NOTE: This is the text of a sermon given by Jwan Zhumbes, the Anglican Bishop of Bukuru, Nigeria, at churches in Birmingham and Cullman, Alabama. Many of you requested a written version of his message. Here it is.
Part of the Christian and church family worldwide has been under siege for years now. This is orchestrated by forces inimical to the gospel of Christ. Parts of Nigeria, including where I come from, have been under attack by the Muslim sects the Fulani Herdsmen Militia and the Boko Haram, terrorist groups which it is said are in league with ISIS. The target of these terrorist groups which have been described as the most dangerous in the world, has been largely the Christian community in Nigeria. These targeted attacks in the past ten years rose to an unprecedented height, such that Christians have been maimed, killed, and driven in the hundreds of thousands from their homes and ancestral lands.
The worst hit in Plateau State, one the 36 states in Nigeria and where I come from, is the Attakar Clan of the Diocese of Bukuru. Until January this year, not a single soul of that clan could freely go back to their ancestral land. It is on record that not less than thirty people were killed weekly between 2010 and 2016 within parts of the Bukuru diocese. These attacks have come with attendant consequences in destroyed lives, displaced people, scuttled children’s education, destroyed businesses, and other various means of livelihood.
What are the underpinnings of these sources of antagonism and triggers? Underneath the violence of Islamism as an ideology, a practice where Islam is taken as inseparable from politics and therefore governance, are the deeper systemic issues:
Sour relationships between rival political factions
Power grabs by politicians who may be either Muslims or Christian imposters who manipulate religion to gain power
Competition for economic resources
Posh political appointments to government posts
Poverty, unemployment, and limited economic opportunities for the common people
A government that is corrupt, closed, and indifferent to the needs of its people
Insecurity and inadequate provision and access to basic social services
The resultant effect of all of this within the region of Nigeria where I live is unprecedented persecution, huge casualty rates, and massive displacement of the people, who, for many years now, largely live in refugee camps.
It is important for us to know that the test of our faith as Christians comes in different forms. For those of us in Nigeria and most African countries, it is suffering due to poverty and hunger, corruption, bad governance, insecurity manifesting itself in armed robbery, banditry, kidnapping, and such vices.
In the West – America and Europe – comfort and excess comfort is putting the Christian faith to the test. In fact, concerning our relationship with God, it is easier to stick with him when suffering than to remain true to him when your wealth so swells and every comfort is around you.
Either way, if we do not stand in Christ alone, we are bereft of all that matters.
Hinder not your Christian testimony – enhance it (verses 3 – 4a):
“We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way”:
This passage of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church is a recounting of his ministry in a harsh and hostile environment where he served among a people antagonistic to the gospel. In these one-and-a-half verses we see the apostle Paul depicting the Christian as being a remover of faith stumbling blocks for those who are being reached with the gospel. He sees the Christian as one who should gain more credit for the gospel and not in any way discredit it by their lives, thus lose credit, reducing its value, its rating, and its influence among seekers. By these words of his he sells an example of his life and his colleagues to us. He points out that they, in every way possible, commended themselves to their audience for the sake of the gospel. And I advocate that so should we today as we cannot do any less.
You and I are the signpost of Christ, his ambassadors and our lives will either attract and point seekers to him or distract and send them away from him ever plummeting in their lost state. Our lives will either commend the onlooker to the gospel or have us condemned before them, leaving them having nothing to do with it. Our professions and lives will either draw those in search of Christ to him or push them further away from him. How may we then commend ourselves to the world generally and to our fellow Christians around the world who may be suffering? What are some of the glaring stumbling blocks in our way that could discredit and therefore fail in commending the gospel to others? Could it be race, colour, language, wealth, comfort, safety, the pleasures and ease of life? In themselves, these things are good and God-given. And the Christian person, the ones so endowed, are meant by God to use them to promote the gospel of Christ.
The early missionaries to Nigeria abandoned their comfort zones, their safety, ignored race and colour, and risked their lives to reach us with the gospel. A good number of them were persecuted and killed by wild men, and where men did not persecute them, mosquitoes, harsh weather and bad water did. The Fox brothers, Bateman, Kumn, Burt, Bristow, Maxwell, Miler and a host of others of the Christian Missionary Society extraction. Some of them were medical doctors, engineers, and other professionals, and all placed their lives on the line for the sake of the gospel. And this they did out of nothing but love for the people who were not their race, nationality, colour, or language. By their risks and sacrifices, they added credit to the gospel and commended it to the people of Africa and Nigerians in particular.
And that is why I today stand before you as a Christian and preacher of the Word. The risk and sacrifices of these people sowed the seed of my salvation, for I did not see any of them that I have mentioned as I was not yet born. Yet I am a huge beneficiary of their sacrifices. It is this kind of risk that paved the way for me to be with you at this point in the course of history. Someone seated here dared all the consequences of today’s extraordinarily dangerous Nigeria, stuck out his neck, courageously risked his life, and flew into Nigeria. He, by this singular act, gained credit for the gospel and commended it. For what an encouragement he is to me and my ministry. What an encouragement he has been to the Diocese of Bukuru where I have oversight! What encouragement he has been to the harshly persecuted church of God in that part of the world! Do such risk takers not make real and bring alive Christ’s words to his disciples when he said, “Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends” (John15:13)? Larry Alex Taunton laid down his life for the gospel. And I salute the courage of Lauri his wife and his children for sacrificing him for that missionary journey. I also salute his sponsors for laying up their treasure in heaven and sending him to us and to others.
Beloved child of God, may you know that you never excite or impress heaven when you, as a Christian, attempt to keep your life. But you quickly draw heaven’s attention when you lay it down for the sake of the gospel, and for the sake of your friends. For it is only in laying down your life that you can give life to others. That is exactly what it took of Jesus Christ to give you and me life! He laid his life on the cross of Calvary, died, and from there transferred life to all who believe. Kept lives are not as useful to God as poured out and spent ones. After all, nothing that is of this world can keep you alive forever. If there were, then death would be a matter restricted to the enclave of the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed of this world. Yet, hear what Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).
But how do you lay down your life for others? Your substance is part of your life. When you sacrificially give it out for the sake of the gospel, you have laid down your life. Your talent is part of your life. When you use it selflessly for the sake of the gospel, you have laid down your life. Your life is you. If you risk it by going, or by earnestly praying, you have offered to God what the apostle Paul calls the living sacrifice, all for the sake of promoting the gospel.
For not all of us are equally graced. Someone may have the faith and courage to risk taking the gospel to the persecuted parts of the world. Another person may not have such a grace. But he may have the resources and can fund the risk taker. Some other person may not go, may not have the means to sponsor, but would never have their knees spared devotedly praying for the expansion of the gospel. You can see that the propagation of the gospel takes synergy. Everyone has a part to play. Brothers and sisters of the American Church, this leaves no one with an excuse not to be part of God’s grand agenda: the spread of the gospel of Christ for the salvation humankind. Have you taken your place and are you actively acting your part? Are you given to clearing the impediments to the gospel so that you can reach the unreached, reach the reached but persecuted and impoverished? Are you commending the gospel through your profession and life? Through going? Through funding? And through praying?
No pleasure ride for the practicing Christian (verses 4b – 10):
“In great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, in imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and the left; through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as imposters; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying and yet we live on; beaten, yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
From what the apostle Paul poured out here of his encounter as he propagates the gospel, and from personal experience, I can confidently tell you that on this side of eternity there is no pleasure ride for the genuine and practicing Christian. Dear brothers and sisters, the trip to dispensing the gospel here and now is not a fun trip. It is very costly. It will cost us our comfort, our resources and pleasure, our time and our energy, our families and friends; it may cost our lives. Therefore, to draw humanity to Christ and to have them live on for him until eternity is ours, is not a ride of ease, but one that will see us journey into storms, hurricanes, and tsunamis of persecutions of many kinds.
Paul’s persecution experience here and his unflinching stand for the gospel resonates with me and the Christians in Nigeria. For the faith of the Christians in my part of Nigeria has been brutally tested and is still being tested through suffering. We have bitterly partaken – and are still partaking – of the cup of persecution. For their faith’s sake, many Christians have been pierced and left for dead by sharpened knives, the blades of swords, and gunned-down by bullets from the barrels of AK-47s. The church in Nigeria has endured persecution, has seen troubles of every kind, has gone and is still going through hardship and distresses, some of its leaders and members have been imprisoned times without number.
Riots and mob actions have been staged against us on the flimsy excuse that the name of Mohammed has been profaned. That the Quran has been desecrated. That they are fasting, therefore Christians should not eat in their presence. Or even that they were doing salah Muslim prayer and a Christian woman passed by their mosque. The Christians are denied land in core Muslim states for building churches, and where they have churches in city centres, their certificates of occupancy have been revoked and the members of such churches sent packing from those locations.
Christians indigenous to the core Muslim states are discriminated against in employment, promotion, and political appointments. We have had sleepless nights, have suffered and are still suffering hunger. We have had to stay awake and be ready to run for our lives as vigilantes in our various communities attack us. We have had to be ready to defend ourselves and check the intrusion and sudden attacks by the Boko Haram terrorists or the Fulani Herdsmen Militia. Personally I have gone through the traumatizing experience of seeing the brains of my cousin’s brother-in-law blown out by a Boko Haram bomb blast, and the painful experience of nursing this cousin of mine whom God miraculously saved from the same bomb blast. He was left with a body infested with bits and pieces of metallic objects.
In spite of their persecution, the Christians in Nigeria have remained resolute and have not contaminated their faith. Rather, they have struggled to keep it pure. They have continued to seek the understanding of the Word of God. This they do in order not to discredit it but to commend it to the seeker as they determinedly live on for the Lord. They have demonstrated resilience, have shown patience and kindness to even those who persecute them. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and in sincere love, they have extended the olive branch of peace to their persecutors. In truthful speech and the power of God, they have genuinely spoken out against the persecution meted out on them. They have called for government intervention and a stop to it. They would rather carry the sword of the Spirit and the weapon of righteousness that is the Bible in their right and left hands instead of the weapons of mass destruction: the knife, the sword, and the AK-47.
When they are demonized and dishonoured, when good or bad report is given on them, they remain unwavering and ever determined to commend themselves to their detractors for the sake of the gospel. They are the true believers, yet regarded as infidels and called derogatory names. They do not seek to be known, yet they cannot be avoided. They have been beaten severely and are dying in their numbers, yet the faith of the survivors lives on. They are, at the moments of persecution, sorrowful, yet always seen rejoicing shortly afterwards. They do feel dejected, depressed and distressed, but get on joyfully with life shortly after every persecution or threat. They have nothing, and indeed are materially poor, yet possessing everything are spiritually rich, having the Word of Life and making others rich in the Word.
These and many other forms of persecution, the church in Nigeria – and particularly those of us in the central and northeastern parts of the country – has endured, yet never giving up on our faith in Christ, so that the gospel may live on and bless many. Christians are still enduring and persevering in order to commend themselves to a world that is aggressive to their faith. It may be of interest to know that the churches in these volatile areas still dare to go on missions, to evangelize, and to plant churches even as they are burned and attacked. Whenever the heat of persecution is hot, we pause for a while. But the moment there is a window of peace, we set out again for mission and evangelism. This is the state of the church in my part of Nigeria.
What about the American church?
What do people in my part of the world think of it? I, coming from that part of world, personally and absolutely believe that there are great and wonderful Christian people in America. That it is host to some of the best Christian practitioners and models of Christianity in today’s world. There are still people in America that will let spill their last drop of blood for the sake of the gospel. And the persecuted and impoverished world still looks up to America for the defense and protection of the gospel. But can the American church be that reliable? Can it be that dependable? America is the world power militarily, economically, technologically, and scientifically. Could it also lead the world in the defense, protection, preservation, and propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
But generally what is Christianity like for the church in the West and in America in particular? It seem to me that because it lives and swims in the midst of good security, peace, affluence and comfort, its first love for Christ has grown cold. It is so comfortable that little thought is taken of God, and where that does happen he has to deal with the individual person on their own terms and not his. With abundance around humanity in security, peace, wealth, health and comfort, the most natural tendency is to forget God and hinge the whole of life on your own ability. And where the majority, due to material endowment gives up on God, we cannot avoid idolatry. Hear then the caution Moses gave the Israelites as they attempted to settle down in the Promised Land:
“Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees…. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large, and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Deuteronomy 8:11-14).
The very common temptation of those who have prospered is to forget how they obtained their wealth or comfort, how they got to where they are today, and who is responsible for raising them up in this way. The temptation is to project, magnify, and glorify themselves.
When humankind begins to believe in things – their positions and possessions rather than he who is the source of everything – then comes pride and idolatry. Through life, I have come to the conclusion that when God blesses you he brings responsibility to test your handling of such blessings. If the American Church is blessed, then you have a responsibility for your Christian brothers and sisters in the persecuted and impoverished parts of the world: in Bukuru diocese, in Nigeria, Africa, India, Asia and such parts of the world. And as you do this, your eyes are opened to the needs around you. Your hearts must be determined to remove the stumbling blocks of security, peace, and comfort that stand in your way to reaching out and commending yourselves to the persecuted church of the world. You are to check and do away with whatever in your lives discredits the gospel.
Dear Christian, has the Lord so blessed you that you might be a blessing to his church? Then go ahead and bless! Has he promoted you that you might touch the lives of others elsewhere and outside of your comfort zone? Then get up and reach out! Has he equipped you with the faith and courage to go? Then procrastinate not, leave and go! Has he so shaped you for prayers for mission? Then fervently pray!
Conclusion – Jesus will soon come. Will He find you faithful or not?
Jesus Christ will soon come. When he comes will he find me a faithful Christian who has endured and persevered through all forms of sufferings for the sake of the gospel? Will he find you a faithful Christian who has made your comfortable circumstances, your resources, talents, time, and energy available to furnish the propagation of the gospel? Will your comfort, like my suffering, discredit and condemn me before Jesus on the day of judgement, or commend and credit you and me with the crown of life eternal?
Remember that comfort, like suffering, tests our commitment to Christ and his gospel.
Remember that while one part of the church is persecuted and suffering, another part is too comfortable and practicing its faith in an atmosphere of peace and ease.
We need each other.
Remember not to hinder your Christian testimony, but to enhance and commend it to others and the world in which you live.
Remember that standing for the gospel while passing through this life is no pleasure ride for the practicing Christian.
And finally, remember that to commend yourself to the seeker and to a persecuted church takes love, sacrifice, endurance, and perseverance and is a very risky and costly venture.
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