It’s Still Dangerous to Follow Jesus

You probably remember something from a history class somewhere in your past that during the first few centuries after Christ, that His followers were periodically arrested, beaten, thrown to the Lions and under Emperor Nero, covered in tar and set on fire as street lamps for the city of Rome. But you probably have the opinion that such persecution and danger for followers of Jesus is a thing of the past. Surely in 2,000 years we have progressed as people and there is a tolerance for people of other faiths. Live and let live.

In spite of our optimism, some reports claim that more people have died as martyrs for Christ in the past 100 years than in all the 1900 years prior. Such statistics can leave you overwhelmed and staggered, searching for some way to block out their significance and more one in life pretending that it doesn’t impact you. Such a notion runs totally counter to what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12:16, “When one of us suffers we all suffer”. Every once in a while such numbers get personal and hit a little closer to home. That happened on April 17th 2010 in the town of Selaiya in central India.

For me it started in November of 2009 when I was at a conference in Delhi hosted by Rod Gilbert. Rod is an Indian who loves Jesus and is a leader in the House Church Movement in his country. He is a gracious man who is sold out for Jesus along with many members of his extended family. On April 17th the persecution of Christians struck very close to home for him. Rod has a cousin whose family follows Christ. On that day, Amit Gilbert, a member of that family was attacked by members of Bajrang Dal. These are Hindus who worship the Monkey God. Amit had been sharing the Gospel in that town and these men did not like that. So that beat him to death and threw his body down a well. That is not an isolated occurrence. Christians around the world are having their homes burned, being beaten and threatened, as well as kid-napped never to be seen again.

Two things come to mind when I consider the persecution of Christians around the world. First is that Jesus promised this would happen if we followed Him. 20Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. John 15:20-21

Certainly there are Christians who invite suffering simply because they are obnoxious and argumentative. That is not persecution for following Jesus. That is a just reward for being Un-Christ-like. But there are those who do follow Jesus, loving their neighbor, reaching out to those in need, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, setting people free with the life changing message of forgiveness. Those people are being persecuted and killed all around the world. It is just as Jesus said it would be. Following Jesus is not for sissies.

The second point that comes to mind is this. If you are following Jesus and never been ridiculed, laughed at, rejected, or mocked, are you really following Jesus? You may believe in Him and have knowledge of Him that includes things like going to church. But if you have never faced anything close to the rejection that Jesus promised, are you really walking in His footsteps? Again that doesn’t mean you go out and make a nuisance of yourself. But trust me, if you decide to go feed some homeless people, or use your vacation for a mission trip to New Delhi instead of a beach trip to New Smyrna, if you tell people you believe in a God of absolute truth, or that Jesus is the only way to heaven, you will find opposition and rejection. You will be persecuted as Jesus promised and if you are not that maybe you need to reassess how closely you are following Jesus.

Lest you leave this all bummed out and depressed let me share this final thought. Many in the west think that Christianity is on the decline. We look around us and think the influence of Christians is less than ever and fewer people are following Christ. Maybe, maybe not. What I do know is that around the world, Christianity is growing like a weed. It is growing in places like India, China, all over Africa and South America. It is growing in spite of a lake of resources and in spite of, or maybe because of life threatening persecution. Maybe the persecution exists in those places because more and more people are truly following Jesus by being loving, gracious, hospitable, committed to the poor, sacrificing for their neighbor in ways the west does not. And so as more people follow that kind of Jesus, the opposition grows and so does the church. Maybe the lack of persecution in the west and the decline of Christianity are linked. When it is so easy to follow Jesus, few people see the need and few people do, so few people bother to make Christians suffer.

Don’t Even Think of Saying You Sacrifice for Jesus.

I came upon this quote recently. It was written by Dionysius the Bishop of Alexandria in 260AD. He wrote at the conclusion of a five year plague that at its height killed 5,000 people a day and by the end two out of every three inhabitants of the city.

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty,
never sparing themselves
and thinking only of one another.
Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need,
ministering to them in Christ,
and with them departed this life serenely happy;
for they were infected by others with the disease,
drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and accepting their pains.
Many, in nursing and curing others,
transferred their death to themselves
and died in their stead.
The best of the brothers lost their lives in this way”

My friends, that is how we change the world. That is how people are drawn into following Christ. It makes no human sense that people would want to give themselves to a religion that asks them to serve people they don’t even know, even to the point of death. And yet, that kind of service was a major reason why the Roman world was turned right side up. Our love of our neighbor, with that kind of devotion and sacrifice, is exactly what tells people that this whole thing of following Jesus must be right. There is no other explanation for an action that is so self-sacrificing. Jesus must really be who he claimed to be if his followers live with such a radical love for God and neighbor. There is substance to our words when our actions are so provocative. Oh that we would have that kind of faith again. Oh that I would have that kind of faith.

Provocative Bible Verses: The Fellowship of Suffering

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” Philippians 3:10

We met the first week of sixth grade. I was the new kid in the class and as it turned out we lived two streets apart. In one of those oddities of life a group of six of us in the neighborhood became friends and all of us had a first name that began with the letter D. So very quickly we all became known by our last name with a D in front. I became D’Lacich and he became D’Johnson. His real name is Dwight and he is my longest lasting friend and as such a most treasured friend.

When we were growing up it was all about sports and girls. I wont say anything about the girl part of things but sports is another matter. We spent lots of time together on the baseball field, the basketball court, golf course, and the football field. In every instance except football, Dwight far surpassed me in ability. The sheer brute force aspect of football served me better than the precision of the other sports. I never could beat him on the golf course for instance. But I noticed that my game always got better when I played with him. In fact the best round of golf I ever played was the day before Dwight and Debbie were married. I played out of my mind that day, and still he led the way with a better score.

Many memorable events in our lives were shared events. We woke up in my parent’s living room one New Years day to the news that our hero, Roberto Clemente had died in a plane crash while on a mercy mission to Puerto Rico. Dwight was in the room along with two other friends, the night I gave my life to Christ. We were in each other’s weddings. Like the deepest of friendships, no matter how long the time is between phone calls or dinners, the bond of friendship is still unbreakable.

A year ago I received the proverbial punch in the gut when I learned that Dwight had just been diagnosed with ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. There is no cure for ALS. The best they can do is manage the pain and the deterioration of the body. The first sign for Dwight that something was wrong was the difficulty he had holding a golf club. In just a year he has gone from that, to being in a wheel chair most of the time and needing a neck brace to hold his head up when he works on his computer.

Six months after the diagnoses we were together at a charity golf tournament for him and his family. The goal was to raise money for the remodeling of their house to accommodate the inevitable wheel chair. Just a few days ago we got together again, this time at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa. For two die-hard Steelers fans it was a dream come true, especially since they won their sixth Lombardi Trophy. For me, getting a picture with Dwight at that game was more precious than I can describe. The Steelers winning was an ecstatic experience. Being with Dwight was deeper, more important by far, and will remain etched in my mind like few other events. It is another of those highly valued, shared events.

Whenever someone close to you has a tragedy strike, it must be a nearly universal response to at some point wonder how you would handle that in your own life. The way Dwight and Debbie have handled the illness that, barring a miracle, will end his life, has forced me to ask that question over and over again. You see, my friend Dwight loves Jesus with all his heart. It was out of love for Jesus that he and Debbie adopted two little boys with special needs, adding them to their very healthy biological daughter and son. It is out of love for Jesus that he has served in his local church. It is out of love for Jesus that he is approaching his suffering thinking only about others. I am forced to ask how I would handle such suffering because I see Dwight doing so with dignity and grace and for the glory of God.

Often times in the face of suffering we play the victim. “Why me?” we ask. “What did I do to deserve this?” We argue with the fairness of it all. In other cases we lapse into depression and give up. Dwight has been all about Jesus getting the glory. His attitude has been that of the Apostle Paul, whether I live or die let God be glorified. Also like Paul I think Dwight has an even deeper connection to Jesus because of the fellowship shared by those who suffer. Dwight wants Jesus to use his personal experience of suffering to point others to Jesus. I think his love for Jesus is actually growing as a result of that shared fellowship. Dwight understands that God never promised us a life free of suffering, at least not this side of eternity. What He did promise us was that He would be with us always, no matter what. We would be in fellowship with Him.

There is a sense in which suffering is the calling of the Christian. The health and wealth Gospel crowd that tries to show that God only wants you to be free of suffering and blessed by a huge bank account are totally out of touch with the true heart of God and the example of great saints from the past. The Apostles considered it a privilege to suffer for Jesus. In that suffering there was a renewed sense of being united with Him and of pointing people towards Him. Dwight Johnson is doing that every day. The more his body deteriorates the more glory he brings to Jesus by living a life that loves Jesus above all else.

The more I think about Dwight the more I am forced to smile. He was better than me at Baseball, Basketball, and Golf. Now it appears he is better than me at being a Christian as well. He is bringing glory to God in a situation that I don’t know how I would handle. However, I do know this, when the time comes when I must face that kind of suffering, I know that my game will be better because of Dwight. Some things never change.

UPDATE: Tuesday February 1st 2011. I visited Dwight for the last time today, in this life anyway. The breathing apparatus that he has been using is no longer helping. The next option is a tracheotomy to put him on a ventilator. Dwight and Deb decided long ago that when it reached this point, they would not take that option. There is no point. Dwight is ready to go. So on Thursday morning they will transition Dwight off the breathing mask, give him some medication to keep him comfortable, and wait until the CO2 levels rise to the point that he sleeps and slips away into the arms of Jesus. Dwight is ready to go. In fact he is so ready he decided to not wait to see the Steelers in the Super Bowl on Sunday. I told him I understand, for all the glory that is the Steelers and Super Bowls, the glory of Heaven outshines that in ways indescribable. I have to admit that my emotions bounce from moment to moment between joy at the picture of Dwight with Jesus, emptiness at the sense of a page turning in my own life and the resulting void, to wanting to break something, and back to joy. But this is not about me. It is about Dwight and Deb and the incredible way in which they have dealt with this. As Deb said today, she knows that God is real if only because of the otherwise unexplainable peace that washes over her when she pictures Dwight with Jesus. Enough said.