The Joy Of Persecution

The Joy of Persecution.
Amos 5: 21 – 24; Matthew 5: 1 – 14;
The 8th beatitude speaks of the blessedness or joy of being persecuted.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” It seems bizarre to speak of persecution, people reviling you and uttering all kinds of evil, as a reason to be joyful.
The questions I pose today are: Have Christians been persecuted? Why will we be persecuted? Why should we be joyful when persecuted? 
Have Christians been persecuted? We have all heard stories about Christians being persecuted by the Romans. The Roman Emperor Nero was the worst. He hanged Christians on posts, covered them in tar and then lit them using them as human torches. Then there are the stories of Christians being thrown to the lions. However the persecution of Christians in the first few centuries was not constant and they enjoyed relative peace. We should also note that the Jerusalem Jews persecuted Christians as well.
When Christianity became an official religion of the Roman Empire Roman persecution ceased, but not persecution in general. Down through the centuries the Church has been persecuted. After the Roman Empire ended there were many persecutions of Christian in Persia and the Middle East. And there were persecutions or wars between Western and Eastern Christians.  Let me take a few notable moments in history that will illustrate the extent of persecution.
The French revolution in 1789 led to the de-Christianisation of France.  Clergy were deported and those who refused deportation were killed. The property of the Church was taken and desecrated. It was a battle between the Cult of Reason, the new ideology of the French Revolutionaries, and the Cult of the Supreme Being, Christianity.  The persecution of the Church eventually ceased in France, but I put to you that the Cult of Reason still is the enemy of the church resulting these days in ridicule and marginalisation rather than martyrdom.
In China during the 17th Century,  Christianity was banned for a century. It led to the martyrdom of many Chinese Christians. 
During the 1600s Christians fought Christians. And Christians sometimes persecuted minority religious groups.  During the 1600s Japan’s new leadership banned the Church and persecuted Christians.
In 1828-61 Madagascar prohibited the practice of Christianity and Christians were killed if they refused to recant.
When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917 the Russian Orthodox Church’s influence was attacked resulting in the public execution of clergy and extensive re-education programmes for Christians.
In 1917 the Mexican Revolution resulted in the Catholic Church’s religious orders being outlawed, worship outside of church buildings banned and the Church’s right to own property restricted.
Pope Benedictus XVI stated that Christians are the most persecuted group in the world today. Today much of the persecution of the Church is taking place in Muslim countries. However we should understand that this might be due to the perception that Christianity is a Western religion and the persecution is an attack on Western culture.
Why will we be persecuted? My brief survey of the persecution of the Church illustrates that Christians have always suffered a degree of persecution for their faith.  What is it in the Christian faith that makes people attack it?
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”.   Jesus is saying that it is the righteousness of the Christian church that makes it vulnerable to attack. He is also saying that righteousness is the only legitimate ground for describing an attack on us as persecution with its resulting blessedness. What is Jesus getting at? We tend to take righteousness to mean someone who is holy – morally good. NO!  In the Bible righteousness describes the relationship we have with God and God’s world. Righteousness describes the way we live our lives by loving our neighbour and being just. We should never confuse ‘loving our neighbour’ with liking our neighbour. We may like them but remember for Jesus our neighbour is the person we don’t know who may be of another religion or culture or race. Loving our neighbour wants our neighbour to have justice.  Now, the Greek and Hebrew words for righteousness are the same words that translate into English as ‘justice’.
Let us consider two examples where righteousness means a right relationship with God and also justice. Remember a right relationship with God always includes a right relationship with others and creation.  Our reading from Amos of chapter 5 verse 24 reads:
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
Here we have our English concepts of justice and righteousness linked together in one sentence. They are also linked by the image of water. Justice is expected to roll down with the power of water and our relationship like the constancy of a life-giving stream. They are two beautiful water images: justice is a powerful force like rolling water; and the righteousness a gentle healing relationship like a constant stream of refreshing water.  We may see them as distinct but they were seen by the Hebrew mind as inextricably linked because the same word in Hebrew can be translated as just or righteous as we find in Nehemiah chapter 9 verses 8 and 33 respectively, where the same Hebrew word is used but is translated in verse 8 as righteous and in verse 33 as just. The same word is used to describe God as righteous and just.
So Jesus is saying we will be persecuted because of righteousness. That is, we will be persecuted because we follow God, love our neighbour and this world and we stand for justice.
Why should Christians not be surprised if they are persecuted? Why shouldn’t we be surprised?  In fact, should we not be surprised that we are not being persecuted?
To say we worship God is to remind others they don’t.
To put God first in your life means others, who want to be first, will be second.
To say Jesus is Lord means that presidents, prime ministers, politicians, kings and lords of this world are second.
To put others first is offensive to a culture that puts the self first.
To stand for justice exposes those who take advantage of the weak.
At the very least Christians are annoying when Christians honour God first and practise selfless love for others.  When one analyses the persecution of Christians one finds at the centre of the persecution is a power struggle between God’s way and the World’s way. So the early Christians would only worship Christ Jesus as Lord and Roman citizens were expected to worship Caesar along with other gods. When the French Revolutionaries persecuted the Church it was a battle for the supremacy of reason over faith. This struggle continues to take place in the Western World today where in subtle and not so subtle ways the church is silenced by claiming that religion is a private matter and not a public matter.
C.E.B.Cranfield, a NT scholar wrote: It would be surprising if Christians were not persecuted for their very existence is an affront to human self-centredness, a reminder of the absolute claims that God makes upon people’s lives and that so many want to ignore and forget.
Why should we be joyful when persecuted?  I am hoping that you will already see the blessing of persecution. If you have been persecuted for standing with the marginalised and against injustice, you have given hope to those people. The Christian stand for justice by brave men and women has led to healing, reconciliation, justice, dignity and freedom.
Secondly, it is the way of our Lord Jesus. To suffer persecution is to know that one is being faithful and walking in the steps of Christ. In 2 Timothy 2 we find these words:
11 If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him … . There is glory in being identified with the suffering Christ Jesus.
Yes, my friend, Christianity is a strange religion. It is profoundly practical in its daily practice. Christianity calls us to live a life of selflessness so that others may have a sense of self-hood. Christianity as a religion invites us into a relationship that makes us partners in the company of the blessed who strive in Christ’s name to make this world more blessed. Christianity is a movement to bless the world. It is a movement to introduce true humanity. This is our calling – to proclaim the righteousness of God.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  03/07/2016
In saying all this I do want to acknowledge that at times Christians have deserved criticism and reprimand, but then those Christians have not been ‘righteous’ in the sense that Christ Jesus is talking about in this beatitude.