John: Persecution

John: Persecution
A Message on John 16:25-33
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Aug. 30, 2020
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

John 16:25-33 (NRSV)

“I [Jesus] have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. 26 On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.”

29 His disciples said, “Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! 30 Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.” 31 Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? 32 The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33 I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

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Today’s scripture from the Gospel of John is a little disturbing. Jesus is telling his disciples that in following him, in living the way he lived, the way God wants us to live, we will be persecuted.

Now some translations of the Bible use the word “troubles” instead of persecution, and others use the word “tribulation.” But today we’re going to view it as persecution.

“In the world you face persecution.” Ouch! I don’t know about you, but I don’t like persecution, and I sure don’t like to be persecuted. Nope.

Many people don’t expect that when they become Christians. They think that when they accept Jesus as their savior that he will save them from all kinds of troubles as well. There is this belief that if we keep the commandments and do good and go to church and put money in the offering plate then there will be sort of this holy bubble of protection around them and that nothing bad will ever happen in our life.

We think we will always get the close up parking spaces at Walmart, that we will make more money, that our health will be perfect, that our children will behave and only make good choices, and that we will be held in esteem by everyone.

And when we think that way (or at least somewhat that way) it disturbs us when we read this scripture that says we will be persecuted. No, we don’t want to be persecuted. Yes, we want to be a follower of Jesus Christ, but we don’t want our faith to be challenged or to be persecuted.

It doesn’t work that way, though. The author of the Gospel of John knew this, and he wasn’t the only writer in the Bible that thought this.

Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Peter writes in 1 Peter 4:12-14, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.”

And we have to remember what Matthew records Jesus saying in the beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

So how many of you are thinking right now, “Wait. I didn’t sign up for this.” Well guess what? You did. No takebacks.

Now it’s hard for us in our country and our society to comprehend being persecuted for our religious beliefs, although in the last few months it has been becoming more uncomfortable to be a Christian. Our society is becoming more and more secular and in many ways condemning Christians and almost rejoicing when a Christian leader falls from grace.

I predict that things will get more uncomfortable for Christians before they get better. But even then I think our persecutions will not be at the level that they are in other parts of the world today or as they have been in history.

I think of the members of ISIS, the Islamic sect, marching a long line of 21 Coptic Christians along the shore of the sea in Libya before having them kneel and brutally murdering them by slitting their throats and beheading them.

There are many places in the world today where Christianity is not only frowned upon, but it is actually illegal. Here are just a few: North Korea, China, Laos, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yeman, Somalia, Pakistan, and Nigeria, India, and Indonesia, just to name a few!

It’s hard to believe but in some places in the world today you can be killed for being a Christian. You can be killed for worshipping Jesus. The martyrs who died at the hands of ISIS prove it.

Throughout the history of the Common Era Christians have been persecuted. In 64 AD there was a huge fire that destroyed a large part of Rome. Emperor Nero, who many suspect of having the fire set on purpose, falsely blamed the Christians and thus started the government sanctioned persecution of Christians. Some were made to wear animal hides and were then torn apart by dogs, others were forced to wear shirts soaked in wax and burned alive as human torches. It was brutal.

Then came the unusually named Polycarp, who was the religious leader of the Christians in Smyrna, which is today Izmir, Turkey. (And no, his name doesn’t mean “many fish,” but “much fruit” in Greek.) Somewhere around 156 AD, when he was in his 80s, he was arrested, brought before the Roman authorities, and told to either worship the Roman Emperor or be put to death. When asked to deny Christ, his response was “Eighty-six years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

They then threaten to burn Polycarp at the stake. He responded, “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.”

So they did. When they went to nail him to the stake to prevent his escape he responded with, “Leave me as I am, for he that gives me strength to endure the fire, will enable me not to struggle, without the help of your nails.” So they did.

He said a prayer and they lit the fire, and the witnesses said it formed “an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, and formed a circle around the body of the martyr.”

When the soldiers saw that his body was not being consumed by the flames they had an executioner pierce him with a sword, at which point fluids came out of his body and extinguished the fire.

Now that, folks, is persecution!

Now I’m not saying that we should all volunteer to be executed so that we can become martyrs. No. My point is that if this man can be persecuted to the point of death, and in going to his death glorify God and keep the faith as a follower of Jesus Christ, then we, as followers of Jesus Christ, should be able to withstand any persecution that comes our way and use that persecution to glorify God and our savior.

If it came down to denying your faith in Christ and living, or standing firm in your faith and dying, which would you choose?

I pray that none of us will ever have to make a decision like that.

I also pray that we remember those who did face that decision when we face minor persecutions for our faith. I pray that we can do as Paul writes in Ephesians 6:13, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”

Jesus tells the disciples, and us, that we will be persecuted for our faith. But that’s not how he ends the conversation. He follows that statement up with this: “But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

I think it’s good for us as followers of Christ to remember to have a Godly perspective rather than a worldly one. For example, if a good friend shuns us because of our faith the worldly perspective would have us feeding our anger and/or looking for revenge, but a Godly perspective would have us knowing that sometimes God puts people in our lives for a lifetime and others just for a season.

If we are suffering and hurting and it seems like time is going by so slowly, a worldly perspective is to focus on that suffering and hurt, wondering if we are being punished for something we did or how it might be interfering with the plans we had for our lives. A godly perspective is to know that our lives are but the smallest speck compared with God’s eternity, and to remember Paul’s words in Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Take courage! Jesus has conquered the world! There is nothing in this world that is more powerful than the love of Jesus! No matter how badly we are treated by people in this world, no matter how much we are persecuted–even to the point of death, Jesus’ love is more powerful. Through his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead Jesus has indeed overcome the world.

So my challenge to you this week is to have courage in the face of persecution. Don’t be surprised when it happens, as Jesus has told us that we will experience it. But Jesus also tells us to have courage to keep the faith as he has overcome the world. No matter how badly we are persecuted, those who are persecuting us do not win. They cannot win. Jesus wins, and because Jesus wins, we also win.

Praise be to God!

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

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