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Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Lent 2019

How far will we go for our neighbour? How far will we go to live a properly Christian life?

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian

Sunday, 17th March 2019 at 11:15 AM

Eight hundred years ago this August, an extraordinary meeting occurred. It was in the midst of the Fifth Crusade, the stronghold of Damietta in Egypt had been seized by the Sultan’s armies, and around 5000 crusaders slain. St Francis of Assisi, and his assistant Illuminatus, crossed the enemy lines with the intention of speaking to the Sultan himself. They were captured and beaten, but eventually brought before Sultan Malek al-Kamil, nephew of the great Saladin himself. St Francis greeted the Sultan with a greeting of peace, similar to that which the Sultan would have uttered, and the two proceeded to develop an affectionate respect with which they proceeded to discuss the spiritual life and one another’s beliefs. Although many have attempted to reconstruct the dialogue and enlarge upon sketchy diverse traditions, we know few explicit details about this remarkable meeting.[1] However, the two friars stayed several nights in the camp, left with gifts, and were given safe passage. We are told that the encounter changed the Sultan, who began to treat Christian prisoners with kindness, and sought peace with the crusader armies.

The shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday, in which 49 people were killed and 48 wounded, have shocked the world. Incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are frequently reported throughout our global village, and the chatter of various kinds of white supremacism and nationalism has increased over the last few years. In the West, questions of national, ethnic and religious identity have been stirred up and confused by geopolitical events, the refugee crisis, and an erosion of trust in public bodies. What might the Church have to say about this, and particularly in a season of Lenten self-discipline and Christian housekeeping?

Christian-Muslim relations have a mixed history, to put it modestly. We all know some of the violent moments – from the Crusades, to Lepanto, to modern episodes of terror. But there are many positive stories. Whatever was said between St Francis and the Sultan probably referred at least in passing to a shared sense of the almighty and merciful nature of God, to a common respect for Mary, and the presence of similar stories (including the one we heard in today’s first lesson) in both Bible and Qu’ran. William Dalrymple’s account of travels through Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and the Holy Land recorded in his magnificent book of 1998 From the Holy Mountain recalls villages where Christians and Muslims not only lived side by side for centuries but in some cases shared worship spaces and had common sites of pilgrimage. Not only do Christians and Muslims have shared culture and philosophy – it is, for example, through the Arabic sources that St Thomas Aquinas knew about Aristotle – we also share some theological convictions. In February, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar signed a Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and living Together, which contains some extremely important reflections on the nature of God and God’s relationship with creation, human dignity, fraternity and freedom, and – perhaps in the spirit of St Francis and the Sultan – encourages “the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.”[2] Pope Francis and the Grand Imam affirm the need for mutual protection of places of worship, and insist that “the Creator who has formed us with His divine wisdom… has granted us the gift of life... It is a gift that no one has the right to take away, threaten or manipulate to suit oneself. Indeed, everyone must safeguard this gift of life from its beginning up to its natural end.”

The taking of a single life, as both Pope and Grand Imam affirm, is abhorrent for both religions. In New Zealand, it was particularly shocking that people were massacred whilst at prayer; a horrendous, and blasphemous aspect which should draw universal condemnation and horror from all people of religious faith, as when Egyptian Coptic Churches have been attacked during the Divine Liturgy.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus laments over the City of Jerusalem, acclaimed as Holy by all three so-called Abrahamic faiths. At this point in St Luke’s account, Jesus is drawn to the City, knowing that it will be the place of his passion and death, as it has been for those prophetic voices before him, which find their culmination in Christ’s own. This is a city of violence as well as the place of God’s communication with humanity, the first of all the cities. Jesus knows that in order to complete his work, as he tells Herod, his work must be completed there, and on “the third day”, pointing towards his resurrection. He will die, but not murdered at the hands of the sly and cruel Herod who has already killed John the Baptist, but at the centre of creation, the heart of the covenant, in the city towards which he proceeds freely and confidently. His will be blood given, not blood taken.

Perhaps this is at the very heart of a Christian response to acts of terror and cruelty. Ours is a faith built on the principle of blood given, not taken. Blood given is the foundation of the new humanity we call the Church. Our Lenten disciplines are shallow unless underpinned by a radical generosity of spirit towards others, and by a vision which celebrates the limitless reach of God’s grace and mercy. Years ago, I met a bishop who worked in the north west frontier province of Pakistan. I asked him what mission looked like in his context where people were killed for conversion. His response was that his small Christian community was the first on the scene whenever there was a natural disaster, or some kind of tragedy. Living the Gospel in his context was more powerful than talking about it.

How far will we go for our neighbour? How far will we go to live a properly Christian life, giving it up for others? Today, we will be offered the Body and Blood of Christ given for us – not taken by us – to revitalise this discipleship. Father Benson, who founded the Cowley Fathers, wrote how every communion might add to the image of Christ within us. “As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ, which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us.”[3]

A story is told of a boy who needed a blood transfusion. The best match was his sister, and the girl went in for the very straightforward procedure. As she sat down in the hospital room, she asked the doctor, “Will it hurt? Will it take long for me to die?” The girl had just assumed that for her brother to live, she would have to give her own life. She was of course mistaken, and both survived. But quite how much we are willing to give for others and for the healing of our world, how fully we are prepared to share in the mission of the Body of Christ, are considerations for each of us this Lent. Sharing the love of God in Christ with those who do not precisely share our faith is no less urgent than the building up of Christ’s body. Blood given in Jerusalem, that Holy and Wretched City, two thousand years ago, is the foundation of the New Creation, in which Christ will wash the feet of the world, and wipe all our tears away.

[1] See John Tolan’s recently published Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter, OUP, 2019, for an overview of the traditions.

[2] See https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2019-02/pope-francis-uae-declaration-with-al-azhar-grand-imam.html for the official English translation

[3] Richard Meux Benson, The Religious Vocation, London: A. R. Mowbray, 1939, pp. 160-161

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