By Erik Laursen –
“But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” Romans 7:6
It was Orthodox Good Friday and we had just landed in the Ethiopian Orthodox Holy City of Lalibela. It’s a mysterious place, with 10 incredible churches completely carved out of stone, some into the ground, some into the sides of mountains, all unexplainable.
Multitudes of Orthodox followers dressed in white filled every square inch of the church grounds as the priest would chant and ring a bell and they would all cross their hands over the chest, bow to their knees, then bow their head to the floor over and over and over again according to how many sins they had confessed to the priest over the last year.
Physically, it was simply stunning to consider that the majority had been adhering to a sunrise to sundown fast from meat and rich food for the previous week, it was probably 80 degrees outside, and they were doing this ritual non-stop all day long. As a man that can run 5 miles without a break, I am quite certain I could not do this ritual of worship for more than 5 minutes.
As I continued to squeeze through the group with my guide I noticed many other tourists doing the same. I couldn’t help but become dismayed. On the one end, these were people devoted to their worship ceremony while tourists tromped through their special devotional time with cameras and chatter.
On the other end, they were celebrating Good Friday and completely missing the entire point of the holiday. Jesus was tortured and died on the cross so that we would NOT have to do such ceremonies, sacrifices, and rituals in order to gain God’s approval and be forgiven of sin. The more and more I considered the situation, the more I wanted to leave this town.
Persecuting Christians in the name of Jesus?
“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” 1 John 4:20
As we departed the ceremonies I crammed myself into a bajaj or tuk-tuk (3 wheel India style taxi) where nobody could see me and began the most dangerous trek in a bajaj I had ever done. Over large hills, on cobblestone and pot-hole dirt roads, I was certain we would tip over numerous times. After the longest 15 minutes of my life I landed at our partner church.
Our small team of US donors had to be discreet in this place so we couldn’t just show up in a typical rented van because the Ethiopian Orthodox have absolutely no tolerance for any other religion and seeing Americans show up to this house church would most certainly cause persecution of the church after we left.
You will not find Mosques or Evangelical/Protestant Churches anywhere. In fact you can read one of many stories of persecution online if you just search persecution in Lalibella. https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/the-5-5-5-challenge-a-story-of-persecution-in-ethiopia/
As we walked into the small compound the pastor showed us a small 10ft x 10ft room that had served as their church up until two weeks ago. We then walked around the corner to see a large property with a small structure that had actually been given to the church but the local authorities came and put locks on all the doors to prevent them from using it as a church. We then learned that the owner of the house next door was an Evangelical Christian and had decided to rent the full house to the Church, it was clear that God was giving this small persecuted church some favor in the midst of one of the hardest places on earth to be a follower of Jesus!
Encouraging the Persecuted Church
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11
We listened to story upon story of persecution, rocks thrown, people beaten, shops destroyed, houses destroyed, burial rights denied, and more. All of this persecution was being carried out by leaders and followers of the Orthodox Church who “worship Jesus” on Easter? It was so troubling but we did our best to encourage the team.
The leaders asked me to preach at their Good Friday service and it was truly one of my most memorable experiences ever. I expected maybe 12 people to comprise the church and was so surprised to see about 30 fill the room, all them passionately in love with Jesus. The persecuted church is like no other; you can’t be a lukewarm believer here.
At the end of the service we were surprised to have one new person decide to come in and accept Jesus as their personal Savior. This action would truly cause incredible challenges in her life, she would likely loose her job, possibly get kicked out of her home, and excommunicated from her family. However, she would no longer be bound to the religious ceremonies, works, and guilt of sin that plagued her heart for so many years. This woman had truly been set free! We left encouraged by this small light in this dark place.
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