Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Seeds of the Church | Easter 2014

1 PETER 4:12-19; 5:6-11

June 1, 2014

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God, the Father, and Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

All these words, hear them with your ears. But, receive them in your hearts.

Seeds of the Church

Wow. The epistle reading for today is a tough one to swallow. Here it is again: Peter writes, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Instead he says to “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” We are meant to rejoice in our sufferings. Doesn’t that sound odd?

Then, again, Christian persecution in America is pretty odd. Although we have the freedom of speech, we often become too timid to speak. Although, we are able to share freely share the Gospel with those around us, we often neglect to. Although we live in a “Christian nation,” biblical literacy is dropping.

The type of Christian persecution that we are used to might be losing a friend or not being the popular guy. We might get a couple of glares or snide remarks. In our world, Christian suffering has almost become the horror of getting up for church in the morning or giving time to God instead of using it for ourselves.

The turmoil we are put through is not swearing when we want to swear, not going to the movies we want to see, not lying or steeling, trying not to be selfish. Yet, this pales in comparison to Christian suffering on a global level, still in our world. They estimate that between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians are being held in North Korean labor camps. If they manage to escape by sneaking into China and are later captured, they suffer a worse punishment if a Christian or American had helped them. In Sudan, a woman who has just given birth this week, is condemned to death by hanging for believing in Christianity although her father is a Muslim. Christian persecution and suffering still persists in our world. Yet, we are to rejoice?

It may help to step back for a moment, to look at the life of an early Christian. In the early centuries, there was a girl named Perpetua. She has a long and imaginative tale, but it is an important one. As she sat at home, the call rang through the streets, “Perpetua is a Christian.” “Perpetua is a Christian.” As the soldiers burst down her door, she doesn’t leave. She doesn’t put up boundaries, she isn’t timid or afraid. They enter. She has a job, responsibilities, a baby son. But, she lets them take her. When she gets to prison, her father gets on his knees and begs her to renounce her faith. She replies, “I cannot. I cannot say that I am something other than what I am. And, I am a Christian.” Her fate is sealed. While she is in prison, the continually prays and God gives her two visions.

In the first vision, Perpetua sees a long golden ladder reaching up to the heavens. It is a lot like Jacob’s ladder in the Old Testament, but it too narrow for angels to ascend and descend. Only one person is able to climb it at a time. And, it would not be an easy climb. Weapons of violence and torture hung off of the rungs, clanging in the air.

As her line of sight went from the top of the ladder to its bottom, it followed a trail of smoke that had been pooling out of a dragon’s nostrils sitting at the ladder’s base. She was not startled at the presence of the serpent, but she did step back when she heard the voice of one of her friends.

From the top of the ladder, Perpetua’s friend called down to her. He was a friend she had not seen in a while. In fact, she had lost contact with him when she was arrested for being a Christian. It would have been reasonable to assume he had been martyred. He called out to her again, “Perpetua, I wait for you.” “Be careful not to be bitten by the dragon.”

She cried back, “Do not worry. In the name of Jesus Christ, even the dragon cannot harm me.” The dragon released a whimper at the sound of Jesus’ name and she used his head as the first step of the ladder to ascend toward heaven.

Perpetua eventually wakes up and shares her vision. In her heart, her prison cell becomes her palace. She becomes assured that God is with her. Instead of becoming dismayed, she rejoices when she finds out that her penalty is to be fed to the beasts in the arena. She is glad to be a witness for Christ. Imagine that. In the midst of this pain and struggle, this certain death, Perpetua felt joy. She rejoiced. She might still have a tear in her eye, but I can see the smile on her face. She might even start to sing something like, “I will rest in the promise of God to be with me. I will rest in the knowledge God cares. Though the world and its troubles confuse and disturb me, I will rest in the Lord in my prayers…” She knows that even in through her suffering, she has become closer to Christ.

In her second vision, one of Perpetua’s friends takes her by the hand and guides her to the arena where she will be killed. He says to her, “Do not be afraid! I’ll be here to help you.” And, then he leaves her as she stares out over the crowd. She wonders why the beasts hadn’t yet been turned loose. Instead, an Egyptian warrior comes to face her instead. She was left in rags to face him. They both stepped forward and fought with their fists. He picks her up. She kicks him. Finally, she punches him out. She becomes the victor, the winner of her freedom. And, then she wakes up, realizing that her battle would be the next day, she was still covered in chains. At that moment, she knew that she would not be contending with wild animals, but with the devil himself. She also knew that with Christ as her guide, she would win.

Perpetua had to be who she was. And, she was a Christian. In being a Christian, Perpetua was not surprised that she had to face trials. Instead, she rejoiced. She was not ashamed of her faith. Instead she uses the opportunity to glorify God. She entrusts her fate to her faithful Creator. She is His. She humbles herself in order that he might take care of her. She throws away her pride and her anxiety and rests in the hands of God. Here, she knows that she is not alone. Others around the world were suffering. And, Christ himself had suffered. Yet, she knew that the God full of grace will restore her, confirm her faith, strengthen her will, and give her a place in his kingdom. Renouncing her faith would just be falling into another one of the prowling Dragon’s traps.

Even in this suffering, she began to see the prison around her as a palace. She realizes that she had been blessed with a place to stay, food, clothes, shelter, and protection. She constantly prays to God.

She was willing to die for what she believed in. And, even more surprising than that, she rejoiced at the opportunity of becoming a witness for Jesus Christ. She looked forward to climbing that ladder filled with maces and swords, she had no fear of the scaly ruler of this world. She took on the Egyptian face-to-face.

At the end of the story, Perpetua is martyred. She becomes a friend at the top of the ladder, encouraging the perpetual number of martyrs who were sure to follow. A theologian once said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

As the ages went on after Perpetua’s story, cultures such as the Romans and Greeks were awe-struck at the life-testimonies of Christians. The persecutors stood amazed as men, women, and children were willing to die in love rather than live in hate. The blood on the persecutor’s hands turned into mustard seeds and took root in their hearts. They began to wonder where this confidence, this attitude, this love had come from. They wanted to know, “Why would a Christian put up with all of this suffering?”

As they realized that the answer was in Christ Jesus, these same persecutors became believers. The Church grew. It became a mighty redwood. They put their faith and trust in God.

Yet, why are we often so surprised at suffering? Suffering has always been a part of the Gospel, marked by the cross. Jesus didn’t save us from suffering. He saved us through suffering. Suffering was needed once for us, to bring us to God.

Through this suffering, Christ endured his crucifixion. He died. He descended into Hell. His descent was the stomping on the head of the serpent. It was his victory march before he proved he had beaten death by his resurrection. He stepped on the snake, climbed the ladder filled with suffering, and he became the Way for us to follow. And, we rejoice at the possibility of following him. We pour out our hearts, loving those around us even when it hurts because he first poured out his heart to us. We become his witnesses and his martyrs to this world, because he had first witnessed to us. His blood had been the purest bloodshed to grow his Church. We are honored to be His instruments.

One part of Perpetua’s story I had always thought remarkably odd until now is that the man who had led Perpetua into the arena in her vision had told her not to be afraid because he was there to help her. But, then he left immediately. That is Jesus.

Although the time had come, he died, rose, and ascended, He still guides us. Although it may seem as if he has vanished, he still prays for us, that we may manifest his name and keep His word because we belong to him. We are not of the world, but we are in the world. That is why we suffer. Still, Jesus begged, that “We may be one just as He and the Father are one.” Although it might feel as though we are alone, Christ dwells with us and we dwell with each other. Although the world does not see him, we see him. We see that other followers rejoice in their suffering. Because it is in this suffering that we are blessed. For, in this suffering we know that we are set apart from this world. When our coworkers are disgruntled at our Christian music station; when we withhold from swearing, lying, cheating, steeling; when we spend our time serving the church instead of serving ourselves, we may suffer. But, we rejoice. To suffer as a Christian is not to be ashamed, but to glorify God. Amen.

Now may the peace that passes all our understanding, guard our hearts and minds to rejoice and pray in Christ Jesus from this time forth. Amen.

Josh Schmidt