STEADFAST FAITH IN TIMES OF TRIAL
Sermon delivered on the 24th Sunday after Trinity, the 15th November 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's, George Town in the Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Daniel: 12: 1-3 Hebrews 10:11-25 S. Mark 13: 1-8
Hebrews 10: 22 “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith ...”
Perhaps all of us adults and some children too have had some taste of a set of circumstances that caused us to wonder if we could ever get through them victoriously, or win over them. Soldiers or other military personnel at war know very well the taste of fear that makes them momentarily or for longer periods doubt their capacity to win over or perhaps to survive through what they see coming towards them. But get through the fear they must, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of those around them or those for whom they are responsible.
It is similarly understandable in the current climate of social discourse in which people can be denigrated publicly in many sorts of ways, such as being excoriated as “bigots”, no matter in how well reasoned a manner their Christian opinion may have been expressed, to wonder if those of us who express a Christian perspective upon the affairs of the community can prevail over a secularist outlook. In both the USA and the United Kingdom there have been long-running battles fought over the right for the freedom to express Christian viewpoints, and sometimes at various junctures of these battles I have truly wondered if in the end Christian freedom could prevail. Well, at the suggestion of the Christian Concern organisation in England recently, I wrote a letter last week to the BBC in which after listening to the interviews I expressed concern and objection to the manner in which an interviewer dealt with his interviewees who were attempting to defend the Faith. I was expecting to get back a sniffy reply, but to my enormous surprise, the BBC wrote back saying that the BBC fully accepted that the language the presenter used, and the tone in which he conducted the interviews was at several points inappropriate, and that the BBC and the presenter himself wished to apologise for any offence that may have been caused. They said they hoped that their response went some way in addressing my concerns and thanked me for contacting them. They were right - their response was encouraging even if the basic problem underlying such situations was probably not shifted very much.
The Christian, however, being a “soldier of Christ” as is declared in our Baptism, should experience a certain trepidation in his normal course of discipleship. It must be our ever-recurring obligation to win through the various circumstances that would threaten the stability of our relationship with Christ, making courageous and well-executed forays into enemy territory for the sake of His Name and for the love of His brethren, thereby being exposed to risk of capture or injury from the spiritual enemy. Such risks can be involved in the circumstances of spiritual direction or counsel or in theological studies, in prison ministry or chaplaincy work in hospitals and schools, in extreme situations such as exorcisms, or even in our day to day relationships in the Body of Christ, as well as in our explicit witness as Christians in the world.
It is revealed to us that we live as the citizens of overlapping ages, the age of this world of human history on the one hand, and the new age of the appearance of Christ on the other. From the time of the incarnation, the arrival of “God in Man made manifest” as the Epiphany hymn puts it, the final age of the appearance of Christ has been breaking into human history, and when we walk by faith rather than by sight, we are exercising our citizenship of that final age already. Today’s Gospel as well as the lesson from the book of Daniel tell us about a time of trouble and wars and rumours of wars, and Jesus says that what we perceive is still but the beginning of the birth-pangs of the new thing breaking into human history. To win through as a soldier of Christ is a high-stakes operation. We are not to be led astray by false Christs or unrealistic alarmism or worldly fears, and we are to bear in mind that the real truth of a thing does not always lie with those who start the shouting. As the well-known prayer puts it, it is not the beginning of a matter, but the continuing of the same “until it be throughly finished”, that yields the true glory. We are to be of those who keep our mind’s eye firmly fixed upon the complete finishing of any matter, and especially upon that end that is man’s true goal. The Church must be absolutely clear that this goal is entirely distinct from any goals of mankind’s own devising, such as the United Nations’ various Goals, for example. Being “in the world but not of the world”, Christians can and should be able to co-operate with political or socio-idealistic movements up to a certain point, however. The end-point of such co-operation, as always, appears wherever Caesar demands to be worshipped as God. So we may and should be concerned about caring for the earth’s environment, but when it is implied that God Himself either had no part in forming our environment or especially has no intention or ability to sustain it, then the expression of our concerns must begin to diverge from the concerns of the secularists; for what is starting to be implied here is that God in one way or another, through being non-existent or irrelevant, must be left out. We may and should be concerned about the amelioration of poverty both in our society and in the world at large, and particularly among ourselves in the Body of Christ. However, we of all people should not forget, as others do, that God Himself has a programme (the programme, I should say) for the elimination of poverty. Even in some recent poverty studies in the Caribbean, the concept of poverty is not what it used to be in early studies on the subject two centuries ago. Newer concepts of poverty involve now not only monetary measurements, but also attempts to measure people’s ability to escape from whatever binds them to incapacitating life practices. We can say therefore that by a circular route, people have come to realise that the concept of “poverty” is more akin to a holistic biblical concept than an old-style socialistic or materialistic one. As believers, we are to be of those who keep our mind’s eye firmly fixed upon the end that is man’s true goal, as expressed simply in the well-known words, “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” – and we are to act accordingly.
The passage from Hebrews today shows us that such a great lifetime challenge to us as to win through as a soldier of Christ in all our various undertakings, a challenge which may naturally give us from time to time the taste of fear, may and must be undertaken with confidence. Here in the West, the fear may be chiefly reputational. What will people say about me if I nail my colours to the mast? Will I lose credibility as a fair-minded person if I express that I am on Christ's side? Increasingly, will my superiors or employers begin to think of me as unfit for purpose? And in the East and South, the fear may increasingly be for my safety or that of my family, friends and associates, as both property and life itself are threatened. As is reiterated in our reading this week, by the overflowing love of God, Christ has offered for all time His single sacrifice for sins, and we therefore have confidence to enter the heavenly sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, with a true heart in full assurance of faith. Our hearts are sprinkled clean from any bad conscience and from the fears that make us waver, and our very baptism is a sign and sacrament of this to us. Within this true sanctuary we have a great High Priest over the house of God, Jesus Himself making intercession for us. It is not therefore the condemnation of our sins and failures that is being applied to us, but the forgiveness of our sins and misdeeds, by undeserved grace. We are called to keep on with the challenge of being a soldier of Christ in the world and never give up, because through Jesus, who by the bounteous love of God offered His very Self for us and now intercedes for us, we always have the resources, no matter how unbelievable this may seem to be, to meet the world's challenge, even if with injury at times, and ultimately to prevail.