September 16, 2018–Give it up?

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Jen Krausz, Bethlehem, PA

 

Warm-up Question

Have you ever had to give up something to practice your faith? If so, what was it? What is the most significant thing you can imagine being willing to give up for your faith?

Give it Up?

The Chinese government under President Xi Jinping has intensified pressure on Christians this year, demolishing hundreds of large and small Christian church buildings without notice to church caretakers, seizing Bibles, and removing crosses from buildings. In Beijing, 47 places of worship released a joint statement that they had faced “unprecedented” harassment since February, and some Christians have begun to hold their services in secret rather than in church buildings or known house churches, many of which have been shut down by local governments across China.

Some areas have banned Communist Party members and children from attending services, and one township has even encouraged Christians to remove posters of Jesus and replace them with portraits of Xi. One pastor said that hundreds of his church’s members were questioned individually about their faith. Others said their churches were raided or watched by surveillance, and members were interrogated by government officials.

Muslim places of worship have also had their crescents removed, and the Chinese government declared that Buddhist monks in Tibet could not reincarnate unless they had permission from the government before they died.

China is estimated to have 67 million Christians, and that number is expected to become the largest Christian population of any nation in the next few years. Religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982, but various government administrations have used rules about development rights and patriotism to restrict those freedoms since then.

Xi’s current campaign seeks to merge Christianity and other religions with “Chinese characteristics” like loyalty to the Communist Party and to weaken suspected ties with the West.  International Christian Concern, a watchdog group, has criticized China for cracking down on churches. “Despite their best efforts to intimidate the Church with actions like this, the government cannot destroy the faith and resilience of Chinese Christians.”

Discussion Questions

  • What aspects of Christianity do you think most threaten a communist government? Why is Christianity not compatible with a totalitarian form of government?
  • What other consequences do you think Chinese Christians might face for practicing their faith openly?
  • How does practicing their faith in secret square up against Paul’s words in Romans 13 about submitting to governing authorities? Do you think it is ever okay biblically to break the laws of your nation?
  • How might American Christians support their brothers and sisters in Christ who are being persecuted around the world? (One idea is below)

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 50:4-9a

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

This passage gives the disciples some bitter pills to swallow. Their beloved leader tells them he’s going to suffer and die in humiliating fashion. Then he says they should do the same if they really want to follow him. Don’t think for a second that your reaction would be much different than Peter’s when he tries to tell Jesus not to say things like that. Just about anyone would try to reassure Jesus that it can’t be all that bad.

In our American society, where any restriction of religious freedom is likely to come from peer pressure rather than from laws or governmental actions, it’s easy to forget that other countries don’t have nearly the same freedom to follow their Savior that we do.

Just as Jesus faced persecution and death for telling people how to know God, his disciples who took up the call to share the good news were also persecuted, and many of them were martyred for their refusal to give up their faith.

That persecution has caused Christians to suffer in some parts of the world ever since. We do not have to worry about much more than people making fun of our faith or, in rare cases, not wanting to associate with us because we are Christians. But we need to remember and pray for those who face the very real possibility that their church may not be standing tomorrow, or that they may be put in jail, tortured, or killed for their Christian faith.

But even though we don’t face terrible persecution, Jesus makes it clear that he asks us in some way to “deny” ourselves and take up a cross of suffering in order to follow him. That may not be a message churches preach too often, but it is a reality of our faith when we pursue it as God wants us to.

Chinese Christians know well what it is all too easy to forget in America: this life, our earthly existence, is not all there is, and our physical body in this physical world is not the most important part of our reality. If we don’t nurture our souls—and denying ourselves to follow Jesus is one part of doing that—we miss out on something Jesus considers essential to our lives.

It is significant that Jesus doesn’t ask us to do anything that he did not do himself. When we do take up our cross, we are following him and living as he lived, which often involves serving others the way he served us. He asks us to do so because it helps us know him better and because we can help others know him through these experiences as well.

And whatever suffering we face for Jesus, as he promises in Matthew 28.we can be sure that he is with us always.

Discussion Questions

  • How do these verses impact your desire to practice your faith? Does the fear of suffering make you unsure about following Jesus, or does the possibility of adversity motivate you to strengthen your faith?
  • What would your reaction be if you woke up tomorrow and your church had been destroyed?
  • What do you think would have to change for America to restrict religious freedom? Do you think that could ever happen?
  • Does knowing that Jesus will be with you in times of suffering make a difference in your willingness

Activity Suggestions

Open Doors USA has a form on their site which allows you to write a letter of encouragement to a persecuted Christian somewhere in the world. Your group can write individual letters, work in small groups, or draft a letter from the group as a whole that the group leader can submit online or mail to the address on the site. Other organizations like Voice of the Martyrs also encourage letter-writing to those being persecuted.

Closing Prayer

Dear Lord, We pray for all those Christians who face real and terrible consequences for their faith. Please give them your peace as they face turmoil and danger because of their trust in you. Above all, give them and us the joy of knowing you are with us when we suffer in any way because of our faith. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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