Tag: martyrs

Sermon: What Are All These People Doing In Heaven?

Heaven is going to be filled with people from every nation, tribe, race, and language — shouldn’t we get to know each other now?

What Are All These People Doing In Heaven?
Rev 7:9-17

9After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” 11All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,12saying:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.

13Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
14I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15Therefore, “they are before the throne of God 
and serve him day and night in his temple; 
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. 
 16Never again will they hunger; 
never again will they thirst. 
The sun will not beat upon them, 
 nor any scorching heat.

17For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; 
he will lead them to springs of living water. 
 And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Heaven is a Big Place

A man arrived at the gates of Heaven.
St. Peter asked, “Religion?”
The man said, “Methodist.”
St. Peter looked down his list and said,” Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”

Continue reading “Sermon: What Are All These People Doing In Heaven?”

Sermon: Standing Firm in the Struggle

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching on Sunday, September 21, 2008.  I hope you have a wonderful day at your church.  

Standing Firm in the Struggle

Philippians 1:21-30 NIV

21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.

27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.  Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel 28without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

We Are Not Afraid

I don’t remember being afraid even though he was bigger than I was, and he had a knife.  Fortunately, we were both in the fourth grade, so the situation was not as serious as it might have been, but he was the class bully, and I was determined not to be bullied.  As he waved the knife in my face, taunting me and daring me to back down, I had a great idea.  I simply put my hand around the blade of the knife. 

Now, fourth grade logic is not great, but I was face-to-face with the class bully and all my friends were looking on.  If I backed up, or acted afraid, I knew that he would ruin our entire school year.  So, I reached out my hand and wrapped it around the knife blade.  He looked at me kind of funny, but he didn’t move the knife.  I just looked at him, and then after what seemed like an hour, but in reality was only a few seconds, he shrugged.  I let go of the blade, he took the knife, folded it up and put it back in his pocket.  He never bothered me or my friends again. 

Now, I am not a particularly courageous person, but something inside me said, “The knife is dull.  There’s nothing to worry about.”  And sure enough, it was not sharp and I could hold it with my chubby fourth grade hand without injury.  And I really wasn’t afraid. 

Fortunately, I have never had to face down anybody else in my lifetime with a weapon or without, so I’m not sure how I would react now.  But in the fourth grade, I acted without fear.

Others, however, have acted without fear more recently.  After the terrorists attacks on London’s transit system on July 7, 2005, some Londoners were so determined to live their lives normally, and not in fear, that they started the website, We’re not afraid dot com.

Visiting the site, you are greeted by dozens of pictures of individuals, families, couples, and corporate employees all displaying in some manner the words, We’re Not Afraid.  Their point is to stand together and encourage others to live their lives, even in the face of terrorists’ threats, without fear.

Paul’s Reason for Writing to the Church in Philippi

Paul writes to his friends in Philippi with a similar message.  Don’t be afraid!  Paul is telling them that because he is in prison, in chains specifically, in the capital of the empire, Rome.  But, Paul has a long and heart-felt history with the people who make up the church in Philippi.  In Acts 16 we find Paul and Silas have been arrested and thrown in the Philippian jail for exorcising an evil spirit from a young woman.  You might think that most folks would find that a good thing to do, but unfortunately for Paul and Silas, when they cast out the young woman’s evil spirit, she lost the ability to do fortune-telling and her owners were furious.  Luke says, “She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling.”   

Paul and Silas were definitely bad for business, so after the mob that gathered stripped and beat them, they were thrown in prison.  You remember the rest of the story — Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns when at midnight the foundations of the prison were shaken by a violent earthquake.  Prison doors were thrown open, chains fell from their wrists, and the jailer feared the prisoners were about to escape.  Since the jailer was responsible for keeping the prisoners in prison, he was about to take his own life, when Paul and Silas called out to him that all the prisoners were still there.  Which is amazing in itself.

 The grateful jailer, not sure if he could believe what he was hearing, called for a light, rushed in and found Paul and Silas and everybody else.  Realizing that Paul and Silas must have tremendous power, the jailer fell down before them and asked, “What must I do to be saved?” 

Now, we’re not sure what the jailer was asking.  Did he want to be saved from the Roman officials who would question him about why his jail was standing wide open?  Did he want to be saved from the other prisoners, who were standing around?  I really don’t think at this point he’s asking how to get to heaven, but Paul seizes the opportunity to tell him anyway.  Paul says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved — and your household.”  In other words, your wife, your children, your servants, everybody under your roof will be saved now and in eternity.

 The jailer responds, and he and his family are baptized immediately.  He took Paul and Silas to his own home, fed them, and they spent the rest of the night, until dawn, rejoicing in their new found faith. 

So, the jailer and his family are part of the church at Philippi.  But, before the jailer, a woman named Lydia and her friends also had found Christ.  Paul went down to the river outside the city on one sabbath and found “the place of prayer.”  Lydia and her friends were ‘God-fearers’ — people who weren’t Jews, but who believed in the one true God, the God of the Jews.  They trust Christ, and Lydia then invites Paul and Silas into her home as well. 

 So, Lydia and her friends are part of the church at Philippi.  Paul teaches and encourages them, until he and Silas run afoul of the mob that day, and afterwards they leave town.  But, the church at Philippi remains one of Paul’s favorites.

Now Paul is in prison, and the Philippian believers have heard the news.  Their dear teacher, Paul, is in chains in Rome awaiting trial before Ceasar.  As you can imagine, the outcome does not look good, and the church in Philippi has sent at least one letter to Paul expressing their concern and offering their prayers for him.  Paul writes to reassure them, and to encourage them to remain steadfast in their own faith.

 A Life Worthy of the Gospel

In the verses we did not read this morning, Paul reminds the Philippian congregation of his circumstances. He is in prison in Rome, about to be tried before the emperor.  The possibilities are that he will be found innocent of the charges against him and set free — he will get to keep on living.  Or, he will be found guilty and be put to death.  All of Paul’s friends are very concerned, but Paul assures them that the choice between life and death has taken on new meaning.  They’re almost the same to Paul.

Paul says, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  Then, he explains what he means.  It’s better for Paul to go to be with Christ, no doubt.  But, it’s better for the Philippians, and others, for Paul to remain alive, and continue to teach them.  So, Paul assures them, I’m sure I’ll be around a little while longer.  But, then he urges them to “live lives worthy of the gospel.” 

 By worthy of the Gospel, Paul does not mean that the Philippians are earning their salvation.  Rather, he encourages them to live lives that reflect the good news of God through Christ.  How will they know if they are living lives worthy of the gospel?  Well, Paul gives them some clues.

 First, they will stand firm.  The image here is of someone with good footing on slippery soil.  A person who has planted his feet in such a manner as to be unmoveable.  The Greek word is hupomone’ — and it literally means to ’stand under.’   Hupo- is the prefix that we use most often when we use the term hypodermicneedle.  A hypodermic needle is one that puts the medicine we need — the shot — under our skin. 

 The idea is that they are standing under a heavy load, a burden that weighs down on them.  But, because their footing is firm, the Philippians are not moved or shaken.  They bear the burden well. 

 Secondly, they stand firm together.  Paul encourages them to stand as ‘one spirit.’ Literally, ‘one soul.’  Act as one.  Stand as one.  They are a community of faith, and particularly in times of testing they are to stand together.  Very much like Benjamin Franklin, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who turned to his colleagues and said, “Gentlemen, we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”  

 Unity of the body of Christ is Paul’s message to the Philippian church.  Apparently there were two women in the church that had a disagreement.  Euodia and Syntyche were at each other for some reason, and Paul meant to reunite them and strengthen the Philippian church. 

 Thirdly, they will stand firm together in the struggle for the Gospel.  Paul uses the word contending to describe the struggle they are having.  The picture there is of an athletic contest — a wrestling match or a race — where the athletes are contending, struggling, for the victory.  But, this is not individual effort.  It’s a team sport, and Paul wants them to be victorious in the contest.

 Finally, they will stand firm together in the struggle without being afraid.  Scared — that is literally the word Paul uses.  Frightened, afraid, living in fear.  Paul encourages them to stand firm together, so that they will not be scared of those who persecute them. 

 We in the US do not suffer much for our faith.  But in the first century Roman empire things were much different.  A person who became a follower of Christ — a Christian — could lose their job, have their property confiscated, lose their status in the community, be ostracized, or even be arrested, imprisoned, and put to death.  We are still a few years away from an all-persecution of Christians in the empire, but the beginnings of persecution are already there. 

The empire at first ignores this tiny sect of Jesus-followers, believing them to be an off-shoot of Judaism.  But the Jews quickly disclaim the Christians, and begin to persecute the church.  Paul knows this story, because he was one of the persecutors.  At every opportunity, these persecutors sought help from the civil authorities.  After all, Rome’s Pilate had been complicit in putting Jesus to death, so what were a few more of his followers?

 Paul says that the Philippians have been given the privilege not only to believe in Jesus, but to suffer for him, too.  Today that doesn’t seem like such good news to us.  We’re kind of like the father, Tevye, in “Fiddler of the Roof” who complained to God –

 I know we are the chosen people. But once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?  -Tevye

 But, Paul says, it is their privilege to not only believe in Jesus, but to suffer for him.  Not something we know much about.  But others do.  Others like a young mother named Perpetua.  Perpetua was killed on March 7, 203 AD, in Carthage.  Only a hundred years before her death, the city had outlawed infant sacrifice and public suicide.  Carthage had a culture of violence, and as Christianity spread throughout the empire, Christians became the scapegoats for public problems. 

 But that day, March 7, was a celebration.  The emperor Septimus Severus had a son who was celebrating a birthday.  So, a fitting spectacle was needed and none was more fitting than killing Christians.  Almost at random, Perpetua, who was 20, and the mother of an infant son; her pregnant servant, Felicitas; another servant named Revocatus; two free men named Saturus, and Saturninus; and another man named Secundulus were all arrested. 

 Secundulus was killed by a prison guard, but the others were held in jail awaiting their fateful encounter with the gladiators.  Perpetua’s father came to her in prison, which was really just a sweltering pit into which she and her servants had been thrown.  He begged her to renounce Christianity and Christ, to save her own life.  He fell at her feet, pulled out his own hair and beard, so urgent were his pleas to his own daughter.  But, Perpetua stood calmly before him, refusing to deny her faith.

 Perpetua had the gift of visions, and she was asked by her fellow prisoners to seek God’s vision of their fate.  Here is what she saw in a dream that night.  These are her own words, written by her own hand, and preserved by an unknown editor:

 “…I saw an immense garden, in the center of which sat a tall, gray-haired man dressed like a shepherd, milking sheep.  Standing around him were several thousand white-robed people.  As he raised his head he noticed me and said, “Welcome, my child.”  Then, he beckoned me to approach and gave me a small morsel of the cheese he was making.  I accepted it with cupped hands and ate it.  When all those surrounding us said, “Amen,” I awoke, still tasting the sweet cheese.  I immediately told my brother about the vision, and we both realized that we were to experience the sufferings of martyrdom.  From then on we gave up having any hope in this world.”  — Saving Paradise, Brock and Parker, p. 68-69. 

When March 7 came, Perpetua and her fellow prisoners were led into the arena.  Gladiators fell upon them, taunting them and wounding them repeatedly.  As the sport began to lose its appeal to the crowd, the gladiators moved in for the kill.  Perpetua was last to be killed.  As the gladiator approached her, he aimed his sword for her heart, the way an enemy would slay a man in battle.  Perpetua took the gladiator’s hand, and instead guided it to her throat, the accepted death for a woman.  

Christians killed in the arena were supposed to die in humiliation and fear.  Perpetua’s final act demonstrated to her captors and killers that she knew a higher authority than Caesar, that her power was greater than the power of the empire, and that death came to her as her choice, not theirs.  

 More Than Courage

How could these martyrs die so serenely and fearlessly?  It was not their personal courage that enabled their faithful deaths.  They knew the testimony of Paul for it was their testimony, too.  ”For me to live is Christ…”  Their very lives were sustained by the presence and person of Jesus the Christ.  Life for them revolved around glorifying Christ.  

The early Christians did exactly what Christ had commanded them to do.  They cared for each other, and for widows, orphans, the sick, the elderly, and others unable to care for themselves.  If one family had no food, the entire community fasted until there was enough food for all.  If someone had no place to stay, others took them in.  If a new Christian lost his livelihood, the church’s underground economy sustained them until they could get back on their feet.

The empire did two things to placate the masses.  Great coliseums were built, not only in Rome, but in outlying cities a well, and the empire entertained the masses in the contests to the death.  Kind of like wrestling today, only people died.  

But, the second thing the empire did was feed people.  Free bread distribution took place regularly, to keep the masses from rebelling.  When the church began to take over this function, and to do it with grace and love, the empire was shaken.  So, Christians became the scapegoat for a brutal empire, and thousands of Christians were killed in an effort to eradicate this threat to the primacy of the empire.

Heavenly Cheerleaders

The early church valued the sacrifices of these martyrs — the witnesses of Christ.  These who had given their lives became for “the seed of the church” according to one bishop.  Early congregations believed that these martyrs were present in the “great cloud of witnesses” of which Paul wrote in Hebrews 12.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  — Hebrews 12:1-3 

They saw their struggles as the continuation of the struggles of those who had gone before them.  They took heart from the courage and bravery of earlier believers who gave up their lives for their faith in Christ.  So important were those who had gone before that Christians often observed sacred meals at the entrance to the burial place of martyred Christians.  They would place a chair with a lit candle to symbolize the presence of those who had preceded them in death and would keep their memories alive through these symbolic suppers.

 The eucharist meal was the model for these sacred suppers.  They believed that as surely as Christ was present with them in the breaking of bread and drinking of the cup, their predecessors in the faith were present with them, encouraging and strengthening them in their daily lives.

 They were reminded of Stephen who, as his life was about to end, said, “Look I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”  There belief was that Christ was present in our lives and aware of our persecutions.  That heaven was not a far-off land, but another dimension as close to us as breath itself.  Those on the otherside were not unaware, nor were they disinterested in the lives of the saints still in this life.  

So, they could say with Paul, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”  And it literally made no difference to them whether life was lived in this world or in the world eternal, for Christ was present in both, and the veil between the two was torn in half by the resurrection of Christ.  

 The point of Paul’s letter, and of early Christian belief that the martyrs of the faith helped them, was to remind us that we are not alone as we live for Christ.  We are part of the story of God.  Others surround us in this community of faith we call the church.  Others have gone before us.  Others have suffered far more than we have.  But, they are also cheering us on, encouraging us to live lives worthy of the gospel in our own day and time.  To take courageous stands, to seek God’s justice, and God’s transforming love for His creation. 

These are the same struggles others have faced, Paul reminds the Philippians.  So, stand firm.  Stand firm together.  Stand firm together unafraid of those who oppose us.  Stand firm because there are many who have gone before us.  It is not our courage, but Christ’s life that sustains us.  And in the face of uncertain futures, we are not afraid.  ”For us to live is Christ…”

An Opportunity To Testify

An Opportunity To Testify

Luke 21:5-19 NRSV

5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

7 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!”* and, “The time is near!”* Do not go after them.

9 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

12 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15for I will give you words* and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Our Fascination with the Future

Jesus is in the Temple during this time, probably from the opening of chapter 20 in the gospel of Luke. In the first part of this chapter (21:1-4), Jesus is watching people — rich people — put their money in the collection vessels in the Temple. These collection vessels were 13 chests shaped like inverted trumpets where rich and poor, male and female deposited their offerings as they came for Temple worship and ceremony. This is the occasion for the story of the widow’ mite — the poor widow who put in two small copper coins. Jesus said that she put in more than all of the rich people because they gave out of their abundance, but she gave all she had to live on.

That’s the scene in the Temple in Jerusalem as Jesus and the disciples and others were standing and watching all the activity in the Temple compound. But to get an idea of the splendor of the Temple, you need to walk with me away from the Court of the Women the smallest eastern court. We will walk down a bank of 22 marble steps, down into the Court of the Gentiles. If we look back over our shoulders as we leave the Court of the Women, we will read the signs that warn non-Jews not to venture any further into the Temple or face death. They were serious about preserving the ceremonial purity of the Temple building.

As we descend into the Court of the Gentiles, we have our choice of gates from which we can exit. We cross through the Royal Porch with its 4-rows deep of pure white marble Corinthian columns, each 40′ feet tall — 162 columns in all in this porch alone. We come to Solomon’s Colonade, the eastern porch, and we head for the gate, which is really a massive entrance. We choose the eastern gate, the gate that faces the rising sun. This is the gate through which the Messiah will come when he comes to save Israel. This gate is called Beautiful and it is just that. Plates of solid gold face the eastern gate, so that when the sun rises in the east, the light of the sun is brilliantly reflected back into the Kidron Valley below, making it appear that the sun is rising in the west at the same time. Travelers approaching Jerusalem see the Temple from a distance and mistake it for a snow-covered mountain, it is so dazzlingly bright and massive.

It is this Temple Jesus and the disciples are standing in. This temple built by Herod the Great, Rome’s puppet king who began the restoration and expansion of the Temple in 19 AD, and would not live to see it’s completion in 64 AD. Six years after the magnificent structure is finished, with its tons of gold, its massive entrances, its wide porticos, and its immense cost, the Temple will be torn down to its foundations by the legions of Rome. No stone left standing, sacked of sacred treasure and leveled to the ground. Today all that is left of Herod’s Temple is the western retaining wall, known as the Wailing Wall. As precious as the Wailing Wall is, the Temple was a thousand times more glorious.

To get some idea of the magnitude of loss, it would be as if the United States Capitol were completely destroyed, leaving only the retaining wall around the base. Or if the White House were leveled to the ground, leaving only the foundation. The loss of the Temple was incalculable, and the thought of its loss was unspeakable in the first century.

So, in verse 6 when Jesus says, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” — those who hear Jesus press in around him in horror and ask, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ They wanted to know what the future will hold.

Our curious concern is not much different now. The popularity of the “Left Behind” series of books, with over 10-million sold is 21st century evidence that we are as concerned and as curious about what the future will hold as those in Jesus’ day. If you can remember our horror at the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, and the deaths of over 3,000 of our fellow citizens, you can imagine the concern for the future of first century Jerusalem.

What We Can Know About The Future

The destruction of the Temple, in Jewish thought, would herald the beginning of the end. Jews in the first century understood time in two eras — this age and the age to come. Many then felt, as many do today, that this age is hopelessly bad and unredeemable. God is surely going to destroy this world, they thought. That destruction will usher in the age to come or what we would now call the Kingdom of God. But, in between this age and the age to come, was the day of the Lord. Jews understood the day of the Lord to be a time of judgment, of refining through fire, of purification of this world. Non-Jews, those not God’s people would be judged and destroyed. Unrighteous Jews would be judged and punished; only righteous Jews would survive this terrible appearing of God.

In that context, Jesus tells those gathered around him what they can know about the future.

  1. Other voices will call to us. Jesus warned them that these other voices would be bold in claiming authority for themselves, saying “I am here” and “the time is now.” Jesus said, don’t go after them.
  2. Conflict will sweep the globe. Wars and rumors of wars is how Jesus puts it. Nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom. The end is not yet.
  3. Natural disasters will overtake us. Earthquakes, famine, plague, signs and portents in the heavens — all of these things will indicate something eschatological is taking place. The combination of all these events will signify God at work.
  4. God is not in the Temple, God is present in Jesus.  Jesus also mentions in another gospel that the Temple will be destroyed and in 3-days he will rebuild it.  An incredible claim considering that the Temple he and the disciples are looking at isn’t finished and this is now 24-years after Herod has begun his expansive renovation. 

Sounds very modern, very today, doesn’t it. It only takes a casual observer to see that global crises, and the competing voices of  pluralisitic, post-Christendom socieity are swirling around us today. But before you quit your job, sell everything you have, and move to a mountain top to await the coming of the Lord, keep listening.

Before The End Comes, The Opportunity to Witness

Verse 12 is very important — ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.’

So it’s not just false prophets, war, and disaster. We the followers of Jesus will be persecuted. Now this is the part not many books are written about. This is not the attractive part of the day of the Lord. This is not what we want to hear and it was certainly not what Jesus’ followers wanted to hear either. That’s why the disciples were in keeping a low profile in a room in Jerusalem before Pentecost.

Luke who wrote this gospel also wrote the book of Acts. Luke opens Acts chapter 4 with the account of Peter and John’s arrest. And so it begins. Christians arrested, persecuted, handed over to religious leaders, brought before kings and governors. Jesus goes on to say that we will be betrayed by relatives, friends, parents and siblings, and some will be put to death.

Oh, wait. That’s exactly what happened to Jesus. Betrayed by one of his own, arrested, tortured, ridiculed, tried by religious leaders, brought before the governor. Killed by the government of Rome. So now the term “follower of Jesus” takes on new meaning. We are following him — through persecution, accusation, ridicule, and death.

But, then Jesus says something very odd, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”

To what are we testifying? The apostles in the book of Acts would testify to what they had seen. John, in I John1 says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”

The New Testament Greek word for witness — one who testifies — is martys. It is the same word from which we get the English word, martyr. So, a witness is someone who tells what he or she knows. A witness for Christ is someone who tells what he or she knows about Christ even if it means their life. And for many it did. The martyrs of the early church were those who refused to worship the emperor, or renounce Jesus, or give up their faith. And so they died because of what they had seen and told.

But then Jesus says something really strange —

“So make up your minds NOT to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

We are not on our own in the face of persecution. Jesus is still with us. And he gives us words-and-wisdom so overwhelming that no rebuttal is possible. Which doesn’t mean they won’t kill us, but it does mean that they will do so knowing the truth. Knowing the irrefutable truth of God. Acting out their hate, their arrogance, their own will in spite of knowing and hearing and seeing the truth of God standing before them. But they did that to Jesus, too. And Pilate could only ask Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate knew he was face-to-face with the truth. Pilate knew that what he heard was true. Pilate realized that Jesus was not a criminal. Pilate had the opportunity to embrace the truth, to respond to Jesus, to love God. But in the face of overwhelming words-and-wisdom, Pilate could only resort to a weak question, “What is truth?”

But here is our assurance. Jesus says not a hair of your head will perish. Now usually we think that phrase means a person will survive, live, come through. But Jesus has just said that many will be put to death. So what does he mean here? Well verse 19 holds the clue — “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Not your lives as some translations have it, but your souls. In other words, you will die to this life, but you will not perish in the life to come.

Which to us is not much comfort. Our lives are lives of ease. Our faith costs us nothing. But to millions of followers of Jesus, this promise has real meaning. It had great meaning to those a few years later under the persecution of the Emperor Domitian. John writes about them in Revelation. Listen to Revelation the seventh chapter —

1After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 3″Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” 4Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.

Then verse 9 continues —

9After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” 11All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.

13Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

14I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
16Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
17For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

— Revelation 7, NIV

The future, whatever it holds, will be our opportunity to testify. To be a witness to what our eyes have seen, our ears have heard, and our hands have touched — that we proclaim.

In the ancient Celtic Christian world, there were three types of martyrs. Because Christianity came to Ireland without bloodshed there were no red martyrs — those who gave their lives for Christ — at least initially. The Irish Christians designated other acts as acts of witness or martyrdom. The green martyrs were those who gave up friends, family, and their community to live in the hills or caves as hermits. The white martyrs were those who left friends, family, community, and their country, setting sail in tiny boats called coracles. Sailing into the white morning light, these martyrs left everything familiar for their witness. St. Columba, who founded the abbey at Iona, was a white martyr. Later, the red martyrs would also be added to the list, as those who gave their very lives for the cause of Christ.

Our Witness Now 

Jesus said the events of the future will be our opportunity to testify. But what about now? What about here? What do we have to tell or need to tell? And are we so dependent upon the presence of Christ in our lives that we are confident that Jesus himself will give us the words-and-wisdom that cannot be refuted.

We, like the martyrs of the first century Roman empire of whom John writes in Revelation, have something to tell that is at odds with this world and its system. That is why many will hate us, persecute us, arrest us, ridicule us, turn against us, and even kill us. There are systems of power and greed and corruption and consumerism in this world that are at odds with the world to come — the kingdom of God. While it is not our intention to create enemies, cause conflict, arouse suspicion, or incite reaction, simply by living Kingdom lives — following Jesus — we will do so. We will not have to wait for the future, because the future is now. Before all the signs of the eschatological work of God, Jesus said we would face persecution. If we’re not facing it now, we might want to examine how much of our lives are lived in contrast to this world and in harmony with the world to come.

Three Stories Of Witness

Our opportunity to witness now lies in the way we align ourselves with the values and actions of the age to come — the Kingdom of God.  Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  And living kingdom values is often in direct opposition to the values of this world. 

John Wesley prayed that when he died, he would die penniless and he did.  Wesley could have accumulated a vast amount of money as the Methodist movement spread.  Just on his writing alone, Wesley could have made a fortune even by our standards today.  But Wesley’s values were not of this age, but of the age to come. 

The story is told that John Wesley had a meager amount of money one day and used it to buy a couple of small paintings to brighten up the room in which he lived.  Later that day, Wesley encountered a woman who needed food and, realizing that he had spent the only cash he had on decoration, he vowed never to do that again.  When I told Debbie this story, she said, “He should have bought more art.”  So, obviously everyone is not called to live the spartan existence of John Wesley.  But Wesley was living Kingdom values as he understood them, rejecting the call of consumerism that existed even in the 1700s.

The second story reminds us that living by kingdom values now often places us at odds with the rest of society.  White pastors like Paul Turner who supported the rights of African-Americans during the civil rights movement were often fired, ridiculed, or both.  Turner believed that all people, regardless of race, were God’s children.  And so he took the hands of little black children and walked with them into the school building in Clinton, Tennessee.  Then, after moving to Nashville, did the same thing as pastor of Brookhollow Baptist Church.  For that Paul Turner was beaten, ridiculed, harassed, belittled, and criticized.  Kingdom values stir up both passionate support and violent opposition.  This is the kind of persecution that Jesus was speaking of.  This is living the values of the age to come, not of this present age. 

Taking the cause of the poor, the ignorant, the marginalized is often difficult but always God’s work.  Until Rick Warren, pastor of one of the largest churches in America, submitted to an HIV test, the whole subject of HIV-AIDS was not on the agenda of the evangelical church.  Warren has been criticized, not by the world, but by fellow Christians for coming to the aid of those with AIDS.  This is the kind of ridicule is that of which Jesus spoke. 

The third story brings this conflict between this age and the age to come even closer.  It’s a story about bananas.  Chiquita, the banana people, entered a guilty plea in federal court in September to paying right-wing paramilitary groups in Columbia for “protection” of their banana plantations.  Chiquita was fined $25-million by the Justice Department, for this illegal act.  While Chiquita was paying the paramilitaries, over 4,000 people in that region of Columbia were killed, and 173 deaths were directly attributed to the AUC, the group Chiquita gave over $1-million to.  USA Today reported Chiquita’s guilty plea, and you can visit the Chiquita website where they acknowledge their misdeeds and fine. 

I wrote an article about this, and a friend of mine replied,

We’re being hit from all sides. Shocking injustice lives in my sock drawer and in the crisper in the fridge. Who’d have thunk it? My old value was frugality – finding a good price. Now I’m having to embrace a new value – seeking to use my money in ways that foster justice.

But isn’t it cool that so many people are getting this all at the same time.

So, at our house, at least for a while, we’re buying brands other than Chiquita.  These stories are examples of this age versus the age to come. 

So, we don’t go looking for trouble, but we do go looking for places where Jesus is at work.  And we join him there.  In the process, we find ourselves with Christ — in ridicule, in persecution, in criticism, and in death.  But, this is our opportunity to witness to the work of God in this world, and it comes with a price and a reward.