by the Reverend Matt Harbage
Readings: Malachi 4: 1-2a; Luke 21: 5-19.
Last week, on Remembrance Sunday, I spoke of the Christian calling to witness to the Cross of Jesus Christ: In the face of violence and war, we see in Christ a better way. No longer “an eye for an eye”, but the Cross of Nails. The place where violence and destruction is met with the costly words, “Father Forgive”, and fought with the peaceful weapons of love.
This morning, as we reflect on today’s Gospel where Jesus predicts that his disciples would face persecution and, like him, be betrayed and even face death; I want to focus on the persecuted Church of today and their witness to the Cross of Christ.
A few years ago, I had a phone call from one of my brothers. He said, “Matt, have you heard of Open Doors?” I said I hadn’t, “They work across the world supporting the persecuted church; I’m going to go overseas and help them for a week”. “Where are you going?” I asked, “Ah, well, I can’t tell you that.” “OK. So what are you going to be doing?”. “Ah, well, I can’t tell you that either.”
My brother, quite wisely, had been told to keep all his arrangements secret, in order to keep those he was meeting safe. I cannot tell you any more of his story, so instead I want to share some things I learnt from a 2019 report from Open Doors on the persecuted church. The organization’s work has been used to inform recent MP cross party debates and you might remember seeing the Bishop of Truro in the news, in between the ubiquitous Brexit reporting.
If I’m honest I struggle to get my head around the scale of Christian persecution worldwide. Looking at last year alone, 2018, in Nigeria over 3,700 Christians were killed for their faith in Jesus. In India, much has changed over the last 5 years and is now one of the top 10 countries of Christian persecution. Direct violent attacks have increased, false accusations and arrest of Church leaders have multiplied and the rights of Christians under the constitution are not being upheld.
Worldwide, 1 in 9 Christians are persecuted for their faith. When gather in St Mark’s, I’m sometimes struck by how easy it is to assemble together and freely pray and worship our God. This basic human right is denied to so many. Blasphemy laws in countries such as Pakistan create a culture of fear for so many religious peoples who face possible arrest and even death.
And this is not just a problem for Christians of course. One million Uighur Muslims are being detained in the western Xinjiang region of China for ‘re-education’. Members of the Falun Gong spirituality are regularly ‘disappeared’. The lack of rights given to the Rohingya Muslims living in Myanmar.
Returning to our Gospel passage, Jesus predicts one of the most heart-breaking of religious attacks in antiquity– the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. The very centre of the Jewish faith and culture, desecrated by the Roman Occupiers in 70AD.
I know many of us have travelled the world and have seen such places of historical religious persecution, and have witnessed or experienced contemporary religious discrimination ourselves. So Jesus’ words in the light of the persecuted church opened up something new to me.
Whereas I hear the words threatening a coming persecution, and I worry, what horrors might be in store? But for a Christian faced with hiding from Boko-Haram in Northern Nigeria, having witnessing their Christian brothers and sisters taken away and killed for their faith, this passage speaks not of more suffering to be feared but rather, comfort:
“when ye shall hear of wars and commotions, be not terrified”
And when faced with unjust state courts and mob violence, Jesus says
“I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist”
And when Jesus names the reality “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake.” He goes on to say, “But there shall not an hair of your head perish. In your patience possess ye your souls”
What incredible words of hope and comfort. We know of course that many Christians around the world, from Eritrea to Palestine, do perish. God does not save their bodies from death.
However, just as we see Jesus Christ, hanging from the Cross, we know that death is not the end for those who love God. Resurrection is promised. What’s more, God cannot forget us. He doesn’t know how. Whatever suffering or difficulties we find ourselves, God is there.
Sometimes stories of hope from the persecuted church can be inspiring, as churches refuse to return violence with violence and instead witness to the Cross of Christ. I will never forget the suicide bomb attack on Palm Sunday in 2017 in Egypt. I remember celebrating the Eucharist in quiet Lincolnshire the following week with the sun shining down on a very English country landscape and struggling to imagine their situation. On Egyptian TV, shortly afterwards, Samira Fahmi, whose husband was killed in those attacks said this:
“Believe me I am not angry.”
“I ask the Lord to forgive them and let them try to think.
“If they think, they will know that we didn’t do anything wrong to them.
“May God forgive you and we also forgive you. Believe me, I forgive you.”
Such an incredible witness of faith. I think I would be angry, but I hope I might speak of forgiveness as she did. And so we must ask ourselves, as our fellow Christian brothers and sisters face injustice for being disciples of Jesus Christ, what is our response to be?
I think for each of us it will be different. For my brother, since his first trip he has been out again twice with Open Doors. Others lobby their MPs. Others spend time supporting refugees in the UK. Others pray. But the image which comes to mind in all this is of Mary and John at the foot of the Cross. ‘Being with’ those who suffer. ‘Being with’ those who hang on the Cross of today’s injustice and persecution.
And as we stand there, witnessing to the Cross, we remember that they, and we – in our own sufferings – will one day be resurrected. In the words of Malachi the prophet, “unto you that fear My Name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings.”
In all circumstances, what a hope we have in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.