Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church at 9 am on Sunday, 21st September
“Without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you”
I attended the induction of the new parish priest of Ballybrack last Sunday lunchtime. Twenty years ago, in the North, attendance at such an event would have been an invitation to abuse and threats from the ‘defenders’ of the Protestant faith. Taking part in cross-community or ecumenical gatherings in the mid-80s used to be fun, not so much because the gatherings themselves were particularly inspiring, but because there was the guarantee of abuse and harassment from the defenders of the Protestant cause. Where I was a curate, the fundamentalists used to take out advertisements in the local newspaper denouncing the Church of Ireland for its alleged heresies. We used to have an ecumenical carol service at Christmas with stewards to weed out extremist rabble-rousers who would try to disrupt the proceedings. There was always a rush of adrenalin in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity because it would be almost be sure to produce a picket line of placard wavers denouncing the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dr Eames. The attendances at such services were huge, it seemed that people came deliberately to defy our persecutors.
In another town a decade later, the spark had gone out of things. The town still had bitter sectarian tensions, but the sort of people who would burn a Catholic family out of an estate had no interest in church matters. We could have ecumenical events every week and get no response. The clergy fraternal met in the convent every month and not once did anyone object. The Christian Unity Week service was held in the leisure centre to try to reach a wider audience but only the usual people came along.
It seemed paradoxical – when going to a service meant abuse and harassment, there were big crowds; when it was unopposed and easy, then hardly anyone bothered.
The experience seemed to be an object lesson in how persecution can be good for the church.
If we think about our own lives, it seems common sense that if something is difficult it makes us stronger than something that is easy. If we never have to work hard, if life is always easy, if there are no demands upon us, it is easy to become soft and lazy. Often it is doing the things we don’t like, having to work harder than we would choose, going through experiences we would prefer not to have, that makes us into the people we are.
It was the hard experiences that shaped the Church in the days of Saint Paul. If being a follower of Jesus meant that you were liable to be beaten up or thrown out of the community or even killed, then you thought very carefully about what you believed, and, if you believed, you did so with all your heart. There wasn’t much room for being a casual attender or a fringe member of the Church, you were in or you were out. The Church grew and grew and spread through the known world because there was absolute commitment on the part of its members and absolute confidence in their faith. Paul urges them to stand firm “without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you”.
There was no need to be afraid because nothing could separate them from God. Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”. With such confidence, Christians could face everything that was thrown at them, even violent death, and still come out the winners.
One of the weaknesses of the church now is that it is part of the state. It is associated with schools and hospitals and organizations. Bishops are seen in the company of the great and the good. The church is seen as part of the fabric of traditional Irish society. The experience of being a national institution has made the church soft and complacent.
Even when there is criticism of aspects of church life, those who do the criticizing still profess the same beliefs as the church. Because of the comfortable situation enjoyed by the church there has been a reticence about condemning the State at times when things should have been said. I read Sean O’Casey’s autobiography during the summer; his account of Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s made grim reading. The Church of Ireland seemed to say nothing
Paul envisages us as struggling for what we believe, in putting clear space between ourselves and the State, he thinks we should contend ‘as one man for the faith of the gospel’. Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’, he says.
We have been lulled into a sense of complacency; much of what goes on in the country contradicts the Gospel, but we say nothing. Eventually, a choice hast to be made. There will be some who will be like those in John 6:66, ‘From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him”.
Many of the followers of Jesus did not want any adversity. There are many people now who are happy with a traditional, institutional church that says nothing and slowly fades away
The question that Jesus asks us his followers is one that confronts us, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”
The answer Peter gave, is “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
It is with such assurance that Paul can write about his readers not “being frightened in any way by those who oppose you”
I wonder what we would face for what we believe.