To the Church at Smyrna

8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

9 “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” (Revelation 2:8–11 ESV)

Do not be afraid.

Wherever that is said in scripture — usually directly by God, or an angel, or from God through an anointed leader like Moses — you have the gospel, the Good News of God for the people of God. For humanity. For the world.

Outwardly, Jesus is not calling upon this community to repent of anything. But he is telling them, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” Jesus already knows what this church deals with — struggle, suffering, oppression, affliction, evil, poverty, destitution, and the slander of those who claim to be God’s people but clearly are not — and he is calling them to remain faithful in the face of what appears to be much worse to come.

Be faithful unto death, Jesus says, because what matters is not death itself, the death we see, the death we think is the final end, but “the second death.” This is the first mention of “the second death” in Revelation, something spoken of nowhere else in scripture. This “second death” has no power over the martyred dead, those who die bearing witness to Christ and will rise to rule with him (20:6), and “the second death” is the consigning of Death and Hades — the place of the dead, which Jesus holds the keys to (1:18) — themselves to “the lake of fire,” which is the fate of all those who are not found in the “Book of Life” (20:6). The “lake of fire” and “the second death” will also become home to

… the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.(Revelation 21:8 ESV)

But we who are faithful unto death, who bear tribulation as Christ bore the sin of the world on the Cross, who conquered death by dying, we will receive a crown of life.

Be faithful, Jesus says. And do not be afraid.

Three Cheers for Religious Liberty!

Something clearly needs to be done about the training given to Catholic priests.

BATON ROUGE, La. — A Louisiana judge has struck down a state requirement that clergy members report suspected child abuse even if they learn about it during a private confessional.

State District Judge Mike Caldwell ruled Friday that the requirement — a Louisiana Children’s Code provision — violates the constitutionally protected religious freedom rights of a Roman Catholic priest accused of neglecting his duty to report a teenager’s abuse allegations to authorities.

The Advocate reports that Caldwell ruled in favor of the Rev. Jeff Bayhi in a lawsuit that 22-year-old Rebecca Mayeaux filed against the priest and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge in 2009.

Mayeaux says she was 14 in 2008 when she told Bayhi during confession that a 64-year-old parishioner was sexually abusing her. Mayeaux claims Bayhi, pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption church in Clinton, told her to “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.”

Bayhi, the priest who heard the young woman’s confession, is making a claim in this case that no one ought to support:

“We’re just always happy when the court upholds religious liberties,” Bayhi said as he left the courthouse.

If this becomes a definition of religious liberty, then we ought to lose it. Yesterday if possible.

However, I think what bothers me here is less the court’s ruling — I can grudgingly accept the court protecting the sanctity of the confessional. It is the allegation that the priest told the young woman, who was 14 when she reported this, to “sweep it under the floor.”

Instead, the priest — who probably failed to appreciate the gravity of this confession, and how difficult it was for this young woman to make — needed to tell her: “That’s not right, no one should hurt you like that, and you should report it. And I will help you and stand with you if you need me to.”

He should have encouraged her and empowered her. Not her abuser. He should have helped her find a voice to speak. And not silenced her.

The bishop, of course, is busy defending the ruling as upholding the First Amendment. Bully for him. I would hope he’d talk to his priests about the proper ways to help people who confess being sexually abused, but I won’t hold my breath. There are secrets to be kept. And a social order to be protected. Who cares about the well-being of 14-year-old girls anyway?

I think, however, I’m going to go through the gospels. Clearly I missed that place where Jesus cared more about the free exercise of religion than he did the weak, the powerless, and the vulnerable.