"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."
There are people right now claiming Jesus as their savior in the face of incredible oppression – not some of the cosmetic persecution that we like to make a big deal about, Larsen says. (Photo: Facebook/Youcef Nardarkhani)
– John 16:33
Three years ago in Iran, a pastor named Youcef Nardarkhani was jailed and sentenced to death for "apostasy," which means "a total desertion of or departure from one's religion, principles, party, cause, etc."
Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012, after more than three years in prison, he was freed.
After appearing before the Iranian Supreme Court, he was acquitted of apostasy but found guilty of a lesser crime of "evangelizing to Muslims," which carries with it a three-year prison sentence.
The court granted him time served, and he was reunited with his family.
This is an incredible turn of events. We should celebrate that our brother in Christ has been reunited with his family and is able to continue the work that God has called him to.
At many turns, Youcef's sentence could have been carried out. God is good.
I have learned several things from this incident.
First, the power of prayer has not been diminished. The number of people who have prayed for Youcef has been countless, and God is still in the business of listening to people. This is nothing short of a miracle, and all praise to God for that.
I have also learned that there is persecution in the world. Youcef's story is not an isolated incident. There are people right now claiming Jesus as their savior in the face of incredible oppression – not some of the cosmetic persecution that we like to make a big deal about.
Our prayers for them need to be as strong and fervent as our prayers for Youcef. Our prayer should be that they remain faithful despite the cost. Our prayer should be that they rest in Paul's assertion that for us to live is Christ and to die is gain.
I also learned that we live in an amazing country. I am a professional minister, and I can minister to people without fear of being thrown in prison.
I serve an incredible group of people at my church, and I am thankful God has called me to this place. There is nothing stopping me from worshipping, speaking about or glorifying Jesus, and I understand that this freedom is an amazing thing.
I understand that some believe this freedom is in jeopardy. I don't agree with that; at any rate, I have a mentality that worshipping Jesus is not contingent on whatever freedom we may or may not have.
Ask Youcef if our First Amendment rights in this country entered into his decision-making process when he decided to follow Jesus.
After being imprisoned for more than three years and staring death in the face the entire time, I think we can guess his response.
I celebrate Youcef's release, but his call is no different from ours: to follow Jesus with all our mind, body, soul and strength, without regard for popularity and the possibility of oppression, arrest or death.
Youcef is free. And so are we.
Phillip Larsen is director of student ministries at First United Methodist Church in Livingston, Texas. He also manages a blog at larsenphillip.wordpress.com.