Thursday, January 31, 2013

When Our Faith is Unpopular

In a scene in a recent, major motion picture, a presidential candidate, during a debate, is asked about his religion.  He says, “I'm not a Christian. I'm not an Atheist. I'm not Jewish. I'm not Muslim. My religion, what I believe in is called the Constitution of United States of America.”  That happened in a movie, not real life.  But it illustrates a key fact about our culture.  This nation was founded on the concept of religious freedom; that is, the freedom to worship any god we choose in whatever way we choose, or the freedom to worship no god at all.  But from its founding, our national culture has tended to strongly favor Christianity.  And the reason should be obvious; since the founding of this nation, Christians have comprised the vast majority of this country.  Many here can probably remember a time when it made good business sense to be involved in a local church.  In fact, some banks would ask a person who applied for a loan, “Are you a member of a church?”  When my parents were growing up, their school—a public school—cancelled classes the day the movie “Ben Hur” was released.  This was done because Ben Hur was a movie in which the story of Jesus played a major part, and it was assumed that for kids to able to see the film with their parents was more beneficial than a day of education.  To this day, most government meetings, from County Commissioners’ Court to the US Congress, begin with prayer, and it is almost always a Christian prayer. When a president takes office, he places his hand on a Bible to be sworn in.  The line of dialogue from the movie I mentioned highlights the fact that no one has ever been elected President of this nation who didn’t at least put on a show of orthodox Christianity.
            In short, we Christians are used to having things our way in this country.  So we often forget how unusual that is in this world.  After all, our movement began with the unjust execution of our founder.  Most of His original disciples were martyred for their faith, and there is a long line of names to add to that list of Christian martyrs.  Today, in places like Iran and much of the Middle East, as well as China and North Korea, following Jesus can be a death sentence.  We as Americans have never faced that sort of persecution for our faith, and given the tolerant nature of our culture, we probably never will.  But it’s easy to see that Christianity’s favored status within our culture is fading.  Again, it’s pure mathematics.  The fastest growing religious group in our country today is those who have no religious affiliation.  Many of those people—often referred to as the “nones”—come from a Christian background and continue to believe in Christ, pray and try to live out their faith.  But an increasing number see religion as the problem, not the solution.  Spend some time around irreligious people and solicit their thoughts on the institutional Church.  Whenever there is an article online about a religious topic, take the time to read the comments below.  What you read will be enlightening, to say the least.  Ask some of our high school or college students about some of the comments they get from kids who find out they attend church.  In the eyes of an increasing number of our fellow Americans, we are the bad guys.  I’m not here to talk about better PR for Christianity, because that’s not important.  And I’m not here to talk about fighting to maintain our freedom of religion, even though that IS very important.  The question I want to consider this Sunday is this: How can we effectively represent Christ among people who disrespect our faith?  Because—I’ll just say it bluntly—if you don’t know anyone who has negative feelings about the Church, you need to get out more.  They are all around us.  They aren’t going away.  Jesus loves them.  What can we do?            
            I think our starting point is to look at how Jesus and His disciples responded to far worse treatment.  Peter is a great example: Here’s a man who was beaten by the ruling council of his own people, then commanded not to preach any more in the name of Jesus.  Later, he was arrested and sentenced to execution, only to be rescued by an angel in the middle of the night.  Ultimately, according to church tradition, he was crucified upside down in the vast persecution of Christians under Nero following the burning of Rome.  He wrote to fellow believers who were surprised at how poorly they were being treated by their non-Christian neighbors.  In 1 Peter 4:12-19, he gives them--and us--instructions on how to respond when under pressure.  We'll take a close look at three instructions from this passage this Sunday.   

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