Summary: Why are people so passionate to kill and torture good and innocent people who bring them God's good news? And what makes the gospel so compelling, that others will not keep silent about it?
[Sermon preached on 14 January 2018, 2nd Sunday after Epiphany / 3rd year, ELCF Lectionary]
Over the past few weeks I had a great opportunity to catch up with reading books that I have wanted to read for a long time. I would like to mention two books, in particular.
The first is a book by John Pollock. It is a dramatized account of the life of the Apostle Paul. Pollock paints a picture of Paul as a man of incredible zeal for the gospel. His personal encounter with the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus was so totally life-changing, that nothing and nobody could stop him from preaching the good news everywhere he went. And not everybody was happy with that.
Pollock describes time and again the hardships that Paul had to endure because of his message. His vivid description is based on what Paul himself wrote to the church in Corinth:
I have worked much harder than others. I have been in prison more often. I have been hurt more in beatings. I have been near death many times. Five times the Jews have given me their punishment of 39 lashes with a whip. Three different times I was beaten with rods. One time they tried to kill me with stones. Three times I was in ships that were wrecked, and one of those times I spent the night and the next day in the sea. I have gone on many travels. And I have been in danger from rivers, from thieves, from my own people, the Jews, and from those who are not Jews. I have been in danger in cities, in places where no one lives, and on the sea. And I have been in danger with false brothers. I have done hard and tiring work, and many times I did not sleep. I have been hungry and thirsty. Many times I have been without food. I have been cold and without clothes.
And yet, Paul never gave up preaching the good news of Jesus wherever he went. He never let an opportunity unused. No threats, no pains, no dangers could make him shut up. Like Isaiah, he was determined: “I will not keep silent!” In the end, after serving and preaching the gospel relentlessly for almost thirty years, he was executed for his faith by the Romans.
The other book I started reading last week is by a Japanese author, Shusaku Endo. It is called “Silence”. It tells the story of two Portuguese missionaries in the 17th century. They go on a dangerous journey to Japan to find their teacher Ferreira who has gone missing. It is a period of unrivalled persecution of Christians in Japan. Rumors have spread that Ferreira, one of the greatest and boldest missionaries to Japan, has been arrested and has actually renounced his faith in Christ under torture.
What this book reveals about the church and the missionaries in Japan around 1600 AD is the total opposite of what Pollock tells us about Paul and his contemporaries. The church in Japan is called “Kakure Kirishitan”—the “Hidden Christians”. Bold missionaries are silenced in their proclamation of the gospel, as they are faced with unending torture, the kind that makes even crucifixion almost look like a children’s game.
The title of the book, “Silence”, is not just about how torture and fear silence even the boldest Christian missionaries. It also tells about how God seems to remain silent and passive—perhaps even absent—as his people suffer and die for him.
The gospel is good news. That is what the Greek word “euangelion” literally means, and that is what it actually is: very, very good news. So the questions arise: Why on earth would people be so passionate to kill and torture good and innocent people to make sure that God’s good news for the world is no longer spread and heard? What makes the gospel so offensive and dangerous to them that it has to be suppressed at any cost? And on the other hand, what makes the gospel so compelling, that others will not keep silent about it, even at the risk of suffering the most unbearable torture and losing their lives?
Perhaps, you have heard the term: “The gospel in a nutshell”. Do you know what people mean when they talk about the gospel in a nutshell?
Right! It is the Gospel of John, chapter 3, and verse 16:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
But there is another nutshell in the Bible, a nutshell that describes the original gospel message more accurately. That nutshell is right here in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 1, and verse 15:
“The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”