Matthew 5:11-12 (New International Version)
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
These verses can be a little difficult for us to swallow. We should be not just happy, but rejoice and be glad when we’re being mocked, slandered, and injured for our faith? “Hurray! I’m so happy that you’ve caused me pain in this way! Thanks a bunch!” Really? We’re hard-wired to fight back or to run away. Celebrating the pain is not in our instinctive nature.
Jesus knew that his early followers would experience terrible persecution. In the first few centuries of the church, believers were regularly arrested, tortured, and killed in creatively evil ways. Very few Christians I know personally have experienced this kind of persecution: being physically injured by violent opponents of the faith. But it is important to remember that there are still many areas in our world where it is not just challenging to live as a Christian. It is a life-threatening proposition. Most of us reading this message today will not face persecution at that perilous level. We can pray for those who do, and we can seek ways to bring God’s loving justice to our world.
But persecution also includes a more subtle intolerance. Merriam-Webster defines persecution as “to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict.” We all face choices every day: decisions that can take us closer to God, or pull us farther away. And these choices are not always easy to make. What financial consequences will you face if you refuse to be dishonest in a business culture where corrupt dealings are considered normal and de rigueur? How will you react when a good friend tells you of the adulterous relations she is enjoying? What will you do when you talk about your faith, only to have your beliefs openly mocked by people you thought you could trust?
Jesus knew well that life here on earth may be difficult, even dangerous. Keeping faith in the midst of persecution can be daunting. And maintaining forward momentum when we are tired and worn down– that can seem almost impossible. So Jesus reminds us that this life is temporary, and that, even if everything else falls apart around us, we can look forward to spending eternity with the God who loves us.
In his chapter on this beatitude, J. Ellsworth Kalas writes this: “Here is the ultimate declaration of justice. Not all accounts are settled on this earth… Christians are people with the long view, what might be called the faith perspective. We do what we believe is right… because we believe it is right.”
When have you struggled to do what you believed was right because you were afraid of what other people might say or do?