Sunday’s readings Acts 1:15-17. 21-26 Psalm 1 1 John 5:9-13 John 17:6-19
Recently news was received from the tiny country of Bhutan, high in the Himalayas. The US doesn’t get much news from that part of the world, and this news was not published in the New York Times or even on the Drudge Report. It arrived via a newsletter from OpenDoors.com. The news stated that Christians were hopeful they could continue meeting in private homes while they continue to attempt to be classified as a legitimate religion in Bhutan. In this remote Himalayan country, the official religion is Buddhism. Bhutan is classified as a kingdom, but it is transitioning to a form of democracy which already includes a legislature. Early in the process of learning democracy the national legislature passed a law called The National Religious Organizations Act. Religions not named in that act are considered to be unlawful. Furthermore, no religion, even presumably the lawful ones, may engage in proselytizing, particularly if some inducement is offered to converts. Christians have difficulty making their case for legitimacy due to allegations that they offer a reward to people who agree to convert. There was no hint in the news article what the alleged reward is, but it may be that the promise of eternal life is deemed by the government to be an inducement.
From the comfortable vantage point of the USA it is difficult to imagine a country where religions must be recognized by the government in order to be allowed to exist. This problem is more common than Western Christians realize. In Africa and Asia it is not at all uncommon for there to be strict regulations for religions. In our country we can call join any religion we like, or none at all, and we meet wherever and whenever we wish. We are free to publicly argue all sorts of religious question among ourselves. Christians get upset when people want to stop using the greeting “Merry Christmas,” but that complaint looks quite lame compared to arrest, imprisonment and even torture, which are common in many countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian. We can hardly imagine that there are at least 50 countries in the world where it isn’t always safe to be a Christian.
Jesus could imagine it. He knew it was coming. In fact, the night before Jesus was scourged nearly to death and nailed to a cross to finish the job, he prayed for the Christians in Bhutan, and Laos and Eritrea and China and North Korea and all the other countries where simply claiming to be a Christian is risky business.
Today’s gospel is only a small selection from John 17, a chapter sometimes labeled “Christ’s High Priestly Prayer.” Our reading does not include the words that made the prayer so far-reaching in scope, verse 20 where Jesus said, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” Facing misery and grief none of us can really imagine, Jesus paused to pray for the disciples he already knew would abandon him in his hour of need, and for all the people who would be their descendants in the family of faith, including you and me.
We need his prayers. We may not be at risk of arrest if our neighbors find out we are Christians, but we have received the same commission the disciples received, and the pressure from the world around us to shut up about it is immense. On this fateful night Jesus told his disciples that they could expect to be hated, and he did not pray that they would not be hated. That is our kind of prayer. We pray to be rescued. We want to prevent bad things from happening. We hope God will put up a shield around us so we don’t get hurt. It is almost shocking to read that Jesus did not pray that we be rescued. Jesus prayed instead that we be sanctified.
Jesus knew that we would face personal insults, cultural rejection and both cultural and state persecution. Yet he prayed that we would meet our attackers with sanctification. He asked us to be dedicated and consecrated and blessed, but he did not ask for us to escape our enemies.
The prayer for our sanctification builds on his words to the disciples. Jesus had given the disciples the words his Father gave to him. The disciples treasured those words the way the Psalmist in today’s reading treasured Torah. Jesus had promised that when the disciples were dragged away by their persecutors the Holy Spirit would remind them of those words and give them the right words to speak their testimony. The disciples later wrote down Jesus’ words and deeds and we have them for our nourishment in the Bible. Since Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for them, the words the Holy Spirit gives us in the time of need are weapons of love and truth. Jesus prayed that his followers under threat would be sanctified, and the history of the church confirms that this is what happens. The stories of the martyrs who suffered and died for the faith over the past 2000 years are clear evidence that the persecuted are blessed by the Holy Spirit with powerful testimony, they are consecrated to love and service to Christ above all other loyalties, but very seldom are they rescued.
In Bhutan, Christians are under threat from both the culture and the state. Yet, scorned culturally and persecuted by their neighbors and by the government, they continue to live their faith and give their testimonies. We can be thankful that we do not need to worship in secret and hide our religion when we apply for work or buy a house. We can be thankful that nobody is likely to take our Bibles away from us if we show them in public. The story of Bhutan Christians ought to inspire us to emulate their courage when we are the object of scathing insults on the internet, or when our employers forbid us to say, “Merry Christmas.” Jesus prayed for us to be strong in the world and to be prepared for its hatred, and to be ready with a response that is loving and truthful. May we live in deep relationship with Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit in order to be ready to respond to the onslaught of cultural and legal attacks on Christianity with a sanctified testimony.