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The Suffering Church

Luke 21:5-19

 THE PRISONER OF DACHAU1

Christian Reger was a minister in the Confessing Church in Germany. This church was a branch of the German state church under the leadership of Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It opposed Hitler and sought to undermine the Nazis reign of terror as an expression of their Christian faith. Reger's organist informed the authorities of his underground work and the Gestapo arrested him and shipped him to the concentration camp at Dachau. The German pastor discovered just how real the words of Scripture could become. 
 they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.
After the first month, Reger abandoned all hope in a loving God. It was not that he was ready to deny his Lord. With the cruelty and suffering all around him the odds against God's existence seemed too great, but God never gave up on Reger. 
The authorities allowed a prisoner only one letter a month from home and then only after careful censorship. Exactly one month to the day of his incarceration, Christian Reger received his first letter from his wife. She mentioned news of the family and friends and assured him of her love. At the bottom of the letter, she penned a Bible passage Acts 4: 26-49. Reger had smuggled a Bible into the camp and was able to look up the reference. It comes from a speech delivered by Peter and John after their release from prison.
26 The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.' 27 For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, 
He appreciated his wife's concern but did not know what to make of the Bible reference. His mind was preoccupied with his afternoon plans. He was to be interrogated by the SS. This was the most terrifying experience in the camp. He would be asked to name other Christians in the Confessing Church. If he did, they would be arrested and possibly killed. If he refused, the soldiers would probably beat him with clubs or torture him with electricity.

Reger waited nervously outside the interrogation room. He was scared and trembling. A door opened and a fellow minister whom Reger had never met came out. Without saying a word or changing the expression of his face, the minister walked up to Reger, slipped something into his coat pocket, and then walked away. Seconds latter SS guards appeared and ordered Reger into the room for the interrogation.

 THE PERSECUTED CHURCH

Our Lord knew that the day would come when his disciples would be persecuted because of their faith. In today's passage, he warns them that the path of discipleship would be a difficult and demanding road. Throughout the centuries, the church has known the threat of "Rulers who gathered together against the Lord." Even today, the church faces the cruelty of persecution in many different parts of the world. The word martyr may conjure up scenes of Roman arenas where early Christians were pitted against wild animals but martyrs of the faith can be found on nearly every continent as we approach the Second Millennium. Two years ago Christianity Today ran a two part series on the persecution of the church. It told the story of believers who were arrested, beaten and even killed for their faith.
In Cuba Pentacostal Pastor Orson Vila was imprisoned in May 1995 for conducting "illicit" religious meetings
 
Muslims racketeers demand "protection money" from Christians in Upper Egypt: at least two farmers have been murdered after refusing to pay.
Islamic fundamentalist terrorists slit the throats of seven French Trappist monks in Algeria on May 22, 1996

Five Nuban Christian women were sentenced to death for apostasy in Sudan in August of 1995. A month later 10 believers were arrested for converting to Christianity in Sudan

In Pakistan at least five Christians have died while in police custody. A blasphemy law mandates the death penalty for anyone convicted of blaspheming against the Prophet Mohammad.2


When I read of these accounts I asked myself many questions. How are those believers able to hold onto the faith with such tenacity? What drives them to profess Jesus is Lord even under pain and torture? How are they able to die in the light while darkness prevails all around them? One author writes
How [do we] account for such surety in a century of indifference and drift, such single-mindedness in a century whose cultural and moral pluralism, whose greed disavows the singular?3

And as I reflected on those questions during the week, I realized that the answers challenged my faith, but also offer us a testimony on how we should live the Christian life. Let us therefore consider the marks of their life and allow their testimony to inspire us to greater works of faith and holiness.

 A SUPREME BELIEF IN A SUPREME BEING

One common characteristic of the martyrs from both the first century and today is a supreme belief in a Supreme Being. The word martyr comes from the Greek word that means witness. It was first used in reference to early Christians who were put to death for their witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and their worship of him as Lord of their life. "These witnesses express not what they had seen with their eyes but what they envisioned in their hearts."4 Their confidence in God's ultimate reign over the heavens and the earth empowered them to enduring suffering. The wonder and splendor of Almighty God captivated the martyrs' thoughts, dreams, hopes, and aspirations. They were absolute convinced, beyond any and all doubt, that only one Supreme Being deserved the title Lord. No other gods, no other principalities, no other angelic beings deserved their worship or praise.

On the day, the soldiers tied Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna to a stake, they pleaded with him, "Come now, where is the harm in saying Caesar is Lord and offering the incense, when it will save your life?"
Polycarp replied, "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?"

 A COMPULSION TO LIVE FOR CHRIST

Another characteristic of a martyr is the compulsion to live for Christ. One theologian wrote, "the essential element in martyrdom is not the physical act of dying but rather a disposition of the will to live for Christ, with the necessary corollary that, by a strange but wholly Christian paradox, living for Christ may involve the necessity to lay down one's life for him."5
The martyrs of the faith never set out to die for Christ. Their goal was to live for Christ. Their first priority was "to live a moral and compassionate life, characterized by humility toward God."6 The trusted in the power of the Holy Spirit to transform them into "living Christs." Their highest ambition was to bear the fruit of Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control. They also sought to serve their Lord by serving others. Some through evangelistic work proclaimed the gospel story of Christ's love. Others have chosen to proclaim the gospel in deeds by serving relief agencies, establishing hospitals, teaching student to read, and serving as translators. These men and women gave their lives for the sake of others. Edith Stein, a converted Jew, a Carmelite nun, who died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz for her faith and Jewish heritage and recently canonized a saint wrote
He who wants to keep his soul will lose it. Thus the soul can only find itself when it is not concerned with the self. . . .I believe that the more deeply someone is drawn into God, the more one must also come out of oneself; that is, come out into the world, in order to carry the divine life into it.7


The martyrs were marked for death because they chose to life, to live a life dedicated totally and completely to serving their Master.

 A MARTYR WHO LIVED

The interrogation went much better than Christian Reger expected. They were surprisingly easy and did not inflict any physical violence. He was sweating despite the cold when he arrived back at his barracks. He tried to calm himself by breathing deeply for several minutes. He crawled into his bunk to rest. Remembering the strange encounter with the other minister, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a matchbox. He was surprised and delighted. Matches were priceless in the barracks. However, when he opened the box he did not find any matches, only a folded slip of paper. He opened the paper and read Acts 4:26-29. The exact same verse he had read in his wife's note. His heart pounded hard against his chest. The God he had given up on had worked a miracle. Christian Reger found out that day that the words of the apostle Paul to the church in Thessalonica are true, "he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one." God had fulfilled his promise. Chrisitan Reger's faith was restored. 

Christian responded by forming an ecumenical church that was made up of priests and ministers in the camp. The cruelty of the camp did not lessen. During the last year, the Germans coal supplies were exhausted. They had to shut off the furnaces. The prisoners no longer had to contend with the stench of burning flesh but many of them died of exposure. Reger and other prisoners had to stack the bodies in the snow like cords of woods. Some of the prisoner abandoned their faith but Christian Reger and others continued to worship together and served the other prisoners. In the presence of unmitigated human brutality, they bore witness to the power of God to forgive

 WHERE YOU THERE?

When I consider the stories of men and women who have given and are still giving their lives for the gospel, I am convicted on several accounts. First, by my own attempt to distance myself from them. I admit as a pastor I have not done much to present their plight to the congregations that I have served. It always appeared to me to be manipulative to use such grime accounts. However, with a third of the Christian church worshipping in secrecy, under the treat of extermination I have decided that I needed to take a different approach. The first step is this sermon. The second is to provide resources that will allow you to find out how we can do something to help Christian facing persecution. The bulletin contains a list of organizations that specialize in serving those who are suffering for their faith.

I am also convicted by my own inner doubts. No one is demanding that I deny what I believe but how often do I by my thoughts, words and deeds deny my living Lord. I live in privileged society and enjoy unprecedented safety and security yet; I am so often tempted to put aside my cross and take the easy way to avoid sacrifice and suffering.

The old spiritual asks "Where you there when they crucified my Lord" The words invite us into the discomfort of his presence. I wonder if I had been at the foot of the cross, would I have done what Peter and the others did. Would I have denied my Lord to save my own life? Or would I have stood with resolute conviction and given witness to the living Christ, the Lord of my life. We probably will never have to face that challenge but each day we face it in subtle ways and each day we are allowed the opportunity to bear witness to my Lord.


1 Phillip Yancy, Where is God When It Hurts? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. 157.
2 Kim A. Lawton, "The Suffering Church," Christianity Today, July 15, 1996, Volume 40, No. 8, pp. 55-64.
3 Susan Bergman, "In the Shadow of the Martyrs," Christianity Today, August 12, 1996, Volume 40, No. 9, pp. 20.
4 Lawton, p. 20.
5 Gerald Bonner quoted by Lawton, p. 20.
6 Lawton, p. 21.
7 Edith Stein quoted by Lawton, p. 22.
 


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