Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Just a pinch of incense

The early Christians had it tough.  I mean, really tough.  They were seen as outsiders, orphans, and outcasts.  The world they lived in was often hostile and overwhelming to them.  Indeed, there seems to be no good reason that these men and women should have seen their faith survive let alone thrive in such conditions.  And yet, not only did the message of the gospel survive, it grew to the furthest parts of the known world.

One of the greatest threats to the early church was the outbreak of state-led persecution at any moment.  We're not talking about public ridicule, the loss of a promotion or a job, refusal into a college or facing a reduced grade on a term paper.  We are talking about being imprisoned and perhaps even tortured and killed for faith in Christ.  Often the test that was used to determine who was a good citizen or not revolved around a seemingly innocuous ritual: giving a pinch of incense to the Roman Emperor.  This activity literally took only a few seconds to perform, but it was seen as very important to the social order of the day.  This is why emperor worship became a lynchpin of upholding the Roman peace - the Pax Romana.

The Romans were the most successful world empire in part because they were able to govern large tracts of territory without incurring the immense cost of a huge standing military.  They garnered the support of subject peoples by allowing them to keep their culture and religion as long as they accepted Roman taxation and military rule.  In order to cover the huge problems that competing religions might present, the Romans decided that they would institute Roman emperor worship as a requirement for all subject peoples.  Any group of people (Greek, Scythian, Celtic, Akkadian, etc.) could practice their own religion and culture as long as they offered a pinch of incense to the Roman emperor once per year, thus recognizing their respect for Roman rule. Anyone who refused to participate in this central activity was often deemed a threat to the social order and was branded as seditious.  They were marked for punishment and perhaps even death.

The first people who were often marked for persecution were the leaders of the early church.  The reason they stood out was that they simply couldn't participate in such activity and remain faithful to Christ, no matter how innocuous others might have thought it this activity was.  One of the most notable examples was Polycarp the bishop of Smyrna.  At the age of 86 he was arrested for supposed seditious behaviour and dragged before the Roman proconsul.  The record of early church historian Eusebius records what happened:

"Soldiers then grabbed him to nail him to a stake, but Polycarp stopped them: 'Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails." He prayed aloud, the fire was lit, and his flesh was consumed. The chronicler of this martyrdom said it was "not as burning flesh but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace.'  The account concluded by saying that Polycarp's death was remembered by "everyone"—"he is even spoken of by the heathen in every place." -

It was Polycarp's courage under martyrdom that is best remembered about his life.  He is one of the most revered early Christians for this very reason.  He is a premier example of a man of conscience and conviction who was not moved by the worst the world could throw at him.  So great was his love for Jesus Christ.

Today we as Christians in Canada are being faced with a similar kind of decision to the one that Polycarp faced: will we live to please Christ or the world?  And although our persecution is very slight by comparison, it is still real.  Will we offer a "pinch of incense" to the emperor or will we stand for Jesus?  Our society has changed a great deal in the past 10-15 years.  If you stand for holiness and godliness and biblical morality you are now faced with the prospect of being branded as a bad person.  Indeed, words are being flipped on their head in order to accomplish this.  Those who stand for biblical sexuality and morality are called "repressive", "phobic", "haters", "ignorant", "bigots", etc.  Those who stand for protecting the lives of the most innocent among us are called "anti-women".  The litmus test of whether or not you are a good citizen has come down to whether or not you agree with the current policially correct dogma that is prevalent in our institutions of higher learning, government, and the judiciary.  Deviation from this norm is being met with increasing hostility and even outright sanctions.

One of the most troubling features of persecution is not what the world does to us, but what we do to each other in the body of Christ.  Sadly, in the early church persecutions there were some who claimed the name of Christ but who are more than happy to throw their fellow brothers and sisters under the proverbial bus in order that they might escape persecution themselves.  Today I see the same pattern by some Christians who seek to gain a measure of approval from the world by criticizing their brothers and sisters of biblical conscience rather than standing with them.  They tend to find the worst examples of people who purport to uphold biblical moral values, but do so in a hateful manner and then use those examples to tar all Christians who uphold biblical moral values with the same brush.  Its a sickening thing to witness. 

Instead of caricaturing and demeaning one another we need to stand together like never before.  The early church was hardly problem free, but one thing is clear: those who were men and women of biblical conscience stand out as those we honour today.  The rest were forgotten.  Let's remember that, not allowing our mind and heart to be held captive by the world's empty philosophies but by the unchanging and unshakable Word of God.  Let's stand "shoulder-to-shoulder" for the faith and refuse to give even one pinch of incense to "the emperor".  The world needs such soldiers of Christ full of faith, courage and conviction.

I leave you with Jesus' words in Matthew 5:10-12a

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven."

Monday, 31 March 2014

The cost of following Christ

It's funny how the biblical lessons that are the most obvious are often the ones that I tend to naturally ignore.  Such is the case with the lessons of perseverance in following God.  From the narrative accounts in the Old Testament (Abram and Sarai waiting 25 years for Issac, Joseph being sold into slavery, Moses leading the stubborn Israelites for another 40 years through the wilderness, Jeremiah prophesying for 40 plus years with only one convert--his scribe), to the ample teaching in the New Testament, the Scripture is clear: God is ultimately interested only in faith that endures.

Jesus boldly proclaimed the cost of discipleship on numerous occasions.  In Luke 9:57-62, He made it crystal clear that He did not judge the faithfulness of people the way that we do.  He was not impressed with short term/superficial commitments:

"Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.  And Jesus said to him, 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.'  Then He said to another, 'Follow Me.'  But he said, 'Lord, let me first go and bury my father.'  Jesus said to him, 'Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God'  And another also said, 'Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house'  But Jesus said to him, 'No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.'

There are so many who boldly proclaim, "Lord I will follow you wherever you go", only to "fall of the rails" after a season of trial.  They are "on fire for God", but only for a short time.  Why is enduring faithfulness so hard to find?  Because it requires an authentic faith that clings to nothing other than the ROCK: Jesus Christ.  When our hearts are holding on to the things of the world, we cannot fully put our faith in Jesus because our affections are divided.  And Jesus warned us so when He proclaimed, "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other." (Matthew 6:24)  He was speaking about the love of money, but by extension He was speaking about all the lusts of the this world that money represented (comforts, fame, power, pleasure, etc.).

In John 6:60-69 Jesus taught some very difficult things for the crowds of followers to accept.  And many left Him because of it.  But even after this exodus, Jesus wasn't rattled.  In fact, He wasn't even finished teaching on the subject of commitment.  He challenged His disciples with a stark choice: do you want to follow Me or not?  He was in effect giving them an "out".  Look at the context:

"Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, 'This is a hard saying; who can understand it?'  When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, 'Does this offend you?  What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before?  It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.  But there are some of you who do not believe.' For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him.  And He said, 'Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father'
 From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.  Then Jesus said to the twelve, 'Do you also want to go away' But Simon Peter answered Him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.  Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.'

So much of what happens today in contemporary Christianity is designed to please the crowd.  Our validation comes from the blessings we receive in life or the favourable responses of other people.  But such thinking has it all wrong.  No amount of earthly blessings can ever satisfy the craving of the human soul and the fickle affections of the crowd will only produce a short-term happiness.  When this thinking creeps into the church body, it is a dangerous thing indeed.  What we need is the same kind of mindset as Peter: "To whom shall we go?"  He was "all in" for Jesus.  And his feeble faith would one day became gigantic because of Christ's work in Him.  But the road was brutal and the challenges never ended.  Yet, Peter gained the greatest prize of all: eternal life with Christ because of his dogged determination to follow the Lord.

True faith endures.  Fickle faith crumbles under duress.  It's a lesson that one cannot escape if they are serious about God's Word.  God never promised us an easy life: He promised us a purposeful life of eternal significance and intimacy with Him.  And that is found only in the ROCK of our faith: Jesus Christ.