“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Ayman Nabil Labib was a Coptic Christian. “Like many Coptic Christians in Egypt, Ayman Nabil Labib had a tattoo of the cross on his wrist. And like 17-year-old men everywhere, he could be assertive about his identity. But in 2011, after Egypt’s revolution, that kind of assertiveness could mean trouble.
Ayman’s Arabic-language teacher told him to cover his tattoo in class. Instead of complying, the young man defiantly pulled out the cross that hung around his neck, making it visible. His teacher flew into a rage and began choking him, goading the young man’s Muslim classmates by saying, “What are you going to do with him?”
Ayman’s suffering is not an isolated case in Egypt or the region.
The Arab Spring, and to a lesser extent the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, were touted as the catalysts for a major historic shift in the region. From Egypt to Syria to Iraq, the Middle East’s dictatorships would be succeeded by liberal, democratic regimes. Years later, however, there is very little liberality or democracy to show. Indeed, what these upheavals have bequeathed to history is a baleful, and barely noticed legacy: The near-annihilation of the world’s most ancient communities of Christians.
The persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East, as well as the silence with which it has been met in the West, are a chilling litany of horrors: Discriminatory laws, mass graves, unofficial pogroms, and exile. The persecuted are not just Coptic and Nestorian Christians who have relatively few co-communicants in the West, but Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants as well.”1
Throughout the Middle East the pattern is the same. Christians are murdered in mob violence or by militant groups. Their churches are bombed, their shops destroyed, and their homes looted. Laws are passed making them second-class citizens, and the majority of them eventually leave.
We are shielded in our culture from the harsh possibility of actually dying for Christ’s sake. It is, however, a very real possibility for Iraqi, Turkish, Indian, and African Christians as it has been for countless numbers of Christians ever since the beginnings of the church. But, here’s a hard fact I find difficult to grasp that is that more Christians have died for the sake of the Gospel in the last hundred years than in all previous centuries combined: Armenians, Russians, a growing percentage of Middle Eastern Christians, and at this very moment, the Christians of Zimbabwe and Iraq, to give only a few examples. These have accepted the challenge to die for their Lord, never denying their faith or the love of the God who has loved them.
So where does this leave us who are the wealthiest human beings, not just in the world today but in the entire history of the planet, citizens of a nation that has lost no more than two million people in all of its wars. To put that sad number in some perspective, Russia lost more than 25 million civilians alone in World War II; so where does this leave us who are participants in a society in which nursing homes, hospitals, and the media shield us from facing the ravages of death to the extent that our forbears did for thousands of years? I don’t think we should beat ourselves up for being so privileged, but we need to ask ourselves seriously if there are ways of living for Christ that can carry the same weight as dying for him. The saints sometimes give us examples of this kind of life in Christ: Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Dag Hammarskjöld, Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu. But how can we live a life that even hints of equivalency to these?
We can begin by facing honestly the times we have denied our Lord by word or deed and refused to share the Gospel, refused to speak up or to act in ways that say something about him. Maybe it has even happened here, in this setting, in this place. What about while on vacation or at home when we’re with members of our family or old friends? Do we speak up about injustice or do we just shrug it off as too pervasive to deal with? Do we let words of prejudice slide by us, giving approval by our silence? We don’t need to burst into flame like Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the temple, although this might work sometimes; but we do need to speak the truth in love to those closest to us, not seeking to inflate our egos by proving “you’re wrong, I’m right” but instead speaking courageously and lovingly, letting our words or actions speak for themselves, trusting that they will reflect the Word made flesh and bring him to dwell in the moment or the situation.
Death in Christ for us will primarily be putting our false self to death, letting the seeds of our selfishness and pride fall into the earth and die, and trusting that God, in mercy, will bring forth the fruit of the Holy Spirit within us and through us. Paul lists those fruits in his letter to the Galatians – those fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, tolerance, and self-control. To these we might add faith, hope, justice and respect for the dignity of every human being.
Jesus said, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” The kingdom of God turns this world’s values upside down. Look, for example, at St. Francis, who sought poverty instead of wealth; who welcomed a share in Christ’s passion; who with love, joy and peace reached out to praise God both through and in all creation. And all of this sprang from an overwhelming love for Jesus. The world’s values of wealth, conspicuous consumption, competitiveness, and ambition meant nothing to Francis.
We’ve already said that to follow Christ means taking up our cross and following him by putting to death our pride and false self when it interferes with our bringing the presence of Christ to others. It is when we do this repeatedly and live in obedience to the teachings of Jesus that there forms within us, in the context of our lives over an extended period of time, a dwelling place for God. If we are faithful, we slowly begin consistently to bear God in our words and deeds. Like Mary who was given the title “Theotokos” or “God-bearer” by the fathers of the fourth ecumenical council (BCP p.864), we too become in reality – not in fantasy or the fiction of overweening sanctimoniousness – we, too, in some way begin to carry God within us.
And what does God do when this happens? “Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” How does the Father honor us? Jesus gives us a clue in the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” I doubt seriously that this has anything to do with actual real estate. God the Father, who through Christ has created all things, begins to create us anew – that’s otherwise known as redemption. The Father honors us by giving us a dwelling place in the Body of Christ. As Paul lays out so beautifully in his passages about the Body of Christ and the ministries to be found in it, we are each called, and if we respond, we are shaped and formed, transfigured and recreated, to become all that God created us to become, a unique way of being like Christ our Savior and Lord.
When the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it bears much fruit for the building up of the Body of Christ, for the shedding abroad of God’s love in the world, and for giving us a dwelling place in God here and now. A dwelling place in God here and now is where we find blessedness in this life. Who knows what blessings we shall receive later on when we enter God’s nearer presence? What we can trust is that we can begin to experience those blessings now.
The beatitudes make this clearer. They are surely one of the best examples we have of the kingdom’s eschatological dimension; its way of being “already, but not yet.” Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who need God the most and know it, for they humble themselves and cry out to God for help much more easily than those who are self-satisfied. They are better prepared to leave behind the values of this world and conform to the values of the kingdom. They are blessed because they can more readily cast all their cares upon our Lord and know that he cares for them; and so they come to trust God, to grow spiritually and to spread the reality of the kingdom where they journey in this world. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And so, too, it goes for those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. All are blessed and live in blessedness because they are permanently and unashamedly aware of their need for God. They open their hearts to him and dwell in his heart. They repent and welcome the values of the kingdom. They are able to put a foot through heaven’s front door.
Let us determine to accept Jesus’ challenge to follow him, to let the seed of our false self fall into the earth and die, regardless of the cost, so that much fruit can be born for our own redemption and the redemption of those around us. It was the nineteenth century Russian St. Seraphim of Sarov who said, “Have peace in your heart and thousands around you will be saved.” Thus we will keep our life for eternity and know God’s blessing both now and in the age to come, for nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.