You therefore, beloved...take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2 Peter 3:17-18)
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear (Philippians 1:12-14).
It can be difficult to get people to take an interest in spiritual things. People have busy, hectic lives. We have full schedules and plenty of troubles to keep us occupied every day of the week. The last thing people want to do is set aside time to hear about how imperfect they are. It can take a great deal of convincing to induce a person to give up an hour of their lives to sit in a stuffy meeting room with a weak cup of coffee and stale cookies, listening to the sage teacher go on and on about some esoteric Biblical aphorism. A pastor certainly can’t expect anyone to crack open their Bibles at home between Sundays. What with work, and ferrying the children to this or that practice, going out with friends to unwind, and catching the latest episode of their favorite television show, there just isn’t enough time to dig into God’s Word the way it should be done. Don’t worry though, when they get a few minutes toward the end of the week they might flip through that devotional booklet they picked up at church last month a little. Besides, with all the stress people are under these days, it is too difficult to even get anything out of church, Bible study, or private devotion. We just have too much on our minds, and suffer from constant stress and tension.
Of course, suffering is relative, when you think about it. Take, for instance, the story of Somchi who lives in Laos. Somchi and her mother were the only Christians in their village. When Somchi’s mother died Somchi had no place to live and no means of support. She moved into the home of her sister and brother-in-law and, in exchange for working in their fields, they allowed Somchi to stay. Somchi’s in-laws, however, became upset with her for taking the time to walk the several miles to attend a house church in a nearby village each Sunday. Because she would not give up worshipping Jesus together with her fellow Christians, Somchi’s own family turned her out, and villagers burned her Bible.
The Romans imprisoned St. Paul for preaching the Gospel of Christ, and things around the world have not changed much since those times. Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, the leader of a growing house church in Iran, was sentenced to be executed by a regional Iranian court in 2010. The court ruled that Pastor Nadarkhani was guilty of apostasy and deserved to be hanged. Pastor Nadarkhani, the court alleges, was a Muslim at birth. Under Sharia Law, the Islamic religious law under which much of the Muslim world – including Iran – is governed, it is a capital offense for someone to convert from Islam to another religion. Pastor Nadarkhani is not only considered an apostate for his alleged conversion, but also for encouraging other Muslims to convert to Christianity. Pastor Nadarkhani was arrested in October 2009 and has been imprisoned for his refusal to deny his Christian faith ever since. When ordered by the court to repent and return to “the religion of [your] ancestors,” Pastor Nadarkhani was quoted as saying, “Repent means to return. What should I return to? The blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ? I can not.” By all accounts Pastor Nadarkhani remains in prison pending his appeal to Iran’s Supreme Court.
In the United States we rarely see martyrdom; in other parts of the world, however, the murdering of Christians is almost commonplace. On August 26, 2011 in Jolo, Philippines, a Muslim gunman walked into the home of Pastor Mario Acidre at approximately 8:00 PM and shot him four times in the abdomen. Pastor Acidre was a lay preacher for a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Jolo. Jolo is located in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Christians in this region are a minority and live in constant fear of attack. Other Christian pastors who knew Pastor Acidre voiced their concerns that many of the local Muslims were angry with him for holding his Bible study and preaching the Gospel.
Many of us believers here in the United States need a wake-up call so that we can begin to reprioritize our lives. Praise the Lord for the many blessings he has given us as citizens of the United States of America. It is a wonderful thing to be free to practice your Christian faith in a safe environment, without having to be afraid that the government, or that your own neighbors, are going to try and kill you because of what you believe. There, however, is the issue; we must practice our faith, not leave it sit in the back of the proverbial closet like a disused tennis racquet. If we allow the pleasures and cares of our every day temporal lives to overshadow our life with Christ, we make all of those blessings into a curse that blinds us to the real, eternal gift God has given us in His Son – the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life.
While we can’t be bothered to spend an hour in church on Sunday worshipping with our brothers and sisters in Christ, Christians in Laos are walking miles to have the opportunity to attend church and are being driven from their homes for doing so. While many of us would not dream of inviting a non-believing friend to church or Bible study, or dare to open our mouths in public to defend our Christian faith from ridicule and denouncement for fear of humiliation, Christians in places like The Philippines and Iran are being imprisoned and murdered for doing so. The question is why? Why would these people risk all that they have, including their lives, for Christ?
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).
Perhaps part of the reason that these people would “risk it all” to hold on to their faith is that their faith is all that they have. America is the land of plenty. The streets are paved with gold, as the story was told by those coming here to make a better life. We here in the United States have a lot more to occupy us, and that is good news for Satan. The more worldly things we have around us to make us feel good, to numb and hide the pain of our disease of sin, the less we feel we need to rely on God. If we neglect our faith in this manner long enough, he will do as St. Paul describes in the first chapter of Romans, and grant us our wish to be left on our own. Those persecuted Christians across the globe are forced to rely on their faith because they have nothing else. They understand, though, something we may be in the process of forgetting; God’s grace is sufficient. Now, that is not to say American Christians should become hermits and monks, living ascetic lives in the deserts and mountains so as to stay away from temptation. We should not, however, be conformed to this world. If we feed our new spiritual nature rather than our sinful human nature, the Holy Spirit will transform us more and more every day in the manner that St. Paul describes.
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Romans 8:12-14).
Jesus Christ justifies sinners, and nothing in this world is more important than that. Jesus told us that we should not be afraid of the one who could kill the body, but of the one who could destroy both body and soul in hell. God the Father has given the Holy Spirit to dwell in all believers in Christ. He frees us from the bondage of sin and death. When we are preoccupied with satisfying our own selfish desires, we run the risk of becoming angry with God and rebelling against him. Because of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, however, our fallen nature no longer has any claim on us. Christ has purchased and won us, not with gold or silver, but by his holy, precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death. We don’t have to throw out our television sets, but we do need to understand that we need the faith and forgiveness that Christ offers to us by his cross; we get those things that we need through His Word and by His Sacraments. We hear the Word and receive the Sacraments when we come together in the fellowship of our local congregations. God has given us a gift in Christ that no man can take away, and this is what persecuted Christians around the world understand. What human beings can do to a believer physically is nothing compared to what God can do. Fear of God, not of other human beings, is the beginning of wisdom.
In good Lutheran fashion I ask, “What does this mean?” First, we who live in peace and safety should remember our brothers and sisters in Christ who do not. We should pray for them and seek to give them aid and comfort in any way that we are able. We should also understand that their persecution, like St. Paul’s, is for Christ. We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. What is happening to them, though intended for evil, will work out for good, because their chains will advance the Gospel, just as St. Paul’s chains did. We should therefore become more confident and bold to speak the Word without fear.