Now that you’ve heard about the blessings you’ll receive because you’ve joined up with Team Jesus, it’s time to read the fine print. In the Beatitudes at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us eight keys to living abundantly, and I’ve spent the last seven weeks looking at them. By now a savvy consumer might be wondering what the hidden cost is.
And we learn there is a cost, though it’s not hidden. All through the scriptures big arrows point to it. There’s one in Paul’s letter to his young protégé Timothy: “All who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). If you seek to gain the abundant life Jesus offers by following the way of life he lays out, along with green pastures and still waters and easy yokes there will be a price to pay. You will be persecuted.
Jesus pulls no punches. Don’t start following me, he says, unless you first sit down and count the cost, or you may find you’re not able to finish what you start (Luke 14:25-35). “You will be handed over to the courts,” he says. “And you must stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. Brother will betray brother to death, fathers will betray their own children, and children will rise against their parents and cause them to be killed. And everyone will hate you because of your allegiance to me” (Matt. 10:17-18, 21-22). When did we trade crosses and crash helmets for cushions on our pews?
If we’re going to carry Christ’s message and conduct Christ’s ministry, as we’re charged to do, we’re going to take God’s values to the places where the world’s values are enthroned, and we’re going to demand a change in regime. We’re going to help bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly; we’re going to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-53). We’re going to shine light into darkness, and darkness will do its best to overcome it (John 1:5).
Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of Nicaragua, spoke about the church’s confrontation of society when society perverts God’s will. “Nobody likes to have a sore spot touched,” he said, “and so society twitches when someone touches it and says, ‘You have to heal that, you have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.’” Society twitched at Oscar’s prophetic touch, and the soldiers came, and the government mingled his blood with the blood of the Eucharist.
Do you think persecution of Christians was limited to the church’s first 300 years, when it was illegal to be Christian? The International Society for Human Rights reports that “eighty percent of all religious freedom violations in the world today are directed against Christians.” It’s estimated that in the last 2,000 years about seventy million Christians have died for their faith. Seventy million. About half that number, thirty-five million, have died in the last 100 years. There’s a price to pay for following Christ.
Persecution of Christians today is not confined to places like North Korea, Iraq, and Syria, and it’s not limited to the shedding of blood. Persecution less violent but no-less heavy-handed is practiced legally in the United States. If you want an example, ask Arnold Abbott. The ninety-year-old Ft. Lauderdale resident took Christ at his word: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” (Matt. 25:34-35).
Abbott, who runs a nonprofit group called Love Thy Neighbor, was one of three men – the other two are pastors – arrested early this month for feeding the homeless. They were charged under a new ordinance effectively banning public food sharing. The city tried to stop him before –Abbott has been feeding the homeless for more than twenty years – but a successful lawsuit kept him going. Now he’s facing up to sixty days in jail and a $500 fine for taking his faith seriously and doing what Christ commands. Abbot plans to continue his ministry, knowing he may face other charges.
Not many of us face the kind of persecution Arnold Abbott is facing, but we face pressure – and usually try to avoid it – nevertheless. We are pressured not to stand up for Christ; not to be a public witness to the gospel; just to blend in and fit in and conform to the world around us.
For example, a boss or a customer pressures you to do something you know is dishonest or unethical and you don’t want to do it: that’s pressure to conform. People are standing around telling dirty jokes or making fun of someone’s disability, and you know you really ought not be participating in this, but you feel pressured to stay there and smile and not walk away. You feel the pressure when people are praising moral choices the Bible says are wrong and acting like it’s perfectly normal, and they wonder why you don’t go along with them. How do you handle that kind of pressure? How do any of us handle it?
First, remember that opposition to your faith can mean you’re standing closer to Jesus. “When the world hates you,” Jesus said, “remember it hated me before it hated you. The world would love you if you belonged to it, but you don’t. Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you” (John 15:18-20). If you want to stand closer to Jesus and live like Jesus lived and gain the rewards Jesus gained, you’re going to experience what Jesus experienced. Jesus was criticized, maligned, and attacked for his faith. When that happens to you, it’s a good sign.
Second, remember that opposition to your faith will deepen your faith. You don’t grow and strengthen muscle by sitting around snacking on Buffalo wings; you grow muscle by stretching it, straining it, testing it. You use it against resistance – free weights or an exercise machine. Opposition strengthens your faith. The trials you face, wrote St. Peter, “are only to test your faith, to show that it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold – and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold” (1 Peter 1:7).
St. Paul found suffering for his faith to be a great blessing. He was able to rejoice when he encountered trials and persecutions, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:4). Opposition to your faith builds godly character and deepens the hope we all need to live fully.
Finally, remember that opposition to your faith will pay eternal dividends. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” Jesus said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on [Jesus’] account” (Matt. 5:10-11). When your commitment to God draws persecution, or when it simply increases the pressure you feel to conform to the world around you, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:12).
After Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that Birmingham bus; after she had been humiliated and yelled at and spit at and hustled off to jail; after she had been through the long struggle to let the oppressed go free, she commented, “My feet are tired but my soul is rested.” Are you deep enough in your discipleship and committed enough to your witness for the gospel of Christ that you’re beginning to experience, if not outright persecution, then at least noticeable pressure from those around you?
Welcome to Team Jesus. Welcome to the family of faith and the household of God. You have come to the place where your soul will find rest. You have come to the threshold of the kingdom of heaven.