August 18, 2019

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

“Some Were Tortured”

When I was a teenager, I stood up at the front of the Presbyterian church that I had attended with my family for nearly ten years. I stood up with a couple of other young people to publicly profess my faith in God for the first time, and to declare my intention to live my life as a follower of Jesus.

It was an especially memorable moment for me because I was also baptized on that day. As the water was poured, the baptismal words were spoken, and the choir sang the Aaronic blessing over me, I experienced an overwhelming sense of belonging. I belonged to a community. I belonged to a church family. I belonged to the God who had made me and loved me.

I don’t really remember what we talked about in the membership class at the church as we prepared to make our professions of faith. Probably it was much of the same material that we cover today in our classes… God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, the Bible, discipleship, worship, prayer, service, mission, stewardship, and all of that. We likely discussed many or most of those things, but one thing that I’m pretty sure we didn’t talk about was the idea that what I was deciding to do with my life was going to be challenging.

I don’t remember thinking about NOT going through with it. I don’t remember feeling nervous or scared, or even apprehensive about the life that I was choosing as God’s servant. I only remember feeling blessed and loved and part of something good. I don’t think that the bible readings on the day of my baptism were the ones that we read today. If they had been, I probably would have been shocked by how not-encouraging they were!

Several years ago when I was serving in Saskatoon, these lectionary texts came up on a summer Sunday when a couple of young adults were going to profess their faith and become members of the congregation. When I realized what the readings were about, I thought that they were both appropriate and somewhat difficult.

Of course, it made sense to stop and consider what it means to have faith on a day when some of our friends were standing up to profess their faith for the first time. The author of Hebrews provides a wonderful list of inspiring examples of faithful people: Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets.

Although none of them followed God perfectly, they each demonstrated their faith in God through courage and steadfastness, trust and obedience. They lived as servants of God, and made a difference in the world for good. We might look to these biblical heroes of faith, as well as to more recent examples, for inspiration and guidance in our own lives of faith.

But then the book of Hebrews goes on to describe what happened to many of these heroes: “Some were tortured… Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about… destitute, persecuted, tormented… They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and in holes in the ground.” That’s what I mean by “not-encouraging!”

This is no rosy picture of what being one of God’s people will be like. It’s not like one of those prosperity-gospel preachers who tries to convince you that if you just turn over your life to Jesus you will be blessed beyond measure – you’ll be happy and healthy and rich too! No, the author of Hebrews makes it clear that the Christian life comes with many challenges and hardships. She considers the lives of the heroes among God’s people, and concludes that being a follower of Jesus is not all sunshine and flowers.

Jesus implied something similar in his own life and teaching. One day, when he was particularly frustrated with his disciples, he went into a bit of a rant about how they were misunderstanding his message: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

I don’t think that Jesus was saying that his purpose was to break up families and relationships. But I think he was saying that our faith in him is going to turn everything in our lives upside down. It’s going to affect everything that we do, every relationship that we’re in, and every priority that we have.

The faith that Jesus calls us to is NOT is a private system of belief that we just keep to ourselves. The church that Jesus invites us to be a part of is NOT is a private club where we just get together to encourage and support each other, and to make everyone feel happy.

Our faith is not primarily about helping us to feel good or peaceful. It’s about disturbing the peace, waking us up, and challenging us to become people of love and justice and righteousness. It’s a faith that calls us to pay attention to what’s happening in the world, that challenges us to get involved, that demands that we look beyond ourselves and OUR immediate concerns.

That’s why the prophets are so often ranting about how the people aren’t producing good fruit. Our faith is not about finding peace and quiet. It’s about working and fighting and persisting until there is peace WITH JUSTICE for all people.

I imagine that Jesus probably could have chosen to live a relatively peaceful life in Nazareth as a carpenter or a stonemason, or in some normal trade like that. But he chose, instead, to answer the call to be God’s son in the world. It was a choice that led him into conflict, into danger, and ultimately it led him to his death on a cross. He didn’t choose a peaceful life, but he did choose a life with purpose… a life that made a difference for God.

I’m not suggesting that becoming a Christian in Canada today automatically brings the danger and persecution that Jesus experienced in his ministry, and I’m not saying that we should have any worries about being killed by the sword or sawn in two. But violence and religious persecution against Christians and other people of faith are the sad reality in many parts of the world.

The International Affairs Committee of The Presbyterian Church in Canada recently produced a resource to assist us in learning about and praying about religious persecution around the world. It provides information about 31 countries where religious persecution is high, and invites us to be in solidarity with these people through prayer and concern.

The first country on the list is North Korea, where the gravity, scale, and nature of human rights violations do not have any parallel in the modern world. In North Korea, there is almost a complete denial of rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association, including a denial of the right to freely practice religion. The North Korean regime treats religion as a threat, particularly faiths associated with the West, such as Christianity, and is known to arrest, torture, imprison, and even execute religious believers.

Another country on the list is Nigeria, where both Christians and Muslims experience violent attacks based on their religious identity. Boko Haram and related organizations carry out attacks, committing mass killings, kidnappings, and targeting civilians. There have also been attacks by gunmen on Christian churches. In response, suspected Christian militias have targeted Muslim populations as well, and there were reports in 2018 of mosques being raided and Muslims killed for their religious identity.

Close to the hearts of many in our congregation is Pakistan, another country for which we are called to pray. Although the constitution of Pakistan protects religious freedom, in practice this can be difficult to uphold. The majority of people in Pakistan identify as Muslim, but there is discrimination against Ahmadi Muslims and other faiths face harassment as well. We know from our own connections in Pakistan, that Christians face significant persecution and threats.

On a more hopeful note, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that “an independent people’s commission for the protection of minorities’ rights was formed late last year in Pakistan. It includes leading members of the Christian, Sikh, and Hindu communities, as well as retired justices of high courts and human rights lawyers. We pray that this commission will have a positive impact that promotes the safety and security of all those who are at risk.

As we learn about and pray for Christians and others who are persecuted for their faith, we should give thanks to God for the courage and determination given to those who still stand up to profess their faith, even when it puts them at great risk. They can be an example and an inspiration to us, encouraging us to take our faith seriously and not to be worried about what others may think or say about us.

Here in Canada, holding to the Christian faith does not normally put our safety at risk, but the choice to follow the way of Jesus is still a challenging way. It is a way of life that demands a great deal from us, if we take it seriously.

It’s loving your enemies. It’s forgiving those who hurt you, and praying for those who do wrong to you. It’s learning not to judge your neighbours, and it’s letting go of your anger. It’s doing good, and not expecting to be thanked. It’s giving freely, and not hoping to be paid back. It’s releasing your grip on the treasures of the world, so that you can receive the treasures of heaven instead. It’s letting go of all your worries, and learning to trust God in all things.

As Jesus stood, up to his waist in the murky water of the Jordan River on  the day he was baptized by John, I don’t know if he fully comprehended what his life would be like once he made that decision… once he chose that way of life. Maybe he felt more like I did at my baptism… loved and blessed and surrounded by God’s Spirit.

I pray that all those who profess their faith today, whether for the first time or the hundredth time, whether in Canada or North Korea or Pakistan or some other part of the world, that we will experience God’s blessing today… that we will know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God’s Spirit has come to live in and through us, empowering us to be God’s own children in the world today. And I pray that, as we face the challenges that lie ahead, we will do so with courage and confidence and hope, trusting that we live by the grace of God, and that we are never alone as we seek to serve and follow the way of Jesus.

And “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”