Easter 7, May 24, 2020
Trials? Don’t Be Surprised
Text: 1 Peter 4:12–19, 5:6–11
Centuries ago, the Roman Church, working with civil authorities, often had people put to death. It was common enough that we rarely remember any particular cases. An exception to that would be on July 1, 1523, two Augustinian monks were burned to death in Brussels, Belgium, by the Inquisition. Their names were Heinrich Voes and Johann Esch. What was their crime, you might ask? They were teaching the doctrines taught by one of their Augustinian brothers—a guy named Martin Luther. These were the first men ever killed for teaching Lutheranism. Like Martin at the Diet of Worms, they basically said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” And it cost them their lives.
It’s this sort of persecution Peter describes as a “fiery trial” coming at us because of our faith (1 Pet 4:12). But, let’s face it: It Seems a Little Strange for Us in Our Country Today to Think about Persecution, Doesn’t It?
I mean, in this country we aren’t likely to be burned at the stake or thrown to the lions or beheaded for being Christians. And so it makes it easier for us to just overlook these verses and think they do not apply to us. Yet Peter begins, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (v 12).
The fact is that persecution of Christians, in one form or another, has been the normal state of affairs throughout most of the history of the Church. I am going to restate that: through most of the church’s history, the church, the believers in Jesus Christ, have been harassed or attacked because of their faith. Peter is writing from Rome towards the end of his life. When Peter wrote this, they were still a few years from Nero and others killing Christians for fun and sport. But Peter is anticipating that day. He is warning his fellow believers, particularly his fellow pastors, that they need to be prepared.
See, Peter makes the point that persecution should not be viewed as strange. Rather, Peter tells us to expect persecution to be normal. Those who do not believe what we believe will often look down at us who are believers. Look how Christians are treated in the world. There was the Christian pastor in Iran who was threatened with execution. There were those Christian children in Nigeria who were kidnapped by Muslims a few years back that was in the news. Last year the British Foreign Secretary directed a report to be done that showed that Christian persecution in some places in the world bordered on genocide. He also felt that “political correctness” had played a part in the issue not being confronted (Or even publicized). (North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan)
Now that is not the case here. We in America have experienced something quite unusual, compared with the rest of the world, with our laws regarding the freedom of religion. But after 200 years, even here, we Christians are mistreated or harassed for our beliefs. How often are political candidates mocked in the press if they believe God created the heavens and the earth? How often are they mocked in the press if they are pro-life? A presidential candidate this year (now out of the race) told a government appointee in 2017 that his Christian faith disqualified him from holding a federal office.
If any of you have been mistreated because of your faith, we know it isn’t fun. It has happened to me. I gave you a minor example last week. But God sees a plus side when such things happen. These trials, Peter says, are “to test you.” There’s the sense here in this text that this kind of stuff leads us Christians to grow in faith. That does make sense if I tell you that if everything always goes perfectly for us, we are then tempted to think we do not need God, right? When things aren’t going smoothly, do we not then turn to God and ask for help? In this sense, persecution can be a blessing, as Peter states. “If you are insulted in the name of Christ, you are blessed.” Strange as it may seem, it’s actually a great blessing to be counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus.
Because of Martin Luther’s brave declaration made at his trial before the heads of church and state, Lutherans have always had a warm place in their hearts for any Christian whose conviction moves him to confess, “Here I stand.”
With that in mind, I submit to you something Ken Klaus, retired Lutheran Hour speaker, wrote about a few years ago. He wrote about the Chinese city of Wenzhou and its newly constructed Sanjiang Church. This was a big building, it seated more than 2000 worshippers and cost 4.5 million dollars to build. At one point the government said the building was a model engineering project. Six months later, the local Chinese authorities stated the church had been built illegally, was structurally dangerous, and had been condemned. (#43)
Now some Christian communities might wring their hands and say, “Woe is me.” Others might sigh and say to themselves, “You can’t fight city hall.” Yes, that is what some might do, but that isn’t what those folks did.
No, those faithful folks did a “Here I stand” kind of thing. Without prompting, thousands of believers came together and held a vigil to hold off the bulldozers. Soon a round-the-clock protest was mounted. Kitchens were set up to feed the volunteers who had made a line that went completely around the building. Old men and women spent their nights sleeping on church pews. They did this to fend off any night demolition, which might’ve been ordered by the authorities.
One of the ladies who had been sleeping at the church, spoke for many others when she said, “There are bad people out there trying to damage our church, so we must defend it.”
We need to take Jesus seriously when He says, “Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33). Maybe the stuff that is happening to us Christians here in the USA is to get us to wake up and realize what a blessing our faith is and how much we need to stand up for it and share it.
I would love to tell you that this China church building story had a happy ending for the building, but the Chinese government got everyone out of the building and destroyed it on April 28, 2014. But The Church is still there.
Peter was telling the Christians in his time, and the Christians of today, that we are protected by Jesus in the face of trials. While that building is gone in China, the Church is still there. The believers are still there because the Holy Spirit is still with them. This is also true today that while you are not in this building to worship today, you are in Church. As I said last week, this pandemic stuff is reminding us that Church is God’s faithful, saved people, not a building.
Peter reminds us that God is always faithful to us. And Jesus Himself is no stranger to persecution. He gave His life on the cross and rose again so that we would never be separated from God. We can put ourselves in God’s hands, even in the face of persecution, harassment, and other “What?!?” moments we have these days.
As we move from Easter into Pentecost, we are reminded that the Christian Church is always under pressure from the world. From the time of Peter, beginning with Stephen, until the present day, Christians are under attack. This will not stop. More Christians died for Jesus Christ in the twentieth century than in all the previous centuries combined. The Lutheran Hour e-mail devotion that was sent out for last Monday said, “Organizations that monitor the world wide persecution of Jesus’ followers have noted that currently more than 260 million Christians in 50 countries are suffering under high to severe levels of persecution.” The persecutions have not ended. They never will end, until the return of Jesus Christ in the final judgment of this world. Until then, we are not left to stand alone. There is nothing strange about being persecuted, there is nothing strange about being mistreated, because we believe in Jesus. Jesus said it would happen. Peter said it would happen. But also know this: Jesus, who suffered all, will always be right here with us. We stand with Jesus Christ because Jesus Christ will always stand with us.
In His Name.