Christian persecution today – lessons from the Bible

This is a talk I gave to my local church today. We lit a candle which burned throughout the service as a reminder both of the light of Christ, and in solidarity with prisoners of conscience (Amnesty’s logo being a candle surrounded with barbed wire).

Readings: Genesis 41:1-37 (Pharaoh’s dreams). 1 Corinthians 4:8-13

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As I mentioned at the start of the service, our focus today is on the persecuted church. Throughout the world, discrimination against people of faith generally, but Christians in particular, is probably at the highest level it has been for centuries. The mainstream media, of course, focussed on national politics and sport, makes little mention of this. But look online, and you find that across the world, our brothers and sisters are suffering. In fact, according to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular group, “80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians.”
This discrimination occurs in more than half the countries of the world (link). Another organisation, Release International, names among the countries of particular concern at present Nigeria, China, and perhaps surprisingly India. Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, and the DRC continue to be of great concern as well. Deprived of employment, denied the right of peaceful assembly to worship, forced from their homes, and in some places murdered in cold blood simply for having converted from Islam or refusing to deny their faith in Christ. An international study in 2014 estimated that 100,000 Christians are killed every year because of their faith – that’s another ten people in the time we meet for worship this evening, and the figure has almost certainly increased since then. This morning we remembered St Margaret who suffered from Roman persecution of the Church. Her experience would be familiar to many today.
When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, they were not suffering persecution, but he had. He briefly recounts his experience as an evangelist – hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, beaten like a slave, homeless, reviled, persecuted, slandered. His call to the Corinthians was to set aside what they saw as a privilege, a freedom from the burdens of Jewish law that meant they could ‘live like kings’. Instead they were to be like Paul, “fools for Christ”. That doesn’t mean behaving in a clownish way. Quite the opposite. The foolishness Paul has in mind is the challenge of standing up for Christian values even when it hurts. Accepting discrimination instead of resisting it. Following Christ’s teaching to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Margaret, and many other martyrs before and since, have followed this teaching. That is one challenge to all of us.
In our first reading from Genesis we encounter Joseph called up from the depths of the Pharaoh’s dungeon to interpret his dreams. As you may recall, the reason he was in prison in the first place was because he refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife, and it appears he was there for quite some time. He, too, suffered for standing up for the principles of his faith.

While in prison, God had given him, not for the first time, the ability to interpret dreams, and the cup-bearer remembered this when the need for interpretation arose again. Pharaoh’s dream predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. The message was to prepare while times were easy, for the hard times that lay ahead. I venture to suggest that this dream has a timely warning for us today.
We may think that at least we are safe as Christians in this country. But for how long? A recent study showed that the percentage of British people calling themselves Christian – whether or not they belong to a local church – is now below 40% for the first time, while over 50% now identify as humanist or atheist. So we are definitely in a minority already. That, and the general tendency towards extremism of all kinds, suggest that living an openly Christian life will become harder, not easier, over the coming years. At the moment we don’t have to resist persecution, but we do have to resist secularism. At the moment our non-Christian neighbours may be tolerant of us, but it might not always be so.
Therefore, while we still have free speech, let us use it to stand up for our persecuted brothers and sisters across the world. Organisations such as Release International, Amnesty, Open Doors and Christian Today run campaigns, so we don’t have to start from scratch. While we still have the right to evangelise, let us use it to reach out to our community with the good news of Jesus. While we still have freedom of worship, let us not give up meeting together, as Paul wrote. Let us continue to burn the candle for justice, for freedom, for faith, for the light of Christ. Amen.

The Bible in a Year – 19 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

19 October. 2 Corinthians chapters 10-13

In these final chapters of his last letter to the Corinthians, Paul is not giving any new teaching, but rather is exploring the nature of his relationship with them.  In many different ways he explains that Jesus has called him, appointed and equipped him to spread the Gospel, a charge which he has been faithful to keep despite all the hardships and punishments that he says he has experienced.  That, he says, would be enough to justify having authority over them.  But instead he has taught them with humility. Only reluctantly does he go into detail of his qualifications and experiences, in order to prove that he is no less qualified as a teacher of the faith than certain other men (never named in these letters) who have been teaching an incompatible approach to Christianity – probably based on Jewish law.

We also learn here something of Paul’s personality.  He says he is bold in his writings, but weak when speaking. He quotes some of them as saying ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible’ (10:10).  Paul seems to have been a very well educated and wise man, but small, unattractive and not a powerful speaker.  The written word was his best way of communicating.   And then there is the mysterious ‘thorn in the flesh’ (12:7), also described as a ‘messenger from Satan’.  Many people have tried to guess what this may be, from something as simple as a stammer or some physical disability, to some kind of mental illness, or sexual temptation.

God does indeed call many different people, widely different in age, physical and intellectual ability, temperament and personality.  He gives them a wide variety of gifts, as explained in the first letter to the Corinthians.  But no-one is ‘top trumps’ having every possible advantage.  In each person there are some weaknesses, maybe only known to themselves like Paul’s “thorn”, or maybe all too obvious.  The important thing is that any pride (or ‘boasting’ as Paul calls it) should be pride in the gifts that God gives, and never in ourselves.  Also, it is never helpful to compare ourselves with others, as Paul does only reluctantly to show that he is more worthy of being listened to than the ‘false’ teachers.

The Bible in a Year – 18 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

18 October. 2 Corinthians chapters 5-9

In chapter 5 Paul speaks of our present physical bodies (which he describes as like a ‘tent’ – a temporary dwelling) as if they do not really matter.  In fact our whole viewpoint should shift so that heaven becomes “home”, and being in this body in this life becomes like an “away match”. Or (to keep to his preferred metaphor) like being on trek in a foreign country and sleeping in a tent, while longing for the comforts of our real home.  The reason for this, he goes on to explain, is that we are a “new creation”, the idea that when someone repents of past wrongs and turns to Jesus Christ for a new life, it really is like a new birth.  Therefore this life in the body already belongs to the past, and the anticipation of the future life in our resurrection bodies (about which he had written in his first letter to the Corinthians) is the present reality.

Such a true and complete repentance does not often come about at a single step.  There are indeed those whose lives are transformed in a moment – drug addicts who drop the habit the moment they turn to Christ, prisoners who become Christians in jail and never return to crime when they are freed, violent people who never again speak a word in anger.  But for most of us, repentance and a growth into Christ-likeness are a lifelong journey with constant challenges and setbacks.  Paul explains how he had needed to write to the Corinthians (who had already declared their faith in Christ) in strong and critical terms in order to get them to see that they were still far short of a Christlike life.  But now he rejoices that they have recognised that, and made the effort to repent and move on to a new level of faith. He separates this from ordinary criticism by making the distinction between two types of “grief”: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” (7:10).

I know that certain good and holy Christians have challenged me at various times about different aspects of my life and personality, producing at first resentment, then acknowledgment of the truth of their words, and finally this “holy grief” of which Paul speaks, that leads to salvation.

The Bible in a Year – 17 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

17 October. 2 Corinthians chapters 1-4

There is one theme that St Paul keeps coming back to throughout his letters, expressing it in different ways.  That theme is that if you think it is enough to rely on “keeping the law” to be in a right relationship with God, you have missed the point.

In chapter 3 (headed in the New Revised Standard Version as “Ministers of the New Covenant”), he explains that the Kingdom of God is something so counter-cultural, so different from the idea of “keeping the law”, that such people don’t even realise it’s there.  It’s as if the very fact that God gave us commandments to keep is like a veil or curtain that stops people seeing the truth behind it, which is that being in a right relationship with God is a matter of loving faith.  Or to use an English idiom, they cannot see the wood for the trees.  The trees are the individual commandments; the wood is the Kingdom in all its beauty.

But what can remove the veil, if endless study of religious laws and faithful attempts to keep them cannot?  “Turning to the Lord”, is Paul’s answer, that is to Jesus Christ.  The removing of the veil reminds Christians of Good Friday, when the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom as a sign that the sin and death that separated humanity from God can no longer do so because Christ has removed their power.

We need a new way of living in a post-veil world, and the Holy Spirit is key to that. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (3:17).   We will not get far if we treat the ethical teachings of the New Testament like another set of ten commandments, written on stone to bind us to particular actions (or the avoidance of them).  Rather they are to be “written on our hearts” as the ways in which the Holy Spirit sets us free to act out the love of Christ to others.  In doing so, Paul says, we will be transformed “with ever increasing glory” (3:18. NIV) into the likeness of God.  What an amazing thought!

Do you sometimes fail to see beyond the veil because you are concerned about whether all your actions are right?  Ask the Holy Spirit to remove the veil from your eyes!

The Bible in a Year – 16 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

16 October. 1 Corinthians chapters 15-16

Here, Paul covers the core doctrine of Christianity – the resurrection.  Even writing to his own converts, Paul has to dispel a number of misunderstandings, which are still common today.  That is not surprising, since it will be something outside our present understanding.

The first misunderstanding he addresses is thinking that there were few witnesses to the  resurrection of Jesus. In fact, he says, Jesus appeared to “Cephas, then to the twelve, then to more than five hundred at one time, then to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared also to me”  (15:5-7). There was no lack  of evidence for the visible resurrection of Jesus.

Then, Paul goes on to use logical principles to argues that the resurrection of even one person means that it is wrong to say that no-one can be resurrected; and if so, then why only one? Jesus is described as the “first fruits”, the proof that the time of harvest has come.  Many of the traditional Harvest hymns are actually allegorical, pointing to the “harvest of souls” at the end of time.  The purpose of Christ being raised first is that he can complete his work of “subjecting every ruler, authority and power”.  That language is strange to us, but seems to mean that the risen (but no longer visible) Jesus is working “behind the scenes” to ensure that eventually, only God will have authority on earth, and not the other ‘forces’ that are at work in the world (not necessarily evil, but not godly either).

The third main misunderstanding Paul deals with is the idea that our resurrection bodies will be like the ones we have now.  He uses the illustration of sowing seeds – the plant that grows is not only totally unlike the seed, but much greater, and its nature cannot be guessed by looking at the seed.  So, our ‘spiritual’ bodies after the resurrection will be so unlike our earthly ones that we cannot imagine them, and it is pointless to do so.

The Bible in a Year – 15 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

15 October. 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14

These three chapters deal with the sometimes contentious, and often misunderstood, question of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Seeing that the Alpha course takes a whole day (or even weekend) to explore this topic, I cannot cover it adequately in a few hundred words.   But it is important to understand that the Holy Spirit is not simply some mysterious force that takes over a small number of people and enables them to perform miracles such as healing, or discerning what is going on in someone else’s life.  Paul does refer to those ‘gifts’, but they are rare.   Speaking in tongues (praising God in a private language) is more common, but still not part of regular mainstream Christian experience.

What Paul is at pains to point out is that the Holy Spirit (who is the presence of God among us, sent after the ascension of Jesus) gives all kinds of gifts, which are intended partly for building up the faith of the individual, but mainly for building up the faith of the congregation and empowering the ministry of the whole church in the world. Such gifts include leadership, preaching and teaching, leading worship and pastoral care, which are the mainstay of authorised Christian ministry.  But above all Paul prizes prophesy – the understanding and sharing of a message given directly by God for a particular situation.  The prophet may well also be the priest or pastor, but not necessarily.  That is why he insists at the end of this passage that public worship must be orderly, with only one person speaking at once, and the rest of the congregation paying attention.

For the same reason, Paul emphasises that the Lord’s Supper (which became the communion, eucharist or mass in later tradition) is about gathering to share bread and wine as if they were the actual body and blood of Christ, which unites us.  The practice that the Corinthians seem to have had is something more like a picnic where every family brought their own meal and were not even willing to share food with those who had brought nothing.

So whether you personally, or your church, experience the more miraculous gifts, and in whatever way you celebrate the Lord’s supper, never forget that all the Spirit’s gifts are given for the church, and not just for you.  We are one body.

The Bible in a Year – 14 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

14 October. 1 Corinthians chapters 9-11

In these chapters, Paul turns to the practicalities of Christian living. The questions he discusses are all still relevant today, though we may come up with different answers as a result of differences in culture.   For instance, Paul explains at length why women should wear veils in church (not “hats” as some people think); it derives from an understanding of women as being subservient to men, and of their long hair which is their ‘glory’ being a temptation to men to distract them from holy thoughts.  Most human societies have moved on from that kind of thinking about women, and if a man finds a woman in church attractive, that’s his issue to deal with, not her fault.

There are, of course, some Christians who will say that if we believe the Bible to consist of writings inspired by God, we should take it all literally, but that leads to all kinds of complications and paradoxes, simply because it was written over a period of about 1000 years (and including much earlier ideas in some parts) by people whose culture and philosophy varied from Persian to Greek, as well as Jewish.

God does want us to live in a way that honours him and each other; but in Christ he put to an end the idea that there is one unchanging set of moral and religious rules for all time.  Paul concedes this with his challenge to the Corinthians: “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled?”(11:13).  He hopes, of course, that they will say “no”; but we are free to differ.

Paul himself has given us in the previous chapter the overarching principle to guide our Christian ethics: “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others” (10:23-24).  What that means in practice will depend on when and where we live, and the culture of our neighbours.

The Bible in a Year – 13 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

13 October. 1 Corinthians chapters 5-8

Paul is sometimes thought of as primarily a moralist, particularly on matters of sexual relationships. Most of his teaching on the subject is found in chapters 5 to 7 of this letter.  Why is it that the apostle who is also known for his preaching of the grace of God, of salvation by faith irrespective of good works, of the detailed Jewish law no longer applying to Christians, why is he also the one who “lays down the law” when it comes to relationships?

Some of what he writes is only expressed as guidance – while expressing a wish that more people would be celibate as he was (7:7) he is prepared to accept that for most people, to be married is generally better.  Likewise he encourages those who are already married not to divorce just because they have different religious beliefs, and to enjoy regular intercourse. So he is no prude.

What Paul does condemn, though, in chapter 6, is a list of sins including various forms of sexual activity. This list famously includes homosexual acts, but also prostitution, fornication (i.e. casual sex outside marriage), and adultery.  But it also includes idolatry, theft, drunkenness, greed, and Christians suing each other in court (thereby acting contrary to the ideals of forgiving each other and having all things in common).  What these have in common is that they show Christianity in a bad light.  Whether a person chooses for religious reasons to be single or married is a matter of conscience.  But sins such as those listed, if they are known to people outside the church, show that the Christian’s claim to have been freed from the power of sin and be living a life of love and compassion is a hollow one.

Perhaps the key verse in the passage is this: “For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside.” (5:12-13).   In other words, Paul is not saying that he expects non-Christians to follow these rules. Nor does he expect Christians to avoid non-Christians just because of their immoral behaviour by our standards, for that would mean we would lose out opportunity to be witnesses to them. No, Paul’s concern is just that when it comes to relationships within the church (including sexual ones), his converts use their freedom from Jewish ritual law wisely, and do not engage in behaviour that brings themselves and the Church into disrepute.

The Bible in a Year – 12 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

12 October. 1 Corinthians chapters 1-4

The relationship between the apostle Paul and the church in Corinth, as revealed in his two letters (and what some people have deduced from them about their situation), is a fascinating one.  Sometimes he is praising them, holding them up as example to others of what Christians should be like; then a short while later criticising their behaviour and calling them immature.

Paul’s main criticism in this first quarter of the book is that some of the congregation think that they follow, or even worse “belong to”, himself, or to one of the other apostles, rather than Christ.  He has to remind them that all Christians are baptised into Christ (or, in most churches, into the Trinity of God the Father, Jesus Christ who is God’s Son, and the Holy Spirit).  In chapter 3 he uses the analogy of farming, where he and others who have taught them the faith are like farmers, who may plant the crop, but without God’s gifts of earth, air, sun and rain it will not grow.  So it is with Christians: only God grows faith within a person; other people can only provide the “seeds of faith”.

In chapter 4 he uses a different analogy, that of father and child. A parent can teach a child the facts of life, but maturity is something that each person has to work out for him- or herself from experience.  Growth into maturity is what we call wisdom.  But for Paul, human wisdom is not enough in the Kingdom of God.  We also need spiritual maturity, and as far as that was concerned, the Corinthians, although adults, were so immature that they were like babies who are not yet weaned (3:2) – what an insult!  Their immaturity is shown by the division among them according to which of the apostles they wrongly claim to belong to.

Division in the church is not new.  Whether at a global level between “liberal” and “conservative” cultures, at a national level between members of an “official” state church and independent ones, within one church network according to preferences in worship, or even within a single congregation over some trivial issue like whether to replace pews with chairs, we hear it all the time. The media love a ‘divided church’ story, and those of us who are members of such congregations should be ashamed. We need to grow up!

Such divisions not only attract ridicule, they hinder the work of the Holy Spirit who can only work where there is unity of purpose, and mutual love. There was a parody on social media of a well known hymn.  The joke version read “Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God: brothers we are treading where we’ve always trod.”  The original, not often heard these days, is powerful when it is not only sung but believed as true, and lived out: “Like a mighty army moves the church of God: brothers we are treading where the saints have trod.”  The power of the Holy Spirit that Paul hints at in these opening chapters, and which he will discuss later in his letter, is what moves this mighty army.

Choose your metaphor then: growing crops, a family, or an army. Whichever you prefer, be a part of it, growing together in the love of God, and resist division like the plague.