Summary: The Early Church experienced growth in numbers, and growth in depth and growth in community. It also experienced a growth in suffering. Jesus said blessed are those who suffer and are persecuted because of him! This talk encourages the church to proclaim
Although I’ve only seen part of it on YouTube there is a humbling episode from the 1961 British film called, ‘Whistle down the Wind’. A group of Lancashire children have experienced the death of a kitten. They had prayed fervently that the little cat would get well, but instead it died. They couldn’t understand this, so they went in search of the local vicar. They found him in a coffee shop, enjoying his tea and newspaper. They asked him, "Why did God let our cat die?" The good pastor was not delighted to be interrupted about the matter of a deceased cat. But out of duty he laid aside his paper and launched into a long, not very convincing theological response to this question. The children stood and listened intently. When he finished he wished them well and went back to his newspaper. The children walked away somewhat bewildered. One little boy, holding his older sister’s hand, looked at her and said, "He doesn’t know, does he?" How perceptive children can be.
Part of the issue was that a well-meaning lady from the Sally Army had told them that if they believed in Jesus, Jesus would look after their cat.
Why does God let people suffer? In particular, why do so many Christian believers suffer specifically because of their Christian faith? Is there a simple answer to why people die or are killed because of their faith? No, there is not; but equally there is no long, complex, theological answer either. We might well feel bewildered and we might hear preachers trying to give an answer and simply end up thinking to ourselves; “He doesn’t know, does he?”
In your Sunday morning talks having recently considered growth in numbers, growth in depth, and growth in community – all things that we long for in the Church – we now come to growth in suffering; and I guess that none of us would wish for or pray for that! It is not an issue for simple pat answers.
I don’t have any of those; but it’s a real issue. The early Church faced persecution and suffering. Christians down the years have suffered because of their faith. Many still do in ways we cannot imagine.
People told lies about Jesus. Jesus was beaten, tortured and slowly executed because he remained true to God’s purposes for him. He rose from the dead as a visible sign of his victory over death; thank God; but his teaching contained warnings and promises regarding the future suffering that his disciples would face. On one occasion he was sitting down on the side of a mountain and he was telling his followers about the blessings that come with being a Christian. I’m sure we all want God to bless us! Blessed are those who mourn …blessed are the meek …blessed are the merciful …blessed are the pure in heart and the peacemakers (Matthew 5: 1-9) but how about this: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” (Matthew 5:10).
Jesus also said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11).
I believe that if we truly want God to bless us, and if we want God to bless our Churches, to grow our churches in numbers and in depth, then part of that blessing will include persecution, insults and the spreading of lies about us because of our faith. Jesus said it would happen. It happened to him. It happened to the early Church and it still happens. I’m not saying I want it, and I’m not saying it’s about to happen, but we mustn’t be surprised when it comes.
In today’s Bible event we heard that sometime after the resurrection of Jesus and sometime after the Holy Spirit was poured out upon believers, Peter and John “were speaking to the people” (Acts 4:1). They were teaching “that the dead would be raised from death, just as Jesus had been raised from death” (4:2 CEV).
As far as the Jewish religious leaders were concerned, Peter and John were unauthorised preachers. The religious leaders arrested them because they believed (wrongly) that Peter and John were heretics; whereas the message of the Bible is that they were arrested as a direct result of teaching truth. People were listening to them and “many who heard the message believed” (4:4). The Church was growing in numbers. God was blessing the Church with growth, but at the same time came a wave of persecution. Peter and John were hauled before the religious leaders to explain how and why and by what name a cripple had been healed (4:5-7); but let’s just pause there a moment.
The gospel writer Luke is also the writer of the book of Acts (Acts 1:1 and Luke 1:3) and when he lists the group of people called together to question Peter and John we find that it is the same group who questioned Jesus before demanding his crucifixion (Luke 22:66) – same people, same place, and similar questions.