My guess is that most Americans either don't know or don't think much about Christians in Iran. The country is, after all, the Islamic Republic of Iran, a theocratic state where Islam is the state religion.
While Islam is certainly the dominant religion, there presently are Christians in Iran, and they trace their roots there back to the 5th century. There are a number of significant minority populations in Iran (including about 25,000 Jews who have a representative in the Iranian Parliament), with the largest being ethnic Armenians. The vast majority of Armenians are Christians, with most identifying as Orthodox Christians.
We had the privilege of actually meeting with the Archbishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church during our visit to Iran. Archbishop Sebu Sarkissian was a very charismatic leader who welcomed our delegation and spoke with us about the ethnic and religious community of Armenians.
There is a limited amount of religious freedom for Armenian Christians, as they are free to worship on a regular basis, and they have schools that are supported in part by the government. Within those schools, religious education is actually a part of the curriculum, and therefore, Christian education is allowed by the state.
There is also a smaller Armenian evangelical Christian community in Iran, numbering around 2,000. This community dates back over 100 years to missionary work established by the Presbyterian Church (USA). We had a wonderful meeting with the pastor of the largest Armenian evangelical church in Tehran, and I was asked to preach at their weekly worship service. Due to the fact that Friday is the Islamic day of worship, most Christian churches hold services on Friday morning.
While there is freedom of worship for Christians, there is not complete religious freedom such as that found in our country. Proselytizing is actually a crime in Iran, so being an "evangelical" has a very different meaning there. To be honest, I didn't know much about the Christian community in Iran prior to this trip, and I did not go prepared to preach a sermon. It was quite an honor, however, to be asked to preach to a group of Christians who are a minority group in an Islamic-dominated country. It was an even greater privilege to worship with a group of people who have experienced some difficult times in the last 27 years as a community. I took the opportunity to try and encourage them as best I could, and chose Hebrews Chapter 11 as the text for my message. Following are some of the excerpts:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1)
I want you all to know that we have come to Iran as Christians, not as representatives of our government. We have come because we share a deep love for Jesus Christ and a belief that Jesus was a healer and peacemaker. During this time of increased tensions between our nations, we have come as followers of Christ to listen to the Iranian people, to learn about your country, and to return home and share with our churches and the American people what we have experienced while here in Iran, with the hope that it might have an impact on the policies of our own government. Today, however, I didn't come to talk about politics or peace. I came to talk briefly about faith and hope.
As Paul says to the Corinthians, after love, there probably are not two more important aspects of our faith in Jesus Christ than faith and hope. I know in my own faith journey it was love that freed me from the bondage of sin in my life, but it was faith and hope that enabled me to see the possibilities the future might hold.
In this letter to the Hebrews, the author is laying out to his Jewish audience the basis for faith in Jesus Christ, and the faithfulness of God throughout human history. If you read through Chapter 11, the writer takes us on a journey through the scriptures, demonstrating the power of faith and hope in the lives of His people. It reads like an Old Testament Hall of Fame, with stories of Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Joshua, and Rahab.
What an amazing and inspiring passage of scripture.
I believe the author is telling us here, "Look at all these ordinary people who did extraordinary things because of the faith they had in God and the hope they had for the future. In spite of impossible and often terrible circumstances, God was faithful. In the face of death and destruction, God was faithful to deliver his people. In spite of disobedience, God was still faithful." If that does not inspire hope, I don't know what will.
And I don't believe the faithfulness of God ended with the stories here in Hebrews. The story of God's faithfulness continues even to today, and gives us reason to hope. In the face of personal struggles in our own lives, the faithfulness of God offers us hope. In the face of persecution, faith in God gives us hope. In the face of war, we have faith in God and hope for peace.
I guess I want to leave you this morning with a new translation of Hebrews 11:1 that my boss, Jim Wallis, shares with people as he speaks around the world. He says, "Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and watching the evidence change."
Hope is not a feeling. Hope is a decision. It is a decision to stare the evidence of the challenges right before our eyes, and have faith that God can change the evidence. May each of us leave the sanctuary this morning walking in faith and the hope of the power of God in our lives.
Jeff Carr is the Chief Operations Officer for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. Learn more about this delegation at http://www.irandelegation.org/.