Jesus preached non-violence in a world that was ruled by a lack of mercy and in which the most common penalties handed down by courts involved the use of severe punishment. One only has to consider the punishments handed out to most of the early Christian Martyrs. 12 young Christians were summarily executed in Carthage in 180 AD; their obviously very heinous crime was keeping the writings of Paul in a box. Earlier during the reign of Antonius 86-161AD a married woman became a Christian. Her husband denounced her. The person who had brought her to Christ – a man called Ptolomaeus was arrested and imprisoned. His trial consisted of a solitary question. “Are you a Christian?” He replied “ Yes” and was immediately led away for execution. There were no appeal processes! At the same trial, a fellow called Lucius in the crowd complained that this was not a fair use of justice to condemn someone just for being a Christian. When asked if he too was a Christian, he too was immediately led away and executed. I offer these stories just to set the scene within which Jesus preached non-violence, peace and a love of our enemy. I think you will agree that suddenly the message takes on more power given the fact that the stakes were so much higher. These are telling insights into the world of Jesus, so it is no surprise that he was considered so dangerous by the political leadership of the day. The outcome was always going to be on the cards. Someone who was peddling a teaching as dangerous as peace, mercy and forgiveness must obviously be done away with.
And yet perhaps 30 years later if we accept that the author of 1 Peter is indeed Simon Peter, we find Peter encouraging followers to not change their behavior even if threatened with violence or death. Nero had come to power by this time and his wave of persecution against Christians was just starting. Peter is part of this and would suffer death at Nero’s hands himself. Peter’s letter here is often reported as recommending submission to world authorities, however I don’t accept this is the case. Peter is calling for submission to God. He is encouraging followers to accept derision, beatings and even death as a consequence of their belief rather than using violence to achieve their aims. Despite the persecution, that the early Church suffered, this is the time of unparalleled growth within the church. Effectively, the harder the community is squeezed, the more uncomfortable life is made, the harsher the persecution; the more people are attracted to Jesus.
Jesus talks of himself as the Good Shepherd, and warns his disciples that he will lay down his life for them – he is under no illusions where his ministry will lead. He also includes a very telling comment. He tells the people with him, speaking of his life; “I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” As usual, the temple authorities were not best pleased with him, retorting that they thought Jesus was “ demon-possessed and raving mad!”
Jesus is talking about saving humanity from being forever held in shackles by the Tempter and he accepts the price of this battle will be expensive to him. His challenge for us is this; Are we willing to take up our cross and follow him? Are we willing to follow the way of non-violence, challenging sin in the world, whilst seeing people as being made in the image of God, and thus being prepared to love our enemies as well as our friends.
Many people today will hold the feeling that Jesus is simply asking too much, and we like to re-interpret what he said so that we feel more comfortable with it. But the early Church clearly didn’t think so. They took him at his word, often suffering horrendously. However don’t forget that in the time that Paul and Peter were writing letters, there were still people alive who had seen the Risen Jesus. Themselves included. The resurrection was a clear message that the Kingdom of God had burst forth and a new world order was starting. The power held by the dictatorship in Rome was limited if even killing people wasn’t a guaranteed method of getting rid.
There are two 20th Century figures that also stand out. The first isn’t even a Christian, but I don’t apologise for including him. I am talking about Ghandi, who effectively lived out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. How many Christians today actually do this? He led a movement committed to non-violent protest, often suffering considerable hardship but eventually overcame the most powerful empire of the day.
Martin Luther King applied the same principles in the latter part of the 20th Century when he led a non violent response to apartheid policies in the USA. It is telling of course that both men were ultimately assassinated – they just like Jesus had become too dangerous; precisely because some people have no answer to peaceful protest.
All of this sounds scary I suspect. Just how dangerous is it to really be a Christian today? Do we risk our life by speaking up for our faith? Probably not in the UK you will no doubt be relieved to hear. But it is quite likely that you will risk your livelihood possibly, you may risk your reputation, you may risk your status. Of course there are areas in the world where Christians today live at risk, running the real risk of being accused of blasphemy, threatened with death because they follow in Jesus’ footsteps. We need to remember them in our prayers.
However in an age where if you lift your head above the parapet, you may well be challenged by one of the myriad groups out there, the humanist society is very vocal, we are commanded by God to decide whether we follow him or follow the world. If we know God, this is not a request where our response doesn’t really matter. It matters! This is after all an echo of Jesus’ teaching that we cannot serve two masters. Do we follow the ways of the world? Do we follow the crowd and shout for blood? Or will you ask yourselves first, “what is God’s will in this?” Ask yourselves that classic Question, “What would Jesus Do?”
Jesus calls us to follow him, which means that we need to reject the ways of the world – the verbal sparring of politics, the gamesmanship often seen in professional sport, the behavior in business that seeks to make a profit at someone else’s expense.
No, we are called to be disciples of Jesus and to follow in his footsteps and in the footsteps of his first followers, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, looking after the downtrodden, and embracing the way of Peace