All Saints Margaret Street | Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 13 October 2013

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 13 October 2013

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

“If the word hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”

I had to rethink the introduction to this sermon after Fr. Julian had anticipated my opening words in his sermon this morning. I had intended to begin by saying, “it was a normal Sunday morning at All Saints. The congregation gathered for Mass and afterwards spilled out of church talking with each other. But this was not All Saints, Margaret Street, but All Saints in Peshawar – capital of what in the days of the Raj was called the North West Frontier – and two Sundays ago the Taliban’s suicide bombers came to church to do their diabolical worst in the name of God.

Christians in Pakistan are an embattled minority, subject to discrimination, harassment, vulnerable to false and malicious accusations under the blasphemy laws, to mob violence, and along with other minorities, to the terrorism of the Taliban and other jihadist groups.

What happened at All Saints, Peshawar was only one incident in what has been described as a global war against Christians – now the most widely persecuted religious group in the world.

Earlier this year, there was some over-heated talk about Christians in Britain being persecuted. Some of this came from a former archbishop of Canterbury. I thought and said that this was exaggerated. And I was glad to be supported by another former archbishop, speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival who pointed out that there were plenty of Christians in our world suffering from real persecution.

There is a secularist strand of opinion which has a tin ear when it comes to religion.  They are often people who believe that all religions are wrong, but Christianity is more wrong than all the others.  But to be rude about other faiths is to risk a charge of racism; so Christians are attacked as a surrogate for the other faiths.  Christianity is of course the faith that most secularists in our society are in rebellion against. One comedian was honest enough to admit that he could be offensive about Christians rather than Muslims because the Christians would turn the other check, whereas some Muslims might just kill him.

The global war on Christians has been called the greatest untold story of the early part of the 21st century.  The atrocity in Peshawar has to be understood as a small piece of a much larger picture.

Things are beginning to change. Rupert Shortt’s “Christianophobia, A Faith Under Attack” paints the reality of persecution of Christians in societies across the world. The American National Catholic Reporter’s Vatican correspondent, John Allen, recently did this more briefly in an article in the Spectator.

The International Society of Human Rights – a secular body based in Frankfurt, says 80% of all acts of religious discrimination today are directed at Christians.  Christians are by far the most persecuted religious body in the world.

Between 2006 and 2010m Christians faced some form of discrimination de jure or de facto, in 139 countries – almost ¾ of the total.

According to the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity in Massachusetts, an average of 100,000 Christians have been killed each year in the past decade.

Of the 65 Christian churches in Baghdad, 40 have been bombed since 2003 and the ancient Christian community in that country is under grave threat, as are those of other Middle Eastern communities, from jihadist groups.

Orissa in North East India which has just been struck by a cyclone,  was the scene of another storm in 2008: an anti-Christian pogrom which left 500 Christians dead, many hacked to death by machete-wielding Hindu radicals. Thousands more were injured. 50,000 left homeless after 5000 Christian homes were burned out as well as 350 churches and schools.  A nun was gang-raped and paraded naked through the streets.  The police did nothing.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram specialises in targeting Christians and their churches as part of a clear policy to expel all Christians from the north of the country.  They are equal opportunity persecutors as, like other jihadists, they also kill Muslims considered to be insufficiently Islamic. Some of you may have seen on the BBC last Monday, that extraordinarily brave young woman Malala Yousufzai, being interviewed by Mishal Hussain.  Malala began campaigning for education for girls in that same region of Pakistan when she was only 12. We and many others, Christian as well as Muslim, were praying for after she was shot by the Taliban

North Korea is probably the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian. A quarter of the country’s 200-400, 000 Christians are in forced labour camps for refusing to join the cult of the ghastly Kim dynasty – to whom they refuse to burn incense.  Since 1953 some 300,000 Christians have simply disappeared.

We are seeing the rise of an entire new generation of Christian martyrs. This represents one of the great human rights challenges of our time – one to which the western world seems largely deaf.

Why does all this seem to go largely unnoticed in the West? Is it because most of the victims are non-white and poor – not newsmakers in the classic sense? They live and die off the radar of the western media. Is it also because secular-minded media operate with an out-dated stereotype of Christianity as the oppressor – the Crusades, the Inquisition and the like – rather than the oppressed.

This evening’s extract from Jesus’ final discourse in John’s Gospel is so rich and dense that it could provide material for a dozen sermons.  The first half of our passage which follows on from Jesus speaking of himself as the vine and the disciples as the branches, elaborates on this closeness of relationship, of union, between Christ and his followers, those chosen to bear fruit, those who are no longer servants but friends, those who are to love one another as he, the one who is about to lay down his life for his friends, has loved them, those who are to pray in his name.

Then, half way through the focus shifts dramatically form the inner life of the believing community – its’ sharing in the very life of Jesus and its commitment to mutual love among its members – to its external situation.

We are not given any detail of the exact situation; why the Christian community is being persecuted, by whom and for how long.  Scholars suggest that this was a group who had finally been expelled from the synagogue.  This meant they had no recognised place in society. For many this would mean severing links with family and community. Being a Christian came at a price.

John sets the experience of these believers in the context of the gospel.  The world’s animosity derives from what the world is.  Into this world of blindness and alienation, led by its ‘ruler’ – Jesus came, sent from the Father.  This mission was then entrusted to his followers – with both its authority and its ricks.  This was not of their making: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” 

As the world could not assimilate or comprehend Jesus, so it rejected the people who were bound to him. The world’s treatment of them replicated its treatment of him. But the world’s rejection of those who confessed Jesus gave his people a mode of communion with the rejected Jesus. 

As a marginalised group, the followers of Jesus had to depend on willing, mutual support and care from their fellow-believers.  Particularly the community needed to help those whose adherence to Jesus brought them into hardship. Those who confessed Christ were upheld against the world’s antagonism by the conviction that their faith linked them enduringly with a victorious Redeemer. 

The matter of ‘abiding’ was urgent, for it took courage to confess Jesus as the Christ. It also took courage to remain in that confession.  Society exerted a powerful appeal to abandon this new faith. Believers had to internalize deeply the Church’s truth-claims.  Although the believing community might be of little account in the world’s terns, it saw itself as having been called by a divine summons and upheld by God.

This situation of conflict with the world was not the only experience of the early Church – we might think of Paul’s speech in Athens where he seeks to establish points of contact with classical culture.  But rejection and hatred for the name of Christ has been and still is one of the church’s experience of the world.

Those of us who only have to face the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens and the National Secular Society, have a duty to support those of our brothers and sisters face infinitely greater risks daily: by prayer, by financial support, by lobbying governments and religious bodies. be keeping in touch.  We need to be speaking loud and clear to our secularised world with its deaf ear for persecution of Christians. We need to be saying to people of good will in other faiths that, as they expect us to defend their rights here, so they should be speaking to their co-religionists about the rights of Christians. Thus far there has been little more than silence.