We want God to bless this church. We want God to bless all the churches in our city and surrounding community. We want God to bless every church around the world that calls upon Jesus as Lord. But how do we know if this prayer is answered? How can we know if a church is blessed or not?
There are those who hold to a prosperity gospel, which states that among other things, that God’s blessings and revealed in abundant wealth and physical health. While many Christians reject this message of the televangelists that you need to be rich to be blessed, there are those who hold to what I call “prosperity light.”
Prosperity light is not so dogmatic as to say that God will make everyone rich and heal every disease or injury. But there is an assumption that as Christians, we deserve a certain level of comfort and power. This is manifested in different ways. For example, if you look at the influence the church had in our culture fifty years ago compared to today, things are much different. For some this is something to grieve as it’s felt that it is our right as a church to be the directing influence in culture. Our current marginalization feels unnatural to some.
Aside from political or cultural influence, there are other ideas of what a blessed church looks like. This includes plenty of resources, in terms of people and money. It includes popularity and comfort. It includes an experience that primarily makes us happy.
I’m not criticizing any of these things. They are nice when they are there. But that is not necessarily the picture that the New Testament gives. We don’t see a church that is rejoicing in its power and comfort.
Today, as we recognize the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, we are going to reflect on what a blessed church looks like. Is the persecuted church less blessed than we are? Is it the comfortable western church or the global persecuted church in the natural state for the Christian church? We will examine Paul’s teaching in Romans to sort through these questions.
It is important to provide some brief background to the church in Rome. This is helpful in general when looking at a passage, but is particularly relevant to our subject today.
The church at Rome probably started after the day of Pentecost when Jewish visitors from Rome became followers of Jesus in Jerusalem before returning to Rome. The first core group of Christians in Rome were Jewish Christians. At some point, Claudius, the Roman Emperor, expelled all the Jews from the city of Rome. This included the Jewish Christians. The Roman church needed to rebuild from the remaining few Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. Eventually the Jewish Christians were able to return and rejoin their Gentile brothers and sisters.
So we see that some persecution was a part of the Roman church experience from the beginning. But if they thought Claudius was bad, Nero was much worse. There are accounts of Nero tying Christians to stakes and setting them on fire to light up his gardens. The Christians were not trusted because in their confession that Jesus was Lord, it was implied that Caesar was not Lord. The uncertain loyalty and the lack of influence made the Christians easy targets. Fast forwarding a bit, it would be in Rome that both Paul and Peter would be executed. Tradition tells us that Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was beheaded.
It is to this church that Paul writes these words of encouragement. He makes the audacious claim that we are more than conquerors. Not just conquerors, but more than conquerors. The problem is that we have to push out of our mind what we normally identify as victory. It is not about power or influence or comfort or wealth. He is talking about a church that is at the mercy of the Roman authorities and yet is still more than conquerors.
Our position has as its foundation not what the world considers to be power but in the love of Christ. Paul makes this amazing statement: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Romans 8:35) In case you are wondering, the answer is no these things cannot separate us from the love of Christ. And yet these are the things that make us doubt that love. When life falls apart we wonder if God has abandoned us or is punishing us. Many times I have heard people ask why God is allowing these things to happen.
Part of the confusion is based on our unconscious decision to embrace prosperity light. If we assume that God’s primary concern is our personal comfort, any difficulty is going to seem unnatural. But a comfortable and safe church is not the model that is presented in the New Testament.
I often read this passage in Romans at funerals because I believe that it has words of encouragement in our darkest hours. But I will confess that I usually leave out verse 36. “As it is written:“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” (Romans 8:36) It doesn’t really lend itself to comforting families as they grieve. However, Paul included these words for a reason. They make us feel uncomfortable but they force us to remember that our faith is designed to thrive in the harshest situations rather than the easiest.
This brings up to the persecuted church. Many Christians think that the persecuted church is ancient history. Yes Christians were persecuted in the first few centuries but once the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, things have been easy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is more persecution of Christians going on right now than there has been at any other time in history. The killing of Christians by ISIS in Iraq and Syria is only the most obvious examples. Much more persecution is taking place and we should not interpret the media’s silence on this persecution as a sign that it is not taking place.
As Christians in Canada, we need to be clear what persecution is and what it is not. Someone may not like you wearing a cross around your neck. Someone may give you a dirty look when you say grace in a public restaurant. Friends or family may make fun of you for attending church. None of that is persecution. I’m not dismissing how that may make us feel, but it is not persecution.
Around the world, there are people who are dying for their faith. Making a choice to stand for Christ puts not only their own life on the line but that of their family as well. In some countries, economic sanctions are put on Christians, keeping them in poverty and limiting their opportunities. In some countries Christians must worship in secret. They may meet in homes as the government has shut down all public church buildings. That is persecution.
Are these churches blessed? While we may not be eager for that type of “blessing: in Canada, it actually is what Paul is talking about in Romans. Paul would much easier recognize the persecuted church around the world than the wealthy megachurch in the west.
I would like to share an observation that I have made while talking to skeptics. Supposedly, the problem of suffering is a devastating critique to the Christian God. Apparently a good and powerful God would not allow suffering in this life. My observation is that this complaint comes from comfortable, wealthy and healthy skeptics. It is the west with our prosperity light that we struggle with this tension.
When we look to the globe and the Christians who are being persecuted, we don’t find this same critique. In fact it is in the areas where Christian ministry is the most difficult that faith is the most vibrant the church is growing. The early Church Father Tertullian said the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” That was true in the late second century when Tertullian wrote that and it is true today.
The persecuted church is the church that is more than conquerors. How can this be? It all comes down to who our Saviour is. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the crucified Saviour. Jesus is the one who was arrested, condemned, beaten and execute in the most shameful way possible. Jesus is the measure of faithfulness. How dare we think that comfort is the measure of blessing when our Saviour died in such a manner.
But this is not about suffering for the sake of suffering. It was through suffering that the ultimate victory over sin and death took place, There is the cross but there is the empty tomb as well. The suffering of the persecuted church is not the full story. God is at work in the midst of that persecution, bringing about his glory and eventually the full coming of the kingdom of God. The reason we can have hope is that what we see now is not all that there will ever be.
We should not just take one day to remember our persecuted brothers and sisters across the world. It should be a regular part of our prayer life. There are all sorts of resources available for us to pray intelligently about their specific needs.
But in addition to praying for them, we should be learning from them. We should never fall in the error of thinking we are enjoying God’s blessings while they are not. A blessed church is not measured by the level of comfort. A blessed church is measured by its level of faithfulness. The persecuted church is tested regularly and is found faithful. How will we do when we face the test?