The 2019 NALC Ministerium was held at the end of the annual Pastors’ Conference, Feb 21st in Orlando, FL. This year’s ministerium was Bishop John Bradosky’s last as bishop of the NALC. He opened the gathering with the following sermon, based on Luke 6:20-31.
Responding to Persecution in Him
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is with both joy and sorrow that I greet you today. It is a pleasure to be with you, but it will be the last time I will do so as your bishop at a meeting of our ministerium. I have experienced great joy and fulfillment in executing my duties in this office, and while I know that it is the right time for such a transition, I did not anticipate the grief and loss in relinquishing this role. My joy and fulfillment come through the relationships we have shared over nearly a decade. While my role will change, my love and commitment to you and your congregations will never change. Because of the nature of your ministry, life in our congregations and our context in this world, the words of the Gospel are vitally important to proclaim.
Let us turn our attention to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ. But first, let us pray…
We live in a world of instant gratification. We want it our way right away. We desire faster internet speeds, the latest in cell phone technologies that keep us in touch constantly. All forms of transportation are now designed so we can eat, sleep and remain productive — maximizing every moment, even in transition. The thing we need the most is what we desire the least, patience. We have little time to look forward to things to come when we are immersed in the immediacy of the present.
Translating the impulsiveness of our secular world into our Christian life causes many Christians to be confused and struggle. Many Christians believe we should have peace and rest right now. No waiting. For our faith God should bless and reward us with a lack of problems. Christians shouldn’t get sick. Christians shouldn’t have trouble paying their bills. Christians shouldn’t have problems with their marriages or difficulties raising their children. Congregations shouldn’t struggle. Pastors shouldn’t experience loss. The peace, joy and bliss of heaven ought to be ours immediately, instantly, right now. These should be the privileges. They should be part of our membership.
This confusion occurs when we are normed by our culture and not the Word of God. Paul says in Romans 1:21-23, “Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshipping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols” (NLT).
This situation not only describes our world but the predicament that the church has been facing for many decades. When you trust your own emotions over the Word of God, you end up creating and worshipping idols. When you trust your own emotions over the Word of God, you end up worshipping yourself, following your own ideas, your own wisdom. When you trust your own emotions over the Word of God, you leave the light for the darkness, you leave clarity for confusion, you leave the truth for a lie, you worship your own foolish ideas instead of the glorious ever-living God. We like to think of ourselves as much wiser than those who came before us, but the truth is that the faithful who came before us were often much wiser, often stronger in their faith and consistently bolder in their proclamation of the Gospel. We want convenience. They gave of themselves sacrificially for the sake of Christ and His Church.
One of the sights in Rome that left me breathless was the Coliseum. It was not just the massiveness, design and construction of the building, but the fact that it was a place where countless thousands of Christians were persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ. While the crowds filled this stadium and rooted for the lions, Christians were mauled, torn to pieces and devoured. The lions were undefeated on their home field. Not one was able to tame them or withstand their strength for long. Yet the Christians kept coming, offering their lives as a testimony to the greater truth and reality of life in Christ. Inside the Coliseum there is a large steel cross to remember all those Christians who would not deny Jesus to preserve their life.
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:22-23 ESV).
How can the persecuted be blessed? No one in his or her right mind finds pleasure in pain. Yet this is the only beatitude that Jesus repeats for emphasis. It may have been the first time His disciples heard Him say it, but it would not be the last. Jesus made it very clear that a cross was in front of Him and, if they were following Him, a cross was in their future as well. Jesus didn’t hide anything from us. If you are going to be His disciple, then in this life this is what you can expect: Persecution instead of praise. Cruel insults instead of cordial invitations. Harassment instead of honor. Abuse instead of applause. Slander instead of support. And death instead of dignity. Jesus wants us to be prepared for the difficulties that will come as a result of following Him. He said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV). I want to focus on those words of Jesus, “in me.”
Jesus’ words in the beatitudes are not a check list or set of conditions that must be met in order to become one of His disciples, but rather directions to those who are already disciples. They are descriptive of what the disciples have when everything else is stripped away. When everything else is gone they still have the only One that matters, the only One that brings life and purpose for living, Jesus Christ. The world sets up the standards of perfection and godliness as standards for the lives of the followers of Jesus and does so for the sheer joy of demonstrating how impossible and unhelpful such a quest is. Tragically, there are even some within the Church who engage in the same endeavor with their own form of legalism. Following Jesus has never been about our righteousness but rather the righteousness of Christ. It is about the One who is in us. There is no room among us for pretentious self-righteousness, but for humility for the grace that is ours in Christ through Word and Sacrament.
Neither Satan nor the world can stand those who trust in Christ instead of themselves. If you are in Christ, then the world will hate you, the devil will target you and your sinful flesh will give you no rest. That is why we flee to God’s Word, receive absolution for our sins, eat and drink Christ’s body and blood, and live in our Baptism. We focus not on check lists or proscriptions for righteous living, but on the One who made us His own, called us, forgives us, strengthens us and saves us, Jesus Christ our Savior. Lyle Schaller was correct when he wrote that the singular divisive issue of this century in American culture will be the interpretation of John 14:6. Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (NIV). The proclamation of that truth makes us intolerable to the culture.
For that reason, Bonhoeffer’s words seem ageless. He writes, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die!” (The Cost of Discipleship). Bonhoeffer is reminding us that the cross of Christ, His sacrificial love for the salvation of the world, must be manifest in our own lives. His love for you, His presence with you, will give you the capacity to offer yourself as a witness of His redemptive love. It is at the cross that sin is forgiven, salvation is received and new life begins. The cross is not the sign that all is lost but that everything is gained. When we gather to worship, we gather around the altar to be reminded that Jesus gave everything for us. He laid His life on the altar. The elements of bread and wine are the visible presence of His body and blood, His ultimate and complete sacrifice. We come to worship to offer ourselves completely for His service, everything we have and are we give to Him. This is the nature and power of incarnational or relational love that binds us to Jesus and Jesus to us forever.
In His teaching, Jesus is not describing some alternative reality but the only reality, the kingdom of heaven He came to proclaim. This reality invaded human space in His life, death and resurrection. This kingdom of heaven is a present reality. Life that is lived in Christ and the reality of His kingdom reminds us that this universe is His and it is a perfectly safe place for us to be. Jesus dispels our worry in His preaching and encourages us to engage in self-denying generosity. In His kingdom we are not risking anything. The kingdom of heaven is present because the King of that kingdom is among us: Immanuel, God with us, always, even to the close of this age. It is as Paul told the Greeks on Mars Hill, that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28 NIV).
In His teaching, Jesus is revealing the way the world looks through God’s eyes, or as Jesus calls it, the kingdom of heaven. Living a life of faith in Jesus, as His disciples, changes our worldview. Such a worldview, of life in Him and in His kingdom, changes everything: our identity, our thoughts, words and behaviors. It is only in Him that true life exists.
Even among Christians, there are many who continue to live in the world rather than in Him. Their lives are filled with skepticism rather than faith in Jesus — disputing the words of Scripture by substituting for its truth the narrow and limited views of human reason and preserving our own powerless reality while denying the power of His kingdom. Those who heard Jesus teaching back then, and those who hear Him today, believe that Jesus is the one who made all of the created reality and keeps it working, “holding it together” (Colossians 1:17). They believed, as Paul writes, that Jesus held within Himself “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). In His teaching, Jesus is exposing, revealing who He is, God in flesh made manifest, the King of His kingdom!
We who follow Jesus must remember that we are not called to simply impart information but to proclaim and model life in Him, and the essential transformation of worldview that changes everything else in our lives, our identity, how we see God, how we view life and death and how we love and care for others. In Him, we are called to reach lives and hearts not just their heads or intellect.
Luther expresses this transformation of worldviews expressed in Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes this way,
These items and promises must be understood by faith in reference to things that are neither seen nor heard and that they do not refer to outward appearances. How can the poor and the mourners be said to look outwardly successful and blessed when, in addition, they have to suffer all sorts of persecution—all things that the whole world and our reason calls trouble and that they say should be avoided? Therefore, whoever wants to have the blessedness and the possessions that Christ is talking about here, must lift up his heart far above all senses and reason. He must not evaluate himself on the basis of his feelings, but he must argue this way: “If I am poor, then I am not poor. I am poor outwardly, according to the flesh; but before God, in faith, I am rich.” Thus, when he feels sad, troubled, and worried, he must not use this standard and say that he is not a blessed man. But he must turn himself over and say: “I feel sorrow, misery, and sadness of heart; but still I am blessed, happy, and settled in Christ, on the basis of the Word of God” (Commentary on The Sermon on The Mount).
Because Jesus knew that He would face in His life and what all who follow Him are bound to face, He gave us some very important teaching about how we can respond to persecution through life in Him. He gives us four important responses: Love, Do Good, Bless and Pray. In this world’s view, defensiveness comes naturally, retribution and anger destroy relationships, brokenness and hatred become contagious, and communities are destroyed by the pervasiveness of these common responses. But in the midst of persecution in Him — in His kingdom of heaven worldview and in this biblical worldview — Jesus says, “Love, do good, bless and pray” (See Luke 6:27-28 NIV).
Love by treasuring the relationship instead of destroying it. Find ways of getting closer rather than putting distance between you. Those who are hurting will hurt others. It is only love that breaks the cycle of revenge.
Do good. You have nothing to lose because your life is already in Him. Therefore, you can afford to be generous in doing good even to those who are filled with hatred and oppose you, the Church and Christ.
Bless others in tangible ways through acts of kindness: lend, be merciful, give.
Pray for others. Pray for reconciliation and in every way possible seek reconciliation. It is hard to hate those you are lifting up before Christ in prayer. Pray for Christ to enter their lives and for the transformation of their worldview in Him.
Life in Him, in Jesus, reminds us that we are never alone. Isolation is the enemy of the soul. When we think we are all alone we begin to give up hope; we even begin to doubt God. The writer of Hebrews reminds us the grandstands of heaven are filled with those who have gone before us. They are watching and cheering us on to the finish line. (See Hebrews 12:1)
Finally, when persecution comes, focus on the promise. Jesus offers those who endure suffering a threefold promise. First, it is a present promise. Christ is present now and the kingdom of heaven is ours today in Him. Second, it is a future promise. “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:12 NIV). The apostle Paul must have been aware of this promise when he wrote, “As it is written: ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ — the things God has prepared for those who love him’” (1 Cor. 2:9 NIV). Third, it is a perennial promise. Jesus continues, “For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12 NIV). This is a promise of being identified with God’s chosen people, a promise that is realized both in the present and in the future. To suffer persecution is to walk the same road as the prophets and martyrs. To suffer for what is right is to be part of a great succession.
Beyond the difficulties we will face, we live in a world where Christians are being persecuted, driven from their homes, tortured and massacred, martyred for their faith in Christ. I have been privileged to speak with some of the families of those martyrs. When I asked what I can do for them, they asked me to pray for them and to not forget their witness. Pray that those persecuting us will come to faith in Jesus. Pray that what is happening to us will bring out the best in us and not the worst. (The best that is in us is Christ, for we are in Him.)
What often causes us to vacillate in our worldview is fear. Satan and the world will seek to hold us captive through fear. When I was in Ethiopia, Berhanu, the general secretary of Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY), made that point. He began a conversation by sharing his observation that most American Christians live in fear. When I disagreed, he said “Yes, you do! You are afraid to proclaim Christ because of what your neighbors will think, what people of other denominations will think, what people of other faiths will think, what political parties will think, what your government will think, what your employer will think. When you live in so much fear you quench the Spirit!” Our fear makes us passive. The church in America is weakened and declining because of our passivity. Faith and passivity cannot coexist, they are mutually exclusive. Faith has to do with engagement, action and obedience.
The only thing I fear is that the Church of Jesus Christ is becoming increasingly ashamed of the Gospel, passive and unresponsive to what is happening around us. Jesus is calling us to boldly confess Him as the one and only Lord and Savior, the way, the truth and the life, even in a culture hostile to His Gospel. The disciples of Jesus who came before us gave their lives for the sake of that one cause, to boldly proclaim Christ.
While overt persecution of Christians is rampant in many other parts of the world, we who live in this culture must deal with the much more subtle and insidious persecution that sucks us into compromise with false gospels and alternatives to Jesus, undermining both the content of the Gospel and our capacity or need to share it. This persecution requires wisdom and discernment lest we face the greatest persecution of all, marginalization that is so complete there is no reason for the culture to persecute us at all as we have conformed to the culture with our complete passivity.
As I stood before the Coliseum in Rome I thought about another Lion, the Lion of Judah — Jesus Christ. There was never one life that was offered that was not ultimately defended and given new life by the far greater Lion. Not only did this Lion of Judah tame the beasts of the coliseum but the lives of the leaders in Rome and then its people, until faith in this Lion became the faith of the Holy Roman Empire. Ethiopia experienced tremendous persecution and now has great growth in ministry and mission.
Part of our problem is that when we go through difficulties we think the best is behind us. That is not the nature of the Gospel we proclaim; the best is yet to be! No one is more convinced than the disciples of Jesus who have gone before us. Their witness encourages us to live today with that same hope and promise.
Our life is in Him.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.