A Response to Suffering and Persecution 

 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11, 7th Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017

It’s been a hard week for our world, particularly Christians in this world. On Monday, a suicide Muslim terrorist detonated a bomb in a Manchester Arena filled with concert-goers killing 22, and injuring and maiming many others. On Friday, 28 Coptic Christians (including women and children) were mercilessly executed by armed gunmen and another 23 seriously injured as the bus in which they were travelling was ambushed by ISIS terrorists. If that weren’t enough in that week, news from Marawi Philippines tells of armed ISIS terrorists capturing the city, taking hostage and killing many in its Christian churches and hospitals.  News yesterday relates that hundreds of thousands are desperately attempting to flee the city in attempts to save their lives. It’s getting to the point where I’m hesitant to open up my news sources for fear of what new and despicable atrocities will be featured among the morning headlines.

These are indeed difficult days for Christians (and others to be sure) throughout the world. Terrorist attacks that were once few and far between have now become common fare. The response by countries and world leaders is varied, with everything from military retaliation to those who commit such crimes against humanity (which interestingly enough was the case in Egypt), to denial, and at best empty platitudes by others. To be quite honest I myself am divided as to how to respond to the repeated attacks and senseless slaughter of Christians brothers and sisters throughout the world (many of which are children). I know well the verses from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Mat 5:44 where he calls us to “love our enemies and pray for those you persecute you”, but during weeks like this I resonate with the cry of the martyrs in Rev 6:10, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 

Although today’s text from 1 Peter doesn’t address the question of Divine justice and judgment (for there will be a day of reckoning for all, including the “household of God”), the passage from the epistle (letter) does confirm that suffering for the Christian is not unique to this present era, but goes back to its very origins of Christianity, and the one who founded it, our Lord Jesus himself.  1 Peter not only identifies the fact that persecution and suffering exist, it also serves to identify the ultimate source of suffering. Although on occasion we see actual pictures in news stories of those individuals who perpetrate these unthinkable acts of violence, here, as in other places in the Bible (Eph 6:12 for example), we find that our struggle is ultimately not against these primarily young Muslim males bent on Jihad and ultimately establishing a world-wide caliphate or Islamic State, but rather against that ancient serpent the devil himself.  In this particular passage he is likened to a raging lion, looking for people to devour. This image would come close to home for these, and future readers of this text, as perhaps these very readers would themselves meet this actual beast in the Roman stadiums as these roaring lions were turned loose on these early martyrs.

The problems of evil, persecution, and suffering that Christians face today and have faced since the very beginning of the Christian faith, requires a multifaceted response. Although not mentioned directly in this text, one of the duties of states and governments established by God (whether those governments know or acknowledge this) is to provide safety and security for its citizens (Rom 13). In our Lutheran tradition we acknowledge the vocation of police officers, soldiers, magistrates, and even the hangman, (although in Canada they have a limited role presently) as these individuals fulfill their vocations and callings within the political structures God has ordained (often referred to as the “left hand of God”). Our Lord Jesus himself has one of his sternest warnings for those who cause “little ones” any harm, “If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Mat 18:6

Along with this however, the Christian must guard against a desire for revenge, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” Rom 12:19, and never repay evil with more evil (Rom 12:17). Rather we are called to pray for those who persecute us, and bless and not curse them (Rom 12:14).  And in the midst of this suffering and chaos, we turn to Jesus, the “author and perfecter of our faith”, as we cast all our cares upon him.

The Little-known Day of Ascension    Acts 1:6-14, 7th Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday, May 28, 2017

I rather expect many of you had a relatively uneventful Ascension Day this past Thursday. I had thought of sending a notice of this on our Facebook page, but apparently I got distracted or busy with something else, and that never happened. I have wondered on occasion of having a service to commemorate this event in our Christian calendar, but being this event happens in the springtime, and always in the middle of the week, I’m not sure if I would get many “takers” regarding this (unless perhaps I combined with a cemetery cleanup day or something). Although we profess this truth regularly in creedal form, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, Ascension Day is one of those events that seems to come and go with little or no fanfare in most Lutheran circles.

The crafters of the Common Lectionary must have been aware of this, and as such have included an Ascension Day text in this Sunday’s Scripture readings.  This event happens 40 days after the resurrection of Jesus, and is described by Luke in the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus has spent the past 3 years teaching and preparing his disciples for this moment, (and the last 40 days post-resurrection specifically). One would think they are “prepared for the final exam”, but their initial question would suggest otherwise, “Lord, when are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” All the talk of Jesus’ Kingdom not being of this world” must have fallen on deaf ears, for this question still seems to be front-and-center. Jesus’ answer to them remained the same, and continues to be the only one we, his current disciples, get for our time as well. Although end-times pundits have published hundreds of books predicting exactly when this might be, God the Father has the final word in regards to the time of second coming of Jesus, and that word is… “it is not for you to know”.

That unknowing however should pose no great concern, for Jesus them tells them what they can, and must know, the nature of their commission and future mission; But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Their concern was not to be about the coming of the end of the age and the restoration of Jerusalem and Judea, but theirs was to bring the message of Jesus and his resurrection to that same locale and beyond. This commission has been passed on to all believes since, and belongs to us today. If you wonder about the main focus of the Christian life, you needn’t wonder much longer. We are called to be witnesses (martyrus in Greek.. now that’s something to think about) to Jesus Christ. With our families, our neighbors, those in our town, province and country, and throughout the world, we are called and commissioned by Jesus to be his witnesses…his martyrs.

If they can’t even identify the right question, pray tell how exactly will they accomplish such a grand feat? That’s where the Holy Spirit comes into play. It will be the Holy Spirit’s job to empower these self-centered, often cowardly rag-tag motley group to do what Jesus has commanded. Jesus never calls us to do anything that he will not equip us to do. As we read last week, it is important that Jesus ascend to the right hand of the Father (a position of power and authority, not so much a GPS location), so as to facilitate the sending of the Holy Spirit to empower the 12 (or eleven now, but soon to be 12 again with the selection of Matthias) and all of us since to carry on as Jesus’ messengers.

And then, without a further word he ascends into the clouds. The experience of the bodily Ascension of Jesus would most likely not be forgotten any time soon, as they watched their master and friend defy the laws of gravity that he himself had first initiated, and go to take his rightful place on his heavenly throne alongside God the Father. If that weren’t awe-inspiring enough, two angels appear on the scene asking about their upward gaze. They assure them that the very one they just saw ascend will descend in much the same manner on the final day, but in the interim they should fix their gaze outward rather than upward.

And so they return to Jerusalem to pray and to wait for power from on high. Although the person of the Holy Spirit has come with power at Pentecost (some 10 days after the Ascension), we continue to pray and await His continued filling for the task ahead of us, for it seems we too are focused on wrong questions, and the wrong gaze.

Happy belated Ascension Day everyone. We shouldn’t expect to see Jesus in his resurrected body anymore as He is currently enthroned in heaven alongside God the Father, but we will meet him in Holy Word, the waters of baptism, the bread and the wine at the communion table, and will see Him at work in and through his people as they are empowered by His Holy Spirit to bring His saving gospel to “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth”. Amen.

 

 

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