A Sermon preached on May 18, Easter V, at St. Augustine's, Wiesbaden
Acts 7:55-60, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
As I mentioned in my weekly email, the Council of Anglican Episcopal Churches in Germany, to which we belong, agreed at its last meeting that each congregation would set aside a Sunday for remembering persecuted Christians. I've chosen this Sunday as our day of remembrance, because the reading from Acts is about the martyrdom of St. Stephen: the beginning of the post-Resurrection persecutions.
Up until this moment the Book of Acts has sounded like a succession of successes. After Jesus’ Ascension the disciples chose Matthias as Judas’ successor, so they are at full strength again. Then, even if we won’t celebrate this for a couple of weeks, they received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Their preaching, teaching, healing, and example have caused thousands of people to join the Way: “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47) In fact they were so successful that they have had to choose additional helpers, the first deacons, to cope with the needs of all the new followers. And one of these ‘deacons’ was Stephen, who was “full of grace and power and did great wonders and signs among the people (Acts 6:8).
But now he has been arrested, questioned, and as we just heard stoned to death: “On that day,” the next chapter tells us, “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered.” (Acts 8:1) So what did they do wrong? Well nothing really, the disciples did as Jesus had commanded them: “They did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah,” (Acts 5:42) and as Jesus had warned them, this led to their persecution. “They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.” (Luke 21:12) Just like Jesus himself they were seen as a threat to the powers that be. Fear will also have played a role: how would God react to this group’s apparent blasphemy? And how would the occupying power, Rome, react if the followers of the person they had executed grew so strong? And to be honest, Stephen was also less than diplomatic when questioned. In what are euphemistically called the ‘penitential reproaches’ he calls the Jewish authorities “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears” who had “forever opposed the Holy Spirit,” as well as “betrayers and murderers” of the “Righteous One.” (Acts 7:51-53) This did not calm them down.
Christians continue to be persecuted, that is “systematically mistreated by the inflicting of suffering, harassment, isolation, imprisonment, fear, or pain” around the world today. Sometimes the persecution is organized by a state like Saudi Arabia or North Korea, because they reject either Christianity or just religion in general, sometimes by religious organizations with the government’s tacit approval as in Pakistan, and sometimes from groups opposed to the government for whom Christians are an easy target or scapegoat, which is the current situation in Egypt. Sadly we still also find Christians of one denomination organizing the persecution of Christians from a different tradition. And more recently Christian groups, including Anglicans, have been responsible for the persecution of a minority that includes Christians: I consider the anti-gay laws of Nigeria or Uganda to be a means of persecution.
Fear is still a big motivator, fear of losing power and privilege, fear of the other, fear of change, and the fear of losing one’s own unique culture and traditions. Often those persecuted were oppressed before they became Christians, because of their minority ethnic or caste status. As I mentioned last week one attraction of Christianity – at its best – has been its inclusiveness: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
What can we do? A number of things. We can and should pray and you will find a current prayer focus sheet from one of the organizations on the display table at the back of the church. We need to be aware and to make others aware that persecution goes on. Lives can be saved through publicity! All the organizations represented in the display need money for their work and many support the beleaguered communities financially, especially when they have had to flee for their lives. How we behave in our home countries is equally important. If we want other governments and religions to allow Christians to express their faith freely and to live by their faith, then we must ensure that the adherents of the other religions have that freedom in our countries. We must reject any kind of revenge persecution and we have to take an active stance against those parties and organizations that preach hate and fear. I am thinking in particular of all the populist, nationalistic, and islamophobic groups that have become so present in recent months.
And let’s not forget that we are not entirely innocent. Far too often Christianity was privileged by the colonial powers and acted as an instrument of assimilation. We seem to have forgotten that St. Paul incorporated Gentile believers into the body of the faithful without them first having to become Jews and having to adopt Jewish culture and customs. Too often our missionaries insisted that the new Christians abandon key elements of their culture, history and tradition and become not just Christians, but Western Christians. It’s no wonder then that our religion is often still perceived as a threat to other societies.
In the reading from John’s Gospel (14:6) Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Too often these words were used not only to persuade people to follow Jesus, but also to make them give up every aspect of previous life and culture. That was both arrogant and wrong and I know that because of this abuse there are Christians who reject the whole idea of the uniqueness of Christ. Instead Christianity is seen as one of many paths to the divine; one of many paths to enlightenment. But I think that is wrong too, I do not believe that there is some other greater truth behind all religions, I believe that Jesus did reveal the way, the truth, and the life.
However any sign of arrogance or superiority is a denial of the very truth that
Jesus proclaimed. It is only by following his teaching, the example of his life, and the path of self-sacrifice that he trod that we can come to the Father. Jesus’ model is humility: being willing to act as a servant, washing feet, and sharing meals. I believe that we are sent to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior but that this witness to Jesus as Lord must be supported by Christ-like service and humility. One aspect of humility is acknowledging that God’s Spirit also works in the lives and communities of other religions.
Reconciliation is the overall purpose of God’s mission: The reconciliation of people to God and to one another. I think that’s why I like how St. Georges’ Church in Baghdad has reacted to the persecution it has experienced: it has often been the target of terrorist attacks and many parishioners have been killed. They founded the “Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.” Canon Andrew White, the ‘Vicar of Baghdad,’ chairs Iraq’s High Council of Religious Leaders as part of the foundation’s effort to forge reconciliation, to engage religious leaders in dialogue, and to help them use their influence to promote peace. The Clinic at St George’s Church works to reconcile Iraqis at a grassroots level by employing Sunni, Shia, Christian and Jewish staff and treating anyone and everyone in need in humble service.
The early Church’s greatest persecutor, Saul, was transformed into the
Church’s greatest Apostle and witness, Paul. Without wanting to deny or belittle the effect of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus, I still wonder if the seed of his transformation was not already planted when as a young man he witnessed the stoning of Stephen and heard Stephen say, in a supreme act of forgiveness and reconciliation, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ (Acts 7:60)