Posted by Anne Kennedy, 9 Mar 2020
Anne Kennedy concludes the first part of our Lent series with the last of the Beatitudes.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,
“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”
So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.
1 Peter 4:12-19
What injustice or misunderstanding have you suffered that you could not remedy, and how did you respond?
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. Matthew 5:11-12
I sat in front of my computer in stunned disbelief. A person with whom I have had friendly online encounters discovered that I am human after all. I hadn’t responded to her over some online spat (not mine, but hers and another person’s) in the way she had expected me to. Her cutting salvo, ‘You’re just like everyone else,’ resounded across my bruised feelings. I read back over our heated, and on my part, defensive exchange. And yet, I wasn’t wrong, I just hadn’t been the person she wanted me to be. I sought counsel from wiser Christians. ‘So,’ said an unpleasantly discerning one, ‘why do you have to have everyone like you?’ And then he added, ‘Blessed are you when others revile you’, before walking away.
A Christian, in an abstract sense, knows that persecution is part of the deal. Jesus promised that the road would be narrow and hard, that the way of the cross is the way of life, putting together two contradictory ideas — death (the cross), and life (not death). But against that abstract knowledge is the deep, pervasive desire to be kind, which often masks the desire to be liked. Persecution is something that happens out there, in other places, to people who are really suffering. If it’s small, or mediocre, or mundane, it probably wouldn’t merit any great reward.
The Beatitudes, however, of which this might be considered the crowning glory, are not a list of commandments to obey. They are not the Christian’s divinely ordained To-Do list. They are descriptive pronouncements from the vantage point of heaven. The meek, the peaceful, the hungry, the merciful, the mourning, and yes, even the persecuted are all blessed by God. God gives to his children gifts associated with his attentive favour. Looking at these gifts from the world’s point of view, the recipients are wretched and despised. From God’s perspective, however, they are of all the most fortunate.
Moreover, it is not the elite Christian alone who may expect to receive the blessings of persecution. Persecution for the sake of the gospel is for every believer, whether in intense waves, as is the case in China, South Korea, and Nigeria today, or in the pitiful painful broken relationships that are the property of being a Christian in an ever more secularised West.
‘Do not be surprised,’ admonishes Peter, precisely because the Christians to whom he was writing were surprised, and sad, that life was so difficult, ‘as if something strange were happening to you.’ He has to say it, because it is so strange. The Christian, having experienced a deep, settled peace with God, having been forgiven an incalculable debt, turns to the world, happy and secure, and is then shocked when the world recoils in horror.
And recoil it will, because though Jesus accomplished the profound peace of reconciliation for the believer to God on the cross, yet he has not come again in glory. His kingdom resides alongside the kingdom of this world, of death, of the enemy of the soul. This great enemy, though he has lost, is out to do as much damage as he can on his ultimate descent into hell.
Martin Luther describes it this way in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount: ‘There neither can nor ought to be a peaceful, quiet state of things. For how could it be so where the devil is ruling, and is a deadly enemy to the gospel? And this, indeed, not without reason, for it hurts him in his kingdom, so that he feels it… Therefore, do not hope for any peace and quietness as long as Christ and his gospel are in the midst of the devil’s kingdom.’
The key is not to go looking for persecution, to be obnoxious on purpose and then claim it was all for Jesus. Nor is it to retreat from all interaction with the world. Rather, it is to take every circumstance in which you thought you were acting in good faith and with sincere charity of heart, every painful misunderstanding, every time you discovered you were deeply at odds with those around you, and bring each one under the light of the gospel.
Sometimes that light will humble you, when you realize that you were the persecutor, you were wrong, you must go back and try to reconcile. But other times you will discover that you longed for peace with the world over peace with God, that your idea of kindness was a desire to avoid conflict, or worse, that Jesus offers you a taste of the suffering of the cross — that strange, life-giving, disquieting entrance into a great and beautiful reward.
Questions for Reflection
1. How do you respond to suffering in general? Are you surprised? Anxious? Joyful?
2. How do you respond to being in the wrong? Are you swift to seek forgiveness? Or swift to retrench your position?
3. How do you pray for yourself when you suffer persecution, and others around the world?
Holy and Merciful God,
whose blessed Son went willingly to the suffering of the cross
that we might find it the way of life:
give us grace to rejoice in every suffering,
that we might see how great is our reward in heaven,
through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
Anne Kennedy blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace, a blog on Patheos.com and is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry and Worn-Out People.
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