Micah 3:5-12, Matthew 24:1-14
Due to a mix-up too dull to go into, I got hold of last week’s lectionary readings for today. By the time I noticed, it was too late so the gospel reading from last week – that for Remembrance Sunday – is the one I worked with. With its prophecy of the destruction of the temple, the threat of wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, martyrdom and false prophets, it’s not exactly the sort of passage you might turn to looking for comfort and help, neither is it one of those purple passages that the Gideon bibles point you to in times of distress. But it’s easy to see why it is the gospel for Remembrance Sunday. However, the verse that stands out for me is verse 9: ‘Then you will be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.’ Now listen to this. The source is Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Christians_in_the_modern_era ‘Fiorello Provera of the European Parliament called the Middle East “the most dangerous place for Christians to live” and cited Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who blamed the international community for failing to deal with what she considers a war against Christians in the Muslim world.Former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel stated in 2011 that Christians had become the target of genocide after dozens of Christians were killed in deadly attacks in Egypt and Iraq.
According to Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, in the hundred years leading up to 2010 the Middle East’s Christian population dwindled from 20% to less than 5%….In Egypt, Muslim extremists have subjected Coptic Christians to beatings and massacres, resulting in the exodus of 200,000 Copts from their homes; in Iraq, 1,000 Christians were killed in Baghdad between the years 2003 and 2012 and 70 churches in the country were burned; in Iran, converts to Christianity face the death penalty and in 2012 Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death; in Saudi Arabia, private Christian prayer is against the law; in the Gaza Strip, half of the Palestinian Christian population has fled since Hamas seized power in 2007 and Gazan law forbids public displays of crucifixes; in the West Bank, the Christian population has been reduced from 15% to less than 2%.’
It would easily be possible to turn to other areas of the world: to South Asia, SE Asia, China, even countries like Mexico and Colombia and find similar stories. Persecution can come from other religious groups – for example Muslims in the ME and Hindu fundamentalists in India; or state-sponsored persecution, as in North Korea or China, where religious faith is seen as undermining the state; or by illegal militia, who target Christians taking a stand against evil, as in Mexico. Here in the UK, and generally in ‘The West’, we live in a very safe haven where we are free to practice our faith without fear of persecution. And by and large, we take it for granted. I don’t want to make anyone today feel bad or guilty, but I do think today’s gospel invites us to step outside of our comfort zone, face reality and take in what is happening to our brothers and sisters in Christ in different countries across the world. In the Creed we profess faith in the ‘communion of saints’ – meaning the fellowship we have with followers of Christ across time and space. Here’s a short video produced by Open Doors which, in 3 minutes, gives us a flavour of life in the 5 countries in the world in which it is most difficult to be a Christian.
Let me introduce a good friend of mine, Sukha Debnath. [Sukha is a doctor I worked with in Bangladesh. He and I have known each other for nearly 30 years. He became a Christian from a Hindu background and talks about some of the difficulties he encountered]
Hearing the quote, watching the video and listening to Sukha, it’s possible to think that it’s all Christians who are persecuted and everybody else who does the persecuting. Especially Muslims. But we should remember with humility the appalling things that Christians have done to everybody else – especially Muslims and Jews. This year marks 500 years since the German monk Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg in 31st October, 1517, sparking the Reformation. Which in many ways has been a good thing, especially if you count yourself a Protestant in the best Reformed tradition. However, it also sparked about 100 years of war, dreadful violence and persecution directed both ways between various Catholic and Protestant groups and countries. Absolutely no-one came out of this smelling of roses. That was Christians persecuting other Christians!! And it is our history. After 500 years at least we can be thankful that we are no longer killing each other and there is a real warmth between Christian churches of different traditions.
So what do we do with all of this? Firstly, I think we should be aware of it. Aware that the church in many parts of the world is truly hated, and suffers greatly. Aware that what Jesus said would happen, is a daily reality for many. Secondly, we could, in some ways, stand with them. That may mean praying for them, or writing letters to foreign governments, signing petitions. There is lots of information about the situation in various countries, and what we can do about it on the internet but I would direct you to three places in particular: Open Doors (who produced the video), Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Amnesty International. Thirdly, we should resolve never, in any way, to behave in the same way towards people of other faiths or none. We cannot possibly want persecution to ease up against Christians if we do not show generosity of spirit to people who profess faiths other than ours. Finally, we should reflect that despite tremendous hardship, Christians in countries facing dreadful persecution not only hang on to their faith but continue to share it with others, often at great cost. In its first 300 years of existence, the church faced enormous persecution in the Roman Empire. However, the faith continued to spread and grow until in AD313, the Emperor Constantinople declared Christianity to be the Imperial religion. Everything changes.