What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man. When that happens, be happy! Yes, leap for joy! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, their ancestors treated the ancient prophets that same way. Luke 6:22-23 NLT
It is not cool to be a Christian – a follower of Jesus – these days. Perhaps it never was. People look at you as if you are weird, as if you are unintelligent, and nowadays more and more as if you are a bigot, a racist, a sexist, or a “hater,” to coin a popular word. We live in a world where many of what are called “norms” – traditional values – are based on Biblical ideas. But it is considered far more popular, intelligent, enlightened, to challenge norms nowadays than to preserve them.
But even if we never say a thing about norms, or traditional values, we Christians are treated with anything from pity to skepticism, suspicion or outright hostility. Taunting Christians was popular in Roman times, when they were fed to the wild beasts in the coliseum, and it is popular now, when they are laughed at and not taken seriously because of their stance on things. There is nothing the contemporary media seems to like more than to make fun of Christians publicly.
Of course the very human behaviours of hating, excluding, mocking and cursing are not directed only at Christians. These actions are practised by many toward many, and, sadly, Christians themselves have sometimes been the perpetrators, as well as the recipients of such behaviours. Perhaps this is because hating, excluding, mocking and cursing are typically human, and Christians are human too. But such behaviours are not the way of Jesus, and any Christians who practise them are not following him, but the ways of the world, what the Bible would call their “human nature.” Jesus challenges us to do just the opposite. See what Jesus says a few lines later in this famous sermon: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you!”
None of us like to be hated, excluded, mocked or cursed. Deep inside, all of us long to be loved, accepted, included, affirmed. This applies to believers as much as non-believers. As a doctor I see the results of this kind of cruel treatment. I see people who are depressed, angry, hurting, because they do not receive the inclusion and affirmation they crave, because they feel outside. I see people whose lives fall apart because they are victims of the unkind actions of others.
It is easy to judge Christians when they are silent about their faith, but it is an understandable defence mechanism. Christians long to be loved too, and if they know that publicly declaring their allegiance to Jesus can result in the opposite, no wonder they keep quiet. I have done the same myself many times: stayed silent when God is being mocked, like Peter in Gethsemane, denying Christ. My fear of exclusion or worse, has overcome my faith, even though I know that Jesus loves me more than any of these others.
I admire those who are open about their love for Jesus, publicly Christian, regardless of the reactions of the world around them. The price they pay is not uncommonly the kind of treatment that Jesus describes here. And that hurts.
Yet Jesus challenges us to be public, to acknowledge our allegiance to him, to be proud of him. Then in the next breath he warns us that doing so will bring pain and rejection. Hardly an attractive offer. But there it is. Inevitable pain.
How are followers of Jesus to respond to that inevitable pain? Jesus says clearly that they should be happy, that they should leap for joy. Is he crazy? Is he promoting masochism? Why would anyone rejoice at being persecuted?
Jesus gives two answers to that unspoken question: first, rejoice because a great reward awaits you in heaven; second, rejoice because you are in good company, you are walking with giants. It is certainly nice to be identified with the great men and women of the faith – the ancient prophets. That is affirming, that is inclusive. We gain a sense of belonging to something bigger than us, the fellowship of spiritual heroes. But this promise of heaven, what are we to make of that?
Jesus often refers to heaven, but it is not something that we speak much of these days. How important is it, and what part should this hope of heaven play in our lives?