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."