Posts Tagged ‘persecution’

HEBREWS 7:23-28

23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

Already in the first century Christianity was moving in a very different direction from what Jesus’ kingdom movement had been about. During his ministry Jesus had emphasized the immediacy of God to the individual, without respect of religious membership or moral character.

The religion of his day had inserted a hierarchy of mediators and purity codes between the soul and God which a person would have to wait on, compensate, or satisfy before blessing was granted. Jesus reacted aggressively against this exploitation by religion and its leaders, insisting that God was not only approachable by everyone but had already made the first move by releasing humanity (all of us) of our guilt-debt and dispensing unconditional grace on the righteous and sinners alike.

A vision such as Jesus’ kingdom movement provides not even a toe-hold for hierarchy. If all that’s needed is the turn-around of a willing surrender where the individual gives up trying to please, flatter, impress, or appease God, and instead simply welcomes the good news (gospel), joyfully accepts the gift and shares it with others, then there is nothing more that needs to be done. No special orthodox instruction or creeds to recite. No purification ceremonies or membership fees to pay. No ordained experts to vouchsafe your salvation.

The kingdom movement of Jesus began as a “spreading” phenomenon – proclaiming the good news and touching human need everywhere it was found – but soon became a “stacking” enterprise where ranks of power, privilege, and purity pushed God (at least this religion’s god) up and out of human reach.

At the time this letter was likely written, Christians (still as a messianic sect of Judaism) were being persecuted by order of the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96 CE) for not honoring his office with proper worship. During this period – and during subsequent periods of persecution and hardship, down to the present day – there was tendency to shift the focus of Jesus’ original vision, out and away from the present reality of suffering, to a heavenly realm up there, over there, and in the next life.

The classical Jewish hierarchy of priests and sacrificial rituals lent itself as a ready analogy to this author. Jesus did his work on our behalf, interceding for our sins. Afterwards he was exalted above the heavens, where he now continues to make God approachable to us and us acceptable to God.

This is where the Christ of orthodoxy made its fateful departure from the Jesus of history.

REVELATION 7:9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
    and worship him day and night within his temple,
    and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
    the sun will not strike them,
    nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

One of our best examples of “dispatches from the edge of empire” is the New Testament book of Revelation. It was written during a time of persecution, when Christians (and other anti-imperial Jews) were being hunted down by Roman authorities for their unwillingness to give proper devotion to Caesar. The presence of such dissidents in an already unstable region would only spur other rebels and freedom fighters to resist the supremacy of Rome. Emperor Domitian (reigned 81-96 CE) was especially ruthless in his campaign to uproot resistance, particularly in Palestine, and it was during this time that the book was likely written.

We shouldn’t be surprised that a good number of nominal Christians – those attached to the movement out of curiosity, convenience, or personal benefit – did indeed relinquish their loyalty to the movement when their lives were on the line. For obvious reasons, this was a cause of deep concern for those with the larger and longer frame of history in mind. If Rome was successful in killing the kingdom movement of Jesus, his ideals of human liberation, compassionate outreach, and a New Reality of justice, equality, and love would die with it.

In an effort to encourage and strengthen the fugitive Christians, this author (traditionally John) wrote dispatches from the edge of empire, possibly from the island of Patmos where he had been exiled. This writing was heavily encoded with the imagery of myth, metaphor, and apocalyptic fantasy – codes that his Christian audience would have certainly understood, but which would have confounded any imperial interceptor. Many of these local and contemporary correlations are lost on the modern reader, removed as we are by thousands of miles and years of history. But a careful contextual reading of Revelation has helped us move past a simplistic literal (end-time prophetic) interpretation, to one more grounded in its actual setting and intended purpose.

It isn’t hard to imagine the charge of hope and courage a first-century victim of state persecution must have felt when s/he made the identification between the throng, white-robed and gathered in worship around the majesty of God (not Caesar!), and the underground community of Christians to which s/he belonged. I am not alone in this darkness. Many others, just like me, are holding fast to the faith. We will make it together! But even if death should come to me, the torch of our cause will not go out.