First Mennonite Church
May 18, 2014
Jesus Said: You Will Be Persecuted
Text: Matthew 5:1-12 (NIV)
5 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
–These are the words of Jesus.
Tulio Pedraza became a believer. Tulio was one of the first Christian converts in the Mennonite church in the town of Anolaima, Colombia. At that time Colombia was entering into a decade-long civil war. During the civil war, the Protestant Church was a suspect of division of the already divided country. Despite Tulio’s being visually impaired, he was a good carpenter who made coffins to make a living. Selling coffins was the way he provided for his young family. After his conversion in 1949, the local priest declared Pedraza’s “Protestant” coffins unsuitable for Catholic burials, and he prohibited all parishioners from frequenting Pedraza’s business. The priest said from the pulpit that he would not preside over the funeral of anyone who bought a coffin from Marco Tulio Pedraza. And so in order to provide for coffins, the priest brought in another carpenter from out of town. The priest… brought the carpenter…helped him get a house, helped him buy tools, and got him established–all with the intent that this carpenter would become the competition for Tulio. The priest had all the power! Tulio Pedraza’s business was ruined… So obviously, sales dropped…There were one, two, or three cases where, out of ignorance maybe…and because of friendship, some went and bought their coffin from Tulio. And the priest didn’t want to do their funeral service….So they had to go to one of the towns that surrounded Anolaima and have the service there….
Tulio had to close his business in 1951.
Despite this difficult experience, Tulio became known for his demeanor of love in the face of much hatred. Missionary Gerald Stucky wrote the following about Tulio Pedraza two years after he first lost his coffin business:
The persecution has continued. Tulio’s children were humiliated in the public school because they are Protestants. His property and the lives of his family have been continually menaced. People who were his friends now refuse to speak to him on the street; stores refuse to sell to him; he has become an outcast for the cause of Christ. In spite of this Tulio continues firm in the faith, trusting in the Lord day by day. He holds no evil in his heart towards those who have worked evil against him. He continues to witness to the light he found in Christ. Tulio is a living witness to the power of the Gospel to overcome evil with good.
When Tulio closed his business, he even gave some of his tools to the other carpenter. Such was his friendship that when he died the other carpenter provided a coffin for Tulio.
Today, I want us to be reminded about the inherent personal inconvenience there is in our calling to follow Jesus.
Jesus’ reminder to his disciples about what would happen to them is a sure reminder to us also. He said to them: “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also” (John 15: 20).
With this in mind, my dear friends, let us not be surprised at what is becoming the normal trend in our days. Countless times I have heard or it has been told to me that, “Christianity is under constant attack.” Why are we surprised at that? Have we forgotten the words of our Master? Or were we so used to being something other than a true follower of Jesus that we were not subject to rejection or contempt? In John 15: 18 and 19, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.
Every time I hear the lament that Christians or Christianity is under attack, I wonder how willingly many Christians of today would welcome a figure in the likes of Constantine of the 4th century. Constantine the Roman Emperor of the early Fourth Century, embraced the religion of an embattled group called Christians. Christians were persecuted because they refused to give their allegiance to Caesar—the Emperor. Christians had been used as human torches to give light in the garden of Nero. Christian had been handed over by their neighbors and friends in order to confiscate their property. Christians had insisted Jesus, not the Roman emperor, is Lord. Thus they paid with their lives. They were used to provide sadistic entertainment by being thrown in the Coliseum to fight lions or the gladiators. In those days, to be a Christian identified him or her with the cross of Jesus. But Constantine, who was the most powerful man of his day, turned defender of the persecuted Christians. He turned the world upside down. Christians who were persecuted soon became persecutors and the pagan persecutor in the blink of an eye became persecuted. The church, which up to that time worshipped in caves, in the forest, and in other clandestine places, soon were given cathedrals and lofty buildings to worship in. Christians who until then were regarded as simpletons soon became statesmen and courtiers. It is so unfortunate that the legacy of Constantine lingers up to today.
Christians are suddenly realizing that the world has changed and is changing fast. The world which up to recent decades had tolerated a version of either complicit or dormant Christianity is now not so willing to do so. The world now raises its voice and it’s a loud voice. Christians are feeling displaced and voiceless. But that was the way of Jesus, Peter, Stephen, Paul, John of Patmos and many others. It should not surprise us. In fact it should remind us that if we persevere, we can live to the spiritual altitude of those I just named.
Let me read once more the words of Jesus:
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
It should not surprise us that the world does not love us. It did not love Jesus either. It should not surprise us that our views are contradicted. Jesus’ words were contradicted too. It should not surprise us if we are told that our views are too narrow and archaic. Some thought Jesus had a demon because of what he said.
Blessed are you when people insult you and say all kinds of evil against you. Do not lament. Jesus said to his disciples and to us, “Rejoice and be glad.”
Acts 5 tells us the reaction of the Sanhedrin to Peter’s response that he must obey God rather than men. Verse 33 says, When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But after making threats, the Sanhedrin released the Apostles; verse 41 says: The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.
The call for Jesus’ disciples to rejoice and be glad is not in spite of persecution, but because of it. To rejoice because of persecution is not the expression of a martyr complex, but the joyful acceptance of who we are—followers of the One who was also persecuted and crucified. Persecution is the sign of belonging to the people of God who are out of step with the value system of our times.
Jesus said: “A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”
Persecution should be to us the badge of belonging in the line of the prophets who were also persecuted. To us Jesus says: “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The passage in 2Chronicles 24:17-22, which Estella read gives testimony to the faithfulness of Zechariah who was stoned to death. His person and his words did not find a place in his time and context. He was seen as a contradiction. He was considered an obstacle to the schemes of the king and his people. Zechariah and the prophets who preceded him always stood with the faithful minority over against the majority, unfaithful and rebellious Israel (Stanton, p. 149-150). The king ordered Zechariah to be stoned to death.
The idea that Christianity is becoming a minority should not alarm us but on the contrary. If we get comfortable in the world, or the world gets comfortable with us, the genuineness of our calling should be put in question. If we get comfortable with the world or the world gets comfortable with us, we are likely to disregard the promise of a great is your reward in heaven.
Let me close with these words:
Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Romans 8:17). Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
These are the words of Jesus. Amen!