not only with our ears. We've seen the faces of our children when they are listening with their ears alone. Help us to listen with our hearts. And hear with our souls. And act with our wills.

Finally, may we allow the light of Your Holy Spirit into the dark recesses of our spirits that Your Son Jesus might break the stubborn rebellion of our souls. And we will give the glory, the honor and the blessing to You.

And You will give us joy! Amen!

 

A Prayer Of Dedication

You have brought us to Yourself, O Lord. You have given us the gift of faith. Your mercies toward us are more than we could ever hope to deserve. We stand in awe before You today offering our gifts, our hearts our abilities and our worship. Come now, O Holy One and make us fully Your own through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.