Monday, August 8, 2016

8 August 2106
“I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  Isaiah 49:6 (NRSV)
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:10 (NRSV)

            Good Monday afternoon. Today we come to the final two Beatitudes and the blessings of persecution. Our discussion today more or less hinges on a couple definitions-persecution and righteousness. According to the Easton’s Bible Dictionary article on persecution, religious persecution for the Jews began with Ahab’s wife Jezebel, who sought to eliminate worship of the one true God and replace it with worship of Ashtoreth and Baal. Young’s Analytical Concordance gives ‘follow after’ as an alternate translation of the Greek word (used 6 times; 28 for persecute). Once again we see a force opposed to God, in active opposition to God’s people-relentlessly following them, intent upon doing harm.
            A quick check of ‘righteousness’ in the Olive Tree search engine shows the word occurring 214 times; 136 times in the Old Testament, 77 times in the New Testament with 11 of those occurrences in the Gospels. According to Young’s, righteousness can also mean justice; Easton’s equates righteousness with justification. So we see those who stand for what is just-from God’s point of view-being relentlessly pursued by those who are opposed to God and all He stands for. Keep this thought in mind.
            Now, there is a sense in which the Church in the United States today is not being persecuted. For example, I live in a city of around 22,000 and there are over 60 churches listed on for my area; my sense is there may be a few more. On any Sunday, in these and churches all over the country, pastors, preachers and priests are free to preach the Gospel and teach from the Bible without fear of President Obama’s secret police coming in to arrest them and haul them off, never to be seen again. Christian leaders are free to endorse political candidates as well (but not from the pulpit if they want to remain tax-exempt). Generally speaking, as far as I know, Americans are not jailed or put to death for following Jesus.
            There are, however, a lot of hot-button issues facing our culture today which invite persecution and ridicule. Same sex marriage, gay ordination, freedom to refuse services to gays, abortion rights, and euthanasia-are all front and center. These issues have two things in common. They invite, if not require, us to take a stand, and they are divisive by doing so. No matter what side you come down on, somebody will-with varying degrees of forcefulness- criticize you. You may even be relentlessly pursued. As followers of Christ, how then do we respond? How do we stand for God’s justice? These are the high-profile issues that split churches well as our culture; there are others. Climate change, wage inequality, health care, poverty, unequitable distribution of resources, exploitation of human beings of all ages all cry out for justice. So what do we do? And what does any of this have to do with our Beatitudes, anyway?
            I’m glad you asked. We are called, in Isaiah’s words, to be a light to the nations. We are called to demonstrate God’s justice to anyone who needs to see it, which is pretty much everyone. When we do, forces opposed to God will relentlessly peruse us, perhaps to do us harm. In some cases forces within the church, convinced they have the correct version of God’s justice and we do not, will relentlessly pursue us. Some may seek to alienate; some may even seek to deny Christ’s gracious gift of redemption (which is offered, as far as I can tell, to all humanity; whether or not it is accepted is another story). How do we respond?
            We do what Jesus did. In presenting His message, Jesus treated people with grace and dignity and compassion. He reasoned from Scriptures-the Hebrew Scriptures-to make His case for God’s justice; to offer Himself as God’s Messiah. He made His points, preached His message and left it there for people to accept or reject. As far as I can tell Jesus never attempted to persuade by force of will. When the final test came-submit to the Father’s will or not, save us or save Himself-well, as it says somewhere, He was obedient to death, even death on a cross.
            So that’s what we do. We search the Scriptures to find guidance-the mind of God-and reason from them. This does not mean pulling a verse or two out of context to justify our point of view. It does mean reading the entire context with an open mind and heart, allowing God to teach us His point of view, and allowing for the fact His may be considerably more complicated, perhaps even opposed, to ours. We make our case (maybe even preach the Gospel) and leave it there. Conversion is God’s work, not ours. We do not attempt to persuade by force of will. We do not intend to divide but, knowing some will reject our position, we will need to be prepared. We also need to be aware people are watching. Remember Peter’s words-conduct yourselves honorably, give no cause for accusation. Above all we need to know when to remain firm and stand fast (and suffer when necessary), and when it’s ok to be flexible or just walk away.  
            Finally we need to remember the promise-the Kingdom of Heaven. There may yet come a time for us when following Jesus becomes a life-threatening decision. In the meantime, standing firm with our Lord for justice has the promise of the Kingdom here and now as we demonstrate-and bring about-its presence by our presence; and the promise of the final fulfillment when our Lord returns.

 May the Lord bless you and keep you this day. JRG

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