Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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"Farewell Discourse IV: Persecution"

1 Peter 4:12-16

John 15:18-16:4a

      Last week’s lesson from Jesus’ farewell discourse about love is immediately followed by a lesson on what we might call the very opposite of love.  What Jesus is about to say was not easy for His first band of disciples to hear, nor will it be easy for us to hear.  But it was a part of their preparation, and is a part of ours.  So let’s lean into the table and hear these parting words.

          (Read John 15:18-16:4a) 

    

      A truism of life is that we are judged by the company we keep; by who we hang out with.  And sometimes, such judgment can be extremely harsh and unfair.  I remember Jessica Copeland, with whom I went to school from 7th grade on.  “JD” as she was nicknamed was considered by all the guys to be one of the best looking girls in the class.  I’m no model judge, but she was gorgeous to behold; the desired prize of every alpha male in school.  She had been a cheerleader since junior high.  And the cheerleaders as a whole – at least in my old school – had a reputation of having an inordinately high opinion of themselves.  So my presumption about Jessica was that she, too, was of that ilk.  But beyond passing her in the hall and seeing her on the field or court, I didn’t know her at all.  It was only when JD saw me struggling, and went out of her way one day to offer to tutor me through the second half of Mr. Kaufmann’s senior trigonometry course, that I realized how wrongly I’d judged her.  I had missed out on what might have been a long friendship with Jessica because of my judging her by the company she’d kept, rather than getting to know her on her own merit; rather than seeing her as the individual she was: kind, helpful, patient, even willing to extend a hand to a boy who was way outside the loop of alpha males.  I tend to think that all of us, at one time or another have judged a person, not on the basis of his or her own merit, but on the basis of who they hang with.

      On the other hand, such judgment on the basis of association sometimes is fair and right.  There were kids I didn’t want my son keeping company with when he was in school, because I was aware they were part of a crowd which engaged in risky behavior – alcohol, drugs, sexual experimentation, etc.  Perhaps at the peril of judging unfairly, I felt justified as a parent in my judgment.

      Another Larry’s school days story.  I think I was in about 8th grade at the time.  Most of my close circle of friends – Benny, Danny, Gino – were broadly classified as the late 60’s version of nerds.  Our vocation was being geeky and doing well in school.  Our avocation was sitting around on Friday nights playing Battleship or Monopoly, or throwing a few lines at Republic Bowling Lanes.  During that era of Tommy James and the Shondells and Iron Butterfuly, I made a new friend by the name of Darryl.  I thought he was cool because he was a few years older than me, had a huge collection of 45’s, and owned a drum set.  But my parents knew of Darryl, his family, their rep in town, and who they kept company with.  I remember my mother warning me, “You’d better watch yourself.  Darryl seems like a nice guy [which he was, in a Eddie Haskel sort of way] but I think he and his friends are bad news.”  “Aw, c’mon mom.  Darryl’s cool.  He doesn’t do any of that stuff.”

      One Friday night after the YMCA dance, Darryl invited me to the apartment of his older sister who lived above a storefront in downtown Coraopolis.  “Come on Lalama,” Darryl chided.  “There are some really groovy guys I want you to meet.  It’ll be fun.”  I began to suspect something was up as we climbed the dingy stairwell to the third floor apartment.  The thumping beat of music shook the stairs, and almost blew my ears out as we stepped through the psychedelic painted door of the apartment.  The thick cloud of smoke which filled the room smelled awfully strange; made me kind of dizzy.  As I started getting introduced around the room, there were really freaky-looking people with beads and very long hair sucking smoke out of what looked like long plastic tubes.  Others were passing around pink and yellow colored cigarettes.  Before long, I felt disoriented, and just plain scared, even though I hadn’t done a thing.  It was like I was living an episode of Dragnet 67, waiting for Joe Friday to bust through the door and say, “You have the right to remain silent.”  What would I tell my dad?  I stumbled into the kitchen and found two older teenage girls sitting at a table, one giving herself an injection in her arm..

      I may have been a naïve 8th grade nerd.  But this nerd knew to get out of there, and fast!  I made up some kind of lame excuse to Darryl, and got my hide home as quickly as my feet would carry me. I was never so happy to sit down the next evening with my fellow nerds for a game of Clue.  And after that, a certain hit song on the radio made a lot more sense to me:  “Mama told me not to come; that ain’t no way to have fun, son.”  So sometimes, judgment on the basis of association is fair, and even very wise.

      Among Jesus’ parting words to His disciples recorded in his farewell discourse was a warning to be prepared to face that truism of life:  You’ll be judged by the company you keep.  And more specifically, as my disciples, Jesus teaches, you’ll be judged on the basis of your association with me.  In some instances, that judgment will be fair and just.  But in many – in fact, in most cases – that judgment will be terribly unfair and unjust.  Hear again Jesus’ words:  “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”  That is to say, because of your association with the one the world hates, you will be hated as a direct consequence of that association.         We need to step back a moment and unpack who this “world” is, and what this “hate” may look like in real time.  In the John’s vocabulary, “world” isn’t a reference to the planet or its population. When John uses the word, he’s referring explicitly to those who stand opposed to Jesus; not necessarily in opposition to the message He brings; a message of love, compassion, forgiveness, unity, and justice.  These are things most everyone in their right mind would never oppose.  The problem was with the person of Jesus as the Son of God; moreover, as God’s very self in the flesh.  It is to this reality Jesus’ detractors stood opposed.  In Jesus’ day, that opposition was the Jewish religious leadership - priests, Scribes, Pharisees – who condemned and had Jesus crucified for claiming oneness with God.  They were representative of that “world” which first stood against Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, and would stand against any who were found hanging out with Him.  They had even fully convinced themselves that by taking their position against Jesus and His followers, they were “offering worship to God.”  Hence, Peter – one of Jesus’ closest friends and associates, would soon to speak words of denial and disassociation out of fear of the world:  “I do not know the man Jesus.”

      Hatred carries with it a twofold meaning.  It entails, on the one hand, an active persecution; that which Jesus forewarned His disciples He would Himself face in Jerusalem, and that which compelled those same disciples to flee in terror the night of Jesus’ arrest. On the other hand, hatred can be ex-pressed through indifference tinged with contempt; a stance of not taking this following Jesus thing seriously; writing it off as religious extremism stemming from a feeble and unbalanced personality. Karl Marx famously wrote off religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as being nothing more than “an opiate for the masses” unable to deal with life’s realities.  Some years ago, former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura said essentially the same thing of religion as being a crutch for weak people.

       So Jesus warns His disciples:  Because of your association with me, those who stand against me and my relationship to God the Father will stand against you; sometimes attacking you outright; at other times, dismissing you as fools and fanatics.  Jesus continues, “If you belong to the world,” ie. if you are in step with the ways of those who stand opposed to me, seeking to smooth cultural feathers, anxious to accommodate by way of dilution the Kingdom message of my kingship – “the world would love you [accept you, embrace you, applaud you] as its own.”  But, Jesus says, you are not of this world.  You are people of God’s Kingdom – my Kingdom – living in the world; in the world, but not of the world.  20th century theologian H. Richard Niebuhr labels this Christian dilemma “Christ and culture in paradox.”  As such, Jesus teaches, the world will more often than not not accept you; not embrace you; not applaud you, even though they may agree with the core of your moral and ethical message.  On the contrary, in the world’s eyes – in the eyes of those who don’t accept the reality of who I am – you’ll be dismissed.  Understand that persecution, in one way or another, will be your fate.

      Jesus knew that it was at this point that some would begin to jump ship.  Many of Jesus’ disciples in His day were on the borderline, as many Christians today are on the borderline;  one foot in and one foot out; jumping back and forth depending on things like the cultural climate; political expediency; the acceptance of others; whether it’s cool to be Christian.  In this present age of religious upheaval in America, and mounting religious civil warfare in the Middle East and elsewhere, Christianity is coming under fire as never before in modern history.  And too many Christians in America today are prepared to defect as the cost of being a Christ follower rises.  Jesus concludes by saying that this persecution isn’t a maybe.  It’s a certainty.  “But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.”

       In our day as we hear these parting words of Jesus, most of us will thankfully never know the hatred of aggressive persecution as experienced by the early generations of Christians, for whom this gospel was originally written.  Nor is it likely that we will ever know the persecution which is all too well known to many of our Christian brothers and sisters in parts of the world today. 

      But we will know that hatred in its more subtle forms as we’re judged, derided and dismissed for our association with Jesus Christ.  For some years, our popular culture has been having a field day with Christianity.  We need only listen for the anti-Christian rhetoric and underlying message in TV sitcoms, mainstream media, modern art, even animated series.  Watch an episode or two of Family Guy or a rerun of South Park.  A recurring theme of the writers is making a gag reel out of Jesus and His followers under the guise of harmless satire.  It’s not harmless.  It chips away at any legitimacy Christianity might have in our culture.  Add to that the current political climate where anyone associated with Evangelical Christianity is judged on the basis of their politics rather than their faith. While those who are associated with mainline Christianity are accused by evangelicals of bleeding heart liberalism and reprobates from the faith;  Christians hating and persecuting other Christians.

     The truth is, followers of Jesus Christ are judged by the company we keep.  And keeping company with Jesus is becoming increasingly unpopular.  I know this hasn’t been an easy message to hear. Jesus laid it straight on the line with His disciples that evening in Jerusalem, and lays it straight on the line with us.  It comes as a question:  Are we willing to keep company and stay the course with One, the hatred of whom may become hatred of us; the persecution of whom may become the persecution of us?  Jesus leaves us this teaching for two reasons:  to keep us from falling away, and to prepare us for the hour to come.  How appropriate these parting words are as we find ourselves on the last leg of our Lenten journey, approaching the shadow of the cross upon which our Lord and Savior was crucified.  Amen.

 

 

Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102