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Hold On To Faith

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City Mo., on November 7, 2010.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17      

Theologian Karl Barth said Christians engage the world best with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. This week, our Bible reading from the letter to the church in Thessalonica comes in close contact with the news in Iraq that Christians in that beleaguered country have suffered since we met last week. Catholics, Baptists and other Christians in Baghdad are living in fear following an attack on a Roman Catholic Church during last Sunday’s worship. The massacre occurred when nine al-Qaida-aligned suicide bombers invaded the church there for evening Mass. When Iraqi security forces broke into the church the bombers detonated their bombs. When the attack was over, 58 were dead and nearly a hundred others were injured.[1]

Tony Peck, General Secretary for the European Baptist Federation, reported that the pastor of the Baptist church in Baghdad informed him that the “Christian community is now very fearful for its safety,” and that “some of the Baptist believers are talking about moving away from Baghdad to northern Iraq, others to Jordan and Syria.”[2] Such is a place where persons we don’t even know who speak another language and whose world of experience differs dramatically from our own, in solidarity and kinship we call our Iraqi sisters and brothers in Christ.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship with whom we partner for missions and other projects has intentionally focused on places in the world where the gospel of Jesus has not yet reached in locations around the world that have come to be known simply as, “the hard places.” There is an effort in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that has attempted to take small groups of pastors into those hard places so we can visit Baptists, nationals of those countries and CBF Field Personnel alike, to get a feel for what it means to be a Baptist Christian in those places.

To that end, four years ago I traveled with your blessing and support along with eight other pastors to Beirut Lebanon where we visited with a gathered group of Arab Baptist pastors who had come to Beirut to attend a missional church conference at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. There were Arab-speaking Baptist pastors from Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, and Iraq. My impressions of the whole lot of them were very positive. They were bright and committed. They were chatty and interesting, full of spirit and life. They had great energy to give to their ministries and like most gatherings of Baptist pastors they were very competitive with one another. [Not much changes from one culture to another among ministers we might surmise.]

The pastor of the Baptist church in Baghdad was just like that. He was young, probably in his young 30’s, of average build, and it was obvious he bore no grudge against this group of American Baptist clergy who eagerly wanted to talk with him. We’re taught to separate personal feelings about those with whom we wage war so we might demonize them in order to justify our actions meant to kill them. I found it difficult, as you might imagine, to bear down on another’s country with the vengeance of our military and not feel some guilt when brought face-to-face with a colleague in ministry who’s serving the church in that country. It’s much easier to drop bombs in a country where you don’t see them as fellow believers and share a meal together in a weeklong conference on sharing Christ with our neighbors. It’s even easier to demonize another’s faith as the sole reason for terrorism as we’ve done in this country with Muslim believers.

Reading these lines from the letter to the church in Thessalonica helps us remember we lived in a blessed time and place in the relative safety of America. This letter’s written in a time of fear and anxiety. The people were afraid and their faith was shaken. At least a partial reason the letter was written was that the fear of the people had caused them to be susceptible to erroneous teaching and to those who would willingly deceive them. So the letter opens with a prayer for the church before it addresses those other concerns.

Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God

for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions

and the afflictions that you are enduring

2 Thessalonians 1:4

In this and in other places in the Bible, they are described as, “standing firm …” What an interesting phrase to describe the spiritual strength to endure! It takes character and backbone to stand firm when under pressure. When push comes to shove, and one has no place to hide, one stands. When one must know who they are, they can stand. When one holds a truth deep in their hearts and believing means standing, one can muster the strength to endure.

“Standing firm” under the weight of the threats they were facing helps us understand more about what it meant for first century believers to take a stand for Christ. It’s too easy to get swept up in our own security and overlook our blessings and forget them, assuming they are assured and ours forever.

“Standing firm” is the ultimate commitment. Finding a new, easier way of living faith based on unsound teachings from fraudulent teachers who have found ways to make a living preaching these shallow lessons draws the weak. The strong stand firm. They stand on truth, as they know it, not needing that truth to be easy or self-serving. They stand on truth that is hard.

Jesuit Father Luis Espinal Camps was assassinated in La Paz, Bolivia, by paramilitary forces in March 1980 because of his stand in defense of the poor. Just prior to his violent death, he wrote this meditation on resurrection faith while living in the face of fear:

Now has begun the eternal “alleluia!”

There are Christians who have hysterical reactions, as if the world would have slipped out of God’s hands. They act violently as if they were risking everything.

But we believe in history; the world is not a roll of the dice going toward chaos. A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen…

Jesus Christ, we rejoice in your definitive triumph…with our bodies still in the breach and our souls in tension, we cry out our first “Hurrah!” till eternity unfolds itself.

Your sorrow now has passed. Your enemies have failed. You are a definitive smile for humankind.

What matter the wait now for us? We accept the struggle and the death; because you, our love, will not die!

We march behind you, on the road to the future. You are with us and you are our immortality!

Take away the sadness from our faces. We are not in a game of chance…You have the last word!

Beyond the crushing of our bones, now has begun the eternal “alleluia!” From the thousand openings of our wounded bodies and souls there arises now a triumphal song!

So, teach us to give voice to your new life throughout all the world. Because you dry the tears from the eyes of the oppressed forever…and death will disappear…[3]

A prayer this week from the Baptist believers in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda (from the Baptist World Alliance) another of the so-called “hard places”:

Lord, you call on us to pray for our enemies.

Have mercy on those who are disposed to do us evil and who divide your church.

Deliver us, Lord, from every temptation.

Have mercy on our lack of belief and our wavering faith

as we travel the path towards the unity of your people.

You are our God and we want always to be your people

under the guidance of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[1] Bob Allen, “Christian, Muslim leaders call for inter-faith crisis-prevention group,” The Baptist Center for Ethics, 11/5/10, http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/5848/53/

[2] Baptist World Alliance and Baptist Center for Ethics staff, “Global Baptists Mourn Attack on Baghdad Church, Islamic Clerics Criticize Assault,” The Baptist Center for Ethics, 11/3/10, http://ethicsdaily.com/global-baptists-mourn-attack-on-baghdad-church-islamic-clerics-criticize-assault-cms-16947

[3] http://www.sjweb.info/Jesuits/martyrs.cfm