The Crown of Life

The widespread persecution of Christians has recently been highlighted in a report commissioned by Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary. Millions of Christians in the Middle East have been uprooted from their homes, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against. The Christians who are being persecuted are some of the poorest people in the world. In the Middle East the population of Christians used to be about 20%; now it’s 5%.

The report also highlights discrimination across southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in east Asia – often driven by state authoritarianism. It concludes that the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians. In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. In Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on all forms of expression of Christianity including public acts of worship. The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland. The population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15% to 2%.

It is good that the persecution of Christians is being recognised, but persecution is not something new for Christians. Jesus explicitly told his disciples they would face persecution. The night before he was crucified, he said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” When he sent his apostles out into the world to proclaim the good news about him, he promised, “I will be with you always even to the end of the age.”

On a visit to a country in southeast Asia I met a leader in the underground churches. He had been arrested, imprisoned and fined because he didn’t belong to an official, state-controlled, church. The Christians in the underground churches are always being harassed by the authorities who want to close the churches down. My friend said that he had once been asked by a security official why the underground churches were growing, despite the persecution they experienced, when the official churches were not growing. One reason is that even in the fires of persecution Jesus is with his people, as he promised, and the reality of their faith shines through. Heaven is very real for Christians who experience persecution. Jesus told persecuted first-century Christians, “If you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.”

Love and life in Jesus

On Easter Sunday terror came to Sri Lanka. Coordinated bomb attacks on churches in the capital Colombo, and other towns, killed and seriously injured many people. Hotels were also attacked. The bombs were timed to go off when the churches were packed with worshippers rejoicing in the resurrection of Jesus. At least 290 people have died, and more than 500 have been injured. Those who died include people from at least 8 other nations. These bombings are the deadliest violence since the end of the civil war in 2009 and the whole country is in shock. In many churches around the world people prayed for those caught up in these atrocities.

The Easter message speaks very powerfully into the tragic events in Sri Lanka. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he prayed for those who were responsible for his death, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” He had taught his disciples to love their enemies and demonstrated this in the midst of his own profound sufferings. He told his disciples that they would be hated for his name’s sake but said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

On Easter Day Christians rejoice that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after he died. His resurrection was witnessed by many of his disciples, both men and women, and transformed them. When he died their hopes had died but when they saw their risen Lord they were filled with joy. Jesus sent them out into the world to proclaim to all people the good news of his resurrection and the forgiveness of sins through his death on the cross.

The hope that Christians have of being raised to eternal life is based on the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus. His promise is “because I live you also will live.” He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” So, the Easter message of love and life in Jesus declares that evil and hatred will not ultimately triumph. As one Easter hymn proclaims, “death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered!”

The day Jesus died

This week Christians will remember the death and resurrection of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. On Good Friday they will especially remember his death. During his 3-year ministry Jesus had brought great blessing to many people through his teaching and his miracles. He made blind people to see, deaf people to hear, dumb people to speak. He healed lepers, cast out evil spirits and raised back to life people who had died. Wherever he went great crowds flocked to hear him and to be healed. Just 5 days before he died, Jesus was acclaimed by thousands of people as he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. But he was also hated by the religious leaders and even the people turned against him and demanded that he be crucified.

The death of Jesus was a great injustice. He was a good man, the best man who has ever lived. Pilate, the Roman Governor who condemned him, said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.” One of the criminals who died alongside him said, “We are being punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” A Roman centurion who supervised the crucifixion said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”

The death of Jesus was also a great demonstration of God’s love. The Apostle Paul said, “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” Religions teach us what we must do if we are to find acceptance with God. Our salvation depends on what we do. But Christianity tells us what God has done for us. We cannot stop sinning. Every day of our lives we break God’s moral law and are, therefore, guilty before him. Yet, amazingly, Jesus, God’s Son, died to take away our sins.

So Good Friday really is good because on that day we remember the best of all men who loved us so much that he died for us so that we might experience God’s forgiveness. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. He gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So, we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”

Holidays are important

The summer holiday season is in full swing. The number of people in Britain taking holidays is increasing. In 2017 87% of British people took a holiday at home or abroad. On average British people take 3.8 holidays each year of which nearly 50% are overseas holidays. People living in London and Northern Ireland take least holidays; less than 2 per year. 18% of people don’t take a holiday. In 2017 the average British family spent £1284 per person on their summer holiday.

In the Old Testament God commanded the people of Israel to celebrate annual feasts and festivals. They were communal holy days which focussed on remembrance, thanksgiving, joy and celebration. The people remembered the great things God had done for them in delivering them from slavery in Egypt and in providing food and water for them through their 40 years in the wilderness. Other festivals were related to the annual harvest when the people thanked God for his faithful provision for their needs and offered their gifts to him. Each year the people also remembered their need for God’s forgiveness and offered sacrifices to him.

The weekly Sabbath day was God’s gracious provision for his people to rest from their daily work. “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work.” In our secular society we have lost sight of the importance of a weekly day of rest. All of us need to rest. A weekly day of rest enables us to do our work more efficiently, to spend time with our families and those in need and to thank God for his love and faithfulness.

Holy days are also an opportunity to think about eternity. In the midst of our busy lives it is good to reflect on the fact that we are mortal. When someone we love dies we may put on their gravestone the words “Rest in peace” because we want them to find eternal rest and peace. Christians in the first century patiently endured persecution as they lived in obedience to God’s commands and maintained their faith in Jesus. In the book of Revelation John hears a voice from heaven saying, “Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!”

Choose a good reputation

Cliff Richard has won his case against the BBC for seriously infringing his right to privacy. When the South Yorkshire police advised the BBC that they had received an allegation that Cliff sexually assaulted a child in the 1980s, the BBC covered the police search of Cliff’s apartment and named him. The judge, Mr Justice Mann, ruled that naming Cliff was unlawful and awarded him substantial damages. The ruling means that an individual’s right to privacy takes precedence over the public’s right to know.

In interviews following the case an emotional Cliff spoke of the immense stress he has experienced, even though he has never been arrested or charged. He feels that, because he was named, his reputation has been irreparably damaged by a false accusation. He feels it is impossible to undo what has been done by the BBC naming him when the investigation had only just begun. He feels it is unjust that, after spending a lifetime trying to do the right thing, his reputation has been tarnished in the eyes of many people. At first he felt hate towards his accuser, but then prayed to God for the grace to forgive him.

Having a good reputation is more important than enjoying success, being rich or living a celebrity lifestyle. The reputations of some well-known people have been totally destroyed because they have been found guilty of terrible crimes. The book of Proverbs says, “Choose a good reputation over great riches; being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold.”

Cliff has stood out in the entertainment world because of his clean image. He is known as a Christian and his life has often been scrutinised in an attempt to find some flaw or fault. Cliff became a Christian in 1966 and, at first, thought he should quit rock and roll, but was persuaded by friends to continue to sing and perform and to be a witness for Jesus in the pop music scene. He has been an ambassador for Christian relief agencies, such as TEAR Fund, and has tried to use his good name and fame to help others.

Jesus told his disciples that they would be persecuted and falsely accused, as he himself was. He told them, “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven.”

Giving thanks for the NHS

On 5 July 1948 the National Health Service in Britain was launched by Aneurin Bevan, the then minister of health. The NHS is based on 3 core principles: that it meets the needs of everyone, is free at the point of delivery and is based on clinical need, not the ability to pay. For 70 years the people of Britain have benefited greatly from the skills and dedication of the NHS doctors, nurses and other staff who have treated them and cared for them.

I recently watched a programme about the work of junior doctors in a busy Accident and Emergency department. They were in their early 20s and worked long hours alongside their senior colleagues dealing with a wide range of conditions, some of which stretched their knowledge and skills to the limit. At one point the department was overwhelmed with patients, with beds in the corridors and patients waiting in ambulances outside. Yet the staff maintained a highly professional and caring attitude, taking time with each patient to carefully assess their needs. I was very impressed by their dedication and thankful that such amazing care is available to us all without the anxiety of wondering if we can afford the cost.

During his 3-year ministry Jesus healed many people of all kinds of diseases. Crowds of people came to him, sometimes late in the day, and he healed them all. Blind people received their sight, deaf people their hearing, dumb people were able to speak, lame people were able to walk, and lepers were cleansed. On at least 3 occasions he raised people back to life. The people who witnessed the healing ministry of Jesus were filled with awe and said, “A great prophet has appeared among us, God has come to help his people.”

God is deeply concerned with our physical needs and well-being. In Psalm 103 David wrote, “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits – who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” In their daily work doctors and nurses face complex medical conditions and are often conscious of their limitations. Some patients die suddenly and unexpectedly, others, with a very poor prognosis, recover. A good friend of ours is a doctor in a rural Christian hospital in Kiwoko in Uganda. She is responsible for the neonatal department which treats hundreds of mothers and babies every year. The motto of the hospital is “We treat, Jesus heals.”

Sacrificial love in DR Congo

Last week the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo declared an outbreak of Ebola. Two cases have been confirmed in the northwest of the country. Ebola was first identified in DR Congo in 1976. The virus can be transmitted from wild animals to people and spreads through human-to-human transmission. The average fatality rate is 50%. The World Health organisation has made $1 million available to contain the outbreak.

DR Congo is two-thirds the size of Western Europe and is potentially one of the richest countries in the world. It has an abundant water supply from the world’s second-largest river, a benign climate, fertile soil and abundant deposits of copper, gold, diamonds, cobalt, uranium and oil. Yet its 79 million people have experienced great suffering through corrupt government and a long running civil war in which more than 5 million people have died. Millions of people now live in extreme poverty.

Yet there are also bright lights of love and hope that shine in DR Congo. A friend of mine, who lives and works in Shalom University in Bunia, recently wrote to me. In February and March violence flared in the area near Bunia and over a two-week period 50,000 people fled into the city. They arrived on foot with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. My friend described the response of Christians to the needs of these displaced people.

“On the first Sunday after the displaced began arriving, it was blazing hot. The pastor of the main church in Bunia preached on Abraham’s hospitality of three strangers, one of whom turned out to be God himself. The pastor invited a refugee family up to the front to tell their story. At the end of their story the pastor started singing and the people began to stream forward to give a love offering for the displaced. Soon a large pink laundry basket was overflowing with bundles of money. This came from the people of a city where £70 a month is a good salary.”

The pastor then asked the Christians to prepare for a bigger offering the next Sunday. He told them they should bring their best food and clothes. The following Sunday, the offering was even larger and large bags of clothes were donated. For a month, the Christians throughout Bunia provided the main support for the displaced people. The loving actions of these Christians was inspired by their own experience of God’s love in Jesus who, “though he was rich, yet for their sake became poor, so that you through his poverty they might become rich.”

The Lord is risen!

Easter is a joyful time for Christians around the world. On Easter Day they greet one another with the words “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” The bodily resurrection of Jesus on the third day after he died is at the heart of Christian faith. After seeing Jesus die on the cross his disciples were devastated. Jesus had told them many times that he would be killed and then after three days would rise, but on the resurrection morning there was no expectation this would happen.

While it was still dark, some women went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried to anoint his body with spices and found the stone had been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. They didn’t immediately think that Jesus had triumphed over death but thought his enemies had stolen his body. On the evening of that day Jesus appeared to his disciples. When they saw him they were overjoyed, but one of their number, Thomas, was not with them. When they told him they had seen Jesus, Thomas said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later Jesus again appeared to his disciples and this time Thomas was with them. Jesus said to him, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

When we first met Gladys she was a very sad person. She had been brought up in a Welsh chapel but had stopped attending because of problems she had experienced. She was dying of cancer and was very bitter against God. A Christian lady began visiting her. She read the Bible to Gladys and prayed with her and, after a little while, Gladys began coming to church. One Sunday evening God spoke to Gladys through Psalm 34 and she put her trust in Jesus as her saviour. I visited Gladys on the last night of her life. She was very ill. I asked her, “How are you?” She replied, “I’m fine, you know what I mean!” She was looking forward to going to be with her risen Lord in heaven because “those who die believing, die safely through his love.”

I was a stranger and you took me in

The birth of Jesus brought great joy to Mary and Joseph, but it also involved significant trauma. The news that Mary was pregnant seriously threatened her reputation for purity and integrity in her home village of Nazareth. The circumstances of the birth were extremely difficult as Mary gave birth to her first child in a stable, in a strange town, without the support of family and friends. Then, soon after the birth, Joseph had a dream in which an angel of the Lord told him, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” So they left Bethlehem at night and went to Egypt to live in exile while Herod sent soldiers to kill all boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2. It was several years before Mary and Joseph and Jesus returned to their home village of Nazareth.

In our world today there are many people who have left their home countries in fear of their lives. Some have been threatened by those with political power, others fear religious persecution. They have experienced significant trauma in leaving their home country, family and friends and settling in a strange place. They still face a very uncertain future.

In both the Old and New Testaments God commands his people to welcome strangers and to be kind to them. The reason for this is that the Jews had suffered as slaves in Egypt until God delivered them, setting them free and giving them a home of their own. Many of the early Christians also experienced persecution and had to flee to places of safety. The kindness we show to people from other countries living amongst us is a response to the kindness we have experienced from God.

A few years ago, a young couple from the Middle East arrived in Britain as refugees. They were facing persecution in their own country. When they arrived in Britain they were detained in separate holding centres. It was their first experience of Britain and they were afraid, especially as the wife was expecting her first child. In the holding centre she was given a Bible and read these words from Psalm 42, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” God spoke to her through these words and gave her hope and his peace.

When disaster strikes

Last week mudslides in Freetown, Sierra Leone, killed 400 people, with 600 still missing. Homes in the hilltop community of Regent were covered after part of Sugar Loaf mountain collapsed following heavy rain. Many victims were asleep in bed when the disaster struck. August is the height of the rainy season when the average rainfall is 21”. A mass burial of 300 people has been held on the outskirts of Freetown. The cemetery is known as the Ebola cemetery because many of the 4000 people who died in 2014 are buried there.

Freetown, a city of 1 million people, is squeezed into a small space between heavily-forested mountains and the sea, in a country with the highest rainfall in Africa. It was first established in the late 1700s as a home for freed slaves from the US and UK. It has the world’s third largest natural harbour. The population of the city grew significantly during the brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002 in which 250,000 people died and many more were maimed. I visited Sierra Leone in 1998 and met some of the 18,000 refugees living in a camp at Hastings. Many men had lost hands, legs or ears, which the rebels had amputated with machetes.

Humanly speaking, the people of Sierra Leone have little hope for the future. They live in a desperately poor country with a dilapidated infrastructure. The wealthy nations of the world show little interest in helping them, even though the country is rich in natural resources. So where can the poor people of Sierra Leone, and the world, look for future hope? Many people in Sierra Leone are Christians and are sustained in the struggle of their daily lives, and as they face natural disasters, by their faith in Jesus.

The hymns of John Newton, who, before he came to faith in Jesus, visited Freetown as the captain of a slave ship, express the faith and hope in which Christians in Sierra Leone find real comfort. Newton wrote, “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrow, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear. It makes the wounded spirit whole, and calms the troubled breast; ‘tis manna to the hungry soul, and to the weary rest. Weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought; but when I see you as you are, I’ll praise you as I ought. Till then I would your love proclaim with every fleeting breath; and may the music of your Name refresh my soul in death!”