Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What Does "Blessed are the Persecuted" Mean?

"Anybody not know what today is? It's Easter." It's the day that celebrates how the Creator of the Universe walked among us and was crucified. It was on Easter that it was discovered that this man Jesus had risen from the dead. Isn't it amazing how, 2000 years later, we are still celebrating the resurrection of this man? How incredulous and absurd is the concept that a man could conquer death! Some of the most educated, affluent and free thinking people history has ever known are still astonished by this event.

Over the last several weeks, Erwin McManus has been talking about this man Jesus and how He didn't appeal to wealth, power or success. The Beattitudes are human characteristics given by Jesus about what it means to follow Him. Surprising His audience, He described the attributes of being truly human as things that those who were expecting a new King would not have thought were characteristic.

Everyone who was listening may have been kept a bit off balance by who Jesus called to be with Him. What does "Blessed are those who are persecuted" mean? For each of the Beattitudes Jesus gives a different result, But after saying, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, Jesus says "For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven" once again just as He did after saying this about the "poor in spirit". This suggests a relationship between the poor in spirit and those persecuted for righteousness.
If we were trying to start a movement and trying to call followers, we would move Jesus out of marketing and maybe into filing. We would not campaign with attributes like the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful or those who are persecuted. We would do everything we could to doll up some of the things that Jesus says because these attributes are not what we value. Yet, on the flip side, Jesus isn't baiting and switching. He's not deceiving. He says that this journey will require tremendous strength. He tells us that we are capable of living a life that is way beyond our capacity if we would just follow Him. He doesn't promise us that all of our problems will go away, but He does promise a better way to live.

Jesus talks about the extraordinary life we can live if we will just engage Him. Blessed are those who are persecuted. Sometimes we use this phrase carte blanche in viewing our lives as being persecuted. "I'm having a bad day because I'm being persecuted." But arrogance may often be the reason we are experiencing persecution. We can get wrapped up in our own self-righteousness, so others begin to fight back. Somewhere along the line, we became obsessed with winning and seeing that we are right as Christians and that others are wrong. So, we begin to use political might to push what we think is God's agenda and then we are surprised when those fighting back use politics to retaliate. We can be stubborn and claim that we are being "persecuted" because of our beliefs when often times it is simply our arrogance.

Sometimes, we have bad experiences, not because of arrogance, but because of stupidity. In the past week, Erwin was very sick. He couldn't breathe well and laid in bed Monday, then Tuesday, then Wednesday. Laying in bed for three days drove Erwin crazy because he's an active person. So he called his friends to play basketball, but his wife, Kim, found out about it and insisted that he not play. Erwin cancelled, but then secretly rescheduled for Friday morning. So, going against his wife's advice, he secretly played that morning. But after he played, his leg was really hurting him. Seeking empathy from his wife, he mentioned to her his injury, but she focused instead on his poor decision to play (she intuitively knew). If he was making poor decisions and simply suffering the consequences, why should she be empathetic? Sometimes that's the way it is in life. If we make stupid decisions and then simply suffer the consequences, there's no blessing in that. It is what it is even though we sometimes hide it under the auspices of persecution.


Remembering back a few years ago when he had the privelege of traveling the world, Erwin, for some reason could not recall his experiences in Cambodia. He thinks this may partly have been because there was so much hard stuff to see. Sickness, missing limbs, starvation and hopelessness. As if that wasn't bad enough, he went to see a place called "the Killing Fields", which was a place to remember the thousands of people who were slaughtered. Sometimes, people are the innocent victims of horrible crimes, but even this is not persecution.

In summary, Jesus is not talking about persecution that we deserve, nor is he talking about persecution imposed on us by unjust people. What Jesus is talking about here is the persecution we experience because of our decisions made in love. He wasn't talking about an elusive allegory, He was talking about our lives as well as His own. The end of Jesus' life would itself be the worst persecution of all, but the most beautiful as well. It was a story of love. A story where sacrifice was a privelege for the object of God's love, us.

Jesus calls us to lead a life that is beautiful and true, yet a disturbance of status quo. The Ten Commandments were the picture of the minimum standards to be human, but the Beattitudes were the ways Jesus calls us to live our lives. The lie that "Jesus promises no more problems" couldn't be more of a deception. Jesus calls us to trust Him in our most painful moments because it teaches us how to live and how to find beauty in life even in the worst times.

Erwin was sitting with a friend recently talking about the movie set his friend was working on, "The Day the Earth Stood Still". During a break, someone went up to Keanu Reeves and asked him to sign their bible. Keanu looked Erwin's friend, Scott, and said, "Wow, this has never happened before". A short while later, while strolling through the city, Scott pointed out to Keanu a church tower with a cross and said, "Isn't that beautiful?" to which Keanu replied "Not really". But Scott engaged him asking, "If you understood (Jesus) was dying on that to save your wife and children, wouldn't it be beautiful?" Keanu agreed that Scott was right. If we don't understand why the crucifixion happened, it is most tragic and horrific. But if we do understand that His death was a choice so that we could be free to live in the fullness of life, that cross becomes the ultimate mark of beauty. It is a great example of how our lives can reflect beauty in persecution.
Erwin grew up Catholic. Along the way, he went to a few (Catholic) Easter services. At a certain age, though, someone invited him to a non-Catholic Easter service. But this particular service really focused on the man of Jesus. As Erwin was looking around, he saw a cross with no Jesus which is atypical in the Catholic church. His thought was that someone forgot to put the Jeus oon the cross. S o, he asked a girl next to him, "Where's Jesus?" The girl, realizing what he was asking, said, "He rose from the dead. He's not on the cross anymore." It was the first time Erwin felt like he really "got it". To him, this was the great mystery unraveled.

No one realized or guessed that they could actually see and touch their God as a man as Jesus. No one ever saw it coming that we would actually turn on Him and crucify Him. But it all came to light when He rose from the Dead. "Blessed are the pesrsecuted" is the only attribute where Jesus elaborates. He implies that we are going to get a strange reaction from living a life of beauty, truth and love. We have to live a life that is connected to that which is eternal to follow Him. But why would anyone oppose us with these attributes? The reason is that it obstructs the status quo.

If we were to choose evil we could choose to live like Hitler, Stalin, Manson etc. or other personifications of the worst of humanity. Or we could choose a life that reflects the image and likeness of God, fueled by love. But if we choose this life, it will bring the disdain of those who have chosen the other life. And if we want to avoid problems altogether, we can choose the meaningless, ordinary and mundain goopy life in between. This, unfortunately, is where most in the world choose to live. But when we choose to move to the higher plain, we disrupt the common.

Erwin still remembers the night he chose to trust Jesus. It became a struggle to accept the reality of Jesus and then the imposing nature of God. Since Aug 20, 1978, his life has never been the same. But while it was intimate, it was never meant to be private. If Jesus calls us to an intentional life of meaning, we need to understand that it isn't a private calling.

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