Reading: Acts 8:1-25
Last week, we talked about persecution. I know it is something we are thinking about these days when we see shootings in the news on a weekly basis, and the world is still shocked at the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka where the churches are still closed; one thing that stands out to me is that there is a number of ways that people can be persecuted. One thing I see when I read Acts is that when a government decides to persecute, it can be severe, or it can be quite mild.
Last week, we read from Acts 4, where the disciples were arrested for preaching Christ’s Resurrection, and they were ordered not to speak that name or mention the Resurrection again. The disciples refused, but were released anyways. The authorities had a meeting where they discussed how to address this situation and they took a pragmatic approach: They recognized that harsh persecution would be unpopular and would accomplish little, so they let the disciples go with threats they were not willing to carry out.
In Acts 8, the situation is different. Our Sunday school reading starts as soon as Stephen was executed by stoning; this scene introduces Saul to us, telling us that he approved of this execution — and it continues by telling us that this was the start of a great persecution. In this great persecution, Saul did more than approve, he had an active role. When the persecution picked up in Judea, the small Christian community responded by fleeing to neighboring provinces such as Samaria, Syria, Egypt, and others. The persecution at this point was such that they would not allow refugees to flee to safety, Saul would force their extradition and they would be executed in Jerusalem.
One thing that stands out when I read Acts is that it took a great persecution before going out to Samaria, let alone the ends of the Earth, was mentioned. One of the last commands Jesus gave to his disciples is that they go into the world, not only to Jerusalem and Judea, but also to Samaria and to the ends of the world. A night in jail and a flogging was not enough to get the early church to do what they were called to do — it took severe persecution to drive them out of Jerusalem and into the world.
Another thing that stands out is that Acts 8:4 tells us that those scattered preached the Word wherever they went. The passage immediately tells of Philip preaching in Samaria, and the following chapter, which talks about Saul’s conversion, has him going up to Syria to extradite those refugee Christians who went there to escape death; without this persecution, there is no reason to believe that there would have been a strong Christian community in Antioch — which is where Christians were first called Christians.
One of the major things we learn from the first few chapters of Acts, and again from history, is that Christianity has nothing to fear from persecution. Mild persecution did not silence the apostles, but they were willing to face sleeping in prison or even being flogged. Major persecution where Christians were killed and there were raids on personal homes led to Christianity spreading geographically, and in number. When Rome took up persecuting Christians, Christianity continued to grow, and would grow to become the dominant and favored religion in the Roman Empire.
Even in modern times we see the same thing — the most obvious example would be the Soviet Union, which persecuted Christians through torture, seizing church property, treating faith as a mental illness, and an attempt to make sure that faith wasn’t transferred to the next generation. In the first five years of the Soviet union, over 1200 clergy were executed. In spite of this deliberate persecution, which continued for decades, and in spite of the fact that there was only one political party in Soviet Russia, there never was a time when there were more Communists than Christians. The Soviet Union may have been aggressively secular, but the Russian people remained largely Christian.
When we remember our history, we should have faith. Christianity it too strong for any power to break. We survived persecution when we were just a handful of people, and we survived the negative attention of the most powerful empire in the world. In the modern era, the Soviet Union is gone, but Christianity is still there.
I have some pastor friends who tell me that we need to feel some actual, as opposed to imaginary, persecution so that we can grow, noticing that persecution has never done anything but strengthen the church. Under persecution, our communities have grown stronger, and the message of the gospel has been clearer than ever. It is good news that the worst our enemies can do is nothing compared to the power and the promise of Resurrection.
Unfortunately, I’ve been speaking with Christian friends, listening to what people say, and I see that too many Western Christians claim to have faith, but their words are filled with fear. Too many look for a savior other than Jesus — somebody who can protect us, or give us more influence. Too many of us have forgotten the good news that we look forward to the Resurrection. Too many of us forget that God is all powerful and act as if God is powerless.
There is no power on Earth that can break our faith in Jesus Christ. There is no hostile power that can stop the gospel from being heard, nor stop the spirit from bringing people to Christ. We are salt and light — and, scripture teaches us that not even Hell’s gates can stand up to the church. If we have any sense, we’d realize that Hell’s gates are not attacking us — gates don’t attack, they are a defensive measure. If we see ourselves slowly losing ground and hopeless, we are not seeing the world correcting. If we are on God’s side, those with us are greater than those who are against us.
The good news to the persecuted church was simple — Christ is risen, and if we go where Christ goes, so will we. Peter and Andrew’s path following Jesus took each of them to a cross. Thomas was impaled with a spear, Matthew was stabbed, and James was stoned. Not only did the disciples of Jesus die, but many of their disciples died as well. Out of the twelve, only John died of old age.
The community that formed around the gospel of Jesus Christ was full of courage, and valued walking with Jesus so much they were willing to go to their deaths. Just as Christ is greater than any worldly power, faith is more powerful than fear. The good news is that we hear the same Gospel the early Christians heard. Many of the teachings of Jesus are preserved. We know the gospel as Paul explained it to the new Christians. We have many centuries of reflection on all the ways that God saves us, and what that means in our lives. We can learn from that great cloud of witnesses that went before us — we have every advantage, and no reason to fear.
I confess that I understand why many of us are afraid. When we seek safety in things that do not endure we cannot help but feel afraid — whether it is wealth, or political power, or armies, or powerful leaders, all these things come to an end — none of them are lasting. If our faith is misplaced in something that does not deserve our faith, fear is a natural result. The good news is that we know that God will always be there — we know the right place to put our faith, and we can trust that if we walk with Jesus, Jesus will be there with us even if those things we fear come about — and He is greater than any of our fears.