We hear complaints here and there that Christians in the United States face persecution. Usually the complaints center on rules prohibiting crèches or Ten Commandment monuments on civic property, or maybe the inability to have Christian prayers at high school football games. Most of these complaints have to do with loss of power and market share. Rarely, if ever, do Americans face true persecution. That is, their lives are not on the line, in the way that, for instance, the Chaldean Christians of Iraq are facing persecution at this very moment. In the lectionary texts for this week, believers are called upon to stand firm and to keep true to their faith in the midst of difficult circumstances. The passage from Isaiah speaks to post-exilic Jews who are facing difficult prospects for the future, while both the epistle and gospel speak directly to the reality of persecution. Where then does faith fit in this equation?
We start with the message from Isaiah – or more precisely – the third prophetic voice in the book of Isaiah. The Jewish people are living in the midst of ruin and despair. Their city lies in ruins and their Temple is no more. They build homes only to see others move in and farm land to see others eat of it. But a new day is coming; a day of new creation, when the old will be gone and the people will again rejoice and be a delight to God. In that day they will not “labor in vain” or bear children only to see them face calamity. Their days will be long in the land and they will prosper. Indeed, in that day the lion and the lamb will lie down together in peace, for in that day the lion will eat straw like the ox. Don’t give up hope, the prophet says to the people, a new day is coming. Live out the dream – build homes and plant vineyards, because a new day is coming. It is a beautiful vision, one we should grab hold of. It is a message of God’s blessings, for which we may give thanks.
But, even as we seek to live out the vision of God, we must remember that there are forces that would seek to prevent this vision from being implemented. In both the New Testament passages the topic of persecution is front and center. In the passage from 2 Thessalonians, which may or may not be written by Paul we hear encouraging news – the Thessalonians are faithful and loving. They long to see Paul, even as he longs to see them. As they face opposition and persecution, they draw strength from the fortitude that the Thessalonians have shown in the face of their own experiences of opposition. They have stood firm and therefore, Paul can rejoice in this. At the same time, Paul prays day and night for them, hoping to be with them face to face so that he can encourage them in their times of troubles. At the same time, Paul prays that they would increase in their love for one another and be strengthened in holiness, so that in the end, they will blameless before God, when Jesus comes with all the saints. This would seem to be a reminder that even as we stand firm in faith, we would not lose sight of our relationships with another.
If the Thessalonian letter encourages us to stand firm in the face of persecution, even as we are encouraged to increase in love and holiness, the Gospel text reminds us that this call to stand firm may not just be for a season, but be a perennial issue. Don’t be led astray, Jesus tells the disciples if you hear someone come in my name and say “I am he” or “The time is near.” Don’t follow them. If you hear about wars and earthquakes, famines and such, don’t be too concerned, such things will happen. There is this strong appeal to an apocalyptic sense – things are likely to get worse not better, but God will, in God’s time, intervene to bring order to disorder. So don’t be too concerned about what you see and hear – that’s just the way life is.
But, the word you need to hear is that when you face persecution – when you get hauled before religious and secular authorities because of my name, take the opportunity to testify. Give your testimony – tell the authorities about your faith – stand firm in the face of persecution. As I read this, I picture Martin Luther, standing before the authorities, both religious and secular, saying to them in those famous words: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Jesus tells us in this text not to prepare a defense, but to trust him for the words. Let the Spirit move, because in doing so, the testimony will be all the more powerful.
As I read these texts, I hear in them both a vision of God’s future and a warning. God’s future won’t come into existence without a struggle. There are forces that would seek to prevent God’s reign from coming into existence. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we may have to follow this path to our deaths, giving witness to the ways of God, knowing that in God’s time God’s realm will break through and there will be a new creation and the lion and the lamb will lie down together in peace.
By Bob Cornwall
Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November. Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.