Jesus kneels in the midnight garden under the Passover stars, waiting to flesh out what he once told a crowd from a Galilean hillside: “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
His friends won’t hang around long enough to test those words for themselves, not least Judas, kissing the cheek of Jesus and the bloodless lips of despair.
have you noticed that friendship with Jesus isn’t well received by everyone. In fact, to become a friend of Jesus will make us an easy target for some…
…Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness sake, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
How does that happen in our experience? Do we even know what persecution is? In Scotland Christians are routinely dismissed by secular culture, sometimes mocked, mostly ignored – but persecuted?
Rowan Williams described true persecution as:
(the) “systematic brutality and often murderous hostility that means that every morning you wonder if you and your children are going to live through the day”.
Rowan Williams, the Guardian,
On that count the church in Scotland is very definitely not suffering persecution for being Christian.
Does that mean this beatitude of Jesus falls silent before our experience? No, I think it does way more than that. The blessing of the persecuted becomes an invitation to us. An invitation to what?
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,”
The book of Acts chapter 9
Whatever happens to church happens to Jesus. That is what Jesus is telling Saul here. Whatever you do to that little posse of poor and weary folk you are chasing through Damascus, you do to me. After he became Paul, Saul put it like this: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
Whatever happens to one part of the church affects the whole, because we are all a part of Christ’s body. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.
It was a school show and she watched her son arrive in a group of 3 other boys from his year. They were talking and laughing with one another as they sat down. Her son was there, listening and laughing as if a part of it all. But she knew by their body language he was not. None of the other 3 boys cared if her son was there or not. She knew that her son understood this too as he pretended he was part of the group. Invisible to others, but as real as anything or anyone in the hall, the unspoken sadness shared between them.
To love other people is to suffer when they suffer. What is happening to Christians around the world shouldn’t be ignored simply because of distance. We are more connected than geography. We are family; closer than that – we are part of one body.
The persecution of Christians in other parts of the world summons us to respond. Persecution is an invitation to act: What can we give? What can we say? What can we do? We have something to gift to the persecuted church.
friendship with God…
The persecuted church needs our help. But they have a gift for us. We need their wisdom. We need their witness.
He taught her how to make soup when she was a girl. Good soup. Shirley looked after him as he grew older. She never told him, but he had been the gravity that pulled her out of a destructive orbit.
She took him on holiday. They would fly to Spain. Great. But what he didn’t know was the money Shirley put away each week was how she’d decided to kick her long standing habit. She knew she wouldn’t get any gear through customs. Week on week Shirley put the money away and not in a dealers hands until she and her father caught the plane as spent two weeks in the sun. On that holiday Shirley got clean.
That was some time back. Here he was in a hospital bed. Unconscious. No more than 24 hours left. The most important thing in her whole world was being here with him. There was nothing more important: No pleasure, no sorrow, no ambition, no fear, nothing else mattered more than being here, now.
Sometimes we are set free to live towards what matters most to us. Sometimes we find the freedom to let go of what we like, prefer, don’t have much time for – all that becomes unimportant as we grasp what really matters to us, matters so much nothing else can take its place.
That is a gift of the persecuted church to us. The gift of their faithful sorting out between what matters and what does not. The gift of finding your true self. And for a Christian who we are is a friend and brother of Jesus and a child of God: a beloved child of God. No pleasure, no sorrow, no ambition, no fear, nothing else matters more, nothing else is more real than the truth of that.
The persecuted Church know that truth in their daily living. That truth is setting them free. Not setting them free from pain, or suffering. But free to know who they truly are, free to know what really matters and what does not, free to let God be God, free to find themselves held and journeying towards their hearts desire. Their witness is a gift for us.
blessed are those persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The persecuted church are already touching the kingdom of heaven: palm to palm. For what is the kingdom of heaven if it’s not friendship with the king? Jesus takes the persecuted into the living room of God the father’s mercy, healing and love.
Is that not a gift we need? to learn in the stupor of consumerism, with it’s plethora of choices, false promises of satisfaction, capricious generosity – how to be put back in touch with what really matters.
The gift the of the persecuted church is the gift of lived freedom. Their witness wants to free us from the chains of ambitions and fears and distractions we’ve given center stage in our story. To know instead God as the center of our joy and peace, God as the relentless hope refusing to be pushed out of our life by pain and suffering.
That’s a gift the persecuted church gifts to us: The gift of seeing clearly and letting go of what doesn’t matter. The gift of entering the living room of God. Learning to trust God to be God for us. Learning to praise God for being God for us. The gift described by the novelist Frederick Buechner:
…trust him. And praise him too. Praise him for all we leave behind us in our traveling. Praise him for all we lose that lightens our feet, for all that the long road of the years bears off like a river. Praise him for stillness in the wake of pain. But praise him too for the knowledge that what’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and that all the dark there ever was, set next to the light, would scarcely fill a cup.Frederick Buechner, novelist, Minister
the Judas tree
The song above is a few years old now. I think it wants to recognize that the process of learning what matters most and letting go what doesn’t is never going to be painless or easy. Sometimes, waiting for the in breaking of joy leaves us in a vulnerable place of lament. So the song is a prayer of lament. Asking that even when we are tempted to despair (on the Judas tree) God will find us even there.