“Faith is not something that makes you safe.”  (Dr. Kent Brantly, Samaritan’s Purse)

John 15:18-25


Facing Darkness

Facing Darkness is the remarkable story of a Christian response to the 2014 Ebola crisis in Liberia by Samaritan’s Purse, headed by Franklin Graham, and SIM, a global missions agency that started its work in the Sudan and still concentrates its work in Africa. One young SP physician named Kent Brantly, a dad with two young children, and one career SIM missionary, Nancy Writebol, both contracted Ebola while treating those suffering from the highly contagious and deadly disease.

If you missed the film, I highly recommend it to you. Kevin Chalupka, a Corinth member who serves with Samaritan’s Purse as Human Resources Director, told me that there will be an additional showing April 10. Click here for more about the encore.

There’s a Corinth connection to this story you might not know about. We support career SIM missionaries George and Kathy Cail, who are back in Burkina Faso now but at the time of the crisis were serving in SIM’s international headquarters in Fort Mill, SC, on the hospitality and support team for missionaries. Even closer to Corinth, John Hardy was at that time the facilities manager for that campus, including the guest houses, and he ended up as a major part of that story. When Nancy Writebol’s husband and other SIM workers came home during the Ebola crisis, John was in charge of their quarantine and transportation, and was also the front line for the swarm of media that descended on Fort Mill. John chose to place himself at risk with all the unknowns.

One line in the film especially stood out to me. Dr. Brantly was being interviewed after he was back home, and he said, “Faith is not something that keeps you safe.”

That, to me, epitomizes the heart of Dr. Brantly, Nancy Writebol, John Hardy, and countless other believers in the midst of the Ebola crisis. It’s so countercultural, and it’s a message believers need to remember and convey whenever we can. There’s such a misunderstanding, even 2000 years after Jesus directly contradicted it by his life and teaching, that faith should shelter and protect you from illness or difficulty or death. That’s not what faith does. Faith takes you through it. I love the stories of Christians who not only endure hardship, but choose risk for Christ’s sake.

What Jesus said

In our Lenten sermons, we come to Thursday of Holy Week. On Sunday, Jesus was hailed as the Son of David by a throng waving palm branches. On Monday he taught his disciples a lesson about faith from a fig tree he caused to wither instantly. On Tuesday he locked horns with the religious leaders in the temple in a series of disputes, then privately taught his disciples about the end of the age. On Wednesday, he stayed out of sight while Judas quietly agreed to betray him to the chief priests.

On Thursday, Jesus hosted his disciples for a Passover meal – another quiet, private occasion. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all write about the institution of what we call the Lord’s Supper. Jesus gave new meaning to the annual celebration by connecting it to the New Covenant he would make with his broken body and seal with his shed blood. John says nothing about the Passover meal, and instead focuses on a long discourse Jesus gave to prepare his disciples for the long night of trial ahead, the crucifixion the next day, and their post-Jesus life.

The reason we chose this text for Thursday of Holy Week is that in the Upper Room discourse (John 14-17, not including the footwashing and betrayal scenes in chapter 13), this is the only place where Jesus directly quotes from the Old Testament. Jesus makes three main points in these verses.

First, Jesus is a dividing factor (18-21). We like to think of Jesus as a unifier, a reconciler, and that is true. But it is not the whole truth about him. Jesus divides people. He made this clear in many different settings and ways during his ministry.

It is not difficult to illustrate this. Is the University of North Carolina a uniting or dividing factor in the state of North Carolina? Yes. The Tarheels unite fans from Tryon to Kitty Hawk, from Boone to Bald Head Island, among Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urban and rural. The Tarheels also divide people. A group of people who otherwise have much in common – race, occupation, social status, stance on HB2 – will love each other until you mention the Tarheels, and then those with loyalty to the Demon Deacons, Wolfpack, Dukies, Mountaineers and others will create a wall. Tarheels unite and divide.

In an even greater way, Jesus can both unite and divide. In this room, he unites us in spite of an array of backgrounds and ages and political views. But our confession of Jesus as Son of God, Savior, and Lord also creates a barrier for all of us with those who do not know him. That should not surprise us. In this text, Jesus reminds his disciples that he was hated (18), persecuted (20), and mistreated (21) by the world.

In this paragraph, his main point to the disciples is that if they are identified with him, they will receive the same treatment. You don’t have to be Mike Kryzewski to become the enemy of those who don’t like him. You just have to like his team. Jesus says to his disciples, “If the world hates you” (notice the “if” – it won’t necessarily be true, but it might), keep in mind that it hated me first. It will be their identification with him that will create a negative reaction. The more they look like him, sound like him, identify with his name, the more they will get the same reaction he endured.

Second, greater light brings greater judgment (22-24). In verse 22, Jesus seems to imply an excuse on some level for those who never met him, because those whom he has encountered personally “have no excuse for their sin.” By contrast, those who have met him and seen his miracles yet do not believe are rejecting not only him but his Father in heaven (24). They are now “guilty of sin.” There is a sense in which although Jesus’ coming into the world was our only hope, it also brought great judgment into the world.

I’m deeply humbled by this. Over the 60 years of my life I think I have received as much light, had as much opportunity, as anyone could. I have lived a life of remarkable input, or least opportunity for input. This comes with great responsibility. I suspect that’s true for many others here. I am thankful to read this passage on the other side of the cross and know that my guilt has been completely covered by grace. I don’t need to read this news about judgment with fear.

Third, it’s all too easy to read the Bible and miss the truth (25). Jesus closes this section by weaving yet another strand from his story to the existing fabric of the Old Testament. He says the rejection of him by the world “is to fulfill what is written in their law, ‘They hated me without reason.’” This is one of hundreds of quotations and allusions to the Old Testament in the New. As I said last week, “prophecies” (in most cases) is not the right word. They are connections, completions, fulfillments – not predictions.

Don’t let the phrase, “their Law,” throw you off. He doesn’t mean to say that this is their Bible and not his. He’s just exposing their hypocrisy. What he quotes is technically not from “the Law” (the books of Moses) but from the Psalms, but he’s not misspeaking. It’s rather like when we say, “The Gospel teaches us….” We don’t necessarily mean one of the four Gospels, but the New Testament message. Their own Bible, their own presumed authority, points to him.

What David sang

When we turn to the Psalm Jesus was quoting, we’re taken aback. Psalm 69 is either written by King David or by an anonymous writer in a David-style, because included in the title is “Of David.” I’m going to assume it’s written by David.

David is drowning, he says in verse 1, sinking in quicksand in verse 2. He describes his throat as parched for calling for help, his eyes faltering from looking for God.

In verse 4 David utters the line Jesus quotes: “Those who hate me without reason outnumber the hairs of my head. Many are my enemies without cause, those who seek to destroy me.”

The remainder of this psalm continues the lament and turns into one of those psalms that tend to trouble New Testament believers. Starting in verse 22 he prays for his enemies, but not in the sense that Jesus teaches us to pray for them. He prays for their judgment. He prays that they’ll bend over and not be able to stand up (23). He prays that God’s “fierce anger” will judge them (24). He prays that they will be lonely (25) and that they will be blotted out of God’s book of life (28).

That’s not nice. It doesn’t seem to matter that the psalm ends with praise to God and hope for his children. Why should David’s anger be canonized as Scripture?

It would be a little easier to dismiss what David said if it weren’t quoted so often in the New Testament, especially by and about Jesus[1]. This may be a psalm you and I don’t like because it’s not like the New Testament, but apparently that’s not how the New Testament writers saw it. They saw it as a direct continuity with their worldview.

Psalm 69 and other “psalms of curse” teach us first of all that prayer produces peace. Being honest about what’s going on in my world and how I feel about it and what I wish God would do about it is not a lack of faith. It is an act of faith. God encourages that in the psalms. In this psalm, like in most psalms, the person expressing his or her honest struggle works through it and ends with praise and trust. God is a safe place for vulnerability, and expressing our heart to him is a great step toward peace.

Psalm 69 also teaches us – and this is a key lesson that ties together Old and New Testament – maybe one of the Bible’s most central lessons:  prayer is not doing nothing, as in, “Oh, I can’t do anything about that, so I’ll pray.” Prayer is doing something about it. Prayer when you or someone you know (or don’t know) is “hated without cause” is not only a good response; it should be our first response. Jesus has already taught his disciples this lesson earlier in Holy Week, with the cursing of the fig tree on Monday. All through the Upper Room discourse on Thursday night he’s going to repeat it.[2]

Neither Jesus nor David says, I’m entitled to fight back against my enemies. Both say, the way to fight back is to take your impossible situation vertical. There are differences between the perspectives of Jesus and David, to be sure. They don’t say exactly the same thing. But their prayers come from exactly the same place – a deep belief in God as good and just, and a determination to keep trusting him.

You and I live in such an interconnected world where we find more reasons to be frustrated with the world as it is than any generation that preceded us. We know more about people suffering from hunger or war around the world. We know more about police brutality and income inequality. We know more about Russia trying to meddle in our affairs and what to do about it. What in the world can I do about a world where so many problems are so deep?

I can pray.

Persecution today

Fast forward from the Upper Room to 2017. When Jesus told the disciples they would be hated and persecuted because they belong to him, he was speaking not only to the eleven men in that room but to you and me and a billion-plus others in today’s world who claim him as Savior and Lord.

75% of Christians around the world today live in places where one or more of the following is true: (1) It’s not legal or safe to be a Christian; (2) It’s not legal to change your religion – from something else to Christian or vice versa; (3) Being identified as a Christian may lose you your job or your family. I’m wearing a t-shirt Bill Burnham gave me with “I am N” on it.  The “N” is in Arabic, and it’s what ISIS spray painted on the homes of Christians in towns and cities they took over. It identified that home as the home of a Christian family who was given the choice to convert (to Islam), leave, or die. This shirt could get me killed in many places in the Middle East.

Open Doors is one of the organizations that researches and publicizes the issue of persecution around the world. They rank the top 50 countries in the world where Christians are “hated without cause.” You probably know some of them – North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Sudan are all in the top ten. You may think that the big problem is ISIS, and it’s true that Islamic extremism is one of the big problems. But they target not only Christians. They also target Muslims who are not with them. Further, many Christians are persecuted by other Christians, by secular governments, because of ethnic or economic reasons, and more. Sometimes it’s even organized crime.

There’s one country rising fast on the top 50 list I bet you hadn’t thought of as a place where persecution of Christians is increasing: India. 85% of the people are Hindu, with both Christians and Muslims making up a small minority. The country used to be more open and tolerant under the Congress Party of Gandhi, but in 2014 the party known as BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) took control, and they want to strengthen nationalist feelings and Hindu faith. In 2015, 9000 NGOs (non-governmental organizations) were decommissioned. Many were Christian, including Compassion International, which sponsored 148,000 children. These children are now at far greater risk for human trafficking, including sex trafficking. Hindu activists are also increasing pressure against conversion from Hinduism to Christianity (not the other way around), with the government looking the other way while Christians are being murdered and raped and churches are being burned.

So what about America? Do we face persecution? An organization called International Christian Concern has recently added America on its religious freedom “Hall of Shame” for the first time because of “constant attacks on the media” and assaults in the court system. The most recent issue of Christianity Today has an interesting discussion column on whether the U.S. should be on such a list. If we face persecution, it’s certainly nothing like India or Syria or North Korea.

However, there’s another problem, what D. A. Carson called “the intolerance of tolerance.” He’s written a great book about it, and lectured on college campuses. One recent example is that Tim Keller, whose name you often hear from the pastors at Corinth, was recently invited to Princeton Theological Seminary to receive the Kuyper Award for excellence in Reformed theology. He reaches many people of all backgrounds in New York City, but because his denomination only ordains straight males, the backlash caused Princeton to withdraw the award.

What to do

So what do we do about persecution around the world – or here at home?

Learn. Don’t do the ostrich thing. Open your eyes and your heart. Why should our brothers and sisters suffer in isolation? Open Doors offers a curriculum that focuses on awareness, perspective, and response. Maybe your small group or Sunday School class would like to use it.

Think. Sometimes persecution is not “without cause.” When I feel opposition, I need to ask whether in some way my unchristian attitude has contributed to it. I have become so aware that much of the world’s hatred of us is because we hated them first. That doesn’t change the injustice of their hatred, but at least it gives me deeper empathy.

Pray. I said it before, but it’s worth repeating in the summary: prayer is not doing nothing. Revelation repeatedly reminds us that the prayers of God’s people throughout the ages are fulfilled in the unfolding of God’s justice at the end of the age.[3] Prayer keeps us holding on to what is real and true, and it also ushers in God’s kingdom.

Love. Let the world see love among us. That’s what Jesus says to his disciples just before this teaching on persecution (John 15:12-17). That love in the body is what strengthens us to love outside our community, to go to the world even at great cost and risk. Isn’t that dangerous? Yes.

But faith is not something that keeps us safe. Amen.

[1] John 2:17; Romans 15:3;  Matthew 27:34; John 19:29; Romans 11:9-10; Acts 1:20.

[2] John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24.

[3] Revelation 5:8; 6:10-11; 8:3-4.

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