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Sunday after Ascension--June 4, 2000

Fr. William Sisterman

St. Dunstan's Anglican Church, Minneapolis, MN 

Readings: I Peter 4:7-11 and John 15:26-16:4 

 

Jesus said, "I have told you all this to keep your faith from being shaken. Not only will they expel you from synagogues, a time will come when anyone who puts you to death will claim to be serving God! All this they will do to you because they knew neither the Father nor me. But I have told you these things that when their hour comes, you may remember my telling you of them." 

My friends, these words from today's Gospel reading are quite grim. Jesus was preparing his disciples for upcoming persecution. The disciples of Jesus would be looked upon as, at the beginning, a heretical Jewish sect. Because they would be looked upon as heretics in the eyes of so many of the Jews, they would be persecuted. Jesus tells his disciples to be ready for that. "You will be put out of the synagogues. You will be no longer welcome. Indeed, there will come a time when people will put you to death and think they are doing a service for God". Remember St. Paul, before his conversion, was breathing threats of slaughter on his way to Damascus to round up these heretical Christians and to bring them back to Jerusalem for trial as heretics, the penalty of which was death. 

What John was preparing his readers for was persecution. John had already begun to encounter persecution himself. He was already a witness of much more diabolical persecution than the Jews could muster. Nero, Domition, these Roman emperors could really be persecutors on a scale that would boggle men's eyes. Persecution, right from the beginning, was to be a part of a Christians life. There was no escape from it. Why? 

Why persecution? I think we all have answers that we have formulated over the years. Why would God allow the Church in one age after another to be so persecuted? Why martyrs by the hundreds, by the thousands, all the way down to our own time? Why? We think, "Well, God is scourging his Church for wrongdoing." Perhaps. But there is a much more subtle reason, much more real reason why persecution happens. Jesus said it was going to happen. That's one good reason. 

But even more so, Jesus declares that he is going to send the Holy Spirit to his disciples and he would bear witness to the truth. But his would be an internal witness to them. The disciples, in turn, were to bear witness to the truth externally, by the conduct of their lives; by all that they said and did. Witness those words of St. Peter in the first reading today. He calls for calmness, prayer and the constant love for one another through unfeigned hospitality and the generous use of one's gifts for the glory of God and of Christ. 

What Jesus had in mind was this: "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you as well." We are to identify with Jesus in suffering and in dying for the truth. A few verses prior to this Jesus says this, "If you find that the world hates you, know that it hated me before you. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. The reason it hates you is that you do not belong to the world. But I chose you out of the world. Remember what I told you. No slave is greater than his master. They will persecute you as they have persecuted me. They will respect your words as much as they respected mine. All this they will do to you because of my name for they know nothing of him who sent me." 

"If you find that the world hates you. . . ." When John uses the word world, he means unbelievers, those who do not believe that Jesus was sent by the Father into the world to reveal to us the Father's love, to reveal our redemption. They would not accept this. John maintains that the Jews did not accept it and considered these Christians who followed Jesus to be upstart heretics who must be rooted out and orthodoxy preserved. So all these people who would endure persecution as a sign that they bear witness to the truth as Jesus bore witness to the truth. 

Persecution is part and parcel of a Christian's life. Even if the Church did not need to be scourged for its sins, there would still be persecution because people do not accept the truth any more from the Church than they do from Jesus himself. Remember Jesus said one time, "They will not be convinced even if one should rise from the dead" (Luke 16:31). 

Persecution is a part of a Christian's life. If we're living it properly, there will be persecution. I don't intend us to become masochistic. I don't intend us to say, "Isn't it wonderful that we can face persecution!" No, God does not have that in mind for us. But God does have in mind that we understand the reason why. God does have in mind the fact that you and I endure persecution for bearing witness to the truth. There is hardly a person here this morning that has not endured ridicule and derision for what you believe. Perhaps we haven't been put to death, but there is a kind of dying that we have to endure because we believe in the orthodoxy of truth. 

They may not have put us out of the synagogue, but we were made to feel unwelcome in the Church of our childhood. And it hurts. It is painful to us that this would happen to us in the name of religion, in the name of orthodoxy. This kind of persecution that you and I might feel is much more than the ridicule of non-believers, the standup comedians on cable TV. That kind of ridicule can just run right off our backs. But the other kind, that involves the very essence of our belief from the time that we were very young - to have that held up to ridicule, to be pointed out as heretics or schismatics, those crazy Anglicans - that hurts. It's painful. 

I have a brother who is a paragon of Roman Catholic faith, a former grand knight in the Knights of Columbus and he considers what I have done to be something terrible: that I had left the Roman Church because of a man-made law that I could not abide. He considers me a heretic and we no longer communicate. I've lost him. And that's painful. 

I tell you this because each and every one of us to some degree or another has experienced persecution. No, we haven't been hauled off and tied to a stake and been made a barbecue for the emperor. The little deaths that we endure hurt nonetheless and what are we to make of the them? Are we to feel sorry for ourselves? Sulk in our corners? Abandon the truth of our faith? Or are we to understand that Jesus warned us about this and said, "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you as well. Identify with that and I will give you the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Strengthener." (That word comfort means strength in the Prayer Book.) I will give you the Comforter, the Strengthener, in order to sustain you in the face of whatever the world throws at you. 

It's a hard thing to be persecuted. The Church has endured it for over nineteen hundred years now, and will continue to do so until the end of time. We also know that Jesus has overcome the world, the unbelievers. Because he has overcome the world, we can share in that victory as well. St. Paul, who also endured persecution, says this in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans, "The Spirit himself gives witness with our spirit that we are children of God. But if we are children, we are heirs as well, heirs of God, heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so as to be glorified with him" (Romans 8:16ff.). It's an integral part of being a Christian. I think it has very little to do with God scourging his Church for past sins. I think it has everything to do with what Jesus promised. He has given us the Spirit in order that you and I might bear witness to the truth in Christ Jesus 
 

Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation. If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please credit St. Dunstanís Church and Fr. Sisterman.