Bearing Witness
Things are about to get kind of dark. This Sunday, as we continue to read through Acts, we’re moving from the heady early days of the church to the dark times when Christians are drawing all of the wrong kinds of attention. It starts shockingly, with the execution of Stephen, the first of Jesus’ followers to be killed because of his faith.
It’s easy for us to forget that, for many people, persecution has always been a routine part of following Jesus. We gather freely and in public. We boldly display the name of Christ on the sign in front of our building. I preach without fear of retaliation. But it is not that way everywhere. Let me remind you of just one story. It’s from Sky Jethani’s, The Divine Commodity:
Ghassan Thomas leads one of the few public churches that emerged [in Baghdad] after Saddam Hussein was toppled. His congregation erected a sign on their building that said "Jesus Is the Light of the World," but the church was raided by bandits who left behind a threat on a piece of cardboard. It read: "Jesus is not the light of the world, Allah is, and you have been warned." The note was signed "The Islamic Shiite Party."
In response, Pastor Ghassan loaded a van with children's gifts and medical supplies—which were in critically short supply following the American invasion—and drove to the headquarters of the Islamic Shiite Party. After presenting the gifts and supplies to the sheikh, Ghassan told the leader, "Christians have love for you, because our God is a God of love." He then asked permission to read from the Bible. Ghassan turned to Jesus' words in John 8, "I am the light of the world." He then showed the cardboard note to the sheikh. The Muslim leaders, astounded by Pastor Thomas's actions, apologized.
"This will not happen again," [the sheikh] vowed. "You are my brother. If anyone comes to kill you, it will be my neck first." The sheikh later attended Pastor Thomas's ordination service at the church.
I don’t know what I would do if I found such a note in my church. I hope I would show the same courage as Ghassan Thomas, but I don’t know. I think first I would be shocked: “How could something like this happen?”
I wonder if the first Christians thought the same thing in the wake of Stephen’s martyrdom. I wonder if they thought it would be the end of their new Way of life—the end of Christianity. If they did think it, we’re never told that.
What we’re told is that God took this awful thing that happened and he used it to grow his Kingdom. That’s the way it works. That’s what we need to hear. We’re not promised that we won’t suffer as Christians. We’re promised that God will take it and make something amazing of it, if only we will be faithful.