A Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17; Mark 10:28-31
Preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church for the “International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church”
Revelation is a book to which Christians either give way too much or way too little attention. But even those mainline churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary – Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, many United Methodist congregations – will hear this passage read in their churches, generally on All Saints Day, optionally at funerals or memorial services.
I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”… 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? … These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. (Rev 7:9-10, 13-15 NRSV)
John the Seer gives us a beautiful vision of the Church Triumphant, that innumerable company of those whom Jesus has ransomed out from every nation, every people group, every language, every tribe, who now stand confident and victorious before God and God’s Messiah, to whom they were faithful and obedient in life, and who now honor and care for these saints on the other side of death.
Now I know how those popular “Bible prophecy experts” whose books flood our bookstores, whose interpretations flood our cable channels (I think you have to surf all the way up into the 300s or 400s, but they’re there), whose failed predictions never seem to convince them or their audiences to give it a rest – I know how they talk about the people in this picture. They latch on to the clause “these are the ones who have come out of the Great Tribulation.” Now the NRSV translates this as “out of the great ordeal,” but it could be rendered “the Great Tribulation,” and this phrase is very important in the end-times schemes of these “prophecy experts.” The most common view, greatly popularized by the Left Behind! series, is that genuine Christians will be “raptured” – caught up to heaven – at the start of the end times, and will be rescued thereby from the troubles to come. Those nominal Christians who did not get raptured (and many prophecy experts would probably point to us as candidates), along with others who will only become Christian during the end times, will have to face “the Great Tribulation,” the global persecution of Christians by the machine of the Antichrist that will break forth in that last grim countdown to Armageddon.
Now, while I have many reservations about this popular approach to interpreting Revelation, my greatest reservation today is that it entirely ignores – and draws Christians’ attention away from – the Great Tribulation happening right now to genuine, faithful Christians across the globe while it promises some “rapture” that, while it might get us out of costly faithfulness, will be far too late to spare them their strenuous contest to remain faithful under the stress and distress of the hostile forces of their societies and families. Many millions of Christians live under conditions of hostile persecution; tens of thousands are killed each year as a direct result of being identified or acting out their calling as Christians.
Often it is the immediate family of a convert to Christianity that expresses the greatest hostility and exerts the most pressure. One member’s defection to an alien religion (ours) brings shame upon the entire family, which regains its honor only by expelling – frequently in Afghanistan, by murdering – the offending family member.
Often it is the authorities representing the dominant (or would-be dominant) religion from which the Christians have converted. We have heard a great deal about the brutality of radical Islamists as they murdered, execution-style and on video, Christians in Iraq and Syria who would not renounce their faith in favor of Islam and ISIS’s vision of a pure Islamic State. Muslims who convert to Christianity face the harshest persecution and, not infrequently, martyrdom across the belt of Islamic lands. Christians in the villages of India increasingly face physical violence, sometimes resulting in death, at the hands of radical Hindus who crusade for a Hindu India. Most surprisingly, given the teachings of the Buddha, Buddhist monks have been at the heads of angry mobs that come to break up church meetings, threaten and beat pastors, and sometimes even burn churches in the rural areas of Sri Lanka. The monks fear their own loss of influence as individuals and families convert, while they and many of their villagers are driven by the conviction that Buddhism is the only proper faith for their island nation.
Sometimes the persecution of Christians is systematically pursued by the State itself. North Korea, where the worship of the ruling family as divine is mandatory, is an extreme example. Christians must hide their faith completely or risk being informed against, even by members of their own household. Many die of exhaustion in labor camps or of torture in prison. Some are able to escape through South Korea, sharing their stories and those of the dead and imprisoned.
The message of persecution is simple and straightforward: We strongly disapprove of what you’ve become. You used to be an honorable member of our family, our village, our nation. We used to look at you as someone that we could count on to do the right thing, to affirm the same values that we hold dear, to be a valuable person. That’s all changed now. Persecution aims first to reclaim the deviants, to bring converts to Christianity back to an acceptable way of living, the way the vast majority of the people in that area live. If that aim fails, persecution aims to eliminate an undesirable element and strongly discourage anyone thinking about becoming Christian from following through.
Some of John’s churches were trying to live out their faith in the midst of significant pressures to cease and desist; others of John’s churches were trying to adapt their faith enough so as to accommodate their neighbors’ expectations of them as “good citizens.” From beginning to end in Revelation, John seeks to drive home a critically important message to both kinds of Christian, encouraging all of them together to live out an uncompromised witness to the One God and his Messiah. That message is also simple: Your neighbors, your family, your associates – those to whom you used to look for affirmation and support – may think of you now as among the least valuable, even valueless, people around them. God, however, holds you in the highest esteem. You are the ones who have kept faith with Jesus, who have put obedience to God’s commandments above everything else, including your personal comfort, safety, even life itself. In God’s eternity, that esteem will be forever manifested to all.
If you were to read through the New Testament from start to finish with our globally persecuted sisters and brothers firmly fixed in your mind, you would probably be astonished to discover just how much of the New Testament speaks today specifically to them, how much its authors were concerned with the kinds of situations and challenges that they face (in large measure because their situation is often similar to – and in a great many cases substantially worse than – the situation of the early church under the Roman empire, which our New Testament authors were directly addressing in the first century). It speaks to them of their honor in God’s sight. It speaks of their suffering as an opportunity with which God has graced them, such that they have the chance to show Jesus the same commitment and investment that Jesus showed toward us all. It speaks of the eternal rewards such commitment will win for them, with Jesus testifying as character witness on their behalf at the Last Judgment itself.
In quite a few places, the New Testament speaks to Christians who are free from such unwanted negative attention about those who suffer such persecution. I snuck one such passage into today’s service, tucked in at the top of the order of service as our “meditation.”
Keep loving one another with the fervency of brothers and sisters. Don’t neglect opportunities to show hospitality, for some have entertained angels in this way without knowing it. Be as mindful of those in prison as you would be if you were in the cell with them; be as mindful of those who are being physically abused as you would be if you were in their very bodies. (Heb 13:3, DST)
That’s admittedly an expanded translation, but I think it captures the sense of the original. Why would the author of the Letter to the Hebrews want to focus “free” Christians so strongly on reaching out to those Christians whom society has most marginalized, has most targeted? The obvious answer is probably the correct one – the latter are those in the direst need of help, encouragement, reminders that they are loved and that they are not alone or forgotten. They need more than ever to know that their Christian family is a real family that will stand by them, which will also encourage them that the head of this Christian family is real, will stand by them, and will deliver on the rest of his promises to them.
I say, “the rest of his promises,” because the promise of a new family, whose love and encouragement would be unfailing, is one of Jesus’ promises to his followers, and one that will either prove true or prove false within the span of this earthly life. This brings us at last to the Gospel reading for today. After the familiar episode of the rich young man who could not leave his possessions behind to follow Jesus,
Peter began to say to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mk. 10:28-31 NRSV)
Many early Christians knew the pain of being rejected by their families for their new faith and practice, but they found a new family with each other. They embraced and held on to one another as fully and as firmly as brothers and sisters related by blood would be expected to do. When some were in special need, others would share their resources with them, just like brothers and sisters related by blood would be expected to do. When they forgot to love one another, hold on to one another, and support one another in this way, we’d get another letter or other writing of what would become our New Testament telling them that they needed to love and support and come to one another’s aid just like brothers and sisters related by blood would be expected to do. Jesus’ promise to his followers had to prove true, and it would only prove true if Jesus’ followers obeyed his command: “love one another as I have loved you.”
Is Jesus’ promise still proving true in our setting? More to the point, is it going to prove true for Christians facing significant persecution in other settings? Will our sisters and brothers who have had to “let goods and kindred go,” will the families of the martyrs who gave up “this mortal life also,” find Jesus’ promise in this paragraph to prove true?
Think for a moment how you would race about to rally both national and international attention and pressure were your natural brother or sister or child or parent hauled off to a North Korean labor camp or imprisoned for “blasphemy” in Pakistan; how you would find your speediest way to comfort a natural brother or sister or child or parent dispossessed of home and goods and discovered living in a makeshift refugee camp just across a border in a safe zone; how you would put yourself out to rescue a family member from imminent danger or, if that proved impossible, to stand by him or her in that danger and bring whatever relief in the midst of it that you could. Now think about the degree to which you’ve exerted yourself for brothers and sisters and children and parents whom the Lord Jesus has united to you as your family, those who will be your family forever. Have you placed more or less value, by comparison, on the bond that Christ’s blood creates than you would on the bond that ordinary blood creates? To what degree have you prioritized proving Jesus’ promise to Christians who have left family, home, all to follow him – to proving his word to them to be trustworthy?
The author of Hebrews wrote to his congregations: “Keep loving one another with the fervency of brothers and sisters.” Make this new family joined together by Christ prove more durable, more valuable, more reliable than the human families that have rejected individual converts to Christianity. Make it more real not only for them, but for you as well, as you step out in faith toward them, as you invest yourself in them, as you connect with them.
I want to affirm Jonathan Carlsen [a member of the church here] for diligently keeping our persecuted sisters and brothers around the world in front of this congregation’s eyes for over ten years now, particularly urging us annually to lift them up in prayer as part of the “International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.” But now I’m asking each one of you to give the situation of your brothers and sisters across the world such regular attention that an annual reminder will become superfluous. I’m asking you to take certain action steps as a result of being a part of this morning’s worship service – a public gathering with fellow Christians loudly praising the name of Christ that will have no negative repercussions for you, your goods, or your family. Spend some time yet this week connecting with the members of our family in Christ whose profession of Jesus and whose attempts to obey him cost them dearly. No, you’re not imagining things: I’m actually assigning homework.
Jonathan and I have prepared a bulletin insert to get you started. First off, take an hour or two off from Facebook this week and spend some time exploring the websites of each of the three organizations that have made the relief and resourcing of the persecuted church their mission. Go to the “Open Doors” site and read their overview of the situation of Christians in each of the fifty countries most oppressive or least hospitable toward Christians. Go to the “Voice of the Martyrs” and “Barnabas Fund” sites and read their news feeds of recent developments in the situation of particular Christian communities or even particular Christian families in repressive countries; read the testimonies of Christian workers and disciples who have survived – or whose faith, at least, had survived – violent persecution. Learn about the many avenues these organizations give you to come to the aid of our blood-brothers-and-sisters in Christ.
Pray. There are excellent suggestions for how to pray on the back of this insert; as you learn more about the plight of Christians in one or another country, that will also help guide you as you pray. Educate yourselves and one another, and keep learning. Get involved with at least one of these organizations, or find your own way to reach out and show the quality of love and degree of assistance that suits a brother or sister to some sector of the persecuted church. God has put it into our hands to bring significant relief to our family members in significant trouble and need. Raise awareness; rally support for those suffering the most extreme persecution by every venue available. Keep doing this homework that I’m assigning until you find yourself measuring up to the Scripture’s benchmark for us: “Be as mindful of those in prison as you would be if you were in the same cell with them; be as mindful of those who are being physically abused as you would be if you were in their very bodies.” Amen.
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Note: The following text appeared on an insert in the Sunday bulletin:
Get Involved! There are a number of organizations dedicated to connecting persecuted Christians with the spiritual, material, and sometimes even legal assistance that they need to persevere in their faith and witness, and to know that the global family of God stands by them in their trials. These groups also do a great deal of work educating Christians in the West about the plight of their sisters and brothers in restricted nations.
Open Doors USA
Voice of the Martyrs
Barnabas Fund (a.k.a. Barnabas Aid)
Take an hour just to browse these three websites and begin to get a sense both of the scope and nature of persecution of your fellow Christians and of the many ways in which you can stand alongside them — from regular prayer to financial support to signing petitions and raising awareness.
What Should We Pray For?
- For the imprisoned, that God will strengthen, protect, and encourage them.
- For God to protect pastors, evangelists, and other front-line workers sharing the Gospel in hostile lands.
- For the families of those killed because of their faith in Jesus.
- For government officials in hostile lands, that they will encounter the living Christ and become his followers.
- For Christian converts from Islam witnessing to family and friends.
- For radio, TV, and Internet ministries witnessing across “closed” borders to witness effectively.
- For persecuted believers to receive Bibles and be grounded in the faith.
- For the witness of the persecuted, even to their persecutors.
- For free Christians to stand with their persecuted brothers and sisters.
(Source: Voice of the Martyrs, Prayer Points)