Sermon preached at the Festival of St Margaret of Antioch 2023
God is with us in our trials and tribulations and will ultimately uphold the righteous.
The Reverend Ralph Godsall Priest Vicar
Thursday, 20th July 2023 at 5.00 PM
A few weeks ago the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, who is the head of the Catholic Christians of the Eastern Rite in Iraq, attended Solemn Evensong in Westminster Abbey. Patriarch Sako was ordained a priest in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in 1974 and has always ministered in his native Iraq - for 11 years as a bishop before becoming patriarch in February 2013. When he was ordained, there were over a million Christians in Iraq, an entirely indigenous population more ancient by far than the Muslim majority. 60,000 or so Christians lived in Mosul. That number dropped by more than a half during the ISIS takeover of their city in 2014.
The remaining Christians had to decide whether to convert to Islam, or to pay the equivalent of half an ounce of pure gold as the price for being allowed to continue to live in the city as Christians, or to face the sword. So many were martyred, and not surprisingly, many others fled - as so many Christians have fled from elsewhere in Iraq and so many people of every faith and none have fled from their homes in that country and in Syria and elsewhere in the Near and Middle East in recent years.
One of the complicating factors for those who had hoped to see the power of the dictators in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq replaced by a peaceful transition to democracy during the Arab Spring in 2010 has been that the dictators, for all their ills and cruelty, had at least sought to preserve the place of minority groups, including Christians, within their countries.
The dictators who ruled the Roman Empire had little concern to preserve minority interests but to preserve the might of Rome. The persecution of Jews and Christians began under the emperor Nero, possibly seeking an easy scapegoat for his unpopularly incendiary approach to town planning and lasted into the early fourth century of the Christian Era.
The persecution of Christians recurred from time to time, when an emperor thought a return to a more consistent worship of the gods of Rome might lead to a better harvest, or a victory, or the preservation of the empire.
St Margaret of Antioch died as a martyr during the final and most aggressive phase of Roman persecution of Christians. St Margaret is said, in the thirteenth-century collection of the lives of the saints called the Golden Legend, to have been executed in AD 304 in Pisidian Antioch in modern Turkey. Part of her story was considered even in the thirteenth century to be apocryphal. That is that she was swallowed by the devil taking the form of a dragon but the cross she was wearing irritated the dragon's throat causing it to vomit her out.
This evening’s readings, in honour of St Margaret, who gave her life for Christ, encourage us in various ways to stand firm, not to expect to escape persecution but to know that God is with us in our trials and tribulations and will ultimately uphold the righteous. We pray that they continue to provide some kind of encouragement for Christians in Iraq and Syria pondering whether to flee or to stay put to fight the good fight. For us here this evening in this church celebrating our patron saint we hear them in far less harrowing circumstances, seeking some guidance and encouragement for our life together here as the Body of Christ in this place.
The book of Wisdom was probably written in Egypt, perhaps in Alexandria, during the reign of the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula. The book is concerned to strengthen the faith of Jews living under persecution in the diaspora. It was a time of crisis, and many were tempted to turn away from their faith. In this evening’s reading (Wisdom 4: 20—5: 8) the author calls upon fellow Jews to stand firm, to trust in the one true God and in their ultimate vindication.
The ‘good fight’ of which we heard in the epistle (1 Timothy 6.12-16) was not a crusade. The good confession of which the apostle speaks had been made in the 'presence of God who gives life to all things.' It’s almost certainly a reference to the confession of faith made at baptism. Here is a vision which does not divide but embraces the magnanimity and goodness of God.
And in the Gospel of John (John 10.11-17) we heard Jesus say, 'The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep' but go on immediately to say, 'I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice.' Here is an image that vividly describes the cost of self-sacrificial discipleship offered for all, not just insiders.
There is much here for us to build on. First, we can be encouraged that Margaret of Antioch was an uncompromising irritant to the powers that be in her day. The image of the cross as an irritant to the dragon, to all that is destructive and divisive, is particularly poignant for a church near the seat of government and marking this year the 500th anniversary of the consecration of its present building. Costly work and service joins the ministry of this Christian community to that of our neighbours around the Square - in the Supreme Court, Whitehall and Parliament – to all who act in the belief that temporal and spiritual authority carry within them the obligation to pursue the love of God and neighbour and the protection of the weak, minorities and the marginalized.
From deep within the collective memory of Catholic Christians of the Eastern Rite, Margaret of Antioch emerges to teach us to stand firm and to take the risk of committing ourselves to living as we must, in faithful relationship with God and neighbour — without favour or reservation; to make the good confession before many witnesses and to risk all for Jesus.
We honour her memory this evening and pray that all who suffer persecution and oppression will stand firm. We also hold in our prayers all who are threatening and imposing violence on others – that they may see its ultimate futility and find the way to life in the reconciling love of Christian witness that ‘lays down its life to take it up again’ that there may ‘be one flock, one shepherd.’ (John 10.16-17)