It’s just not safe. Those are the words I recently heard from a man I invited to church. We were hosting our Fall Festival at a central location in the community. As I went around talking with families and inviting them to church, some expressed interest in coming. Others said that they already have a church. Still others came up with some other reason why they would not be able to come.
But one response caught me off guard. The man was a veteran. And based on our brief conversation, it seemed clear that he was dealing with some emotional and psychological issues resulting from his military service. After a little small talk, I invited him to church. His response surprised me. I’ve heard a lot of excuses…ehr…I mean…reasons why people don’t go to church. But I had never heard this one. He said, “It’s just not safe.” He went on to tell me that he believed his family was safer at home. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. To be honest, I kind of dismissed his concern in my mind. I chalked it up either to his PTSD issues or just a general lack of desire to come to church.
Then on November 5, 2017, a gunman walked into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas and opened fire on the vulnerable congregation gathered there for morning worship. The death toll now stands at 26. Others are injured. This is a small church. The percentage of the congregation either killed or injured is extremely high. And this wasn’t the first time something like this happened. Nine people were shot and killed at Emanuel AME Church in June 2015 by a white supremacist. It seems that hate crimes against churches are on the rise.
Was the man at our Fall Festival right? Is it not safe to attend a church service in America? I have to be honest. I did not have any feelings of fear or uncertainty as I drove to church yesterday morning. And even recognizing that something like this could happen to any church anywhere, I doubt I will be overcome with fear or uncertainty this coming Sunday as our church gathers again. But maybe the guy at our Fall Festival was right. Maybe it’s not safe to attend church anymore.
Yesterday was the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. I’ve been preaching through the book of Acts and am now halfway through chapter 17. So yesterday in my sermon, I took the opportunity to survey Acts and the persecution we’ve seen through the first 17 chapters. I spoke of the reality, root, and result of persecution in Acts. I hope you like my Rs. I then ended my sermon by considering the early church’s response to persecution in Acts. Another R word.
We do not yet know the motives of the murderer in Texas, but perhaps the early church’s response to the persecution they faced can help us think about how we should respond in the aftermath of another deadly shooting in a church.
1) They rejoiced.
This one was hard enough to preach yesterday before the shooting. It’s even harder to write today. I’m not sure I know exactly what rejoicing looks like in the midst of a tragedy like yesterday’s shooting. But I can’t get around verses like Acts 5:41.
Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.
Paul wrote in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Paul wasn’t out of touch when it comes to suffering. He knew what it was like to be beaten, stoned, and imprisoned. Yet he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
The early church rejoiced in the midst of persecution because they knew that their suffering was part of their identification with Christ. They knew that to suffer with Jesus meant they would also be glorified with Him. Their hope was in the Lord and not in their circumstances. They knew that either God was going to deliver them from their suffering or they were going to leave and go be with God in heaven. I really don’t mean to sound trite or insensitive here. But even (especially?) in the midst of intense suffering, as Christians, we must find a way to rejoice in the Lord.
I believe that the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas will find a way to do just that. We know that the surviving members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston did just that when they looked a murderer in the eyes and forgave him, forgiveness that is only possible because of Jesus and His shed blood on the cross.
2) They prayed.
This is how the early church responded in Acts 4 to the very first instance of Christian persecution. After Peter and John were released, the church gathered together and prayed. It’s interesting that while they may have prayed for God’s protection, their primary prayer was for boldness in the face of persecution.
This is how we ended our service yesterday. We prayed for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world. We prayed for those who persecute. We prayed that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ would continue to go forth in even the darkest places in our world. Little did we know that God would hear our general prayer for the persecuted as a specific prayer for the people of FBC Sutherland Springs.
Most of us will never physically wrap our arms around the survivors of this attack. We won’t be able to offer words of hope or sit in silence, mourning with those who mourn. But we can pray. We are FBC Sutherland Springs. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ. And when one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers.
3) They trusted the Lord.
This is an obvious theme in the book of Acts. The early church was marked by a deep-seated trust in the Lord. They didn’t always understand their circumstances. They hardly ever knew what was ahead. Yet they trusted the Lord. It was their trust in the Lord that allowed them to rejoice in the midst of suffering and pray for boldness in the face of intense persecution.
We have not yet heard a lot from the people directly affected by this tragedy, but I’m sure that we will. And when we do, I believe we will hear testimony of how our God is strengthening the faith of His people through suffering. The Christian’s trust is not in safety or the absence of suffering. The Christian’s trust is in the Lord, and that trust seems to be only strengthened through persecution and suffering.
4) They kept on preaching.
Paul was stoned, and he kept on preaching. He was thrown in prison, and he kept on preaching. He was run out of Thessalonica, so he went to Berea and kept on preaching. You get the picture. The people of God cannot be silenced by persecution and suffering. In fact, God’s people are emboldened by suffering.
Pastor Frank Pomeroy was not present when 26 members of his congregation were murdered, but his 14-year-old daughter was. She was among those murdered. The healing process will be long and hard. It will never be complete on this side of eternity. But I trust that Pastor Pomeroy will stand and preach again.
So is it safe to attend church? I’m not sure. I do not feel scared, but I think I now understand why others might. But as Christians, regardless of whether or not it is safe, we continue to gather together. In fact, this coming Sunday, Christians will once again gather in churches across America and throughout the world. Some will do so under threat of persecution. Some will do so wondering whether it will be the last time they gather with their brothers and sisters in Christ on this side of eternity.
But one thing is sure: the people of God will gather. We will keep on preaching. And we will do so knowing that there is coming a day when all the redeemed will gather around the throne of our God in worship to Him. We will do so then with no fear of persecution or death. Only gratitude to the Lamb who laid down His life for us.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come!