Blessings of the Persecuted (Matthew 5)
- Order of Service: Divine Service 1
- Hymns: LSB #932, 677, 601, 673, 676, 624, 725
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)
The Church is the victorious persecuted family of God. Although you suffer persecution in this life, you are to “rejoice and be glad.” You're not the first Christians to suffer persecution. In fact, many Christians throughout the centuries would consider our persecution rather tame. You get to come to this building. A building with signs out front. Saying what goes on here. You're not forced to meet in secret. You're not forced to hide. You're not worried about being arrested. Your persecution may be tame, but it is still persecution. You still need strength to endure being reviled and persecuted so “we may come to the unspeakable joys.”
So what does it mean to be reviled? The word can also be translated “defamed,” “slandered,” “railed at”, “taunted,” “berated” and “reproached.” We don't want to be reviled. However, our faith makes that want an impossible desire. Your Baptismal vows make it impossible. You have renounced the devil, the world and your sinful nature. And these sinful desires revile you because you are at war.
What is the opposite of being reviled? Being accepted, praised, encouraged. Having your praises sung as many in the world today sing the praises of the LGBTQ community. Just this week, the White House welcomed and celebrated the U.S. Women's World Cup soccer team. During his speech, President Obama pointed out “how far we've come both on and off the field as [Amy Wombach] shared a celebratory kiss with her wife.” When the world starts singing your praises, you haven't been singing God's praises. Paul reminds you, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Jesus doesn't send Christians out to win popularity contests. Jesus sends you out to be reviled.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Who were these reviled prophets? The children of Israel reviled Moses. Ahab and Jezebel put a bounty on Elijah's head. The established priesthood slandered Jeremiah at every turn. Every Christian has been reviled at some level. Sometimes, if not many times, it's done without our knowledge. Sometimes it's done right to our face. But Jesus calls you to rejoice. You're in good company.
Jesus was reviled. Look at Him on the cross. Even the thieves on His left and right railed at Him at the beginning. Then the Apostle Paul had to defend himself from attacks in his absence. And it continues today. Christians who actually believe what is written in this book are constantly reviled by the world. This is the Great Tribulation which John sees in Revelation. The host arrayed in white who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. They were reviled. But they are also victorious. The Church is the victorious persecuted family of God.
What does it mean to be persecuted? Held down. Oppressed. Shouted down. What is the opposite of persecution? Again, the opposite of persecution is praise. Persecution has typically sought to destroy what is being persecuted. Whether it seeks the martyrdom of those who believe otherwise. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
St. Stephen was stoned to death. Every one of the Apostles except John the Evangelist suffered martyrdom. St. Polycarp was the second-century bishop of Smyrna. He was sentence to be burned alive at age 86. Justin Martyr was beheaded for his unapologetic defense of the Christian faith. While his writings have survived, his death is why he is remembered. St. Lawrence was a fourth-century deacon in Rome. The Roman prefect, seeking money, demanded that Lawrence turn over the treasures of the Church. Lawrence gathered together the poor, the widows and the orphan. He presented these to the prefect as “the treasures of the Church.” Enraged, the prefect ordered Lawrence to be burned alive on a gridiron. According to tradition, in the midst of his torture, he cried out, “I'm done on this side. Turn me over!”
The blood of these martyrs, as well as the blood of many, many others, built up the Church. And they are still recognized and revered today.
Why are they still recognized today? They are the proof of Jesus' words: “Your reward is great in Heaven.” Part of the great reward is remembrance. The Church on earth remembers the Church in Heaven. And we remember her every time we come around this altar. We encircle the altar “together with angels and archangels, and with all the company of Heaven.” And the company of Heaven shouts, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” They understand salvation because they have come out of the Great Tribulation. “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” They surround God's throne, resting from their labors, celebrating the marriage feast of the Lamb.
And this is the picture of the Church. The people of God partaking of Jesus' body and blood. Herman Sasse wrote, “And yet no one has understood more profoundly than Luther-- and the Lutheran Church should honorably hold on to this knowledge as a holy legacy-- how inseparably the Holy Supper and the church of Christ belong together and how necessary therefore the correct understanding of the Sacrament of the Altar is for understanding the church. Only in the context of the Supper can we understand the heated struggle of our Reformer and the struggle of the old Evangelical Lutheran Church to maintain the correct understanding of the biblical Supper. And perhaps the understanding of this indissoluble connection between church and Lord's Supper will open anew to our generation access to the truths of the Bible and the Reformation, which have been lost to modern Protestant Christianity.
Every celebration of the Supper ought to remind us that Jesus Christ in the time between His earthly days and the revelation of His glory at His 'return' is not distant from us, that he even now exercises His glory 'hidden under the cross' through the means of Word and Sacrament in His Church, that the present Christ is the greatest power and the most important face of world history in our day. We should know this as we ponder the future of the Church. The presence of Christ is the life of the Church. The future of the Church is the future of the Lord.”
Sasse wrote this in 1938. And we as Lutherans still don't get it. It's in the confessional documents our congregation has vowed to follow, but how many take them to heart? They're just relics from the past, right? Sasse's words from almost eighty years ago are still relevant today. We're still fighting the same battles. The faces change. But the battles remain. The future of the Church comes when Christ is present in her midst in His Word and Sacraments. Especially with His body and blood.
The future of the Church is the same as the past. The Church standing up for God's truth. Forsaking worldly fame and popularity. Facing persecution and reviling. Strengthened by her Lord to “rejoice and be glad … for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” Blessed are you. Yours is the kingdom of Heaven. Amen.