Christians in a Counter-Christian Culture

As citizens living in a counter-Christian culture, do people ever characterize you as a bigot (one who is intolerantly devoted to his own church belief, or opinion), divisive, narrow minded, irritating, or a lost cause? If so, why?

If the answer is because we have an obnoxious, hateful, insensitive feeling toward others, it would be well for us to ask the Lord to give us an attitude adjustment. But if it is because of strong convictions based on solid biblical truths spoken in love, then rejoice, because Jesus says we can expect such treatment.

Remember what Jesus said, “Remember, no servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the name of the One who sent me” (John 15:20-21).

Our text today, the last Beatitude, tells us, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

Lets discuss this word of our Lord in greater depth.

A counter-Christian culture is a term I borrowed from Lloyd Ogilvie. It describes a culture that has its problems with the Christian culture. It is a culture that appears religious or spiritual in the broadest sense of the word. You hear people from this culture saying, “I consider myself to be a religious person, and I resent Christians telling me I am a pagan.”

In this counter-Christian culture, Jesus is not confessed from the heart as Savior and Lord. At best He is one of several religious leaders. Neither do these people take the Ten Commandments seriously. Absolutes are something of the past. According to this philosophy, there are no objective truths; truth is subjective. What might be truth for you would not be for me. For example, cohabitation might be acceptable behavior for John, but not for Mary. The truth that salvation is received only through faith in Jesus Christ is held dear by Betty, but Marjorie would call this bigotry convinced that there are several ways to heaven.

Those affected by a counter-Christian culture throw out a warning: Christianity has to change some of its antiquated ideas or it will die. They contend that many passages in the Bible must be reinterpreted, because our culture has changed and will not accept previous interpretations.

While evangelical Christians are criticized by unbelievers, Jesus Christ praises them. He says we are blessed. Though the criticism from relatives and friends might be hard to take, we are in good company, because this is the treatment that the prophets of old received. Since human nature has not changed and resists the things of God, what else can we expect but criticism.

“Blessed are you, for great will be your reward in heaven,” are the words of Jesus to his followers. In other parts of the Bible, Jesus tells us we will also be a blessing to many who live here now on this earth. While some criticize you as a Christian, others thank God for you. They long to hear that Gospel telling them that through faith in Jesus their sins can be forgiven and they can be restored into fellowship with God. They need that hope, and they also need to hear there are rights and wrongs. They need this guidance and direction.

While these words of encouragement from our Lord help us, there is yet one other matter that we must note. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” If we present ourselves as obnoxious, hateful, insensitive toward the feelings of others, self-righteous, having all the answers and filled with anger, our witness will be offensive and our persecution comes from our stupidity. We must admit that at times, when we are called bigots, we return the compliment by calling the unbeliever pagan. When they call us fools, not to be outdone, we call them infidels. Such conversation is fruitless; nothing is accomplished. Only the wounds grow deeper and the relationship is destroyed further.

But if we will present ourselves as people whose lives are captured by Jesus Christ and a smile flows from our souls, the witness for Jesus will be heard. If there is a smile on our faces that comes from a joy in our hearts, our chances of being heard are greater.

Here is our chance to talk to them about the meaning of the cross. Jesus loves them, and he has died for them. If they will but confess their sins and receive Him as their Savior and Lord, they too will experience God’s love. He loves me, but He loves you just as much. This is a powerful witness that might not be accepted immediately, but will not return void.

What a positive way for Jesus to end the Beatitudes.

We began this study of the Beatitudes by saying it is our prayer this portion of God’s Word will strengthen our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. This is our closing prayer: that these words from Jesus may have become more precious, and you will return to them often for comfort and strength.

The Wounds of Humanity

Who is a peacemaker? What mental pictures come to mind?

Is it the mother making two children stop fighting? Or is it the police officer called to settle a domestic dispute? Might it be a family counselor attempting to help a couple who are about to divorce and describing to them how many will be hurt if the decree is granted? Or is it Hans Blix, the Swedish diplomat from the United Nations, working with Iraq and the United States to avoid war and struggling with the question, Does Iraq have chemical and biological weapons that are a threat to the free world?

William Barclay writes, “They are the people in whose presence bitterness cannot live, people who bridge the gulfs, heal the breaches, and sweeten the bitterness. They are doing the work of God, for it is his purpose to bring peace between man and God, between men and women.”

Christians must become involved in the wounds of humanity. The wounded are not only those who are mentally and physically disabled, but also those who live with bitterness and hatred toward others. Dr. Dan Foster said it well: “Christians must have a therapeutic attitude toward those who carry hatred. These people who live with hatred must learn the meaning of words such as grace, love, and forgiveness.”

Those who live in a personal relationship with Christ are able to confront the spiritually wounded. They are the people who learned what Martin Luther wrote when he explained the eighth commandment with these words: “We should fear and love God so that we do not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, nor defame our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”

Dr. Foster goes on to say that the therapeutic attitude is to speak the truth about a matter and to be sane when a lot of insane things are being said and done. It is an attitude that says we will not seek peace by compromising the truth. It is not peace at any price; the wrong must be pointed out. The peacemaker is willing to put himself between people who are angry.

As Jesus looked out over his audience, he saw those who were spiritually wounded, those carrying a lot of hatred toward others, and those who were blessed because they were the peacemakers among their people. He sees the same audience today. Are we among the spiritually wounded or the peacemakers? If we are a part of the wounded carrying hatred in our hearts, Jesus asks us, “Isn’t it time to get your relationship with that person mended?” Your answer will be yes if you want to live at peace with yourself, God, and others.

Might God be calling you to reach out to some of your family and friends who are separated from one another? A young teenager played this role when she asked her mother, “Mother, how much longer are you going to refrain from talking with grandma? It’s been several months since you have seen her. How do you square this with calling yourself a Christian?” The relationship is not yet renewed, but the two are beginning to talk, and that is a beginning.

The peacemaker need not be a professional counselor. He or she is one who has tasted of God’s grace and forgiveness, and is anxious to pass it on to others. In the above case, it was a young girl who loved both grandma and mom and cannot stand to see them living apart.

Jesus looked out over the crowd as he preached his Sermon on the Mount and said, “You who are the peacemakers, consider yourselves among the blessed, for there can be no greater joy than to be used by God to bring people back into a loving relationship with those from whom they are estranged.”

Examine Your Motives

Jesus was busy teaching the crowds in the temple when some Pharisees brought a woman to him who had been caught in the act of adultery. “Teacher,” they said, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”

Jesus replied, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he bent down and wrote on the ground. Perhaps He was giving them time to think about what he had said and the cruelty of their hearts.

Hearing Jesus’ words, they began to go away. Then Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus replied. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Why had Jesus spoken as he did to the Pharisees? Wasn’t he concerned about the woman’s lifestyle? Of course he was. What angered Jesus was the Pharisees’ motive in bringing the woman to Jesus. They had no great love for her. They really didn’t care if her lifestyle changed. They were using this woman to trap Jesus. If he had told them to stone her, the people would have wondered how one who had spoken so much about loving people could want that to happen to her. Besides, the Roman government would have reprimanded him, for he had no authority to pass out such a judgement.

How would Jesus have responded to the Pharisees had he seen that their motive was to help the woman? If they had said, “Teacher, this woman has been abused for years by many men. We have talked to her, but it does no good. Would you please heal her, and then we will see that she gets a fresh start at some meaningful work?”

The Pharisees would have seen God work, and the woman changed. The motives for our actions are all important. This is why Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

He speaks often about our motives. Later on in the sermon on the mount, Jesus says, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:2-3).

Our motives need to be constantly examined. Are they pleasing to God? Are the good deeds that I am doing primarily to impress people? Is much of our Christianity lived out on a superficial level?

But there is another part of dealing with motives. That is looking at the motives of others with whom we disagree. I learned that lesson years ago while visiting with a school administrator who had been unfairly criticized by a parent. The criticism made me uncomfortable, and I was attempting to make excuses for this man. The superintendent surprised me when he said, “I understand what my critic is saying. Obviously, we do not agree on this issue, but his motive is good. He wants the best for the boys and girls in this school district.”

In our conversation the superintendent taught me a lesson. We must judge people by their motives, not by their actions. The actions might be wrong, while the motives are pure. I have not always applied it to my life, but I never forgot it.

This does not mean that we forsake our convictions, but it makes us more understanding of those who oppose us. For example, the ELCA has just voted down the recommendation to ordain practicing homosexuals and bless same-sex marriages. Because these practices are contrary to what the Bible teaches, I was very much opposed to such changes in the official documents of our church. However, I understand the opposition’s motive, which is to love these people by treating their behavior as an alternate lifestyle, bless their unions, and ordain those who are theologically trained.

Jesus looked at the crowd assembled on the mountainside. He saw some whose motive for coming was to hear Him and to get spiritual help. His words to them were encouraging. “Continue in my teaching, and you will see the hand of God at work in your life as you trust me for your salvation and let me make changes in your life.”

The Merciful Spirit

A pastor who takes preaching seriously goes into the pulpit well prepared. After hours of preparation, he has an outline or manuscript that he takes with him into the pulpit. These are the notes that will guide him in presenting a great biblical truth, which he prays the Holy Spirit will use to speak to the hearts of those assembled for worship. However, there are those times when he is moved to leave his notes for just a bit to insert a point that is not in the outline.

Now we don’t know what preparation Jesus made before he preached those great sermons that came from his lips. Why did he include this Beatitude, Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy,” in his Sermon on the Mount? Let me suggest a possibility.

As our Lord was preaching, He saw a man in the crowd. This man was assisting a paralytic who wished to get closer to Jesus believing that if the Savior touched him, he could be healed. Seeing this man’s love for his handicapped friend, Jesus was moved. Leaving his notes, Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.”

Whether it happened that way or not, a merciful spirit is a powerful witness for the Christian faith. St. Paul told the Corinthian church that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, the new has come.” A part of that newness is a merciful spirit. Our Lord is anxious to work changes in our lives. He wants to see His people reaching out to those in need and helping them. As we walk in that personal relationship with Christ, this attribute will become apart of our personalities. It is more than an act of kindness done at a particular time to make the giver feel better because of what he did. It is more than giving financial assistance to a family whose home has been destroyed by fire. It is inviting the homeless family to come and live with you.

To show mercy is more than verbal. It goes beyond saying to the mother of a handicapped child, “I feel so sorry for you. What a care this child must be.” It is saying to the mother, “I will come and care for you child while you get a break.” It is more than baking some cookies and visiting the widow who sits alone in her home. It is inviting her to spend Christmas Day with you.

A few weeks ago a woman we have known for many years showed mercy to my wife and me. It was Saturday night, and I had just returned from the church service where I had preached. The congregation had rented a beautiful motel for us. When it was time to go to bed, we discovered that the bed was so high, my wife, who is handicapped, could not get into the bed without a great deal of assistance. We worked at it for about fifteen minutes. Finally she was in bed, but there was a problem. Often it was necessary for her to get up a couple times during the night. What would happen if that were the case on this particular night? I had to preach three times the next morning.

While I sat on the edge of the bed considering my problem, the phone rang. It was a friend of many years who had a home on the nearby lake. She greeted us and wanted to know if there was something she could do. When I told her our problem, she simply said, “I’ll be right over.” In a few minutes there she was prepared to spend the night with us. There was a second bed in the room, and that is where she slept.

When it was necessary for my wife to use the bathroom, I got up and was helping her when our friend ordered me back to bed saying, “You have to work tomorrow. I’ll take care of this.” I don’t know what Jesus would have called it, but for me, and I am sure for Him, that was being merciful.

This causes those who are taking the word from our text seriously to ask, “How does one become this merciful person?” Jesus says, “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). It helps us to understand that we must experience the mercy of God. It is only as we become recipients of God’s mercy that we become channels through which His mercy flows to others through us. Let’s see what this Beatitude means in our lives.

Suppose a person is guilty of some wrong. I mean a wrong that is written up in the local newspaper or gets pregnant outside of marriage. How do we handle this bit of news? Obviously, tongues begin to wag. Sometimes it almost seems that we are having fun talking about what has happened in this person’s life.

Now what does God’s Word direct us to do? Well, certainly the merciful spirit does not condone the error of the person’s way. But they go to that person and ask if there is some way they can help. Perhaps the person is anxious to help but will not get inside the door. Or it might be that, once he gets inside, there will be dead silence, and how noisy that silence can be! But it could just be that the guilty person shares their hurt. Then all you have to do is sit and listen. Soon you will have the opportunity to bring this person into the presence of Jesus, like the man brought the paralytic to Jesus in my opening story of this sermon, so that Jesus could touch the guilty spirit. Then you can read a few great passages that talk about forgiveness and how life can begin again when the sin has been taken away.

As you leave the house, you give the person a big hug and say, “I will be back in a few days or before if you need me.” This is mercy. But how often have I done this? Not many, how about you?

A merciful spirit moves away from one of the human being’s primary sins, which is self-centeredness. We develop an attitude that warns us not to get too close to those who are needy, for fear they will take advantage of us and become a burden. Be nice to them, but keep them at a distance. This seems to be a safe relationship. And it is true that we have to protect our time and energy for our families, but never should that keep us from reaching out in mercy to those who need what we have to offer them Ð namely the good news of Jesus Christ.

The closer we look at these Beatitudes, the more we are convinced that they give us moments of real spiritual struggle as we see how the children of God are called upon to live.

Do you want to be one of God’s happy children? Never forget how merciful He has been toward you, and never forget to be merciful, especially to those who need your help.

And by the way, if you are wondering why I began this sermon talking about the thoughts the preacher gets while standing in the pulpit that causes him to leave the sermon notes, it happened often during my years of preaching. When I saw a powerful example of what the Gospel had done in the lives of some of the people without mentioning names, I could not let it go unnoticed. So be prepared. You might just get into the sermon. Even though others might not know who the preacher is talking about, you will because you have experienced the Holy Spirit’s work in your life.