STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JUNE 28, 2020

Rev. Sabrina Ingram

WORSHIPPING AT HOME TOGETHER

 

Call to Worship  Romans 8: 18 – 28 (selected verses)

There is no comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times.  Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.  We are enlarged in the waiting.  We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.   Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along.  That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

 

Prayer of Adoration and Confession

God our Light, our Hope, our Strength,

We praise you for the vastness of your love,

Like a loving parent, you are on our side, wanting our love and wanting the best for us. 

You are always for us; you never turn your back on us or give up on us.

Your love is so vast, you gave us everything, even your own Son,

Who suffered on the cross for our redemption,

Who healed our sin,

Who laid down his life so that we might have life.

 

We confess that our love for you is like water running through our fingers.

Our commitment to you is like wet tape.

Our willingness to suffer is like vaper.  

We think of a time this past week when we could have declared ourselves as followers of Christ but didn’t.

We think of a time when we could have shared the grace of Christ, but kept our mouths closed because we feared judgement.

We think of a time when we heard about were criticized for our faith and backed down or denied you.

We think of our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world who are persecuted for Christ and we are aware that we rarely call to mind, we forget to pray for them, we do speak up for them, we nothing to alleviate their suffering. 

We are sorry and ashamed and yet we know we will do it again this week.  We have no right to ask for your forgiveness, yet without your mercy, we are completely lost. 

 

In this time of worship, strengthen our resolve to take up our cross and follow you – even to death.  May our worship be a remembrance of your sacrifice and may our fidelity be a sign of our love for you, in response to your great love for us through Jesus our Saviour.  Amen.

 

Assurance of Pardon  1 Peter 1: 3 – 6

What a God we have!  And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus!  Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future.  I know how great this makes you feel, even though you have to put up with every kind of aggravation in the meantime.  The Day is coming when you’ll have it all—life healed and whole.

 

Prayer for Illumination:

As we hear your Word, Lord, open our eyes and strengthen our hearts so that we may be faithful at all times.  Amen.

 

Scripture readings

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.   Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”  Matthew 5: 11 – 12  NRSV

 

“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me.  What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.  You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds.  And know that you are in good company.  My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”  The Message

 

Romans 8: 31 – 35

Acts 7: 1 & 2a & 51 – 60

John 15: 18 – 20

 

Message:

On Easter Day in 2019, 3 churches in Sri Lanka were bombed; 269 people were killed and over 500 injured.  Christians face opposition in 144 countries and are severely persecuted in North Korea, China, India and most countries in the Middle East and North Africa.  An article by the BBC referenced a report (https://christianpersecutionreview.org.uk/report/) ordered by the former British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt which revealed that, “The persecution of Christians in parts of the world is at near “genocide” levels.”   The review, led by the Bishop of Truro the Right Reverend Philip Mounstephen, expressed concern for all religious freedoms and human rights.  In it they estimated that one in three people suffer from religious persecution and that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world today.  The report  said the main impact of genocidal acts against Christians means the religion “is at risk of disappearing” in parts of the world, pointing to figures which claimed Christians in Palestine represent less than 1.5% of the population, while in Iraq they had fallen from 1.5 million before 2003 to less than 120,000.  “Evidence shows not only the geographic spread of anti-Christian persecution, but also its increasing severity,” the Bishop wrote.   Around the Globe, Christians are being bullied, raped, jailed, shot, stoned, set on fire while alive; their homes are burned down, and their shops are destroyed and looted.  Mr. Hunt said he felt that “political correctness” plays a part in the issue not being confronted.   “Colonialism and the role of missionaries was always a controversial one and that has, I think, also led some people to shy away from this topic.  What we’ve forgotten in that atmosphere of political correctness is actually the Christians that are being persecuted are some of the poorest people on the planet.”

 

The words “shy away” undermine the hostility towards Christians in the western hemisphere.  I think there are many who would callously say that Christians are getting what we deserve, for our part in colonialism, slavery and the oppression of LGBTQI and racialized groups.  Christians are labelled “self-righteous hypocrites”.  Christians are hated because many in the Bible belt of the US are Republicans.   Surprisingly, this hostility often comes from people who wouldn’t dream of being disrespectful to other groups, who would say it’s wrong to label people and not treat them as individuals.   To own the fact that Christians have done inexcusable things and assure people that that we’re ashamed of the actions of our ancestors, that we too are learning from history and that we also want reforms, is irrelevant.   To remind people that many other Christians were at the fore front of ending slavery (cf William Wilberforce), or that we’ve done much good in the world such as providing education, hospitals and medical care, clean water, sustainable relief and charitable giving in times of natural disasters is at best minimalized and at worst not believed.  The fact that, like people in any other sub-group, Christians are not all the same and do not all share the same ethos, opinions, or values, goes unheard.  The term “Christophobia” is met with derision (unlike “Islamophobia”, my spell check didn’t know the term); the assumption is that Christians are the haters not the hated.  In Ontario, when Doug Ford wanted to open “places of worship” he was questioned as to how such places could be important.  (His answer, “People just want to get together and pray”, seemed to baffle the press).  On occasions when I’ve publicly expressed that I’m a Christian, I tend to get a run down on why the Church is bad, or I’m told I’m insane for believing in God (some will mock my belief in Jesus particularly) or I’m met with an angry tirade of “F” words.   I don’t need to search the internet for long before I encounter mocking of my faith or outright hostility.  As many know, when the internet is used as a weapon for bullying, it’s very invasive and threatening.  I’m not looking for sympathy, Christians have a lot of work to do to earn the trust of people.  I’m not claiming Christians are perfect or that we can’t or won’t mess up – like most people, we do our best but we too fall short.  (In fact, the Christian faith is rooted in the propensity of people to fall short – we’re quite quick to admit it).  I’m simply describing the hostility I experience based solely on my faith.  Recently, I was talking to a teacher who was expressing how wounding and tiresome the public resentment of teachers is and to a young person who was expressing how difficult it is to have a balanced conversation with his peers, and after listening empathetically, I said, “yes, I can imagine it’s hard”.  Then I gently added, “you should try being a Christian”.   I was met with a silent pause of reflection and realization and then, “I can’t imagine what you go through”.

In this final Beatitude, Jesus makes a shift from talking about “those” who are “poor in spirit, meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers and who mourn or hunger and thirst for righteousness or are persecuted for righteousness sake” to “you”.  This is significant.  Any person can be the things listed above or have those traits and I believe that God smiles on all who are or do (c.f. Luke 9: 49 & 50).   But only “you”, followers of Jesus, can be persecuted on his account.  Before we go on, we need to think about what being persecuted in this situation means.  If a Christian does or says something reprehensible to or about another person and they’re criticized or punished for it, that’s not persecution “on his (Jesus’) account”.  If we’re being rude by pushing our faith (as opposed to discussing it with an interested party) and we’re asked to stop, that’s not persecution.   If we’re judging someone’s lifestyle from a position of superiority, and they tell us where to go, that’s not persecution.    That’s suffering the consequences of your own un-Christ-like actions.  As Christians, Jesus would want us (a) not to do or say reprehensible things, be rude or self-righteous and (b) to take responsibility for our actions.   Persecution would be if we (or our family, home, church or workplace) were attacked or abused in any way, slandered, denied employment, arrested, imprisoned, denied civil rights, tortured or murdered  for being a Christian, for the content of what we believe, for going to worship or gathering as the Church, for celebrating our holy days, for owning or reading a Bible, for displaying a Christian symbol, for acting kindly in the name of Christ, for respectfully speaking about our faith to someone who is free to walk away, for the sins of other Christians whether past or present, for calling for justice or love to prevail, for standing up for civil liberties or human rights, for calling other Christians to be faithful, for not denouncing our faith, or for saying “Jesus is Lord”, etc.  Likewise, if we are stopped from doing these or similar things.  In short, it’s only persecution for Jesus’ sake if it’s for doing something that honours Jesus.

 

To be persecuted on account of Jesus is nothing new.   The Early Church was oppressed by the Jewish authorities and were considered enemies of Rome.   Like Stephen they were stoned for blasphemy by claiming Jesus is Lord.   Christians were considered political incendiaries because they spoke of the end times and refused to worship Caesar.  Polycarp, a student of the Apostle John and the bishop of Smyrna was dragged before the Roman tribunal and told to sacrifice to the god, Caesar or die.  He responded, “I’ve served Christ for 86 years.  He’s done me no wrong.  How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”  He was burnt at the stake.

 

Many Christians found themselves at odds with and estranged from their families.   Sometimes, when the family couldn’t accept their faith, they’d have to choose between those they loved and their love for Christ.  At other times, their sacrifices impacted their families.  It’s one thing to lose a job or your life when there is only you; it’s much harder when it means your children will go hungry or grow up without a father or mother.

 

Tensions at work were common.  100 years after Polycarp, a Christian came to another Church Father, Tertullian to discuss a problem he faced at work, where his livelihood was challenged.  He ended by saying, “What can I do?  I must live!”  Tertullian responded, “Must you?”

 

A Christian’s faith impacted his social life.  In Greece and Rome, dinner may have first been sacrificed to another god, such as Serapis.  Invitations to supper would read, “I invite you to dine with me at the table of our Lord, Serapis.”  For the Christian who was used to a sacramental meal “at the table of our Lord [Jesus]” this was conflictual.  Even sharing a glass of wine was complicated by the fact that the first portion would be poured out as a libation to one god or another.   Because of the rite of Communion, Christians were accused of cannibalism.  As the stories grew, they were believed to sacrifice children.  Because Holy Communion was celebrated as part of an Agape feast (a potluck supper) and because Christians greeted one another with a holy kiss, they were said to participate in orgies (the behaviour of the Corinthians didn’t help discredit the rumours).

 

As persecution escalated, particularly in Rome, Christians were used as entertainment.  Hungry lions would amuse blood-thirsty crowds by devouring Christians (this is now officially denied when one tours the Colosseum).  Enslaved Christians and others would be forced into gladiator fights to the death, which were no win situations for the Christian who didn’t relish dying or murder).  Nero wrapped living Christians in pitch and set them on fire to light his stadium.  Pieces of raw animals skins were sown to Christians who were then hunted by dogs and torn to death.

 

As history unfolded, Christians were burned at the stake, scraped with pincers, tortured on the rack, had molten lead poured over them, red hot brass plates were placed against all their body parts, eyes were gouged, body parts were cut off and roasted in front of their eyes.  (Sadly, it’s also true that Christians were too often responsible for these acts).

To suffer persecution is to share in the suffering of Christ himself.    Jesus never conned his followers with promises of an easy life.  He knew that “Servants don’t get better treatment than their masters.  If they beat on me, they will certainly beat on you” John 15: 20).     And so, the persecuted Christian walks in the footsteps of generations of faithful people.   As the hymn reminds us, “…we are treading where the saints have trod.”   When we suffer for our faith, we lay the groundwork for Christians to come.  Hopefully,  the afflictions suffered today will make life easier in the future as people learn compassion. Even if our suffering doesn’t mean that someone else will suffer less, it gives them a role model for Christ.  It reminds them they aren’t alone, and it gives them the sense of having a place in a lineage of courage and integrity.   And we hope that those who are persecuted today are a moving witness to their persecutors; why, unless Jesus is our Saviour, would anyone submit to such torture when with a word of denial it could be avoided?

 

Most of us have never made anything like a real sacrifice for Christ.  The moment when our faith is likely to cost us something is the moment when we have the opportunity to demonstrate our loyalty to Christ.   By facing the persecution rather than denying Christ, we share Christ’s suffering.  We reciprocate his love.  We declare our love and commitment to him.   Only those whom the Spirit has strengthened and matured are able to face this hour and remain strong.  Rupert Brooke, the WW1 poet, wrote, “Now God be thanked who has matched us to this hour.”  Only those Christians whom God “has matched” to the task and suffering before us, are able to face this decisive moment.

 

Once again,  – this time in the face of unimaginable pain and suffering – Jesus tells us to “be glad and rejoice”.  The word used means “to leap exceedingly”.  It describes a bliss greater than the joy of the climber who reaches the summit, or the pilgrim who overcomes the mountain pass, or the mother who has just given birth; or the athlete who stands on the podium listening to her national anthem; or the graduate who waves the diploma he’s just received.  It is the joy of those who are “more than conquerors through him who loved us” Romans 8: 37.   It is the joy that only “you” as a disciple of Christ can know.

 

None of us knows what we’ll be called to face before we’re called home to be with Christ.  Few, if any, of us will face martyrdom, but we will face insults, mockery, tough decisions, loses.   Whatever we encounter, we can do so knowing that nothing – nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us”   Romans 8: 38 & 39.   

 

Questions for Reflection:

Have you ever experienced opposition because of your faith?  Was it valid persecution or were you being unlike Christ?  How did you respond?

What might Christians do to atone for some of the wrongs that were or are inflicted in the name of Christ?

When you hear of the persecution of other Christians, how do you react?

What is the point of suffering persecution due to your faith?

How might you prepare yourself for the future, should it include persecution?

 

If you’re able look up “The Voice of the Martyrs” on the Internet to hear what others in the world are experiencing and to increase your prayers for them.

 

Offering:

Lord God, giving you our money, our time and our talent is easy.  You call us to give up our very lives for the sake of your kingdom.  May your Spirit work in us so that we will be faithful in all circumstances, even to the end of our lives, as Christ was faithful for our sake.  Amen.

 

Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession:

Lord of our Lives,

We give your thanks that of all the people on the planet, you have chosen us – even though we’re unworthy – to be among the ones who bear the name of Christ.  This gift comes with many blessings – the grace which sets us free, your Spirit alive in us, the joy of knowing you, the comfort of our church family, the honour of serving you and blessing others, the peace that passes understanding, the promise of eternal life and the hope of a new heaven and a new earth.  We are immensely grateful for all of this and more.

 

We also know that being called after Christ comes with many responsibilities.  We are to show your love to all people; to create with you, your Kingdom on earth; to bring healing and wholeness to those who are wounded in spirit; to give a cup of cold water to those who are in need; to forgive as we have been forgiven; to give voice to your will when we witness wrong; to love you with all our heart, mind, will and spirit; to take up our cross and follow Christ.  Thank you for entrusting so much to us.  Help us to live lives worth of the calling to which we’ve been called.

 

We thank you that we live in a country where worship is upheld as our right and where freedom still abounds.  We are aware that our culture is changing rapidly and radically and there are many who would take that right away from us.  There are those who think we’re insane.  There are people who are filled with hostility against us.  You have warned us that following you is not an easy path and we will meet with opposition, just as you did.  Show us how to find our way through this maze of antagonism.  Give us the peace to forgive and not retaliate.  Empower us to be faithful in every circumstance.   Give us the love to shine your light and be a blessing to all those we encounter.  Give us the courage to stand up for our rights and our beliefs.

 

We thank you for Jesus who came proclaiming a new world order, grounded in love and mercy.  We thank you for his death which not only saves us from death, but which showed us that world in action.  We thank you that new life, great freedom and deep compassion can come from meeting hatred with love and forgiveness.

 

We thank you for the saints who have gone before us.  Not only have they shown us the path of a disciple, they have proven it is possible to walk that path.  They are proof that you do not leave us or forsake us.  We call to mind someone who showed great courage in the face of persecution and give you thanks for them.

 

We bring to mind the faceless people who suffer on your account every day.  Even as we sit in prayer people are being abused, arrested and killed for their faithfulness to you.  Their love for you is greater than their love for anything else.  We pray for your deliverance, for you hand to protect them from all evil, and for your Spirit to comfort them and keep them from bitterness.  We pray that you would assure them with a sense of your presence.  Provide for their needs.  Heal their wounded hearts and bodies.  Remind them of the joy that awaits them when they come before your holy throne.

 

Lord, we would be lying if we did not ask you to spare us the things they suffer.  Like Jesus in Gethsemane, we pray that we don’t have to drink from that cup.  Give us also the trust and serenity to say, “not my will, but yours be done.”

 

We pray also for those countries which deny people the right to worship.  We pray for systems in which some people are given less or treated as criminals for what they believe.  We pray for people whose hatred and fear runs so deep that they persecute others and for those who stand by and do nothing; we recognize that in some ways, that includes us.  We pray for your Church in the Western hemisphere.  We are weak people who have few skills in standing against opposition.  Lift up wise leaders.  Make us ready for whatever we may face.

 

We pray for those we love who are ill…

Those who are dealing with the anguish of emotional and mental illness…

Those who are worried for someone they love…

Those who grieve…

Those who do not yet know you…

Bring your healing to them and give us open hearts to serve them as we’re able and to welcome them in Christ.

 

It is in his name we pray saying…

Our Father…

 

 

Invitation to Mission:

We go into the world to love as Christ loved,

To speak the truth in love,

And to be faithful, no matter what the cost.

 

May the Triune God bless and keep you.