Salt of the earth: Part 6

I must find strength in God’s promises to carry out his words to bless—to bless, even those who persecute.

Mark W. Henrich

I looked out at the congregation, and I hesitated. The text, short though it was, had been difficult for me. Too many hours during the week had been spent staring at these words: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14). The thought kept coming, Persecution? What do I really know about persecution?

Persecution isn’t just when bad things happen—someone cuts you off on the road, your supervisor has a bad day and takes it out on you, or even the heartaches that you have living in a world of sin. There is a difference between problems and persecution. Persecution is hostility or ill treatment designed, intended, targeted to injure, grieve, or afflict. Persecution is normally defined as something that happens because of race, ethnicity, political persuasion, or religious beliefs.

Modern-day persecution

I may have difficult times in my life journey, but persecution has been—can it be?—absent. Yet I know persecution has not been absent in the lives of my spiritual brothers and sisters.

Walter—How can I not think of Walter? He grew up in an orphanage; served in World War II; and received a scholarship, sight unseen, to play ball at a major university. He arrived on campus, and the scholarship was taken away.

“Why, Walter?”

“They didn’t know the color of my skin. What could I do? I had to go south to find a school.”

Walter graduated, married, got a good job, and moved to a new neighborhood.

I commented on what a nice street it was. “Oh, Pastor, it wasn’t always so quiet. We were the first people of color on this street. I can’t tell you what things happened to me, my wife, and my children. And it kept happening. Pastor, you wouldn’t know.”

No, I wouldn’t. Persecution.

Michelle—Michelle was 16 when the phone call came. “Come quickly.”

The family was in tears because the announcement had come from the father: He had arranged for Michelle to be married in his home country. The plane ticket was in hand to leave that same week.

Along with the arranged marriage came the further pronouncement. Michelle must give up Christianity and convert. If not? From her father’s lips came the words, “I never want to see you again. You will not see my wife and the other younger children. Decide now. Obey me. Agree to marriage and your new religion or never be in my life again.”

An ultimatum I’ve never been given. Persecution.

Avery—the 20-something-year-old—came to the church office to talk. So much had already happened in his life. In order to find a better life, he left his home country and traveled to South Africa, then to South America, and finally to Toronto. Here he came to know Jesus and became a Christian. How wonderful to share the joy of being brothers in Christ!

I asked Avery when he thought he would ever get home to visit family and friends. His words shook me. “Oh, I can never go home. Because I am now a Christian, my family has rejected me, and in the area I am from, I will be killed for following Jesus. And my community here now shuns me.”

Rejected by family, not allowed home? Not me. Persecution.

Jesus, persecution, and Paul

I don’t know much about persecution. But the Bible speaks often and openly about it. The word is used more than 50 times. Jesus himself talked about the reality of persecution and how his disciples are to respond. Recall his challenging words from the Sermon on the Mount? “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you. . . . Rejoice and be glad.” (Matthew 5:10-12). “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20).

And so it happened. The apostles were arrested because they spoke about new life in Jesus (Acts chapter 5). Stephen was martyred for his faith. (Acts chapter 7) Then we read, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church” (Acts 8:1). Paul suffered persecution. He was flogged, stoned, threatened by his own countrymen, and imprisoned (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

What does Paul write about persecution? “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” How is this possible? Bless, that is, to think well of or to wish God’s blessings on those who cause pain? Our hearts say no. Our hearts say to get even, to get revenge, to let others feel the pain they themselves have inflicted.

But Paul saw Jesus—the one who taught about persecution and the one who was persecuted. “When they hurled insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed’ ” (1 Peter 2:23,24). Paul saw the cross and forgiveness. He was healed. Paul could face whatever came his way. He would live for Jesus as Jesus had lived, died, and rose for him.

Soul searching

To the congregation in front of me that Sunday, I paused, prayed, and spoke more quietly than normal, “Persecution . . .”

I must soul search. I haven’t seen persecution in my life. Not really. Is this because I am a spiritual wallflower and am better at blending in than speaking about my Lord? Or perhaps God has given me grace to live in a time and place where persecution has not been in my life story. Thank you, Jesus!

I must soul search. Have I been the persecutor, the one who has made life difficult for others? Am I quick to put down, in words or actions, those with whom I do not agree? God, have mercy on me a sinner.

I must soul search. Have I been blind to the persecution, in all its forms, that goes on all around me? Have I stepped in? Have I stepped up? Have I spoken for those who are put down? Have I helped?

I must find strength in God’s promises to carry out his words to bless—to bless, even those who persecute.

Walter did. “Pastor, I’ve seen a lot of ignorance in my life, but I’ve also seen how God worked things out in my life for good. And I know this. Jesus has never let me down.”

Michelle received this strength. In the midst of tears in the room that night came her words, “I choose Jesus.”

Avery has been renewed. He will never go home. His community had ostracized him. “But, Pastor, it’s okay. I know Jesus, and I have never known such joy.”

And I am humbled—and strengthened. This is a hard verse. It is a beautiful verse. It is given to each of us.

Mark Henrich is pastor at Hope, Toronto, Canada.

This is the sixth article in a 12-part series about Christian love in action and how we can the salt in this world.



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Author: Mark W. Henrich
Volume 104, Number 12
Issue: December 2017

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