I’ve been recently reminded that no matter how uncomfortable being a Christian may feel in our secular culture, those of us in the West aren’t really being persecuted. Christians around the world are being hounded and killed for following Jesus.
In considering the courage of my our sisters and brothers who proclaim Jesus in hostile environments, I’m reminded of the early church, the two centuries when to be a Christian in Rome was a sure ticket to torture and death. And yet the visible follower of Jesus was morally compelling to the greater pagan culture. It took courage to follow Jesus.
And yet when the Emperor Constantine endorsed Christianity and it became a state sponsored religion, suddenly there were thousands of Christians in churches whose lives were absent of courage, whose character couldn't easily be distinguished from the honest follower of Jesus. As theologian John Howard Yoder puts it
“No longer could being a Christian be identified with church membership, since many “Christians” in the church had not chosen to follow Christ. Now to be a Christian is transmuted to “inwardness” (Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State)
Now that being a Christian didn’t take conspicuous courage in the face of persecution, a kind of inward turn took place where the real Christian could be validated by the private life of piety that may or may not be easily recognized by the world at large. And yet, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges all attempts to make invisible what is meant to be visible (see the verse above). As he puts it:
“The followers of Jesus are no longer faced with a decision. The only decision possible for them has already been made. Now they have to be what they are, or they are not following Jesus. The followers are the visible community of faith; their discipleship is a visible act which separates them from the world—or it is not discipleship. And discipleship is as visible as light in the night, as a mountain in the flatland. To flee into invisibility is to deny the call. Any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him.” (Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords)
In the Beatitudes, Jesus uses a series of contrasts to show what the visibility of the honest follower of God will look like.
We are given new ways to deal with those who have hurt us - we forgive them.
We are given a new way to live in the face of violence - by suffering.
We are given a new way to understand money - we share it generously.
We are giving a new way to deal with a corrupt society - by building a new order, not smashing the old.
We are given a new attitude towards our enemies - we love them.
If this is the shape of a follower of Jesus then it is incredibly public. As Jesus then says:
In other words, the life lived in the name of, and for the sake of Jesus isn’t marked by being a private faith. It’s public, witnessed in word and deed to those not yet in the family of Christ, it is witnessed in forbearance and forgiveness to those near us and especially other followers of Jesus who we believe should know better.
Let us then consider our lives. Is our life of faith a compartmentalized aspect of an otherwise comfortable life? Is it evident in how I live and what I say that I follow Jesus Christ? These are always sobering questions, but we have the very same Jesus who we sometimes proclaim and often don’t that stands with us in our struggles, in the working out of our faith.
Jesus stands with us and supports us and cheers for us. We are loved with an unending love and can therefore be honest about who we have been and who we are. Let us trust in Jesus more than our comfort, and be the light on a hill that Jesus gave his life in order that we might be, not only for our great good, but God’s greater glory.