So, let’s say for a moment we’ve managed to engage with God in such a way that we begin to live out what we hear in the Beatitudes. Through the grace of God, we embrace poverty of spirit. Our mournfulness over sin includes the brokenness we see around us every day; we meekly humble ourselves before God, which gives us perspective.
We hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness like starving, waterless people in the desert. A purity of heart grows in us, thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit. Peacemaking becomes our primary occupation, regardless of how we earn a living.
Despite the joy we would experience in connecting so closely to God, we must understand that none of this is the path to what the world would call the good life. If we become the kingdom citizens described in the Beatitudes, we no longer are citizens of this temporal world. We will be in conflict with the world, and we will at times be reviled for standing with God.
Early Christians discovered quickly that Jesus accurately used “when” and not “if” while talking about being persecuted for following him. It was hard to be a Christian; you had to give up a lot in this world.
At work, you constantly encountered situations where you might be in or near buildings involving emperor worship or worship of the Roman gods. Rigid adherence to the idea that Jesus Christ is Lord, not Caesar or some idol, could keep you from earning a living.
Friends tended to socialize at banquets, which usually were dedicated to particular gods. Even the meat served at these banquets usually came from sacrificial offerings to pagan gods. What was a Christian to do?
And unless you were blessed to be born into a Christian family, your newfound beliefs could even divide you from your parents, siblings or spouse.
There also was the constant slander a Christian had to face. Ugly rumors were spread about this new religion. Because of the references to the body and blood of Christ during communion, people on the streets began to say Christians were cannibals. Christians also were seen as sexually immoral because their gatherings were called love feasts and they greeted each other with a kiss.
As bad as all that was for a Christian, the real problem was political. Even before Jesus came, the Roman Empire had devised a loyalty test for its subjects. Once a year, citizens were expected to burn a pinch of incense in a temple dedicated to the “Spirit of Roma” and, later, the emperor, who had taken on the role of a god. Those who refused to do so were considered rebellious, a danger to society, and of course Christians regularly refused, knowing they could not declare any human or made-up god to be Lord over Jesus Christ.
Most of us have heard how some Christians even experienced martyrdom, choosing to die in often grisly ways rather than denying Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. A good example is the martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna and a one-time disciple of the Apostle John.
How could people suffer so and persevere in their faith, even dying for Christ? Well, the answer is pretty simple. They had spent significant time living for Christ.
Let’s also not forget the promised reward. Not only do those persecuted and reviled for Jesus get to go to heaven, their reward is great in heaven. True faith in an abundant afterlife has sustained persecuted Christians for centuries.
I cannot predict whether anyone reading this will ever face such trying circumstances. We are already blessed in that such events rarely occur in the developed world, where freedom of religion is usually respected to at least some degree. But at the same time, circumstances can change very quickly. Just ask our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq or Syria, assuming you can find some who have not had to flee.
How would any of us face such a challenge? Well, I hope. We would stand with Christ regardless of the circumstances, I pray.
I am sure of this. The true answer lies in how firmly we live with Christ today, tomorrow, and every day of our lives leading to such a moment.