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!”

Finding faith and hope

In 2018 President Xi of China was reappointed with no time limit. His new personal power and the enhanced role of the Chinese Communist Party has led to the persecution of virtually every major religious group within China. ‘Unofficial’ church buildings have been demolished and entire Christian congregations have been arrested, Tibetan Buddhists have been forced to remove images, and up to one million Muslims from the Uighur ethnic group have been detained in ‘re-education’ camps. Religion is seen as a great challenge to the atheism taught and imposed by the Communist Party.

In recent years, however, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have gone to work in Africa where they have encountered new cultures. Far from home, in strange places, some of these Chinese workers have found comfort in religion, especially amongst the many evangelical Christians in sub-Saharan Africa. Local African churches have reached out to Chinese workers, including incorporating Mandarin into services. A number of Chinese people have welcomed the sense of community and belonging that these Christian churches offer. A small but growing number of ethnically Chinese missionaries from Taiwan and other countries have been able to share the Christian gospel with Chinese nationals in Africa in a way that is not allowed in the People’s Republic. Many Chinese workers are returning home and bringing their newfound faith with them.

Christianity has been in China since the 7th century, a lot longer than communism, and today, despite persecution, the number of Christians is increasing. China is losing its fight against Christianity. It is estimated that there are 70 million Chinese Christians. Official figures show membership of the Chinese Communist Party at 90 million. If the present increase in the number of Christians in China continues there will soon be more Christians in China than in any other country in the world.

Atheism, whether espoused and propagated by political regimes or promoted by the secularism of our Western world, can never meet our deepest needs. In Africa Chinese workers have seen the difference a real and warm faith in Jesus Christ makes to people’s lives. Daily life for millions of people in Africa is desperately hard but in their churches people worship God with joy in their hearts. They love one another and help each other. Most African Christians are poor but their relationship with God through Jesus gives them “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Now that’s something we all need and neither communism nor any other political ideology can ever give us.

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.”

Give us today our daily bread

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught his disciples important principles about daily living. He was preparing them for their future life’s work when they would be sent out into the Roman world to proclaim the good news about the forgiveness of sins through his death and resurrection. Daily life for them was going to be very difficult as they experienced persecution and great hardship. So, it was important for them to know how to cope with these challenges. The life principles Jesus taught his disciples are also important for us.

Jesus told them, “Do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well.” He reminded them how God provides for the birds every day, “They do not sow or reap or store away into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable that they?” He also spoke of how God clothes the ordinary flowers of the field whose beauty exceeds even the splendour of King Solomon’s fabulous wardrobe. The same God who clothes the flowers would also provide for the disciples as they learned to trust in him.

Worry and anxiety are common experiences for us all. Many of our worries centre around the daily necessities of life – having enough to eat and drink and clothes to wear. Parents bringing up their children worry about having food to feed them and money for their dinner in school. They worry about having enough money to buy the “designer” clothes their children feel they need if they are not to be made fun of by their friends, as well as the latest mobile phone.

Worry wears us out and wears us down. It takes the joy out of life. It’s made worse by the many authoritative voices that repeatedly tell us there is no God but that one day, maybe, we will discover life on some distant planet. How much better to listen to Jesus and to look at God’s beautiful creation that unmistakably tells us that He is and that He cares for us. Then we can tell Him all our worries and ask Him to help us as we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Give us today our daily bread.”

On the third day he rose from the dead

The findings of the recent British Social Attitudes Survey on religion reveal a marked decline in religious affiliation in Britain today. For the first time, more people identify themselves as being of ‘no religion’ (53%) than those who profess an affiliation to a particular religion. Only 15% of adults in Britain now regard themselves as Anglicans, whereas in 2000 half the population identified themselves with the Church of England. The decline in living faith in Britain is in marked contrast to the situation in the majority world, where Christianity is growing strongly.

Some of those who identify themselves as being of ’no religion’ do, however, have some faith. For example, one in five of them a say they believe in life after death. This shows that, even if we opt out of formal religion, which can be less than inspiring, we cannot avoid the fundamental questions posed by our life in this world. Very few are committed atheists. Someone I know attended the funeral service of man who was an atheist. Nothing was said. The family sat at the front of the crematorium for a short time then stood by the coffin briefly before leaving. For an atheist death is the end, there is nothing to say.

Christians are followers of Jesus who died on a cross and rose from the dead on the third day. The apostles were eye-witnesses of the resurrection. Seeing the resurrected Jesus transformed them and they fearlessly proclaimed the good news about him everywhere they went. The early Christians were so committed to Jesus that they were prepared to suffer persecution for their faith in him and even to die for him. It is like that for some Christians today. For them, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

The apostle Paul wrote about the hope the resurrection of Jesus inspires, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Christ is risen!

The days leading up to Easter this year have seen tragic and horrific events around the world. Terrorist attacks in Westminster and Stockholm; a chemical weapons attack in Syria; a bomb on the St Petersburg Metro; the bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday; a suicide bomb attack on evacuees near Aleppo. People of many nations and of all ages have been bereaved or have experienced life-changing injuries. Where can we find strength and solace in such sad and uncertain times?

The message of Easter is one of glorious and transforming hope because, “Christ is risen!” It seemed to the disciples, and all those who loved Jesus, that his death on the Cross was the end. On the third day after Jesus died, one of his grieving disciples said, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” The death of Jesus had crushed them and their hopes had died. Early in the morning of that same day, however, the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body discovered the stone had been rolled back from the mouth of the tomb. As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes and asked them, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!”

The resurrection of Jesus transformed the disciples and filled them with courage as they took the good news of Jesus to the ancient world. They were eye-witnesses of his resurrection; they had seen him alive after he died and knew for certain that he had conquered death. They were ready to face fierce persecution, imprisonment and even death because they knew that Jesus was with them and believed his promise, “Because I live, you also will live.” Today the risen Jesus is sustaining Christians who are experiencing violent and hateful persecution in some parts of the world.

I recently met John, who has regularly attended a church for 50 years but has never known Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. He was scientifically trained and this raised many questions in his mind. His brother, who is a Christian, wrote to him and encouraged him to put aside his questions and to simply believe the Bible’s message about Jesus. He did this and his life has been transformed; he is a changed man. He is at peace with God and has a sure hope for the future, because Jesus really is alive.

The King of kings and Lord of lords

We are living in a time of change and political leaders are in the news. In the USA, President Trump is making the headlines every day. In Britain, Teresa May is preparing for Brexit negotiations. In Russia, President Putin has become active in Ukraine and Syria and is raising new challenges for NATO. France is preparing to elect a new leader to succeed the unpopular President Hollande. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel faces significant opposition when she stands for re-election in September. In Turkey, President Erdogan is seeking to make his position inviolable. In The Gambia, President Jammeh has eventually given way to newly-elected President Barrow. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye is facing impeachment. In North Korea, President Kim Jong-un reigns supreme as he develops his nuclear capability.

There has also been a rise in populism in some democratic countries. Populism mobilizes large alienated sections of the population against governments that are perceived to be controlled by an out-of-touch elite that acts in its own interests. Sometimes populism creates a situation that encourages extremism of both left and right elements in the population. Populism does not always lead to good things. There were great hopes in some countries for the “Arab Spring”, but the outcome has by no means been a happy one.

The example of the early Christians to their rulers has much to teach us in our uncertain world. They lived in the Roman Empire and suffered under Roman rule. Jesus was crucified at the order of Pilate, the Roman governor. The apostle Paul was arrested and beaten at the command of Roman magistrates, even though he was a Roman citizen. Later he was executed at the command of the Roman emperor. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD, Nero instigated a violent persecution of Christians and many died in unspeakably cruel ways.

Despite the persecution they experienced, the early Christians firmly believed that God is supreme. Because they believed the authorities that existed had been established by God they did not rebel against them but, as a matter of conscience, submitted to their rule. They prayed for kings and those in authority so that they might live a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and holiness. They honoured their rulers and paid their taxes. They knew that one day all earthly rulers will be called to account for the way they have exercised their power and will stand before the judgement throne of the One who is King of kings and Lord of lords.

The God of hope

A New Year has dawned. The holiday is over and life is returning to its normal daily routine. The days are dark and wet, and the credit card bills will soon arrive. The new year is a time to look forward, but the future looks very uncertain. Following the floods, climate change is on many people’s minds. Stock exchanges are fragile and the economic future is not good. The moral foundations which undergirded our society are being eroded. It’s clear that our leaders are facing problems that are too big for them.

In the middle of the first century the apostle Paul wrote a letter to Christians in Rome. The moral corruption, that would eventually lead to the the fall of the Roman Empire, was already taking hold and these Christians were facing persecution. Paul himself would soon be imprisoned for his faith in Jesus and would be martyred, along with many other Christians, at the command of Nero. The personal future of Paul and the Christians was very uncertain.

Near the end of the letter Paul wrote, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.” These words speak to us today. Hope for the future comes not from ourselves, or from those who have power and influence, but from God. He is the God of hope! As we entrust ourselves and our future to him he fills us with joy and peace. Ultimately the world and our lives are not at the mercy of evil people, but are in the hands of a gracious God who gives us a hope that is real.

A few weeks before Christmas, in the little village of Capriana in Moldova, something happened which is a sign of the hope God gives to ordinary people. God has given some Moldovan Christian ladies a deep love and concern for the forgotten people living in the terrible closed institutions in Moldova in which people are locked away, often for very trivial reasons. Life in the institutions is very harsh and, normally, there is no hope of release. A new house, Casa Ana, has been built in Capriana, which is now the home of 6 ladies from one of these closed institutions, and it was officially opened before Christmas. One of the Christian ladies involved in establishing the home said, “We wanted to give these people a future and a hope!” That’s exactly what “the God of hope” does for us as we entrust ourselves, and our future, to him.

You can watch a short video of the opening of Casa Ana at https://vimeo.com/148361564