Monday, August 25, 2014

The Gates of Hades: Thoughts on the Persecution and Martyrdom of 21st Century Christians

Gospel MT 16:13-20

Jesus asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 
Simon Peter said in reply,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. 
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. 
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. 
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. 
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 
Then he strictly ordered his disciples
to tell no one that he was the Christ.

Background…Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, where we have the confession of Christ. Interesting who the people that are referenced by the disciples. "Who do people say I am?" What do the disciples say? "John the Baptist, Jeremiah, one of the prophets." Clearly not some kindly Norwegian guy in a powder-blue sash or something. Kindly Norwegian guys don’t get crucified. But they are in Caesarea Philippi, as close to Mordor as these young disciples have ever been.

This city was the world center of worship to the goat god, Pan. People came from all over the world to worship Pan. There is a solid rock cliff with a giant crack in it that the followers of Pan believed that the spirits from Hell would come and go from the earth. The crack was called the Gates of Hell. They built a temple for Pan there and then a court next to it where people would engage with sexual acts with goats during the Pan worship festivals.

And Jesus takes his disciples there! As good Jewish boys, they never would have gone to this place before. It is 26 miles from Galilee, where Jesus and his disciples are from, but it is a different world away. He takes these Jewish hobbits to the brink of Mordor's evil, to show them that this is the kind of world they will have to deal with. Can the gospel reach even these people?

He tells them at Caesarea Philippi that upon this rock—and that rock is Peter—if you think otherwise, study it out, or talk to me afterwards—he is going to build his church, and the Gates of Hell--the very wickedness of Mordor itself--won't be able to stop it.

He doesn't say, “We’re always going to win”, that success and happiness are always going to be there. He says there are going to be difficult times, there are going to be setbacks, there is going to be opposition, and that opposition is going to turn into persecution, and that persecution may turn to martyrdom, but you will not be overcome. Be faithful unto death, and you will receive the crown of life.

We are in a time of great testing in the Church, and many of us do not even realize it.

The 20th century church lost more martyrs for the Christian faith than in all the centuries previous, and it looks like the 21st century is going to be brutal, too.

100 MILLION CHRISTIANS IN OVER 60 COUNTRIES ARE PERSECUTED FOR THEIR FAITH.

Living in a country which borders Syria, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Christians in Iraq have faced particularly severe persecution, and their numbers have dwindled as a result of the war. Many Christians have fled the country and those staying have endured the destruction of churches and convents, torture, bombings, death threats, assassinations, kidnappings, murders, and extortion.

No non-Muslim may suggest that a Muslim change his or her religion, and conversion from Islam is punishable by death. The very heart of the Christian communities in Mesopotamia—biblical cities in both Old and New Testament like Aleppo, Damascus, Nineveh—they are gone! The caliphate has made clear its attitude towards the Christians: they are "crusaders," and therefore Islam's number one enemy. In Mosul and other towns with substantial Christian communities, the Islamic State quickly laid down its policy towards these beleaguered people; convert to Islam, pay the jizya tax or be put to death. Initially, they are also being allowed to flee with no more than the clothes on their backs.

Most movements that commit large-scale massacres typically keep their blood-soaked deeds secretive. With the Islamic State, the opposite is the case. The caliphate has placed on the Internet a score or more of videos displaying with boastful pride the mass shootings and beheadings of Shiites in Iraq and Alawite Christians in Syria. The first genocide of the twenty-first century approaches, yet the world displays profound indifference. As we all bear witness to another mass extermination in human history, it is a scathing reminder that the capacity of the human race to forget the lessons of the past remains daunting.

Pope Francis is calling for world governments to take measures to protect Christians driven from their villages in northern Iraq and provide them with humanitarian aid. The Pope's second appeal in as many weeks came Thursday as Iraqi militants from the Islamic State group overran a cluster of predominantly Christian villages alongside the country's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, sending tens of thousands of civilians and Kurdish fighters fleeing. In a statement, Francis appealed to the international community to "put an end to the humanitarian drama underway, adopt measures to protect those who are threatened by violence and assure them necessary aid, especially urgent for those who are homeless and depend on the solidarity of others."

A Christian Holocaust is in our midst. We are actually calling this a Christian genocide… Day by day, it is getting worse and worse. More children are being beheaded. Mothers are being raped and killed. Fathers are being hung. Right now, 300,000 Christians are fleeing Iraq and living in neighboring countries. The mainstream media does not tell this story. We get all riled up with phony outrage about Catholics not helping Jews enough in the Holocaust in WW II, but where is the alarm when religious cleansing is going on in our world? These are our brothers and sisters! And our leaders are out golfing? When they are slicing the throats of our citizens?

Consider the atrocities earlier committed in Ma’loula, Syria, an ancient Christian village where the inhabitants still spoke Aramaic, the language of Christ.

According to recent Arabic news media, “a Syrian nun testified to the Vatican news agency that some Christians in Ma’loula were crucified for refusing to convert to Islam or pay jizya” Sister Raghad, the former head of the Patriarchate School in Damascus who currently resides in France, told Vatican Radio how she personally witnessed jihadi rebels terrorize Ma’loula, including by pressuring Christians to proclaim the shehada-Islam’s credo that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger-which, when uttered before Muslim witnesses transforms the speaker into a Muslim, with the death penalty for apostasy should the convert later “renege” by returning to Christianity.

According to the nun, those Christians who refused to embrace Islam were killed in atrocious and violent ways that cannot be described. If you want examples, they crucified two youths in Ma’loula for refusing to proclaim Islam’s credo, saying to them: “Perhaps you want to die like your teacher [Christ] whom you believe in? You have two choices: either proclaim the shehada or else be crucified. One of them was crucified before his father, whom they also killed.”

It is, of course, a documented fact that some Christians in Ma’loula were put to death for refusing to convert to Islam, such as Minas, an Armenian man.

These were declared martyrs by the Syrian Greek-Catholic Church, or as Patriarch Gregorios III explained to Pope Francis in a meeting: “Holy Father, they are true martyrs. Ordered to give up their faith, they proudly refused. For his part, and according to a May 3rd Arabic report, Pope Francis recently said, “I wept when I saw reports saying that Christians were being crucified in some non-Christian countries.”

This is our faith. This is our church. These are in our church. They are our brothers and sisters. This does not minimize those other minorities who are being persecuted and killed.

But this must end.

And this must end now.

“Oh, but we’re weary of war.”
“Oh, but I want some narrative of my presidency that I was a peace lover, and we all got along.”

Well we don’t have that luxury in the face of ethnic cleansing, and if it were not Christian ethnic cleansing, let’s say it—Catholic ethnic cleansing—we would be doing something about it. Where are our elected officials in the face of this massacre? They are on vacation! And where are we? We are whining about the economy, whining about regulations, whining about Obamacare, whining about how people who want to have abortions don’t like us. That’s the way it is, folks! In this world you will have trouble. We need to stop whining, and start making a difference.

What would happen if each of us wrote or called our elected officials and said "this holocaust must end!"

Read Romans 12, read your just war theory from Augustine to Aquinas, read the Catechism—yes, you won’t get this stuff and the neighborhood feel-good places of worship—and realize that there is honor in protecting the defenseless, that there is justice in rescuing the helpless and the innocent. There is a just way to protect these innocents.

And this will get worse—at home and abroad.

12 Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 13 But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 2 Timothy 3:12–13 (NASB95)
That’s why the typical American prosperity gospel is so repugnant…name it and claim it, God wants you to be happy, perky, and eternally young and healthy….what a load of skatos (that’s the Greek word for the day--and St. Paul used it in exactly the same context). From bad to worse. The state of American Christianity today is bleak, weak, foolish. Some guy in Texas with some sweet bleach blonde wifey talking about how Jesus wants to make you rich. And our brothers are dying! I guess they need to just have a little more faith, doggone it, and smile!

In  few weeks, we will be taking an offering for the church in Iraq, those brothers and sisters of ours who are displaces, who are refugees from the violence, who have suffered the loss of their homes and their livelihood, all because of their faith. I urge you to pray about these brothers and sisters, and to give generously when we have that 2nd collection.

We love the gospels, and the promises of peace that Jesus gives—peace I leave you, my peace I give you...but in this world you will have trouble, but take heart—I have overcome the world.

But our world is becoming more and more like the world of the ancients, like our brothers and sisters in the first and second generations, who faced opposition and persecution and even death. I read of a pastor in a refugee area in northern Iraqi Kurdistan with is running 12 refugee camps to feed and clothe and protect these people—and like here in Colorado, it’s starting to get cold at night. For him, he shared about how the world is becoming like the scriptures, particularly the first few chapters of the book of Revelation, written not to predict some war in Israel or some rapture in the 21st century, but to encourage those saints “about what must soon take place.” In the midst of the persecution of the roman Empire, they were given strength to be faithful—even to the point of death. And for them, the letters in the Book of Revelation, the letters to the 7 churches, are indeed becoming true all over again. And some of these cities are very near to the events that we are reading about today. 


But while there is difficulty, there is faith. And where there is suffering, there is witness. And where there is beating and crucifixion and death, there is redemption, faithfulness, and a powerful message of love.

I’ll close with a few words that the exiled John wrote in the Revelation, from the isle of Patmos, not too far from the northern highlands of Iraqi Kurdistan:

8
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: 9 ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), 10 ‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.’ (Revelation 2:8-11)

12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: The One who has the sharp two-edged sword says this: 13 ‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. (Revelation 2:12-13)

24
‘But I say to you, the rest who are in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not known the deep things of Satan, as they call them—I place no other burden on you. 25 ‘Nevertheless what you have, hold fast until I come. 29 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (Revelation 2:24-29)


4
‘But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. 5 ‘He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. 6 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (Revelation 3:4-6)

Deacon Rick Bauer, Out Lady of the Pines Catholic Church
Black Forest, Colorado
(references compiled from Internet news sources)