Scripture: 1 Peter 5:12-19
It was 2003 when I met James Song. It was December. Abigail and I were attending the Urbana missions conference. The Urbana conference happens once every three years and brings in over 20,000 people-most of who are college students and young 20 somethings-like we were. James though was one of the older attendees, probably in his late 30s early 40’s at the time. We met him on a shuttle bus, and I do not remember how the conversation really got started, but I remember his story. James was a Christian from South Korea, living in China. I do not remember the city that he lived in, but out of his apartment he taught and trained pastors. China has very strict rules about Christianity, and practice of the faith is only allowed in state endorsed churches that use a state censored bible. Christians who seek to practice the faith outside of this state defined way, risk imprisonment in conditions that are infamous for the human rights violations. The pastors he was training were ones who would risk teaching the faith from an uncensored bible. James was seeking to smuggle in bibles and materials when he returned to China. We asked him what would happen if he got caught, and he said that he most likely would be deported and banned from ever entering the country again. However arrest was possible, and those he was teaching would certainly be arrested. We prayed with him and for him as the bus arrived at its destination, and we went our separate ways, both to merge back in to the crowd of thousands. We never saw him again. For the next several months, I prayed regularly for him, and for his safety. As time went on, those prayers though became less regular. I am slightly embarrassed to confess, that until this week I have probably not given him a single thought for at least two or three years. That is kind of an inescapable part of our nature though isn’t it? If something does not immediately affect us, does not impact our daily lives, then it eventually fades to the background, and then fades away. That is why days like today are so important. Today is the international day of prayer for the persecuted church. We are joining with hundreds of other of churches across the world today in remembering and praying for those brothers and sisters in Christ who are actively suffering for their faith. Now I realize that this might be the first time, that this church has observed this day of prayer, but I personally feel it is vitally important. These Christians across the world who are being persecuted are part of the body of Christ. We share with them one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and the same salvation. 1 Corinthians 12:26 states about the body of Christ, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” and Hebrews 13:3 urges us to “remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison.” Today as a church family, we will focus on lifting up in prayer those who are suffering because of our shared faith.
I do not know how knowledgeable you are about the issue of persecution, but it has been my experience that many people are surprised when they learn persecution still happens today. The New Testament is full of scriptures like the one we read this morning, that speak of persecution. Perhaps because of this, we tend to associate persecution with the popular (and historically dubious) image of Christians being fed to lions in the Roman Coliseum. The fact is that more Christians died in the 20th century than were killed under Roman persecution. In fact, more Christians were killed for their faith in the 20th century than the previous nineteen centuries combined.
This year persecution has been in the news and in national attention like never before. For instance you may recall in April the horrific act of over 200 school girls being kidnapped by a Muslim extremist group in Nigeria. This reached national attentions as many celebrities joined in the #bring back our girls campaign. The vast majority of these girls came from Christian families, and it is heart breaking it appears they may never be reunited with their families. Then in May you may remember the news story of Mariam Ibrahim from Sudan. She was born to a Muslim family in that country, but converted to Christianity and married a Christian man. Under the Islamic laws of that country she was guilty of an illegal conversion and adultery (since her marriage was illegal) and she was sentenced to death. A massive human rights campaign and international pressure saw her death sentence commuted and eventual exile from the country. Finally, there is the massive exodus of Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq under the Islamic State. In places like Mosul, a Christian enclave in Iraq, over 100,000 Christians have been driven away from their homes. The homes of Christians were marked with an Arabic “N” for Nazarene, and they were given a choice to convert, leave, or die. In August and September many of you probably saw email forwards or facebook post about children being executed there. While those reports have not been confirmed, it is clear that Christians are suffering persecution under the Islamic State and that thousands of people are now displaced because they are believers in Christ.
If you are watch or read the news, you are probably familiar with those three stories, and if you are like me then you probably also had nearly forgotten about the kidnapped girls in Nigeria. Again, that is why days like today, where we purposely remember and pray are so important. It is also vitally important to stress that persecution is not an “us vs. them” issue. I realize that in all three of this news stories from this year, it is Muslim extremists who propagate the persecution. We have to remember that Muslims are not the enemy. Ephesians 6:12 reminds us that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood but . . . against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil.” Persecution is often carried out against Christians by extremists but not just Muslims. Hindu extremists persecute Christians in India, Buddhist extremist persecute Christians is Sri Lanka, and sadly Catholic extremists in Mexico even persecute Evangelical Christians. Persecution is not just a matter of clashing religious views. There are also governments that propagate persecution, this is especially true under communists’ regimes like China, Vietnam and North Korea.
To get a fuller picture of what kind of persecution Christians face around the world today, consider these things. Persecution on some level happens in 60 countries around the world, and there are over 100 million Christians who reside in these countries. Every single week an average of five churches are attacked by extremists groups around the world. Open Doors, one of the major advocacy groups that works on behalf of persecuted Christians estimates that in 2013 around 2,123 Christians were killed because of their faith. Many more find themselves imprisoned. For example, a woman named Maryam Nagash zargaran was arrested in 2013 for helping organized a house based church in Iran, and is now serving a four year prison sentence for that. One final example is South Korean missionary Kim Jung-Wook who on May 30th of this year was sentenced for life to a hard labor prison in North Korea for his evangelistic activities.
These statistics and stories may be shocking, but they should not be surprising. In fact that is how this morning’s scripture begins, do not be surprised. Even Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” The simple fact is that the gospel of Christ. The story we have to share that God so loves us that he sent his only son, so that we may be redeemed is True, Light, and Good. This means that as long as there is deception, darkness, and evil in the world there will be opposition, and there will be persecution. Throughout history, this persecution has taken on different forms, but it is just are as present now as it was in the first century. One of the things that I have always found, I guess unsettling is the right word, is how the bible states we should respond to persecution. Throughout the scripture it is fairly consistent, and this morning’s reading does a good job of summarizing what is stated. Peter wrote this morning’s scripture to churches in what is now modern day Turkey. He wrote this during the reign of the Emperor Nero who instigated the first wave or systematic persecution that Christians faced. Peter stated that these first generation Christians undergoing persecution should rejoice that they participate in the suffering of Christ. He wrote they are blessed, and that they should praise God. Now when we think of the things that we count as blessings in our lives, suffering for what we believe does not make the list. In fact most of us purposely go to great lengths to ensure that we suffer as least as possible in life. I have read, watched, and listened to multiple firsthand accounts of Christians who have been persecuted over the years and one of the things I am amazed is at how consistent their testimony is. Consistently in these interviews they say that there greatest prayer needs is not for their safety or for the end of the persecution. No, what they pray for is the strength to endure and they pray that they can be a witness to and share the love of Christ with their persecutors. Story after story, those who are persecuted try to live out the last verse of this morning’s scripture: “those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.”
Stories of faith under persecution can and should be inspiring to us, but more than that it should convict us deeply. Richard Wurmbrand, founder of Voice of the Martyrs and author of Tortured for Christ writes “Persecution has always produced a better Christian-a soul winning Christian.” We really are so fortunate to have the religious liberty that we do. We can worship where and when we choose, read the bible without fear of reprisal, and the ability to share our faith is a protected right. Yet do we? There are people today, who are in prison right now because they believe so strongly in the saving power of the cross that they tried to share it with others who were lost. Even though it was against the law, they were faithful to the call to make disciples of Jesus Christ. How often do we shrink from sharing what we believe because we do not want to risk offending others or we are afraid it will be awkward? When compared to people who face real and true persecution, we really have it extremely easy. If we share Jesus without fear, if we step out into the realm of the unknown, if we reach out and invite in, what do we truly have to lose? We do not have to worry about being tortured, imprisoned, or killed. We might offend, we might feel awkward, and we might be rejected, but if that is the worse that happens to us, we really do not have a legitimate excuse. We should follow the example of those who live in persecution and strive to share our faith, because the truth of Jesus Christ is too important and worth all of the risks.
Today, on the International day of Prayer for the persecuted church we are going to pray. Even though the church may be pushed underground in some places in the world, we are going to pray that the light of Christ prevail. We are going to remember and lift up are brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering around the world. We should also look to them for inspiration and follow the bold example of faith they give us. May we not be complacent in our faith, but may we follow the examples of those who are persecuted. May we be better Christians-soul winning Christians. Whether we live in the land of the free or a place with no religious freedom, we are all the body of Christ. We suffer together and we rejoice together, let us also commit ourselves to our faithful creator and do good together.