Trinity 16: Suffering for the Gospel

Dr Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship in the Diocese and administrator of this blog, focuses on this week’s lectionary epistle to look briefly at a topic which is both sensitive and of contemporary relevance.

A first look at this week’s lectionary biblical readings could not easily spot the connection between them! Indeed such links can sometimes appear forced. The texts are not easy at all – the Gospel reading from Luke (Luke 17.5-10) reminds us sharply of the evil institution of slavery which was certainly a feature of the Graeco-Roman Gentile world of Jesus’ time, though less so among the Jewish community. I have to say that I proactively want the words seemingly spoken by Jesus in this passage to be sentiments that Luke the gospel writer has placed in Jesus’ mouth rather than the actual words of the historical Jesus himself! It is interesting that they are introduced with the comment, ‘The Lord replied’, rather than ‘Jesus replied’ – a slightly unusual phrasing that made me feel that my instinct that these words are quite distant from the mindset of the earthly Jesus may well be correct.

What seems to link the three readings is the motif of ‘faith’: its power (Luke 17.5-6), its life-giving quality (Habakkuk 2.4), and its link, according to Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 1.1-14), both to what one can learn from parents and grandparents, and to ‘sound teaching.’

Paul’s comments though also open up an issue that is still very live for us, or at least for many Christians, today – the potential link between suffering and our faith. ‘Join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God.’ (2 Timothy 1.8) A report has recently been produced by the Bishop of Truro, commissioned by Jeremy Hunt when he was Foreign Secretary, https://christianpersecutionreview.org.uk/storage/2019/07/final-report-and-recommendations.pdf which explores the issue of the persecution of Christians in several parts of our contemporary world and makes key recommendations. Though welcoming the report ‘as the start of a wider conversation and a deeper dialogue’ another piece of work commissioned by the Anglican mission agency USPG has highlighted has offered the challenge that it is important not to look at the situations through the eyes of British Christians alone.

https://uspglive.org.uk/wpress/2019/07/a-response-to-the-bishop-of-truros-review-of-fco-support-for-persecuted-christians/

It is interesting of course that both the author of the initial report and USPG itself have close connections with our diocese in Europe. The Bishop of Truro is Philip Mounstephen – formerly chaplain in St Michael’s Paris – and USPG is a current partner of the Diocese in Europe in work such as the refugee ministry in the Pas de Calais. A reminder, if such were needed, that the issue of freedom of religion and belief is equally relevant this side of La Manche as well.

It is certainly a topic with which I myself have felt engaged for many years, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. My years in fairly early adulthood spent living in Lebanon during its period of civil war in which religion was undoubtedly a factor, has influenced me ever since. My Lebanese experience in fact has made me only too aware that Christians can be the perpetrators of religiously inspired violence as well as the victims of it. That of course is relevant to us in Europe today. It is probably true that the worst example of violence in Europe since the Second World War instigated by people who at least partially linked their actions to their religion was the massacre of Bosnian Muslims by Christians in Srebrenica in 1995. I don’t think that in western Europe we yet fully realise the impact that atrocity has had on global Christian-Muslim relations.

I would however question whether the work done by USPG (or indeed the original Truro report) has fully taken into account the particular features of Christian spirituality that can make Christians especially susceptible to becoming the victims of violence. Our theology of the vulnerability of God expressed through the Cross, and the honouring of those who are ‘weak’, can act like a direct incentive to ‘bullies’ to show their apparent power by acts of discrimination and persecution.

Westminster_Abbey_-_20th-century_Martyrs

The statues of 20th century martyrs outside Westminster Abbey

I could write much more on this topic – and indeed am working on a book exploring issues of religion and violence from a theological perspective – but I leave you for now with this comment, made by a Christian from the Middle East, which seems to resonate with Paul’s words in 2 Timothy: ‘Martyrdom is not seeking death for the sake of Christ; martyrdom is seeking life. But if asked to carry the cross to death, we need to be obedient.’

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