Congregational Choice Sermon Topic preached by Canon Simon Butler
1 Peter 4:12-19; John 15:18-27
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Summer Sermon Theme: The Persecuted Church & Christian Discipleship
1 Peter 4:12-19; John 15:18-27
During the service a child – Ethan – was baptised.
Yesterday morning, I joined crowds of thousands on the streets of Brighton for Brighton Pride, the annual celebration of LGBT+ life and community in the city. It has the usual festival atmosphere, but on this 50th anniversary of the first Pride March, there was a renewed focus on the ongoing plight of LGBT+ people around the world.
A week tomorrow, a smaller group of people, but one of many such groups around the world, will process down Oxford Street to celebrate the work of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, on one of her Feast Days. They too will publicly express their deepest commitment and love, not to just another person, but to the Mother of Jesus and, more importantly, to her Son.
It struck me yesterday with some force than there are plenty of places in the world where neither Pride celebrations not public acts of Christian worship at witness would be possible. The freedoms we take for granted – and about which we can be blasé or complacent – are hard won and, in many places, severely restricted, or even banned outright. There are places where being LGBT+, or becoming a Christian, could get you imprisoned, or even killed. There’s a deep irony in the hostility between these two groups, for they are among the groups most persecuted for their identity in the world.
This is the second in a series of sermons on subjects we’ve been asked to preach on by members of St Mary’s this summer. The person who asked for this subject said this, “What about a sermon on the persecution of Christians about which most people seem shockingly ignorant? Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world.” They then gave me a list of statistics, which I’ve checked out from the widely-respected charity Open Doors UK, whose work highlights the persecution of Christians throughout the world. Here are some facts and figures:
I thought I’d just pick one country as an example. There are 33 million Christians in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim state in the world. In recent years, Indonesia has become a more conservative Islamic country. Eight Christians were killed in a six-month period between 2020 and 2021. Christians who share their faith are targeted by militant Islamists in some regions. Rebekah, Eti and Ratna lived in one of those regions, West Java. Rebekah, a Doctor, led a church of about 30 people. Their journey to and from church took them past lots of kids on the street. As they befriended these children, they discovered these were kids of prostitutes and street vendors. So, with the agreement of the authorities, they started a ‘Happy Tuesday Club’: a place where the children could receive one decent meal for the week, and health education. Rebekah, Eti and Ratna had permission from the parents to tell the children about the church and share stories of Jesus. This simple piece of Christian mission went on for months and months.
But fundamentalists became outraged that Christians were becoming increasingly visible in their communities. And three Christian women were easy prey. So Rebekah, Eti and Ratna were arrested. Their show trial was attended by 500 hate-filled screaming radicals standing at the back of the court, and there were three judges who handed out a prison sentence. Rebekah, Eti and Ratna were sentenced for 5 years for the ‘Christianisation of children’.
The words of Jesus in our Gospel reading must have proved both a comfort and cause of distress to these faithful women. “Remember the words that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.”
Persecution is no easy thing to endure. These three women are typical of many around the world. They are not clergy, they are simple believers trying their best to follow Jesus Christ. And yet, strikingly, Jesus tells his disciples that part of the likely outcome of trying your best to follow Jesus Christ is to face criticism, opposition and even persecution. Three simple points from the readings.
First, facing the risk persecution is part of what it means to follow Jesus Christ. Despite our comfort and isolation from persecution, Jesus is very clear: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you…because you do not belong the world – therefore the world hates you.” Being a Christian differentiates you from the crowd, or at least it should. When people start to follow Jesus Christ, when they start to model their lives on him, or demonstrate the priorities he had, then as sure as night follows day, some people will hate Christians for it. Just as people sought to undermine Jesus as he did his work, so those who do his work are undermined by what John calls ‘the world’. For those of us in the West, who have got used to a broadly Christian culture, it’s easy to say that following Jesus is another way of living a broadly tolerant, Western life of acceptance, everyday kindness and support of those in need. But, the question is – for each of us, including Ethan today – if we were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict us? Following Jesus Christ’s way means looking like Jesus and sounding like Jesus and acting like Jesus. And we all know what happened to Jesus.
Secondly, listen to these words of Peter in our first reading, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you, as though something strange is happening to you…but rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings.” The evidence is that persecution brings people closer to Christ, because when we suffer for the sake of Christ, we come most close to his love. Peter says this, “if you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because…the Spirit of God, is resting on you.” When the bible talks about suffering, particularly the New Testament, it’s not primarily talking about general suffering, it’s talking about suffering for the name of Christ. Those three Indonesian women were imprisoned for their simple faithfulness to Christ. The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis for his part in the plot to kill Hitler, once said this, “To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life. It is not suffering per se but suffering-and-rejection, and not rejection for any cause or conviction of our own, but rejection for the sake of Christ.”. When we suffer for our faith, we are closest to the Cross of all Christians.”
Thirdly, often persecution presents an acute question to the believer. It’s the question we ask of Ethan’s parents and godparents today, “Do you turn to Christ?” The history of Christian faith is littered with success and failure here. The early Church Father Tertullian, whose own time was filled with acute persecution for the faith, famously said, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” If you look at Church history you will find many holy men and women whose own suffering, persecution and even death, led to great outpourings of faith and missional energy, growing churches and extensive growth.
But persecution can also lead to faithlessness as well, as is recorded in the extraordinary novel Silence by the Japanese Christian Nobel Laureate Shusako Endo. In the face of intense persecution and the threat of the murder of fellow-Christians, a Jesuit priest renounces his faith, becomes apostate, and spends the rest of his life never speaking again of Christ, the ‘silence’ of the novel’s title. This, Endo sees as an act of love and compassion. At the same time, there are many, who through fear or threat, abandon their faith, and they deserve compassion too. So the question is there for each of us, in moments where we are called to speak or act in accordance with our faith and our Lord Jesus, “Do you turn to Christ?” – and risk mockery, misunderstanding, criticism or even threats of violence, persecution or loss of liberty? As we pray for those who face that challenge daily – and prayer is the most important thing we can do for the persecuted church – let us pray that they “turn to Christ” in those critical moments, and that we might be encouraged by their example to live more faithfully in the freedom of the West. We don’t face persecution here – even if some more fringe Christian groups want to claim we do – but we do face increasing religious illiteracy in public life – often leading to great misunderstandings.
Let me finish though by returning to Rebekah, Eti and Ratna, our three imprisoned Indonesian Christians. In their prison block they found nine other inmates: jihadists, drug smugglers, and a woman who would kill for just 10 dollars. Prison officers would only go into the prison block with body armour on, armed with truncheons and shields. The walls were covered in human waste.
Within 24 hours something remarkable happened: Rebekah heard God speak to her. She asked the guards for buckets of water with disinfectant, and Rebekah, Eti and Ratna spent the day washing out the other women’s cells to make the place more habitable. Then they started to cook for them, because the inmates didn’t know how to feed themselves properly. To women who didn’t have enough to eat, they gave away their food rations. The environment started to change. Instead of viewing it as a punishment, they viewed it as a privilege and a joy to be there. Soon, news about the women spread through the prison.
After three weeks, one of the prison guards came up to Rebekah: ‘I have severe stomach cramps, would you help me please?’ Would you help a prison guard holding you for your faith? But she wrote down the medication he needed. Rebekah’s accreditation as a doctor had been removed, but by the end of the month there were around 40 prison guards receiving health advice.
After three months, the prison governor himself invited the three women into his office. And he said ‘I was told you were subversives and so I was going to break your heart and minds… But you’ve been a blessing to the entire prison.’ And then the governor said ‘How would it be if your church came to prison on a Sunday? Firstly they will be safe here. Secondly we’ll take care of you, and thirdly you can say what you want to your church members here and they will be welcome, because you have been a blessing to us.’
For two and a half year those women continued to be a blessing to their community. They helped plant gardens, established a fish farm, they shared the love of Jesus Christ. They loved the lost causes, the losers. They loved the lonely. And they loved the haters.
During their time in prison they received around 15,000 letters of hope and encouragement from Christians elsewhere in the world who were speaking up for them and campaigning for their release. People wrote to the President of Indonesia – urging him to act justly. Amazingly they were set free two and a half years early.
And the week after they were set free? They went back to prison to teach the faith to the 47 people they had led to faith in Jesus Christ during those two and a half years. They trusted that God was with them in that place. And though it was hard and painful for them, they found blessing and joy in the worst of circumstances. And they brought that blessing and joy to others.
if you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because…the Spirit of God, is resting on you.
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