July 14th Sermon on the Mount: Hammer or Nail?

Brothers and Sisters,

Today we return to one of those statements that doesn’t sound right.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted…” which can also be translated “Happy are those who are persecuted…”

It is reasonable to say that nobody in their right mind wants to be treated badly.  “Persecute” means “to subject someone to hostility and ill-treatment, especially because of their race or political or religious beliefs.”  Some people will gladly bear persecution if they are standing up for their beliefs, but everyone would wish that such moments wouldn’t be necessary.

So, we come to today’s passage:

Matthew 5:10-12

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

This blessing directly applies to people suffering at the hands of others because they are standing up for their faith in Jesus Christ.  It is not a general blessing for all people who have suffered at the hands of others (those people are covered in the words “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled).”  This blessing is about suffering because you have identified with Jesus Christ.

Until Christianity became a majority religion, persecution of Christians was common.  In the early days, Christian persecution mostly happened at the hands of the Roman Empire.  Christianity was seen as an upstart religion that threatened Roman authority, and the Romans tried to stamp it out for three centuries.  After that, most of the persecution European Christians suffered was in response for “Christian” cruelty elsewhere and religious division at home.  Throughout the last two thousand years, there have been Christian minorities in different countries where massive numbers have been persecuted for their faith.  In countries like China, Japan, Madagascar, India, the Ottoman Empire, and the former Soviet Union, Christians were (and are) often stripped of rights, freedom, and safety.  In the days of the “iron curtain,” Czecho-Slovakia (including lands once called Moravia) forbade Christians from getting a college education.  Some European countries limited the freedom of Christians who did not belong to the official church of that country. During the long “troubles” of Northern Ireland, Protestants persecuted Roman Catholics and Roman Catholics persecuted Protestants.

It is strange, but persecution if easier to withstand if you are accused honestly and not falsely.  To suffer for something you didn’t do is worse than suffering for something you believe in.

The only persecutions that I have ever suffered for my faith never amounted to much, but they were at the hands of other Christians.  I only had those moments because I got in debates with other Christians who lost their tempers and suggested I was damned, or improperly baptized, or misinformed about God.  That is a very mild sort of persecution, but it is very common in America.  Christians look down on other Christians for being too liberal, too conservative, too rich, too poor, too legalistic, wishy-washy, too Southern, too Northern, too self-righteous, too lax, too stupid, too ethnic, too hypocritical, and too bland.  A large part of Christian identity seems to come from a rejection of other Christian identities.  It is tragic, petty, and sometimes evil.

Most white middle-class Americans have little danger of persecution.  Women are more likely to be persecuted than men.  Young people are more likely to be persecuted than old people.  People of color are much more likely to be persecuted.  Some people are more likely to be persecuted for their gender, their sexual orientation, or their disabilities.

My point is that people like me are more likely to be persecutors than being one of the persecuted.  I find comfort in the words of Jesus, but I mostly feel that comfort for other people.  For me, the main challenge is avoid aligning myself with others who might persecute others.  There are some denominations of Christianity that have official beliefs or practices that I don’t agree with, but that doesn’t mean that I want those people to be silenced, hurt, or limited.

We come back to today’s passage:

Matthew 5:10-12

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

We should find ways to support Christians who are persecuted everywhere, but we also need to stop the persecutions that Christians are still inflicting upon others.  We rejoice at the people who stand up for Jesus Christ even while we are ashamed of Christians who persecute others in the name of Christ.  Too much of the world is like Northern Ireland during the “Troubles.”  Too much of the world is like the violence perpetrated in the crusades and the conquest of the Americas. 

Jesus tells the ones who are persecuted for his sake have a great reward in heaven.  They are no more saved than the rest of us, but they carry with them a blessing and the approval of Jesus.

There is an old song that has the first line “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.”  Wouldn’t it be better if we gave up on the desire to hammer people into place?

A Question to Ponder:  Has anybody given you a hard time for believing in God or for identifying as a Christian?

Blessings,

Pastor Rick