Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
“I don’t remember the date,” he said simply. “But I remember the day,” he added quietly.
“I belonged to a suicide unit. Our mission was to hold our position for 72 hours and take 98% casualties,” he explained. “We were to hold a key position outside of Berlin. I was always packed and ready to go. We had drills.”
“And then one dark morning, we found out it wasn’t a drill. Those horns went off and we scrambled through the darkness into the waiting trucks. Grumbling, like soldiers always do. On the way they handed out live ammo. We got to our position. We waited. And waited. And then it got really quiet. A couple of generals showed up, looked into the darkness ahead of us and conferred quietly.”
“We waited some more. And then we got the ‘All Clear’ about mid-afternoon. We never knew what happened. But we knew we were playing for keeps that morning,” he concluded. “I thought I’d gotten lucky because I was in Germany rather than Vietnam. But on that morning, I got a taste of just how real things could get—and how quickly I could die.”
As old veterans do, he looked at me with a quizzical look that invited a similar story. I just nodded and we were quiet for a while.
Like him, I couldn’t remember the date of the conversation. But I remember the morning. Our small recon team assembled in the Operations Tent at Khe Sanh, like we did every early morning just after midnight. There were five of us that were the eyes for the some-3000 Marines holding the immediate real estate. Outside of our concertina wire waited around 30,000 North Vietnamese regular soldiers who didn’t want us in their backyard. “We hear ‘em digging more trenches, close to the northwest corner. Go find ‘em,” said our captain.
Notice, he didn’t say, “Come back.” He never did. But I looked up that morning and saw another set of eyes that were also there every morning. They belonged to Ray Stubbe. Chaplain Ray Stubbe.
“Chaplain does God really let Marines into heaven?” Asked a still-twenty year old radio specialist.
“Corporal, God is very gracious,” he said.
The kingdom of God came very close to me that day, as it did for my friend that equally cold morning outside of Berlin. The kingdom of God comes that way every morning or bright afternoon for the thousands of our warriors as they stare into the unblinking eyes of evil. By their presence they utter words our protected ears never hear, “By God you shall not pass this way!”
Per Luke’s report, Jesus is talking with a group of seventy disciples. They make up the first-century equivalent of a civic action team. He’s aware he’s sending them out to meet a much larger force that has more than a foothold in the towns where he intends to go. He tells them straight up their Adversary is vicious. He alerts them that they are likely to meet opposition. Even though their mission is one of curing the sick and announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom, they will face an Adversary who doesn’t want them to succeed. The arrival of the kingdom of God spells an end to the Adversary’s power, a power ultimately based on human suffering and fear.
So, Jesus tells them to travel light, taking neither loads of money nor extra clothing. He tells them to observe a form of radio silence, “greeting no one on the road,” for their mission is a serious one. He tells them to live off the land, “remaining in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide.”
In return, those who sheltered the Savior’s small civic action teams received the peace of God. Those towns who did not welcome this healing duo will have a tougher time than Sodom at some point in the future God has still rushing toward us.
What are we to make of Jesus’ instruction as it relates to us today? Do His words bring any sense of guidance to our national soul? Can his insights afford any peace to a denomination at war with its own churches or a congregation floundering in its mission? Will His no-nonsense ‘Tell It To the Marines!’ kind of realism be helpful to a family as it struggles with smart-aleck adolescents or a couple as they view the wreckage of their marriage?
It is difficult for most adults to remember there were days in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s when life for some of our citizen-soldiers wasn’t a drill. We never knew about any of those days because they weren’t excitingly newsworthy. But as George Orwell was wont to remind us, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Such days of darkness only become newsworthy if those rough men fail to execute their job with the flawless seriousness that it deserves. It is difficult for us to remember the price of our nation’s liberty because we refuse to take seriously the threat posed by the Adversary. But tyrants and terrorists never “fall from the sky like lightening” of their own free will and accord. So, on this July 4 weekend it is right and good to remember the cost of our liberty, giving thanks to both the Creator who endowed us with “certain inalienable rights” as well as those rough men whose bloody sacrifice of their innocence vouches safe our liberty.
Does the church have suicide units? There are places in the world outside of America where it is dangerous to be a Christian. There are places in the world where it is illegal to enter the country as a Christian missionary. While our mainline sensibility may have qualms about proselytizing in Muslim or Communist or even thoroughly secular countries, are you prepared to write them off with the lukewarm pabulum of “we’re all going to the same place, just taking different roads”? Jesus wasn’t content to say that. So today might be a good day to remember the Persecuted Church or issue a clarion call to the young adults—or the newly retired—in your congregation to consider a vocation in some aspect of your denomination’s world mission. Today might even be an occasion to challenge your congregation to consider the risks inherent in really announcing the kingdom of God to their neighbors.
I am sure any pastor can think of a hundred homes that need to have someone show up and announce a word of God’s peace. But we also know the King of Terrors never relinquishes a human soul or home without a battle to the death—the death of what Paul called “the flesh.” So, let’s revisit that quiet chaplain standing nearby some rough men in the red-lighted operations tent.
Somewhere Henri Nouwen (Nouwen, Henri, The Wounded Healer, p. 82) tells the story that if we would find the Messiah, we must look outside the city’s gate among the lepers. The Messiah is the leper who unbinds his wounds one at a time while saying, “I must be ready for someone may need me.”1 Like the Messiah he served, Chaplain Ray found his place among a smelly group of rough men whose wounds only became obvious when we returned to a place we called The World. He crawled into our fighting holes with nothing more than a smile and the question, “How’s it going, Marine?” He found his way into the aid station where the docs patched us up before tossing us on the next flight that managed to make it off our runway. More than once he continued holding the elements of communion high during the 90 seconds of hang-time a mortar shell had as its arc of death made its way toward us.
So when he spoke that single sentence about God’s mercy to a grungy corporal, everyone believed him. I still do. I trust your proclamation today equips and encourages the saints in your congregation as they battle with the Adversary who never gives up trying to dig into their hearts and homes or undermine the peace and liberty of this great nation.
These passages passage describes a wider mission than the first mission of the Twelve. The number seventy was to the Jews symbolic.
(a) It was the number of the elders who were chosen to help Moses with the task of leading and directing the people in the wilderness (Numbers 11:16–17, 24–5).
(b) It was the number of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of the Jews. If we relate the Seventy to either of these bodies, they will be the helpers of Jesus.
(c) It was held to be the number of nations in the world. Luke was the writer with the universalist view, and it may well be that he was thinking of the day when every nation in the world would know and love his Lord.
There is an interesting sidelight here. One of the towns on which woe is pronounced is Chorazin. It is implied that Jesus did many mighty works there. In the gospel history as we have it Chorazin is never even mentioned, and we do not know one thing that Jesus did or one word that he spoke there. Nothing could show so vividly how much we do not know about the life of Jesus. The gospels are not biographies; they are only sketches of his life (cf. John 21:25).
This passage tells us certain supremely important things about both the preacher and the hearer. (1) The preacher is not to be cluttered up with material things but must travel light. It is easy to get entangled in the things of this life. Once Dr Johnson, the great eighteenth-century man of letters, after viewing a great castle and its policies, remarked grimly, ‘These are the things which make it difficult to die.’ Earth must never blot out heaven. (2) The preacher is to concentrate on the task in hand and greet no one on the way. This goes back to Elisha’s instruction to Gehazi in 2 Kings 4:29. It is not an instruction to discourtesy; but means that those who serve God must not turn aside or linger on the lesser things while the great things call them. (3) The preacher must not be in the work for what can be got out of it but eat whatever is offered and not think to move from house to house in search of better and more comfortable quarters. It was not long before the Church had its spongers. There is a work called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. It was written about AD 100 and is the Church’s first book of order. In those days there were prophets who wandered from town to town. It is laid down that if a prophet wishes to stay in a place for more than three days without working, that prophet is false; and if a prophet in the Spirit asks for money or a meal, that prophet is false! Laborer’s are worthy of their hire, but the servants of a crucified Master cannot be seekers after luxury. (4) To have heard God’s word is a great responsibility. We will be judged according to what we have had the chance to know. We allow things in a child that we condemn in an adult. Responsibility is the other side of privilege. (5) It is a terrible thing to reject God’s invitation. There is a sense in which every promise of God that we have ever heard can become our condemnation. If we receive these promises they are our greatest glory, but each one that we have rejected will someday be a witness against us. (Barclay, W. The Gospel of Luke [2001, Louisville, KY] p158–160)
I had lunch with a friend who told me how, earlier in the year, his teenage son had been taken seriously ill. For weeks he had been going to doctors and specialists, all of whom had been puzzled by his symptoms. Finally, he went to a senior specialist, who put an end to the speculation. ‘Take him to the hospital at once,’ he said. ‘We’ll operate tomorrow.’ He had discovered a brain tumor, which was removed with great skill and without lasting damage. Had they waited another day it might have been too late.
Something of that mood hangs over the story of Jesus’ second sending out of followers. This time, when Jesus sends messengers to the places he intends to visit, there is a note of real urgency. He knows he will not pass this way again; if people don’t respond to his mission this time, it may be too late. He is the last herald before the great debacle that will come on the nation if they don’t pay attention. If they reject him, there can be no subsequent warning. If they delay, it may be too late.
Only Luke tells us of a mission of 70, and there are two puzzles about this. First, some manuscripts read ‘seventy-two,’ instead of ‘seventy’, and there has been much discussion about which is correct. Second, whichever it is, why was this number chosen (either by Jesus or Luke)? Was there a symbolic meaning for it?
The answer to both questions may be that once again Luke is seeing Jesus in the light of Moses, who on one occasion chose 70 elders of Israel, who were given a share in God’s Spirit, and were thereby equipped to help him lead the people of Israel (Numbers 11:16, 25). On that occasion, not unlike what we saw in Luke 9:49–50, two others who were not part of the original 70 also received the Spirit, to the alarm of some. The point will then be that Jesus is sending out assistants to help in leading the new Exodus.
At the heart of his call was the message of peace. ‘Peace to this house,’ the messengers were to say, looking to see whether there was a ‘child of peace’ there. Jesus’ contemporaries were for the most part not wanting peace—peace with their traditional enemies the Samaritans (about whom one of Jesus’ most famous parables will occupy us later in this chapter), or peace with the feared and hated Romans. They wanted an all-out war that would bring God’s justice swiftly to their aid and get rid of their enemies once and for all.
But Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom was going in the opposite direction. As far as he was concerned, the idea of fighting evil with evil was like the children of Israel wanting to go back to Egypt. Other movements had tried the way of violence, with disastrous results. But his rejection of that way was not based simply on pragmatic considerations. It grew directly out of his knowledge and love of Israel’s God as the God of generous grace and astonishing, powerful, healing love. This was the God whose life-giving power flowed through him to heal; this was the God to whose kingdom he was committed.
This explains the urgency and sternness of Jesus’ charge to the 70. They were not offering people a new religious option which might have a gentle effect on their lives. They were holding out the last chance for people to turn away from Israel’s flight into ruin, and to accept God’s way of peace. God’s kingdom—God’s sovereign and saving rule, longing to enfold his people and the whole world with love and new creation—had come close to them. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the showdown with the forces of evil. To reject him now, or even to reject his messengers, was to reject God himself. (Wright, T. Luke for Everyone [2004, London] p120–122)
We still to this day do not understand what it means to work towards the kingdom of God. We have missionaries but they no longer always just preach the word of God. We still have Christians persecuted for preaching the love of God and the words of Jesus. We still have missionaries going out in the name of Jesus each day all over the world. We need to know that they face the persecution we read about in Scripture and history books is not a thing of the past. It still exists. Today, in the 21st century, we are living in a time when persecution against Christian believers is the highest in modern history. Research indicates that each day, a staggering 11 Christians are killed for their faith.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Christians remain one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world. While Christian persecution takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Christ. Christian torture remains an issue for believers throughout the world including the risk of imprisonment, loss of home and assets, physical torture, beheadings, rape and even death as a result of their faith.
Trends show that countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are intensifying persecution against Christians, and perhaps the most vulnerable are Christian women, who often face double persecution for faith and gender.
Every day we receive new reports of Christians who face threats, unjust imprisonment, harassment, beatings and even loss of family because of their faith in Jesus.
Every month, on average: 345 Christians are killed for faith-related reasons 105 Churches and Christian buildings are burned or attacked 219 Christians are detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned.
According to research: 245 million Christians experience high levels of persecution in the countries on the World Watch List. And worldwide, 1 in 9 Christians experience high levels of persecution.
North Korea is ranked #1 for the 18th consecutive year as the most dangerous country for Christians. Islamic Oppression fuels Christian persecution in 8 of the top 10 countries.
Major Trends In Christian Persecution
1. The Shocking Reality Of Persecution Against Women
In the 2019 World Watch List reporting period, there were shocking details about the persecution experienced by Christian women. In many places, they experience “double persecution”—one for being a Christian and one for being a woman. Even in the most restricted circumstances, gender-specific persecution is a key means of destroying the minority Christian community. This kind of persecution is difficult to assess because it is complex, violent and hidden—in many cultures where women are specifically targeted, it is difficult if not impossible to report accurate numbers.
2. Islamic Oppression Continues To Impact Millions Of Christians
In seven out of the top 10 World Watch List countries, the primary cause of persecution is Islamic oppression. This means, for millions of Christians—particularly those who grew up Muslim or were born into Muslim families—openly follow-ing Jesus can have painful consequences. They can be treated as second-class citizens, discriminated against for jobs or even violently attacked
3. The world’s two most-populated countries are hard for Christians. For the first time since the start of the World Watch List, India has entered the top 10. Additionally, China jumped 16 spots, from 43 to 27. Each of these countries is home to more than a billion people, so these trends are distressing. Hindu nationalists in India continue to attack Christians with what seems like no consequences, and in China, the increased power of the government and the rule of Xi Jinping continue to make open worship difficult in some parts of the country.
4. The spread of Islam across sub-Saharan Africa. While the violent excesses of ISIS and other Islamic militants have mostly disappeared from headlines from the Middle East, their loss of territory there means that fighters have dispersed to a larger number of countries not only in the region but, increasingly, into sub-Saharan Africa. Their radical ideology has inspired or infiltrated, numerous splinter groups such as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a deadly group that broke away from Nigeria’s Boko Haram that also enslaves Christian women and girls as an integral part of their strategy.
5. More laws added to control religion. State authoritarianism is increasing in many parts of the world, supported by the ever-spreading availability of personal digital technology, which governments can increasingly track through facial recognition, electronic chips and so on. Places like Vietnam, Myanmar, China and North Korea all saw increases in stricter state control of religious rights. (https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/)
Below, we look at the world’s 10 most dangerous places to be a Christian countries where saying “yes” to following Jesus is truly a life-or-death decision.
1. In North Korea, Christianity Is The No. 1 Enemy Of The State. For three generations, everything in this isolated country has focused on idolizing the leading Kim family. Christians are seen as hostile elements in society that must be eradicated. There was hope that new diplomatic efforts in 2018—including the 2018 Winter Olympics—would mean a lessening of pressure and violence against Christians. But so far that has not been the case. In fact, reports indicate that local authorities are increasing incentives for anyone who exposes a Christian in their community. If Christians are discovered, not only are they deported to labor camps or even killed on the spot, their families to the fourth generation share their fate as well. Communal worship is non-existent. Daring to meet other Christians for worship is a risky feat that must be done in utmost secrecy. Yet Open Doors estimates the number of Christians in North Korea to be 300,000 strong believers who are defying the unjust regime and following Jesus.
2. Afghanistan—Where Christianity Is Not Permitted To Exist. Afghanistan is once again a close second behind North Korea on the 2019 World Watch List. An Islamic state by constitution, the country does not permit any faith other than Islam to exist. To convert to a faith outside Islam is tantamount to treason because it’s seen as a betrayal of family, tribe and country. Very often, there is only one possible outcome for exposed and caught Christians: death. In Afghanistan converts are considered literally insane to leave Islam. As a result, some may end up in a psychiatric hospital and have their homes destroyed. In addition to communal pressure, the security situation continues to deteriorate due to the influx of foreign militants who have pledged allegiance to ISIS. And the radical Islamic Taliban have also increased in strength; at least half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are either ruled or contested by the Taliban. Afghan Christians (mostly those with a Muslim background) are in hiding as much as possible.
3.Christians Are High-Value Targets In Somalia. Estimates suggest that 99 percent of Somalis are Muslims, and any minority religions are heavily persecuted. The Christian community is small and under constant threat of attack. In fact, persecution of Christians almost always involves violence. Additionally, in many rural areas, Islamic militant groups like al-Shabab are de facto rulers who regard Christians with a Muslim background as high-value targets—often killed on the spot when discovered. In recent years, the situation appears to have worsened. Islamic militants have intensified their hunt for people who are Christian and in a position of leadership. An attempt to reopen a church in Hargeisa, Somaliland, failed; the government was forced to shut it down due to pressure from the local Islamic population. In the World Watch List 2019 reporting period, Christians in Somalia remained so vulnerable to attacks by Islamic militants that in the interests of security, Open Doors could publish no specific examples of persecution.
4.Believers In Libya Face Deadly Violence. After the ouster of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya plunged into chaos and anarchy, which has enabled various Islamic militant groups to control parts of the country. Libyan converts to Christianity face abuse and violence for their decision to follow Christ. The country is also home to many migrant workers who have been attacked, sexually assaulted and detained, which can be even worse if your Christian faith is discovered. Libyan Christians with a Muslim background face extremely violent and intense pressure from their family and the wider community to renounce their faith. Believers from other parts of the continent are also targeted by various Islamic militant groups and organized criminal groups. Few will forget the horrifying video of Egyptian workers martyred by ISIS militants on the coast of Libya. The level of violence against Christians in Libya is very high, and Christians in Libya are subjected to violent, inhumane and degrading treatment.
5.Christians In Pakistan Live With Open Discrimination And Constant Threat Of Mob Attacks. Under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, Christians continue to live in daily fear they will be accused of blasphemy—which can carry a death sentence. The most well-known example of these laws is the case of Asia Bibi. After sitting on death row for more than 10 years, the Christian wife and mother was acquitted of blasphemy charges in October however her life is still in grave danger from radical Islamists that have gained increasing political power in the world’s sixth-largest country. For that reason, the new ruling government must maintain good diplomatic relationships with some radical groups. Christians are largely regarded as second-class citizens, and conversion to Christianity from Islam carries a great deal of risk. An estimated 700 girls and women abducted each year are often raped and then forcefully married to Muslim men in the community, usually resulting in forced conversions. While traditional, historical churches have relative freedom for worship, they are heavily monitored and have regularly been targeted for bomb attacks (for example, the Quetta attack in December 2017 on Bethel Memorial Methodist Church). In Pakistan, all Christians suffer from institutionalized discrimination. Occupations seen as low, dirty and derogatory are officially reserved for Christians. Many Christians are very poor, and some are victims of bonded labor. On the other hand, many Christians belong to Pakistan’s middle class; however, this does not save them from being marginalized or persecuted.
6.Christian Converts In Sudan Targeted For Persecution. Sudan has been ruled as an Islamic state by the authoritarian government of President al-Bashir since 1989. Under his charge, the country offers limited rights for religious minorities and places heavy restrictions on freedom of speech or press. The last year has been difficult for Christians in many ways. There have been arrests; many churches have been demolished and others are on an official list awaiting demolition. And many Christians are attacked indiscriminately in areas like the Nuba Mountains where there is an ongoing conflict between government forces and rebel groups. Christian converts from Islam are especially targeted for persecution. So to keep from being discovered, converts will often refrain from raising their children as Christians because this might attract the attention of the government and community leaders (since children might inadvertently reveal their parents’ faith).
7.Christians are imprisoned In shipping containers In Eritrea. Since 1993, President Afwerki has overseen an authoritarian brutal regime that rests on massive human rights violations. During the 2019 World Watch List reporting period, government security forces conducted many house-to-house raids and imprisoned hundreds of Christians in inhumane conditions, including small shipping containers in scorching heat. Protestants, in particular, face serious problems in accessing community resources, especially social services provided by the State. Christians from non-traditional church groups, such as evangelicals, face the harshest persecution. In 2018, Eritrea embraced an end to hostility with both Ethiopia and Somalia. How that agreement will play out for the situation of Christians remains to be seen. This extreme pressure and state-sanctioned violence are forcing some Christians to flee Eritrea–often called “Africa’s North Korea”–and seek asylum.
8. Believers in Yemen especially vulnerable in civil war and famine. An ongoing civil war in Yemen has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent memory, making an already difficult nation for Christians to live in even harder. The chaos of war has enabled radical groups to take control over some regions of Yemen, and they have increased persecution of Christians. Even private worship is risky in some parts of the country. Christians are suffering from the general humanitarian crisis in the country, but Yemeni Christians are additionally vulnerable since emergency relief is mostly distributed through Islamic organizations and local mosques, which are allegedly discriminating against all who are not considered to be pious Muslims. Converts to Christianity from Islam face additional persecution from family and society. In Yemen, the small church is composed mostly of Yemeni Christians with a Muslim background who must live their faith in secret. They face persecution from the authorities (including detention and interrogation), their families, and radical Islamic groups who threaten converts with death if they don’t denounce Christ and re-convert.
9.Illegal to convert, illegal to preach in Iran, In this gateway to the Middle East, Christians are forbidden from sharing their faith with non-Christians. Therefore, church services in Persian, the national language, are not allowed. Converts from Islam undergo persecution from the government; if they attend an underground house church, they face the constant threat of arrest. Iranian society is governed by Islamic law, which means the rights and job possibilities for Christians are heavily restricted. The government sees them as an attempt by Western countries to undermine Islam and the Islamic regime of Iran. Leaders of groups of Christian converts have been arrested, prosecuted and have received long prison sentences for “crimes against the national security.” In December, to crack down on Christians sharing their faith, Iranian police arrested 100 Christians in one week, making a blatant statement to both Christians and Muslims. Iran is also infamous for its prisons and inhumane treatment of Christians in places like Evin Prison where well-known house church pastor Yousef Nardarkhani is serving a 10-year sentence.
10.Unprecedented Christian persecution is happening in India. In the world’s second most populous country, Christians saw unprecedented persecution on numerous fronts from both the State and general Hindu society. For the first time, India enters the top 10 on the World Watch List, jumping one spot from No. 11 in 2017. Home to more than a billion people, even an incremental rise in persecution yields an exponential impact. Since the current ruling party took power in 2014, Hindu extremists have fueled a crackdown on Christian house churches and have attacked believers with impunity—believing that to be Indian is to be Hindu. So, any other faith is viewed as non-Indian. In rural areas, Christians were told that one church would be closed down every week because they have been “destroying” local tradition and culture by “luring” others to convert to Christianity. And it is common for Christians to be cut off from local water supplies and be denied access to government-subsidized groceries. In India, saying “yes” to Jesus has become a risky decision that costs you and your family greatly. (https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/11-christians-killed-every-day-for-their-decision-to-follow-jesus/)
According to a recent interim report published in the U.K., "it is estimated that one third of the world's population suffers from religious persecution in some form, with Christians being the most persecuted group."
Although the full report -- commissioned by British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and conducted by the Bishop of Truro, the Right Reverend Philip Mounstephen -- was due to be released by Easter this year, "the scale and nature of the phenomenon [of Christian persecution] simply required more time," accordingto the report. As a result, Mounstephen explained, the "interim" findings released in April are incomplete, and the final report will be published at the end of June.
According to the "overview" section of the interim "Independent Review of FCO support for Persecuted Christians":
"In some regions, the level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the UN."
Africa -- now home to the greatest number of Christians in the world -- is one such region.
On June 16, for instance, a Christian elementary school in a Muslim village in Uganda was destroyed, International Christian Concern (ICC) reported.
On June 15, "a mob of Muslim protestors set a church ablaze in Maradi, the third largest city in Niger. The incident was a response to the arrest of a very prominent Imam who was arrested after he claimed the country's proposed legislation on worship was 'anti-Islamic.'"
On June 9 and 10, two terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso left 29 Christians dead. This purposeful slaughter of Christians came less than two months after the April 28 massacre of 80-year-old pastor, Pierre Ouédraogo, and other members of his congregation in Burkina Faso, by armed Islamists. A local leader, who requested anonymity, told World Watch Monitor:
"The assailants asked the Christians to convert to Islam, but the pastor and the others refused. They ordered them to gather under a tree and took their Bibles and mobile phones. Then they called them, one after the other, behind the church building where they shot them dead."
On June 7, a Christian woman in Niger was kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists and released three days later with a letter calling on all Christians to "leave the town within three days or be killed."
The above incidents are not isolated. According to the 2019 World Watch Listcompiled by Open Doors, a persecution watchdog group:
"While the violent excesses of ISIS and other Islamic militants have mostly disappeared from headlines from the Middle East, their loss of territory there means that fighters have dispersed to a larger number of countries not only in the region but, increasingly, into sub-Saharan Africa. Their radical ideology has inspired, or infiltrated, numerous splinter groups such as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a deadly group that broke away from Nigeria's Boko Haram that also enslaves Christian women and girls as an integral part of their strategy."
Terrorist groups are not the only sources of persecution in Africa. Many Muslim governments and individuals also target Christians.
According to the Open Doors 2019 report, the situation in many African nations is as follows:
In Somalia, there is a "life of violence and isolation" for the Christian community that numbers only a few hundred.
"Estimates suggest that 99 percent of Somalis are Muslims, and any minority religions are heavily persecuted. The Christian community is small and under constant threat of attack. Sharia law and Islam are enshrined in the country's constitution, and the persecution of Christians almost always involves violence. Additionally, in many rural areas, Islamic militant groups like al-Shabab are de facto rulers. Somali Christians often must hide their faith to stay safe."
Libya is home to a Christian population of only around 38,000.
"Converts to Christianity face abuse and violence for their decision to follow Christ. Libya is also home to many migrant workers who have been attacked, sexually assaulted and detained, which can be even worse if it is discovered they are Christians."
Sudan is home to 1.9 million Christians.
"The country has been ruled as an Islamic state with limited rights for religious minorities and heavy restrictions on freedom of speech and press. Christians, whose population is over 1,900,000, face discrimination and pressure— multiple church buildings were demolished in 2017 and 2018, leaving some Christians without a place to worship. Christian converts from Islam are especially targeted for persecution."
In Eritrea, sometimes called "Africa's North Korea", there are around 2.5 million Christians, and many suffer in prisons.
"Since 1993, President Isaias Afwerki has overseen a brutal authoritarian regime that rests on massive human rights violations. In 2018, there were raids on churches, and hundreds of Christians were imprisoned in inhumane conditions. Additionally, there are estimates that other Christians are currently in Eritrea's vast prison network, but no one knows how many there are or if they are still alive."
Nigeria, where over 90 million Christians live, is one of the worst places in Africa for Christians.
"Nigeria's score for violence has stayed as high as possible, primarily due to the increased attacks on Christian communities by militant Fulani herdsmen. These attacks claimed the lives of hundreds of believers during the reporting period, and villages and churches burned to the ground. Additionally, in parts of northern Nigeria, Christians are treated as second-class citizens. Christians from Muslim backgrounds face persecution from their own families".
Christians in Egypt, whose Christian population is 9,937,600, suffer from persecution in various ways.
"Those with Muslim backgrounds face enormous pressure from immediate and extended families to return to Islam. Severe restrictions on building or securing places for worship prevent Christians from congregating, in addition to hostility and violence toward believers who do gather. In recent years, Islamic extremist groups have targeted Christians and churches in numerous violent and deadly acts of persecution."
In the Central African Republic (CAR), the main religion is Christianity, and the Christian population numbers more than 3,450,000.
"Over the last year, the situation has worsened for CAR Christians who face intensifying pressure from Muslims. Christians are also threatened by jihadists and criminal groups in the country whose actions often overlap. And Christian civilians are still caught in the violent conflict between the mainly Muslim Seleka and self-defense militant groups called anti-Balaka."
Algeria, where around 125,000 Christians live, "has seen an increasing number of churches closed" over the last year.
"At the same time, Christian converts have become more open about their faith, leading to a backlash by Muslim families and the intolerant society. Laws regulating non-Muslim worship, banning conversion and prohibiting blasphemy make proselytizing and public expression of the Christian faith dangerous as well."
In Mali, the Christian population is 425,000.
"The West African country has become increasingly militant. In the northern part of the country especially, this intolerance has resulted in increasing violence against Christians from jihadist and criminal groups that have a vested interest in keeping the country mired in chaos and instability."
In Mauritania, there are only around 10,000 Christians from population of 4.5 million people.
"The 'Islamic Republic of Mauritania' — the autocratic government of Africa's 11th largest country — often acts as protector of the Islamic religion. As a result, the state is a major source of persecution. Radical Islamic preachers and militants contribute to the radicalization of society, fueling antagonism and hatred toward non-Muslims. Additionally, a caste system marginalizes darker-skinned Mauritanians and those who do not adhere to Islam."
In Ethiopia, where the main religion is Christianity and the Christian population numbers more than 64 million, "radical Islam is growing at the local, regional and national levels. Particularly in the rural areas, where Muslims are the majority, Christians are harassed and often denied access to communal resources."
Morocco has a Christian population of around 31,500.
"Christians suffer persecution from both the state and society. There are restrictions imposed by the state on Christians, such as confiscation of Christian materials written in Arabic, restrictions on evangelization and difficulty getting places of worship for believers from a Muslim background. Radical Muslims within the general populace also put pressure on Christians. In rural areas, pressure from family and community can also be considerable."
In Tunisia, for the small community of Christians numbering around 24,000, "life within Islamic society comes with hostility and daily pressure."
"And the threat of Islamic militant activity—especially by those returning from fighting with ISIS—is still worrying, with one suicide-attack on a police station in Tunis in September and a major attack in the border region with Algeria in July 2018."
In Kenya, another African nation where the main religion is Christianity, Christians are targeted both by Muslim officials and terror groups.
"Inspired by Islamic radicals in Somalia, Muslim politicians have made it their agenda to eliminate Christianity. Officials often demand churches do things that are not in line with their faith, while militants viciously carry out suicide bomb attacks and other brutal acts against those considered to be the enemies of Islam. Due to corruption inside the government agencies, those operating against Christians tragically often enjoy impunity."
In a May 21 article for Open Doors, Lindy Lowry says that Boko Haram, founded in 2002 in Nigeria, has expanded into neighboring countries:
"They have conducted terrorist attacks in Niger, Chad and Cameroon, which have resulted in dramatic refugee and humanitarian crises. They are even regarded as 'slave raiders' who target women in raids for 'wives' in the areas around Lake Chad, which borders Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria...
"In Rwanda, the country has closed thousands of churches and has arrested at least six pastors since February 2018 for 'noise pollution' and failing to comply with building regulations. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo's eastern province of North Kivu, leaders of the church have been targeted and killed. Reportedly, at least 15 armed extremist groups were known to be operating in the area."
As the British report demonstrates, persecution against Christians and other non-Muslims is not about the ethnicity, race or skin color of either the perpetrators or the victims; it is about their religion. In Africa, various Islamist groups and individuals are attacking and attempting to annihilate Christians for being Christian. If these crimes are not stopped, it is highly likely that the fate of the African Continent will be like that of the Middle East: Once it was a majority-Christian region; now, Christians are a tiny, dying, defenseless minority. (https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/14448/africa-christians-persecution)
“On most missions, the raiders of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment are accompanied by Dan Knight, a strapping chaplain with a shaved head, an aw-shucks drawl and an awesome résumé: 12-year Green Beret, Persian Gulf War combat veteran, Special Forces company commander, demolitions expert, high-altitude jumper and deep-sea scuba diver.” (The Washington Post, Chaplain Puts Green Beret Past to Use with Troops, January 21, 2004).
“For uncommon skills and service, for the choices each one of them has made and the ones still ahead, for the challenge of defending not only our freedoms but those barely stirring half a world away, the American solder is Time’s Person of the Year.” (Time Magazine, December 29, 2003).
“If America is destroyed, it may be by Americans who salute the flag, sing the national anthem, march in patriotic parades, cheer Fourth of July speakers – normally good Americans, but Americans who fail to comprehend what is required to keep our country strong and free, Americans who have been lulled away into a false security”
(Ezra Taft Benson, An Enemy Hath Done This).
“The Western world cannot combat evil on the basis of fear. A people guided only by fear leaves and the initiative and all the advantage to the other side and is reduced to a blind defensive maneuvering with the other side” (Barbara Ward, Faith and Freedom).
“The West will prove more vulnerable than another other society if it abandons the pursuit of visions and ideals for, more than any other community, it is the product not of geographical and racial forces but of the molding power of the human spirit” Barbara Ward, Faith and Freedom).
“Religion is not abolished by the ‘abolition of God; the religion of Caesar takes its place. And since, for a few men, the need to worship is satisfied in hubris in the worship of the self, the multitudes who look for a god can nearly always be certain of finding a willing candidate” (Barbara Ward, Faith and Freedom).
“In times of crisis, when insecurity, anxiety, loneliness, and the meaninglessness of life become well-nigh insupportable, the hunger for godlike leadership, for religious reassurance, for a merging of the self in the security of the whole becomes irresistible” Barbara Ward, Faith and Freedom).
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail)
The psychiatrist Robert Coles interviewed a girl named Mary, age 9, from Tennessee who reflected on God’s call to discipleship by comparing herself to a squirrel scurrying around to collect acorns with great energy. She said, “Maybe the Lord wants us to get down to business, like the squirrel did. We’re here for something.” (Robert Coles, The Spiritual Life of Children [Boston, 1990] p136)
Jesus’ sending out of the disciples, along with instructions on how they should treat those who host them, reminds me of a statement by Lois Wilson, former officer with the World Council of Churches. She said once in a talk that as Christians we are called not simply to tell the story, but to be the story.
In the catacombs of ancient Rome you have the burial site of may Christians of that era.
Down in the tunnels they would did through the soft limestone and carve out a knitch where they would lovingly lay their loved one to rest. Then, if financially possible, a marble covering with symbols carved upon it would be used to cover the entrance to the waist-high tomb opening. On my trip to the catacombs I saw a relief carving on one of the marble facings that showed a stick figure ship. It was carved in simplicity and had one sail.
Beneath it were the words “Veni domini”. These translate “Lord, We went.” They had been brought back to Rome from the mission field to be buried. Their epitaph is a definition of discipleship.
On a severely cold night in the winter of 1776 a farmer gathering up his cows stumbled upon a figure praying in the woods. He listened and did not disturb him. Upon returning to his home later in the night he said to his wife, Hannah, George Washington is going to win our war for independence against England.” “How do you know such a thing, my husband?”
“This evening I happened upon him as he was praying in the woods. God will surely answer his prayers. They were all for others.”
In an address at Valley Forge, May 30, 1931, President Hoover said: “If those few thousand men endured that long winter of privation and suffering, humiliated by the despair of their countrymen, and deprived of support save their own indomitable will, yet held their countrymen to the faith, and by that holding held fast the freedom of America, what right have we to be of little faith?”
In her book Amazing Love, Corrie ten Boom tells about how she spoke at an American university one day about the importance of making disciples. She began by asking, “If I straighten the pictures on the walls of your home, I am committing no sin, am I? But suppose that your house were afire, and I still went calmly about straightening pictures. What would you say?” Her point, she said, was that it is as though the world is on fire today. Yet what are we Christians doing about that fire? In her opinion, it seems that we are often busying ourselves with straightening up the decor, rather than committing ourselves to put out the fire and saving people from sure destruction. Much of what we do in our churches, ten Boom said, are nice things. Much of what we do in our churches are by no means sinful undertakings. Yet are those activities that consume our churches’ attention the things that Jesus wants us to be concentrating on?
Many people in the United States consider themselves to be religious, yet many hesitate to be disciples. According to The Presbyterian Outlook (12/22/03), when Americans are asked, “What is your religion, if any?”, nearly 30 million say “none.” That number is so large that if all the “nones” were organized into a denomination, only Catholics and Baptists would outnumber them. The Pacific Northwest is home to the highest concentration of “nones,” with 21% in Oregon and 25% in Washington having no religious affiliation. In fact, in those states the “nones” outnumber any other single denomination. Across the country, the “none” movement is on the rise. The percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation grew from 8% in 1990 to more than 14% in 2001. Patricia O’Connell Killen, a professor of religious history at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, commented, “That makes nones the fastest-growing religious group in the United States, if you think about them as a religious group. We’re just coming to grips with the reality that this group even exists.” When it comes to age, young people are more likely to profess no religion. While 1/5 of all people surveyed said they had no religious affiliation, of those under 30 years old, approximately 1/3 identified themselves as being nones. Twenty-nine percent of single people are nones. And of those who have no religious affiliation, 59% are male.
We might often assume that the need to make disciples is greatest in the underdeveloped nations of the world. Yet while there is still need for disciple-making in those lands, there is perhaps an even greater need for Christian discipleship in the so-called First World countries. According to the Hindustan Times (1/27/04), on an average weekend in England there are more Muslims going to mosques than there are Christians going to the Church of England. Based on information from the nation’s 2001 census, around 930,000 Muslims attend a place of worship at least once a week, while only 916,000 Anglicans do the same. Despite the lack of worship attendance, the census found that about 3/4 of all Britons identify themselves as Christians.
Jesus didn’t wait for people to come and ask to become disciples. Rather he sent the apostles out into the world to make disciples. In The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, Jürgen Moltmann comments on the difficult time that many Christians have in figuring out how to relate with those who presently are outside the church. On the one hand, Moltmann says, we tend to assimilate ourselves to the surrounding culture. Or on the other hand, he says, we frequently develop a sectarian mentality, cutting ourselves off from those around us. The goal, Moltmann suggests, is to engage the world with the Christian message while remaining clear about what our identity is.
Sometimes it can seem to be rather challenging to get people to want to become disciples. According to the Associated Press (12/29/03), a church near Galveston, Texas, came up with a rather innovative way of trying to attract new Christians. The Abundant Life Christian Center in La Marque gave away a new Chrysler PT Cruiser to a woman and a Harley Davidson Sportster to a man at its New Year’s Eve service. The church held a drawing in order to determine the winners. Parishioners and visitors earned an entry into the drawing each time they attended worship in the weeks leading up to New Year’s Eve. Also, members who brought visitors were allowed to enter twice. The only catch was that in order to win, you had to attend the New Year’s Eve service.
An American Airlines pilot certainly got a lot of media attention when he tried to make disciples. According to the Associated Press (2/8/04), the pilot asked the Christians on his plane to identify themselves and encouraged non-Christians to speak with them about their faith. The incident took place on a flight from Los Angeles to New York. The pilot also told the passengers that he would be happy to speak with any of them personally after the flight about his faith. Apparently the pilot had just returned from a weeklong mission trip to Costa Rica.
Not only are many churches not skilled at going out and making disciples, but they are rather lacking even when outsiders come and try to contact them. According to the Christian Century (2/24/04), many churches schedule all kinds of wonderful worship services and activities, but they do a very poor job of communicating those events to the people around them. During this past year’s Advent season, a national telephone survey was done where calls were placed to 3,400 randomly selected Protestant churches. That survey found that 55% of all churches either answered by machine or made no response at all. Phones were most likely to be answered at mainline churches, where the phones were answered by a human being 63% of the time. Of the mainline churches, the United Methodists had the best results, with the phone getting answered 64% of the time. For the survey, one call was placed on each of five different days, with each call being made at a different time of day. Sadly, the study found, in 19% of churches the phone just rang and rang without any kind of answer on all five attempts. The Barna Research Group, which conducted the study concluded: “These statistics suggest that much of the hard work that churches put into reaching people during the holiday season may be negated by people’s inability to establish contact with someone at the church within a reasonable time frame.”
Jesus’ instruction to not wander from place to place was a piece of counsel that the early desert Fathers heeded as well. The desert Father Syncletica said, “If you live in a monastic community, do not wander from place to place; if you do, it will harm you. If a hen stops sitting on the eggs, she will hatch no chickens. The monk or nun who goes from place to place grows cold and dead in faith.”
When Jesus sent the disciples out, he prepared them for the possibility that they would meet with rejection and failure in some instances. Too often, though, our fear of failure holds us back from even trying. In If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, John Ortberg comments on a finding in another book, Art and Fear, that suggests that failure is indispensable to learning. In a certain ceramics class, the teacher divided the students into two groups. One group, the teacher said, would be graded solely on the quantity of their work. For instance, if they made fifty pounds of pottery, that would be an A; if they made forty pounds of pottery, that would be a B; and so on. The other group, the teacher said, would be graded based on the quality of their work. In that group, even if they produced only one pot during the course, if it was excellent, they would receive an A. At the end of the course, the teacher discovered that all the highest quality pots were produced by the students in the group that was being rated on their quantity. Apparently while the quantity group was busy churning out pots, they were constantly learning from their failures, and in the process they grew as artists.
One of the remarkable things about the apostles’ mission was that they were to relate in a very personal way with those whom they were seeking to make into disciples. There was to be no sense of superiority on the part of the apostles. Rather, through their actions and through their words, they were to demonstrate a kinship with the common people of the land. In In The Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, Alister mcgrath emphasizes that the New Testament was written in koine Greek, which was the “everyday” Greek language of the working people, rather than the Greek used by the more sophisticated scholars and poets. Unfortunately, mcgrath says, the King James translators were not aware of that fact. As a result, the flowery and formal prose—which is so beloved by many people—was not a part of the original composition of the New Testament. Rather, those archaic mannerisms of speech were the creations of the translators.
On Independence Day, these words prove to be insightful: “Patriotic religions are for the most part polytheistic, because each fatherland has its especial gods.” (Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993], p. 323)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up
People: I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
Leader: Sing praises to the Lord and give thanks to his holy name.
People: Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord be my helper!
All: O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
Most High God, we confess that often we do not do what is right. Rather than bearing one another’s burdens, we think first and only of ourselves. We judge others but find ourselves blameless. We look at our own wants, and do not think of the fruit of the Spirit. In your mercy, forgive us our transgressions. Show us how to walk in your ways. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Bless our gifts, O Lord, that we bring before you for the work of your kingdom. Use our lives and our tithes for your ministry within our church and out in the world. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Loving God, we come before you today praising you and celebrating our freedom. But even as we plan celebrations and wave our flags joyously, we are very aware that other nations are not free. Guide and protect nations that are at war or are struggling to gain independence. Watch over the soldiers trying to help nations seek peace and freedom. We pray especially for our brothers and sisters in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.
We pray for our own nation. So often we have taken our freedom for granted, and taken away the freedom of others. We have built walls between races, genders, we have formed economic classes and oppressed those who are already downtrodden. Help us see the world and our nation through your eyes, and let us be ambassadors of your will and your way.
We pray also for our own church. We pray for those needs we know, and those needs that are known only to you. Bless those who are suffering, strengthen those who are weak, and show us how to help one another. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.