Beatitude Sermon Series: Blessed are those who are persecuted

Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington, Vicar of Garsington, Cuddesdon and Horspath on Sunday 2nd September 2018 as part of the Benefice Celebration Day at All Saints’ Cuddesdon.

Readings: 2 Timothy 3: 10-17; John 15: 18-27


One of the most powerful novels I have read in recent times is Shusaku Endo’s Silence which was made into a film by Martin Scorsese a couple of years ago.  It is set in seventeenth-century Japan and tells the story of two young Jesuit priest who travel from Portugal via the Portuguese trading post of Macau to Japan to locate their former mentor Fr Ferreira.  News has come to their Motherhouse that Ferreira, a man so revered and staunch in his faith, has renounced God under torture.  Fr Rodrigues and Fr Garupe simple cannot believe the rumours and so they beg their superior to allow them to find him, despite the danger which such a trip would entail.  For the authorities in Japan are relentless in their irradiation of the Christian faith and use torture in the most extreme and brutal form to bring converts to renunciation.


Yet with a zeal for a glorious martyrdom Rodrigues and Garupe set off and are smuggled by boat into the land of the rising sun.  To their astonishment they find small pockets of Christians living in fear and hiding.  Willing to sacrifice their lives to keep these two priests safe, they weep over the gift of a single rosary bead and kiss the hands of the young men as they bring words of absolution after so long without confession.  Babies are brought at the dead of night to be baptised and the host is held in dirty hands as if it were a starlit jewel.  The two priests are profoundly moved by the faith of these poor persecuted souls.


‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’


In comparison to those seventeen-century Christians in Japan, how very different is our experience of loving out our faith.  Unlike them, we in this beautiful church in the heart of England, are not in hiding because of our faith, we are not persecuted and no one will be tortured if I knock on their door or they receive communion this morning.


Yet you may be surprised to hear that this is not the same experience for everyone who confesses the Christian faith.  For Christianity is in fact the most persecuted faith in the world.


A relatively recent article by Paul Vallely writing in the Independent in 2014 revealed that…


‘… According to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular group with members in 38 states worldwide, 80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians.

The Centre for the Study of Global Christianity in the United States estimates that 100,000 Christians now die every year, targeted because of their faith – that is 11 every hour. The Pew Research Center says that hostility to religion reached a new high in 2012, when Christians faced some form of discrimination in 139 countries, almost three-quarters of the world’s nations.


All this seems counter-intuitive here in the West where the history of Christianity has been one of cultural dominance and control ever since the Emperor Constantine converted and made the Roman Empire Christian in the 4th century AD.


Yet the plain fact is that Christians are languishing in jail for blasphemy in Pakistan, and churches are burned and worshippers regularly slaughtered in Nigeria and Egypt, which has recently seen its worst anti-Christian violence in seven centuries.

Persecution is increasing in China; and in North Korea a quarter of the country’s Christians live in forced labour camps after refusing to join the national cult of the state’s founder, Kim Il-Sung. Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the Maldives all feature in the 10 worst places to be a Christian.’


‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’


Of all the beatitudes that we have pondered this year, perhaps this one presents us with the most challenging of statements.  For despite all the statistics across the world, we in this church are not discriminated against or persecuted or tortured for our faith.  We may be challenged, ridiculed or side-lined even but not in danger of our lives as others are in the world today.  Does this beatitude therefore speak to only a specific group of Christians and in a particular context, not as the other beatitudes suggest, for us all, at any time, as a way of being.


Both Paul and Jesus in our readings this morning suggest otherwise.  ‘Indeed all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ writes Paul.  And Jesus is no less realistic:


‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.  If you belong to the world, the world would love you as its own.  Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.’

‘Servants are not greater than their maters.’


If we seek to orientate our lives towards God and desire to do his will, if we hear the call to follow the path of righteousness, however many times we might stray or stumble or fall, then we are placing ourselves in opposition to the values and priorities of this world.  As citizens of the kingdom of heaven we declare that Jesus is our Lord, love is stronger than hate, forgiveness is the path to serenity, corruption is a cancer to society, murder splits the soul, consumerism exploits our inclination for greed and power is not the measure of success.  To speak our faith even here today has a cost and will place us in the uncomfortable and yet blessed position of siding with the poor, yearning for justice, giving voice to the voiceless and fighting to save our beautiful fragile world.


‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’


We then, even here, in our comfortable parish church must expect and even welcome some form of opposition and discrimination for the sake of righteousness, even if we are not persecuted to the same extent as those who confess our faith in other parts of the world.


Yet we are not alone.  As Paul writes in his letter to the fragmented church in Corinth: ‘You are all members of the one body of Christ….If one member suffers, all suffer together with it, if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.’  We are all bound together through the person of Jesus Christ.  This unity and fellowship is what we celebrate and honour today as we come together as Christians in these three villages so that we may give each other confidence and courage to live out our faith in times of joy but also at moments of opposition and discomfort.  We are not lone voices but together usher in the kingdom of heaven as a reality in this world rather than just a hope for the next.  Yet we are also one with our brothers and sisters in Christ across the world who are experiencing hatred and violence because of righteousness sake.  Our thoughts and prayers for them are no empty words but statements of solidarity that we suffer with them.


I was deeply moved last spring when I heard Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church speak at the clergy conference of the light of Christians in the Middle East.  He showed us a picture from the horrific You Tube film of a group of Christians shot on a beach for their faith.  Amidst the horror of the scene he described how they looked at each other for courage, prayed in the face of extermination and quietly met a martyr’s end.  In solidarity with them he had a small cross tattooed onto his wrist, a living symbol in his own flesh of the persecution of Christ and all who follow the way of righteousness.


Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’