Has it become harder to live with integrity as a follower of Jesus...more difficult to practice faith in our society today? In 2016, International Christian Concern (persecution.org) included the United States in its "Hall of Shame" list for the very first time, ranking it as a country in which a kind of persecution of Christians is occurring. High-profile lawsuits and proposed anti-discrimination legislation in the news seems to impinge on the rights of Christians and their beliefs (as well as of other religious groups) across our land. Try as I might, though, I can never summon up the impression that the church, even in 21st-century America, is truly "persecuted." Churches in our country are not being closed down. Christian converts are not being rounded up, arrested, and killed. And Christian advocacy groups are not being hampered in their efforts to lobby the government the way everybody else is. Yet, something in our culture has shifted. Perhaps a more accurate term than "persecuted" would be: "sidelined"..."misunderstood." Recently, Juli and I recorded and watched the 1959 rendition of "Ben-Hur" (rebroadcast on PBS). It is difficult to imagine a film that so unapologetically champions the fundamentals of the Christian faith being critically acclaimed and eagerly received today as this film once was. Christianity may not be under attack everywhere in the United States today, but those who view it as extremist and irrelevant have indeed grown.
Enter St. Peter, a truly persecuted follower of Jesus, on trial before the rulers in Jerusalem much the way Jesus had been not long before. Peter and John had been imprisoned for "teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead" (Acts 4:2). Now, though uneducated, ordinary men, they stand before the authorities asked to give a response to the question of by "what power or name" they have brought healing to a man born lame. Their answer: "By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth...whom God raised from the dead--by Him this man is standing before you well." This is not the same Peter who had denied Jesus three times. This is the Peter truly enlivened by the risen Christ! Peter risks life and limb to give an answer for his actions. In the Book of Acts alone, he would be imprisoned two more times (see chapters 5 and 12). Though like all of us, Peter still had his moments (St. Paul doesn't let us forget that Peter once kowtowed to the powers-that-be in the church...see Galatians 2:12), he was empowered by the Holy Spirit to the Easter-inspired work of bringing life to a world in need.
You may not be called to the extreme faith and ministry of St. Peter, today. But wherever life takes you this week, God calls you winsomely to take the risk of identifying with the crucified and risen Christ. Is someone else's question of why you live out your Easter joy the way you do liable to get you ostracized or misunderstood? You may not be persecuted, but you may indeed be taken less seriously or even sidelined by others. Still, even when it seems that no one is listening, God uses your witness to bring life where you least expect it. Let's keep those who are members of the persecuted church worldwide, in our prayers, today. But as people who follow in the wake of the first apostles, let us not turn away from the opportunity to answer anyone who asks us the reason for the hope that is in us. With God-gifted humility and unexpected Easter joy, God also supplies the courage we need. God uses you and me to spread the gift of Life around.