Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 18th August 2013

18 August 2013 at 11:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

The British newspapers reported recently that the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams had told people to “grow up.” It may have been the colourful phrase that attracted the journalists most. But a serious point was being made. He said that religious believers should be wary of complaining about their treatment in the Western world, with those claiming they are "persecuted" making him "very uneasy". He added that the level of "not being taken very seriously" or "being made fun of" in Britain and the United States was not comparable to the "murderous hostility" faced by others in different parts of the world. He was speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and urged those who complain of ill-treatment for their beliefs in Britain to "grow up".

Of course the journalists were also interested in the point that Lord Williams seemed to be contradicting his predecessor as archbishop, Lord Carey. He had said a year or so ago that many Christians in this country felt themselves to be part of a “persecuted minority” because “lawyers acting for the government had argued in the [International Court of Human Rights] that those sacked for wearing a cross against their employer's wishes should simply get another job.''

There has been widespread discussion in this country about the impact of what is called ‘the new atheism’, especially in the years since the turn of the Millennium. Religious belief has been powerfully criticised and the law of human rights used paradoxically in assaults on the right to practise religion. There will continue to be dilemmas for some Christians in the Western world, as what is allowed in law seems to diverge increasingly from what is seen by many Christians as fundamental to their beliefs. Some of the protections for conscience that were at one time built into changing law are now omitted. No doctor is obliged to conduct an abortion. On the other hand no marriage registrar will be able to refuse to marry same-sex couples. It may be argued that the one case is a matter of life and death and therefore on a different level of significance. These changes inevitably pose problematic challenges for law-makers and judges as well as for those directly affected. Persecution, though, is too strong a word.

What has been happening to Christians in Egypt and in other parts of the Middle East certainly is persecution. The news medium based in the Middle East, Al Jazeera, reported on Friday that at least 32 churches had been “completely destroyed, burned or looted” in eight different parts of the country over the previous two days. Dozens of other attacks were reported on Christian-owned shops, businesses and schools around the country.

The Anglican church of St Saviour in the city of Suez was one of those attacked on Wednesday. “They attacked the church with Molotov cocktails and stones, and the car of the priest was completely destroyed,” said Egypt’s Anglican Bishop, Mouneer Annis. “Two other churches in Suez were completely burned - and the thugs looted the churches afterwards. It’s a mixture between burning and looting.”

Last month the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby launched an Open Doors report on the persecution of Christians in Syria. The report included a reminder that the church in Syria is rooted in the very origins of Christianity. Jesus came there from Galilee, teaching and healing, so that “news about him spread all over Syria”. It was in Syrian Antioch that followers of Jesus were first called Christians. The Apostle Paul was converted on the road to Damascus. From that point, Syria was a heartland of Christianity for 700 years.

For the past hundred years Syria has been a reliable refuge for Christians of the Middle East. Syrians have welcomed Armenians escaping the Young Turk genocide of 1915; Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, driven out in 1948; Orthodox Christians and Maronites fleeing sectarian violence in Lebanon during the 1970s and 80s. And, most recently, it has been a refuge for Iraqis: an estimated 2 million entered Syria between 2006 and 2009. In recent months, 70,000 Iraqis have returned to Iraq, while violence in Iraq has prompted 41,000 to travel in the opposite direction in the same period.

It may be that some of us here this morning have direct experience of this level of turmoil and suffering. It is not only in the Middle East that Christians are persecuted but in many parts of the world. And it must be recognised that we Christians have our own record of horror since Christians have historically imposed the most terrible persecution on those of other faiths, particularly, in the Middle Ages, in this country the Jews.

For most of us, however, the dilemma seems remote; the practice of our faith is a matter of quiet personal choice, or of occasional refuge from the stresses and strains of daily life. If that is us, the words of our Lord in today’s Gospel reading are likely to seem extreme, far-fetched, even rather horrifying, so far are they from our understanding of a gentle Jesus who spreads peace and light, who says, “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

Today we hear Jesus saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

And yet, that is what happened.

The background to the letter to the Hebrews is that its hearers are suffering persecution for their faith or expect to do so. A large part of the letter’s aim is to protect these new Christians, converts mostly from Judaism, from the temptation to distrust the promises of Christ and to fall away from their Christian practice. He wants to keep them faithful, even under persecution.

The passage we heard today as our second reading is the glorious culmination of a lengthy argument. The letter points out that so many of the men and women of the Mosaic Covenant had suffered for their faith from the time of Moses, and through their faith had achieved amazing things. “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.” The “something better” is the way of Christ.

So, “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Let us travel the way he travelled. That way leads to the fullness of life. And what was that way? “For the sake of the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Do you remember how slow the disciples of Jesus were to understand all this? How James and John on the road to Jerusalem asked Jesus if they could sit on his right hand and his left when he entered his kingdom? They were thinking still that Jesus was about to launch an attack on the Roman Empire and would rule an earthly kingdom. To them, the sons of Zebedee, Jesus said, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are.” Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Later in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “Father, let this cup pass me by.”

That same Jesus, our Lord and our God, asks us the same question, this morning, as he invites us to come to the altar and eat the bread and drink the wine, to drink of the cup of which he drank. We may or may not suffer physical or mental torture for our faith but we cannot truly follow the path our Lord took, follow the way of Christ, if for us it is just a matter of a life-style choice, or a search for some vague spiritual satisfaction.

Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. But the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

The way of Christ is a matter of life or death.

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