So far in our journey over the last few weeks, we have talked about how and why to stay plugged in to Jesus. This week we’re shifting gears a bit to talk about what it looks like when we get it right. As it turns out, along their walk from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told the disciples one thing it would look like. The picture He painted, though, wasn’t pretty. Yet this picture has formed the reality for a great many of His followers over the centuries. Let’s talk today about the sometimes tough reality of what staying plugged in to Jesus looks like when we get it right.
Reading the Fine Print
What would you do if your faith was put to the test? I’m not talking about some kind of a pen and paper test. I’m talking about the kind of test where you are challenged to live and act in a manner consistent with your faith with the full knowledge that doing so is going to bring trouble into your life as well as the lives of the people around you. Over the past fifteen years, our culture has seen several Christian individuals put to just this kind of test. They have been approached by one person or another and asked to provide a service or involve themselves in an action which their core Christian convictions informs them is morally impermissible for followers of Jesus to take part in. In several of the most high profile of these cases, the believer courteously refused to participate in whatever it was. You can perhaps guess what was the response of the world. To put it mildly, it wasn’t good.
Several of these individuals have lost their businesses along with their life savings. They’ve been raked over the coals in the court of public opinion. They’ve been directed to pay financially crippling fines based on false and twisted understandings of the law. They’ve had to appear in court multiple different times, including the Supreme Court. They’ve been the recipients of horrendous abuse online and in person. They’ve received multiple death threats and have had to bear the cost of taking greater security measures to keep their families safe. Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?
The efforts on the part of the world and the state in each of these cases have been designed and intended to break their spirits and force them to conform to the pattern of behavior of the people around them. And yet, when you listen to interviews with these folks, they consistently report experiencing a joy that defies rational explanation. They’ll tell you they feel a lightness of spirit and a great buoyancy of hope that has kept them going forward in the same direction in spite of all the pressure they’ve faced to do just the opposite. Now, none of this is to say for a second that any of this has been easy. They will tell you it has been somewhere between hard and excruciatingly difficult more times than they care to count. And yet, there is something that keeps them moving toward the kingdom in spite of the challenges. Not a few well-meaning folks have asked why they do it. Some have even suggested they just give in for the sake of peace. But they understand there is something entirely larger going on, and so they press forward all the same. May I suggest to you this morning the reason they keep pressing forward is that they are so well plugged in to Jesus? May I suggest one more thing as well? The reason they are finding themselves the victims of this frustrating persecution is also that they are so plugged in to Jesus.
This morning we are in the fifth part of our series, Plugged In. Over the past several weeks we have been talking about living life plugged in or connected to Jesus. This journey hasn’t simply been about my haranguing you to be connected to Jesus—although last week, we talked about why it matters so much to do just that. This journey has been about our together understanding more fully what it looks like to live a life plugged in to Jesus. We’ve talked about how you do it—with humility and love as two of your most important guiding lights, and by seeking to live life Jesus’ way. Last week, then, as I just said, we talked about why it matters so much. When you live life securely plugged in to Jesus, your life will bear kingdom fruit, your prayer life will be supercharged, and your life in general will bring glory to God which is exactly the thing for which He designed you in the first place. Or, as we put it then, if you want a life that’s flourishing, stay plugged in to Jesus.
Perhaps after all of that you are feeling a little more empowered and encouraged to seek to strengthen your connection so you can experience all of those things and more like them in your life at all, or maybe simply more than you have experienced them before. What’s the last question you ask, though, before you sign your name on the dotted line? Let me see the fine print. What are the things I need to know that aren’t printed anywhere except the bottom of the back of the last page? If you’ve been in a church anywhere before, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about all the good parts of following Jesus. You get eternal life and hope and joy and peace and love and purpose and all manner of other good things. Those are all like the big, bold sales signs you see when you walk into the store. Those are the promises of rebates and the free upgrades the salesman will throw your way to entice you to seal the deal. But the fine print is where they hide all the stuff that might turn you off. That’s the payment plan and the interest figure and the like.
So then, when it comes to this whole living life plugged in to Jesus thing, is there any fine print? Well, as a matter of fact, there is. Maybe you didn’t expect me to say that. Certainly there aren’t very many preachers who would use that particular phrase to talk about some of the stuff we’re going to cover this morning, but I want to be honest with you. This part of the journey is going to feel a bit like the fine print. This is the stuff that could turn someone off from signing their life away to this whole adventure. The thing is, though, this stuff only feels like fine print because we have historically treated it like fine print. Jesus and some of the other guys who contributed to the New Testament were actually pretty forthright about this part of the package. And because they were, we need to be too. This morning I want to talk with you about something Jesus said is part of what staying plugged in to Him is probably going to mean for you and for me and for everyone else who has signed up for the journey. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you, you can find this part starting in John 15:18. Let’s take a look at this together.
As Jesus and the group made their way from the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane, they had some pretty significant, but not overly heavy conversations. Jesus explained to them the importance of staying connected to Him. Then He unpacked the idea of loving one another in a little more detail than He had when He dropped that bomb on them before they left. Well, at this point, it would have been very easy for the gang to think following Him was going to be pretty easy. After all, it would lead to a flourishing life. And who doesn’t love someone who loves everyone? That’s why the very next thing out of His mouth would have so gotten their attention. He looked at this group of young men—some barely beyond the designation, “boy”—and told them things were going to get rough in the days ahead.
“If the world hates you, understand that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you. Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they don’t know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now they have no excuse for their sin. The one who hates me also hates my Father. If I had not done the works among them that no one else has done, they would not be guilty of sin. Now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. But this happened so that the statement written in their law might be fulfilled: ‘They hated me for no reason.’”
Talk about a wake up call! Let’s see if we can’t break this down together. Jesus starts out here with a punch to the gut. “If the world hates you…” What do you mean if the world hates us? The world is going to hate us? But I don’t want to be hated. People who are hated by others tend to have much tougher lives than those who are loved by others. I didn’t sign up to be hated. Jesus goes on to talk about being hated again and then mentions persecution. In other words, what Jesus is fairly well guaranteeing the disciples here is that their road of following Him is not going to be an easy one. But this isn’t something that applies only to the disciples themselves. Any of Jesus’ followers are going to be hated by the world. If you count yourself as one of Jesus’ followers, you are going to be hated by the world.
Now, at this point, you might be starting to develop a little bit of pushback in your mind. After all, you would count yourself a follower of Jesus, and you can’t think of a time when you’ve been particularly hated by the world. Wait, does this mean you’re not really a follower of Jesus? No, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case at all. But the reason it isn’t likely the case is because our culture has been really unique in the scope of world history on the relationship of faithful followers of Jesus to the broader culture. Because of the fundamentally Christian assumptions baked into the foundational documents of our nation, Christians have long held the reins of power in our culture. For a long time, if you were not a member of a church and a confessing Christian, you were not going to be able to be elected to public office or be appointed to public positions. It has only been until the last presidential election cycle that we had a major candidate with a meaningful chance at getting the nomination from his party who was confessionally secular…and he didn’t get it. Up until the last few years, a majority of the culture not only broadly held, but even professed some level of fidelity to the Christian worldview. All of this is to say, if you’re sitting there wondering what Jesus is talking about with all this hatred and persecution stuff, well, I understand.
The thing is, though, your experience of pursuing your faith in Jesus in meaningful ways in the midst of a culture is unique. For most believers in most cultures for most of the last 2,000 years of human history, Jesus’ description of the world’s reaction to His followers is intimately personal. Even our culture has not been immune to that kind of thing as I mentioned a few moments ago. And our culture is changing. It has decidedly turned away from its worldview foundations and is running with increasing fervency toward something else. What exactly this something is isn’t yet totally clear, but it’s not Christian. And it’s not particularly open to Christianity as a cultural traveling partner. It’s far more interested in looking for ways to push Christians off the train rather than finding a car in the back to let them stow away as it speeds the train down the tracks. The more our distinctions from the broader culture become clear, the more that broader culture is going to hate us…just like Jesus said here. In other words, if you are following Jesus and doing so faithfully, eventually you are going to find yourself in a place where the world is coming after you precisely because you are following Jesus and doing so faithfully. If you don’t go into the journey of following Jesus without an awareness of that fact, it is going to catch you off guard and leave you wondering what you’re doing wrong. It might leave you wanting to get off this crazy train before it derails and takes you with it. And all the while, that reaction from the world is a fantastic affirmation that you are on exactly the right track.
That’s actually a point Jesus emphasizes and is worth making sure we don’t miss. If we are going to weather this storm, we need to understand why it is blowing up in the first place. Jesus made that clear here. In fact He fairly well beat it into the ground. “If the world hates you, understand that it hated me before it hated you.” And later, “If they persecuted me [and I think we can all agree they persecuted Him], they will also persecute you.” And still later, “But they will do all these things to you on account of my name.” In other words, our persecution is chiefly Jesus’ fault.
But if the hard times we’re going through are Jesus’ fault, shouldn’t we be upset with Him when they come? We certainly can take that route, but let’s think a bit further on this matter before simply pointing a finger at Jesus and going home. I think there’s more to it. Think again about what Jesus is getting at when He says something like, “if the world hates you, understand that it hated me before it hated you.” It seems like He’s trying to say that in hitting us with all this persecution and hatred the world is treating us the same way it treated Jesus. Well, that’s exactly the case. The world hated Jesus. Actually, let me make that clearer because there were all kinds of people who loved Jesus. There was a group of people who were committed to maintaining a certain cultural system in which everyone knew their place and everything ran fairly smoothly. It wasn’t a particularly just system. In fact, it was pretty horrendously unjust when you started to dig into it. But it worked. Everyone understood what role they were supposed to play and how to play that role. This group was composed of both Romans and Jews. They weren’t necessarily promoting the same system—in fact, if anything, their respective systems were at war with one another—but they were at least both committed to the idea of a system that already existed.
Then Jesus came along and said and did things that suggested pretty powerfully His intentions were to throw both systems in the trash and replace them with something else. On those grounds alone, these folks were going to be primed to go after Him pretty hard. And they did. We know from reading the rest of the Gospels that even though they finally got to Jesus thanks to Judas’ betrayal, they had tried multiple times before to see Him eliminated. Now, these efforts were mostly by the Jews because Jesus really didn’t provoke the Romans much, but when His followers started clashing with the Roman authorities, they worked just as hard to put a stop to this new thing. In the same way, if we work to advance Jesus’ new thing, the world is going to come after us just like it did Him.
But the world always likes new things, doesn’t it? Why go after this one? Well, for starters, the world doesn’t actually like new things at all. In fact, the world hates new things. But this particular new thing has been the focus of an inordinate amount of hatred because of the kind of new thing it is. You see, the world thrives on lies. Every world system thrives on lies. The lies are not the same in every system, but they are all built on lies. There are lies about the nature of people and whether we can change. There are lies about the nature of truth and who gets to define it. There are lies about the nature of redemption and whether it is possible. There are lies about who can get to God and what He’s like and whether He exists in the first place. For the Jews in the first century, their lies fell particularly heavily in this last category. The Jewish leaders fancied themselves God’s gatekeepers, a position which came with huge power and prestige. And the people generally accepted them into this position because the worldview was held by the culture so widely.
When Jesus came, though, He started ripping back the curtains on all these lies and pointing people toward the truth. The problem with this as far as the powers that be were concerned should be obvious. If the people were made aware of the truth, their whole fragile system could come crashing to the ground and they would lose all their power; they would lose all their prestige; they would lose all their position. Every time Jesus opened His mouth, He was leveling an attack against all they held dear. And don’t think that a different cultural context would have made any difference here. Jesus’ words were truth, pure and unfiltered, Any system rooted in lies was going to be threatened by His words and actions. They revealed the guilt of these systems and those who supported them. Jesus revealed their fundamental opposition to God in spite of what they otherwise claimed. He had to go, and so did anyone who joined up with His efforts.
In other words—and this is really important to not miss—when we are being treated like Jesus was, it means we are doing and saying the kinds of things Jesus said and did. Think about that. Isn’t that the very goal we are striving to reach? To do and say the kinds of things Jesus said and did? The net effect of all of this is to point us to a conclusion that is both immensely comforting, but also deeply unnerving. The world’s hatred and persecution are signs that we are on the right track when it comes to our relationship with Jesus. If you are a follower of Jesus, being treated poorly by the world means you’re getting it right. Or, to put that yet another way that is a bit more consistent with the theme of the last few weeks: If you are plugged in to Jesus, the world is going to make you pay for it.
The obvious question that needs to be answered here is: What are we supposed to do with that? Well, for starters, we should expect persecutions and hardships to be a part of our journey as followers of Jesus. Again, that’s not something I suspect many, if anyone, in this room has experienced. Our culture is incredibly unique in that. Rest assured, our brothers and sisters in Christ scattered throughout the world have experienced more than their fair share. Historically speaking, the natural state of Jesus followers has been a persecuted minority. We are slowly finding ourselves back where we have tended to be. After living for multiple generations without it, we’ve forgotten what it’s like. It’s time to remember. Believers in the earliest centuries of the church were not only piercingly aware of this truth, they fairly well celebrated it. Some of them wrote longingly for persecution. One church father, when he had been sentenced to death in Rome, treated his trip to the capital like a victory tour, thanking his supporters and boasting of his coming martyrdom the whole way. If you are plugged in to Jesus, the world is going to make you pay for it, and those guys opened their wallets gladly when the collectors came calling.
Now, this doesn’t mean we should go looking for persecution and hatred from the world. Sometimes when the world has hated professed followers of Jesus, it’s because we earned it. We have to make sure we are doing life Jesus’ way. If the world hates us because we’re ugly and judgmental, that’s nothing to celebrate. I’ve noted more than once how different our culture is from the rest of the world and most of the rest of the history of the church. We should be grateful for that. It’s been a gift of God that has allowed for the last 100 years to be a period of the most rapid expansion of the church across the world since the days of the apostles. Not being persecuted isn’t a bad thing. But, if you are plugged in to Jesus, the world is going to make you pay for it. As the season in our culture continues to change, we should not shy away from doing or saying anything consistent with what Jesus did or said because of the threat of persecutions or hardships resulting from it. When the world hates us for being like Jesus, that means we’re getting it right.
There’s one more thing this means that is worth our attention. When someone is ugly to you in some way, what is your first response? It’s to be ugly back, isn’t it? When someone has done something awful to you, our natural first thought is how we can get revenge. You know, an eye for an eye and all that. Yet if someone comes after us because of our faithfulness to the way of Jesus and we respond in any way other than the way Jesus would have responded, we’re not being faithful to the way of Jesus any longer. At that point, whatever abuse we receive is on our own head. If you are plugged in to Jesus, the world will make you pay for it, but if you give up the way of Jesus and the world’s attacks continue, you’re on your own.
Over the last several years, a line of thinking has subtly made its way into the thinking of too many folks in the church that the way to respond to the increasing pressure of our culture to give up our faith and conform to its demands is with strength. We need to fight back. At the very least, we need to fight for our rights. When someone knocks us down, we need to be ready to punch back even harder. We need fighters who will go to the mat for us and secure our way of life against the godless secularists trying to take over our country. My brothers and sisters, this cannot be. That is not the way of Jesus. While we can and should advocate for our being able to fully enjoy the rights guaranteed to us by our Constitution, we must absolutely disavow ourselves from any notion of a kind of secular victory over our enemies as something worth pursuing. We will indeed one day have victory over everyone who opposed us, but we are not promised that in this life. And that victory cannot be something we reach and strive for ourselves. It must only be delivered by God Himself. If we try to win in this life, we will very often lose in the larger sense of the advance of God’s kingdom. If our “victory” comes at the cost of someone else’s interest in or standing before Christ, we didn’t really win anything. As a matter of fact, we lost. The weapons of our warfare are kindness, humility, gentleness, and love. Our victory comes through our loving response to worldly defeat…just like Jesus’ did.
If you are plugged in to Jesus, the world is going to make you pay for it. When it does, rejoice. Rejoice that God thinks so highly of your faith as to allow you to suffer for the advance of His kingdom. Rejoice in the confirmation that you are walking the path of Christ. Rejoice that the world is seeing Him when it looks at you and unleashing its hatred on the closest convenient target—you. If you are plugged in to Jesus, the world is going to make you pay for it. But take heart. Your victory is already secure. Come back next week and we’ll talk more about that very thing.