Pray for the Persecuted Church

How can we rejoice? In Egypt, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in China … our Christian brothers and sisters are being tortured, imprisoned and killed because of their faith. How can we rejoice?

The Disciples felt that same way that Sunday morning. Trembling with fear for their lives, they huddled in the Upper Room, unsure what would happen next. Only the women were brave enough to go to the borrowed tomb where they had laid His body – Mary Magdalene, perhaps Jesus’ mother Mary, too – those who had come to prepare His battered body for burial.

As they sadly walked through the garden, Luke tells us, suddenly two angels in bright and shining clothes stood by them. Full of fear, the women bowed down to the ground. Gently, the angels said to them, “Why are you looking among the dead for one who is alive? He is not here. He is risen … just like He said He would.”

And so began the first Easter Sunday.

Jesus had died – there was no doubt about that. The women had watched, heartbroken as He died on a cross slowly, in agony, until he took his last gasp and said, “It is finished. Father! In your hands I place my spirit.”

Evil men thought they had put an end to the Jesus problem. He was dead.

Today, they are still trying to get rid of the Jesus problem. On Thursday, police in Malaysia found five large bombs strapped to a gas pipeline – planted to destroy a 3,000-member Catholic church during Good Friday services in Serpong, Pradopo.

The bombs totaled 330 pounds and were set to be detonated by cell phone.  Hallelujah! Terrible evil planned against your brothers and sisters has been twarted.

In Afghanistan, Shoaib Assadullah, a native Christian imprisoned for five months and threatened with execution for his conversion to Christianity, was released from prison and has fled Afghanistan to safety.

He was arrested on October 21 in Mazar-e-Sharif for witnessing his new-found faith in Jesus and giving a Bible to a friend who reported him to local authorities. Only days ago from Qasre Shahi Prison, Assadullah wrote that his situation was dire – with constant “threat of being executed, constant insults and accusations.” And now he is free!

In China, the news is not so good. Fearful that the growing spread of Christianity in unofficial “house churches” had led the Communist Party to  fear that the Arab world’s “Jasmine Revolution” will spread to China. As a result, as Easter neared, the government arrested dozens of Christians, including “at least 54 artists, lawyers, writers, activists and intellectuals,” according to the Irish Times.

Somewhere between 50 million and 150 million Christians worship in illegal house churches in China, refusing to put up with government regulations.
In Egypt, radicals in Qena, southern Egypt, are protesting against a recently appointed governor because he is a Christian.  The previous governor in Qena was also a Christian, appointed by former President Hosni Mubarak. As Easter approached, protestors blocked roads and train tracks. Christians were afraid to leave their homes to celebrate Palm Sunday.

In Nigeria, Africa, Muslim rioters killed more than 100 Christians and burned down more than 40 churches in attacks that began Monday after the election of Jonathan Goodluck, a Christian, as president of Nigeria. The rioters also destroyed homes of prominent Muslims who supported Goodluck.

According to International Christian Concern, “it is difficult to know the full extent of the damage. The casualties could be much higher as the attacks took place over many of the 12 Muslim majority states in northern Nigeria. 

And in India, Hindu fundamentalists in Orissa have threatened to disrupt Easter services – and announced an economic boycot against Christian businesses until Christians withdraw police complaints about recent violent attacks carried out against Christians. 

Just days ago, a prominent Hindu was attacked for speaking out in favor of Christians.  A sixty-year-old man, Kesab Digal, and his brother were trapped in Digal’s home until rescued by police. While they were at the police station, radicals looted the house. 

In Pakistan, there are reports that Aasia Bibi, an imprisoned Christian mother of five sentenced to death for uttering the words “Jesus saved me. What has Mohammed ever done for you?” learned that Christians worldwide have been praying for her in the week before Easter.

Now, Christians prepare to celebrate their victory. He is risen.

Just like today, it did not look so good on Friday or Saturday. His body was taken down from the cross, wrapped in a linen shroud and placed quickly into the tomb before sunset signaled the beginning of the Sabbath. No devout Jew could prepare a dead body on the holy day of rest.

And so, our Savior’s body was left in the tomb. Only on Sunday morning did the women venture to the garden to begin their sad task.

A huge rock had sealed the entrance to the tomb. Pontius Pilate had ordered Jesus’ grave be guarded to prevent the disciples from stealing his body and claiming He had risen.

The Christ, the Messiah, the hope of all ages, was dead.

Mourning not only for their friend, but for their people and the whole world, the women came on Sunday early in the morning. They brought with them special spices they had prepared to anoint the body of Jesus.

They had lost all hope. Jesus was dead and that was it. He was finished – gone – dead – and now needed to be buried properly.

Just like today, things looked grim.

The last thing they expected that morning were attending angels pointing to the empty tomb and proclaiming the words, “He is risen.”

Joyously the women ran to the Upper Room and reported the exciting news – which has come down to us across the centuries. Its importance and significance has not changed one bit and so this Resurrection Sunday, we have good reason for celebrating not just Jesus’ resurrection to life but also our promise of eternal life.

What happened that first Easter Sunday has changed the way that we, God’s children, view death. Death is an intruder – an unwelcome intruder. Death brings pain and hurt, not only for the dying but also for those who grieve the loss of someone near and dear. There is nothing nice and pleasant about it. It is cruel. It takes from us those whom we love dearly. It is unwelcome.

That’s how Jesus regarded death. We know how Jesus wept and how his heart went out to Jairus and his family when Jairus’ little girl died (Luke 8:41-42,49-56) – and to Mary and Martha when Lazarus died (John 11:1-44). In the latter case, the Bible is clear –  Jesus wept!

And then there was that day in the town of Nain when Jesus and his disciples met a funeral procession, following a casket, on the way to the cemetery (Luke 7:11-15). A widow was burying her only son. This woman had first suffered the loss of her husband, and now her only son had succumbed to death. In each case, the Gospel writers report the grief and sadness that not only filled the lives of the mourners but also how Jesus’ heart went out to those who were grieving. The cold touch of death had separated someone dear from family and friends.

In each case, death seemed to be in charge. Death seemed to have won the day, that is, until Jesus came along. At the command of Jesus, the person who was once dead came alive.

Death did not have its own way – Jesus is its Master.

This Easter, we celebrate Christ’s victory over the grave. We hear the wonderful Easter message: “He is not here. He has risen!”

Jesus has announced to the whole world that death has lost its power to hurt us. As Paul says:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting? …
Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 15:55, 57)

Jesus died in our place on the Cross, taking on Himself all our sin, all the sin that separates us from God – all the sin that prevents us from ever getting to heaven. Jesus rose again from the dead at Easter to demonstrate that death could not hold Him down, that the power of sin to condemn us has been destroyed and the ability of death to wipe us out completely has been overcome.

It is just this that gives us such positive hope – that after our life on this earth is over, there is a new life waiting for us. Didn’t Jesus say that in His Father’s house are many mansions – and that He was going to prepare a place for each of us? (John 14:2).

The Apostle Paul proclaimed the truth that Christ has been raised from death, as the guarantee that those who sleep in death will also be raised (1 Corinthians 15:20).

The message of Easter is clear and simple. The enemy, death, has been defeated. Although we are parted from family and friends for a while because of death, we know that we shall meet up with those who die in the Lord beyond death in the bliss of eternal life. We may have longed for one more hour, or one more day, but in Christ we have eternity. When those close to us die, or when we die, we leave the troubles of this world and enter the joys of eternal life.

The corrupt rulers of China and Pakistan would tell you that the Christian faith is irrelevant. They whisper to our children that Jesus has nothing to offer people in the modern, enlightened, educated 21st Century.

They are wrong.

When it comes to death our Christian faith is as relevant as ever.

Who or what else can give us any security when faced with death? Who or what else can offer us any hope when death comes close? Who can make any sense out of what appears to us to be a senseless waste of life?

Who else can comfort us when the pain that death brings strikes our hearts with such ferocity? Who? The living Jesus! His resurrection assures us, we who are His children, that we too shall rise.

Our hearts are lifted up, knowing that beyond death and the pain that we feel because of it, there is a new life – a life in heaven with Jesus, our Savior..

This is our Christian faith, that Christ died for our sins, as written in the Scriptures; that he was buried and that he was raised to life three days later, as written in the Scriptures, just as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:3,4.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

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