Summary: Persecution shows us that we are doing what we are supposed to do: be different and make a difference.
A little over 3 years ago, a group of students at an Alabama high school recited the Lord’s Prayer together in the lunchroom, which prompted a suit by the parents of another student. In response, Judge Ira Dement, on October 29, 1997, termed the action “religiously based harassment” and issued a broad ruling that banned all forms of prayer in Alabama schools, including those which are voluntary and student-led. He also prohibited groups like the Gideons from distributing Bibles in schools, and even specifically barred prayer in times of national emergencies, such as wars or natural disasters. He then ordered federal monitors to stalk hallways and classrooms in search of any students or teachers who cared to pray on school grounds. The prayer police had arrived. Fortunately for the future of religious freedom in this country, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Judge DeMent’s ruling last October.
"Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Jesus in verse 9, his last observation before coming to the topic of persecution. Last week by the time I finished writing my sermon on peacemaking, it struck me that I could preach the same one this week on persecution. Why? Because they’re two sides of the same coin. If we live out the first 7 beatitudes, this one, the 8th, follows on their heels as surely as water flows downhill. Why? Why are Christians persecuted?
First of all, the gospel is “foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews.” [1 Cor 1:23] It simply doesn’t make sense to most people. But just not making sense doesn’t explain the extreme reaction the message of the cross arouses. The word translated “stumbling block” is the Greek word skandalizo. It’s a noun, and it refers to something that prevents someone from believing, or causes them to fall away from believing. It’s something people can’t swallow. It’s the original of our word “scandal,” an action that outrages public standards. In the verb form it’s also translated “give offense”. The gospel is offensive, because the cross is offensive. Why is that? Why is gospel offensive to so many?
It’s very simple. First, Jesus told his followers, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” [Luke 9:23] People don’t want to be told they have to deny themselves. They want to be told they’re okay, that whatever they want to do is okay. People - especially today - want to be affirmed, not confronted or corrected. Later on Jesus drove the lesson home when he said, "Everyone who does evil hates the light," [John 3:20] and he made it even clearer later on. "The world . . . hates me because I testify that what it does is evil." [John 7:7]
Let me set up a series of contrasts for you.
Where Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” the world says: “Happy are the self-assured, for they never worry about their sins.” Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” but the world says, “Happy are the hard-boiled: for they never let life hurt them.” When Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” the world responds, “Happy are they who complain: for they get their own way in the end.” Jesus announces: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. The world shouts back, “Happy are the ambitious, the go-getters, for they will succeed in the world.” Jesus teaches "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” but the world says instead,“Happy are the slave-drivers: for they get results.” Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” The world sneers in return, “Happy are the sophisticated, for they know their way around.” Jesus says "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. But the world says, “Happy are the trouble-makers, for they get attention.”
To some extent it is the contrasts that invite persecution. There’s a classic experiment that some psychologists performed half a century or so ago, taking an ordinary brown monkey out of its cage, dying its fur pink, and putting it back in the cage. The other monkeys immediately attacked it. Difference alone is enough. But just being different isn’t all. This is persecution for righteousness’ sake: The righteous Christian, the one living out the preceding Beatitudes, is the world’s conscience. The Christian is a mirror to the world, showing them their true selves, and they have only two choices: to accept what they see as the truth, or throw rocks at the mirror so they won’t have to face it.
Why are Christians persecuted? Because they threaten the world’s values, self-image, and authority.