All Saints Margaret Street | Twelfth Sunday after Trinity High Mass Sunday 18 August 2013

Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Trinity High Mass Sunday 18 August 2013

Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses


“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival a couple of days ago, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, had something to say about those who claim that Christians in our society are suffering persecution. Those in Britain and the United States who think they are persecuted should not exaggerate what amounts to being “mildly uncomfortable.” He suggested that such people need to be more careful, more “chaste,” in their use of the word persecution. 

He spoke from the experience and knowledge of one whose ministry had brought him into contact with Christians around the world who suffer the real thing; “ a systematic brutality and often murderous hostility that every morning you wonder if you and your children are going to make it through the day.” 

As Rupert Shortt has demonstrated in his recent book “Christianophobia,” Christians are more at risk in our present world than any other group. There were more Christian martyrs in the past century than in any other. 

Sometimes that persecution occurs in totalitarian societies which cannot tolerate difference and dissent; an allegiance to some higher value than the party or the state or ethnic group,  Often persecution occurs in societies where faith and family, public belief and communal identity are bound together in a way they no longer are in our society. So to be different, and even more to change one’s identity by converting, is to risk putting oneself outside the bounds of community and family; to make oneself vulnerable, even to risk one’s life. 

To be religious for us may be the cause of some puzzled amusement in our families and among our friends and colleagues, but is unlikely to put us in danger of our lives. If you are a young Muslim, even in this country, to become a Christian will almost certainly result in alienation from family and the community in which you had grown up, and could place you at risk of harm, because your choice would be seen as a betrayal of family honour; bringing shame on them: a shame which needs to be wiped out.

Some years ago, I was stopped in the street by a young Muslim man who asked me who I thought the prophet greater than Moses which the book of Deuteronomy speaks of was. I replied, “Jesus – Issa.”  This, of course, was not the right answer for him – I should have said “Mohammed.”  Perhaps I was not in a very combative mood that day, because it only occurred to me later that the question I could have responded with would have been to ask him to name a single Muslim majority country in which I could have stopped a Muslim in the street and begun a conversation about Christianity without being arrested or lynched. 

Such a mind-set, in which loyalty to family and community are primary,  is much more like the  world in which Jesus lived and for which Luke wrote, than the world in which we live with its fragmented sense of both family and community and its concept of individual freedom and rights.

The reality against which Jesus’ words were spoken and recorded was that for many the choice to be his disciples had real consequences: it could divide and hurt.  It could cut them off from the institution on which most people relied for their everyday security and survival; not to mention for bonds of affection which enrich the lives of most.

In Luke’s Gospel, as we are reminded every time we sing the Gloria at Mass, the birth of Jesus is heralded by angels singing of “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth.”  The Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, which the Church recites every day at Morning Prayer, celebrates the one who will “guide our feet in the way of peace.” 

Jesus proclaims a gospel of peace but the result is often division and opposition: The baptism with which he must be baptised is his death. The writer to the Hebrews sees that death in the context of those who had suffered for their loyalty to the God of Israel in past generations and those who continued to suffer for their loyalty to Christ in his own day; and the Church has continued to see those who suffer for the faith in the same way.

For centuries, martyrs were those who suffered at the hands of non-believers, and often this is still the case. But we have to recognise that there have been times when Christians have suffered at the hands of fellow-Christians, often because they and their ideas have been seen as a threat to the cohesion of the wider community: whether Protestant or Catholic. There was more than a little competition in martyrdom. In this country, Foxes “Book of Martyrs” celebrated those who had died for evangelical religion, while Roman Catholics canonised the English Martyrs.  I occasionally point out to my Roman Catholic in-laws that in all her long reign, Elizabeth 1 only managed to kill off about 100 Roman Catholics and most of them after Pius V, by excommunicating her, had effectively encouraged her subjects to assassinate her. Her sister Mary Tudor had a much higher work rate: burning 300 Protestants during her three year reign. And her efforts were dwarfed by those of her co-religionists in France and the Spanish Netherlands at the same time. 

In the past centuries, Christians have also met their deaths at the hands of others who were at least nominally Christian. They did so because their words and actions were seen as threatening a particular view of “Christian Society.” 

I sometimes say that the first sermon I ever recall hearing, or at least the first I can remember, is not one I heard in my parish church. It was Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech delivered during the Civil Rights march in Washington on 28th August, 1963, when I was a school boy. I have no trouble remembering the date now – it’s our wedding anniversary.  King spoke to a huge crowd who had already heard more than a dozen other speeches and were wilting in the heat and humidity of a Washington summer.  His speech and the audience did not really catch fire until he reached the “I have a dream” section. When that began, one observer said, “They don’t know it, but they’re going to Church.”

Most of those who opposed King would have considered themselves to be Christians; often born-again, bible-belt, evangelical Christians. They saw him as a threat to their understanding of Christian society and civilisation: although one does wonder which Bible they had been reading all those years.  Many white church leaders, including bishops of the Episcopal Church, were shocked by the disturbance being caused and counselled peace – peace and quiet, a peace where, as Jeremiah would have said, there was no peace; the peace which was a human dream and not the word of God.

The same was expected of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador who was gunned down at the altar while celebrating mass on the orders of politicians and soldiers who would have seen themselves as defending western Christian civilisation against communism. A quiet man, he had been expected to be a safe pair of hands who would not rock the boat in a country where it was assumed that ecclesiastical and political hierarchies would work hand in glove. 

A ruthless campaign of murder, torture and intimidation by an oppressive regime, supported by the US government, consumed the lives of thousands of ordinary people and of clergy and religious, who spoke out against it.  Priests were murdered; missionary sisters raped and murdered, in a society overwhelmingly Catholic and Christian.

In such a society, in which the voice of protest was all too often brutally silenced, the Archbishop realised that he had to raise his voice in protest, in the name of Christ, reading out the names of those killed or “disappeared” in his sermons.  And so he did, until he too was silenced.

Archbishop Romero is already commemorated in the calendar of the Church of England – and among ordinary believer in Latin America. Now that we have a pope from Latin America, perhaps Rome will catch up.  

Martyrdom is a term we hear much used these days of those who die in the prosecution of Jihad, holy war on behalf of Islam; even of those who take their own lives as suicide bombers, along with those of others, including more often than not their co-religionists, in the cause of some crazed vision of religious purity. 

This is why we must be chaste in our use of language. This is not the Christian understanding of martyrdom, of witnessing to Christ with one’s blood, not the blood of others. Ours is a religion of blood, of life, offered not blood and life taken; except in the sacrament of the Eucharist.   

Christian martyrs die as Christ did, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, disregarding the shame,” not returning violence for violence, and forgiving their enemies.

The sword which Christ comes to bring is not the sword of holy war, of crusade.  The division he brings is sometimes the consequence of making a choice for him; but it is not the primary reason for his coming or for that choice, which is the peace of God’s kingdom.  Division and the sword come when that kingdom and its peace are rejected.