Persecution

crusadesAll Australians have become amateur psychiatrists.  The culture around us has learnt enough from the founders of modern psychology and psychiatry for people to toss bits and pieces of it into ordinary conversations and articles in popular newspapers and television chat shows, and we in the Church are no better.

We all know about ‘phobias’ and we know about ‘neuroses’ – or if we don’t know exactly what they are, we know what we think they are and use the terms liberally in conversation.  We know about ‘Freudian slips’ and look out eagerly for someone to say accidentally what we knew they wanted to keep as a personal secret.  We know about ‘paranoia’.  That state of mind in which a person is convinced that something bad is about to happen to them, that people hate them and are about to get them.

Indeed many ordinary sensible Christians might think that this evening’s Gospel passage is verging on the paranoid. “The world is going to hate you,” says Jesus, “the world is going to persecute you.  The world is guilty and it hates me and my heavenly father as well!”  We can imagine someone from outside of the community of the baptised listening to this evening’s Gospel, and watching us huddled up in here, and saying, “look at these Christians, how paranoid can they get?”

It would be true to say that there is an unhealthy sense amongst some Christians that we are under attack. This stems primarily from the reality that we enjoy the unprecedented position in society – with all of its privileges – that we once did. A certain group of Christians, from the “things aren’t the same as they were in the good old days” looks eagerly for the most trivial signs of opposition, and then turns these into the clear message that Christianity is systematically being eradicated from Australian society.  Is this what you and I have signed up to lead?  A community of the paranoid?

Well, the problem with paranoia, is that sometimes people are out to get you!  The first Christian communities certainly faced persecution from the very beginning.  We know that – of course – not least because of the evidence given by one of the leading persecutors – Saul of Tarsus, who was to become the Apostle Paul.  He attacked the Church violently, and then spent the rest of his life being attacked himself – beaten, stoned and constantly threatened.  The first three hundred years of church history were a story of on-off persecution, usually more on than off.  It is not for nothing that we glory in the reality that the ‘blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’.  And since then, there have been many times and places where followers of Christ have faced, and still do face, enormous and frequently violent hostility.

Of course it would be incomplete to leave the story of persecution there.  Christians have often persecuted other peoples and faiths.  And indeed most bizarrely Christians have been active in persecuting each other.  The idea that the good news – the Gospel – of Jesus and his love could be spread by any kind of violence would be a sort of sick joke if it weren’t such a serious and often repeated mistake.  Countries, rulers and societies that claim to be Christian have often used the name of Jesus Christ as an excuse to wage war on people with whom they had a quarrel that was nothing to do with the truth of the Christian faith, and some members of our congregations wish that that was still the case!  The Church itself has used its force in the past to silence reformers, and now today to silence those who simply wish to teach and live by the faith once revealed, rather than the novelties of the latest whim and fancy.  The loser in all such situations has been the witness of the Gospel itself.

But none of this takes away from the fact that Jesus’ warnings in this evening’s Gospel are not paranoid, even if they may sound like that today to a comfortable, armchair version of a middle-class Christian social club.  Jesus’ message is ominous: the world will hate you, it will persecute you, as it persecuted Jesus; it is guilty because it has seen and rejected Jesus and the Father.  This is – we might say – the reality of how the world is.

The deep irony permeating Jesus’ words are that the world in question, from Jesus’ perspective, was not the pagan world of Greek and Roman culture, not Caesar’s world.   It was the world in which Jesus was born and lived: the world of Galilee and Jerusalem.  It was the world of Abraham’s children, people who studied the law of Moses.  It was the world which thought of itself as God’s people.  This was the world that looked at Jesus, that heard what he said, and saw what he did, and despite all of it, said “no thank you.”  This was the world that saw the blind man healed, and yet remained blind itself.  This was the world that saw Lazarus raised to life, and yet decided it would be safe to kill him off properly because otherwise people might believe in Jesus.

So who was being paranoid?  Was it Jesus? or was it rather the world itself, who saw the prince of peace as a threat, the lord of love as someone to hate?  The simple fact is this: we who follow Jesus Christ are for the world, but we are no longer from the world.  We are sent into the world, as signs of Jesus to bear witness to God’s love and to bring about his purposes.  But we are not from this world any longer.  Through our baptism we have become citizens of a different kingdom.

We are certainly for the world: we are in the world to witness to that kingdom, whatever the cost. Servants will always be less popular than super stars.  And this is what you and I, as priests and people on the way to priesthood are called to be. Servants of Christ, for the sake of the world with the mindset of humility, not a thirst for stature in a world that is no longer ours.  May we be strengthened by this Eucharist, and our fellowship together, to remain faithful to that calling.