Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 24th August 2014
24 August 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
Events in Iraq over the past few weeks have been disastrous, with Christians being actively persecuted and systematically driven out of Mosul. A community of 60,000 before 2003 has dwindled over the years and is now down to almost nothing. For the first time in 1,600 years, no Masses are being celebrated in Mosul. Many Christians have fled to the surrounding Nineveh Plains and into Kurdistan as militants from the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIS), threatening those who do not subscribe to their fundamentalist ideology.
We are witnessing today an act of religious and ethnic cleansing toward Christians, as well as many other communities, as extremists drive people out of the lands that have been their home for thousands of years; some churches have been converted into mosques, ancient monasteries lie abandoned and the homes of Christians have been daubed with signs that would mark them out as a target for the extremists. In the words of ISIS itself, 'We offer (Christians) three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract, involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.' There is no doubt about it: an upsurge in violence is plunging Iraq into a new humanitarian crisis.
More than 500,000 men, women, and children have fled Mosul and other cities in the north-west in recent weeks, in fear for their lives. This Abbey Church has already sent a substantial bank transfer to the Red Cross Appeal, and I urge you too to consider directly supporting this humanitarian aid. Indeed the collection this morning for Us (formerly USPG) will be supporting the long term effort for relief work in Iraq through the Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf. For all Christian communities around the world this is a particularly difficult and painful time. Not only do we see fellow human beings suffer, but we see fellow Christians persecuted for their faith merely because they believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
Today's Gospel reading records this very acclamation of faith made by Simon Peter. In response, Jesus answers him, 'Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.' At the very heart of this acclamation, and indeed at the heart of our faith, lies the love; the compassion and goodwill of Christ. The demand to love God with all our heart and mind and to love our neighbour as our self is made clear, just a few chapters on, in St Matthew's Gospel. Ultimately all the nations will be gathered and separated according to who 'invited in' the 'least of these' and provided them with food, water, clothes, and medical care.
In the encyclical Populorum Progressio, written two years after the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI said: 'We cannot insist too much on the duty of giving foreigners a hospitable reception. It is a duty imposed by human solidarity and by Christian charity.' But we also know that such care involves more than just reaching out. It invites us to form relationships: It is a little like Jesus sharing a meal with lepers and outcasts: 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me'. (Mt 25: 35)
So how do we bring together our faith and our capacity to love our troubled neighbours? In many ways our faith is tested by our ability to love. If we can't support the dispossessed and persecuted, where is our faith? Either our belief is too naïve, or our understanding of the gospel is too narrow, or other things are distracting us from our gospel responsibilities. But perhaps more importantly, faith comes before our ability to truly love. Faith in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit promises us the possibility of unselfish love, as opposed to 'love' with the motive of gaining something for ourselves. At the end of the day, faith alone justifies, and love attests that faith is alive. Faith is personal; love is social. Faith is the foundation; love is the goal. Faith is the root; peace, joy, and love are the fruits. By any definition of persecution, the worldwide Body of Christ can count many millions of Christians experiencing persecution today. Due to the massive rise in population and the explosion in the numbers of Christians, never in the history of the Church have so many of Christ's followers experienced persecution as today. Even the number of those who die as martyrs for the faith is rapidly increasing during this disastrous state of affairs.
This current situation places three particular responsibilities upon us all as the Body of Christ. Firstly, being aware of what is happening in our world. We have a real duty to know what is happening to our Church. On the whole the persecuted are not remembered, prayed for, and assisted by the general Body of Christ as well as they should be. Secondly, understanding what is going on. There is a complex blend of historic and contemporary factors that drive persecution. These are not well enough understood, invariably resulting in ineffective intervention. We all need to understand better religious extremism, totalitarian insecurity, religious nationalism, and secular intolerance. Thirdly, recognising transformation. It is important for us to realise that persecuted Christians have learned truths about God that Christians under less pressure need to hear, in order to experience the fullness of God. The spiritual insights of the persecuted are vital to the transformation of the lives of the rest of the Body of Christ. One of these essential insights is that we will all be, if witnessing for Christ, in some sense persecuted.
There is also a grander, greater narrative of God's action underneath the stories of individual pain and suffering. As a Church we should willingly, actively, and corporately take up the cross of Christ in our time. Finally, we need to respond to suffering appropriately. We must clearly distinguish between general human suffering, in which Christians partake, and the suffering of Christians for the sake of Christ. We must clearly recognize that although much suffering has nothing to do with persecution, obedience to God and allegiance to Christ can and does lead to additional suffering. The mature Christian knows firstly that all suffering can become meaningful; and secondly that God also suffers because the people he created suffer, and he suffers for their redemption. He suffers because he loves us.
It is also important for us to realise that the suffering of God in Christ shapes our thinking on the suffering of the Church. That as Christians we should suffer in sympathy with others who suffer. Because Jesus commands us to love, we should voluntarily suffer to help others who are suffering, to reduce their suffering. We suffer as part of the general human condition and also because we must take up the cross as disciples of Jesus Christ. If we participate in the sufferings of Jesus, we will also share in his glory. Some of us must choose to make sacrifices and to suffer on behalf of fellow Christians who are being persecuted.