Sunday 13 August 2017
Luke 1:46-55, Rev 11: 19- end, 12,6,10.
May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On 17 February 1941, a Roman Catholic Priest and Monk was arrested by the Gestapo. This man had consistently refused to co-operate with the German authorities and it is believed that prior to his arrest some 2000 Jewish people had escaped via his monastery. On 28 May, he was transferred to Auschwitz.
Continuing to act as a priest, he was subjected to violent harassment, including beating and lashings, and once had to be smuggled to a prison hospital by friendly inmates. At the end of July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from the camp, prompting the deputy camp commander to pick 10 men at random to be starved to death in an underground bunker to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, cried out, “My wife! My children!”, this priest and monk volunteered to take his place.
According to an eye witness, a camp cleaner, this man spent the whole time leading the prisoners in prayer. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only he remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied, so they gave him a lethal injection of carbolic acid. He is said to have raised his left arm and calmly waited for the deadly injection. His remains were cremated on 15 August, the feast day of the Assumption of Mary, to whom he was particularly dedicated and who, of course, we also celebrate today as the patron saint of this Church.
The name of this priest and monk was Maximilian Kolbe, he was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and the church celebrates his memory tomorrow.
The reason I wanted to mention Kolbe today is because I particularly want to think about the persecuted and compromised church and he is an outstanding example of what faith looks like when it refuses to compromise with evil. Yes, he died, which reminds us that victory may not always look or feel like victory at the time, but he lives on as part of the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, his memory and his example are honoured as part of the life of the church, whereas the same cannot be said of those who killed him.
And why are we thinking about the persecuted church today? There are two reasons: firstly, those who come to morning prayer with me during the week, will know that I often pray for the persecuted church and that we would use our freedom to support our brothers and sisters in Christ, and I will say a little more about that in a moment. And the second reason, as mentioned last week, was our recent visit to Budapest.
Whilst in Budapest Vivienne and I didn’t just visit St Istvan’s Cathedral; we also visited an amazing museum called ‘The House of Terror.’ Sadly, the name makes it sound like it could be some terrible London Dungeon rip off, but I’m glad to say that it is nothing like that.
The museum in a large building which used to be a magnificent family home but which became the headquarters of the Hungarian Fascist Party before the second world war and later became the headquarters of the communist secret police following the end of the war and Hungary’s occupation by the Soviet Union. The purpose of this museum is to record the terrors inflicted on the Hungarians by both the Fascists and Communists, and it does this incredibly well without either being sensationalist or sentimental.
Of course the persecution reached into every area of life, but I was particularly moved and interested by the effect on the churches in Hungary.
In the early days of communist rule all land and buildings belonging to churches were taken by the state and many priests, monks and nuns were imprisoned. Lots were deported from Hungary into the gulag prison camps in Russia and, like Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz, it seems that many continued to function as priests to those around them – on display were tiny communion sets which could be easily hidden but used to serve communion when possible. Whenever I hear modern English Christians take a very low view of communion I cannot help but think of those priests, including Fr Jacques Hammal gunned down by Islamists, whose ultimate expression of their faith was serving communion. And by ultimate I mean both greatest and last.
So many Hungarian priests, monks and nuns were deported to the gulags and the majority of those would never return. From the Soviet Union’s point of view this was, of course, just a small part of a much longer story of persecuting the church, which they started in 1917, one hundred years ago this year.
But this is not just meant to be a history lesson, persecution of the church is not just something which happened in the Coliseum in Rome or in Auschwitz or the gulags. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are being imprisoned, tortured and killed simply for being Christians in many countries around the world right now.
There is a very good charity called Open Doors and if you look on their website (http://www.opendoorsuk.org/) you will find a list of the top 50 countries ranked in order of the most dangerous place to be a Christian.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian at the moment is North Korea. Between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians are estimated to be in prison camps solely on the basis of their faith and most will likely die there. However if the state arrests and imprisons an individual for being a Christian in North Korea then usually all their family is arrested and imprisoned too. The next 11 places are taken by countries which may also not surprise you, including: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Iraq & Iran. In each of these places Christians are routinely imprisoned for their faith and those who have converted from Islam are executed.
However slightly lower down the list are some countries which may surprise you. The 13th most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian, which beats Saudi Arabia into 14th place, is the Maldives. This place markets itself as an island paradise for tourists but it is an increasingly fundamentalist Islamic republic. Tourists have been arrested for taking a bible into the country, ex-pats can only worship inside the embassies and if a local Maldivian becomes a Christian they can not only be sent to prison but can also be stripped of their citizenship.
Don’t worry, I shan’t go through the whole list but I commend that website to you because it makes challenging reading. Challenging because we take what we have so much for granted. We may lament the fact that society is not as Christian or as Church-going as it used to be but here we meet without fear of arrest, we have multiple bibles around the place each of which would be a great treasure in some of these parts of the world I have mentioned, we can live our faith and share our faith quite openly. Not always without censure or risk, it has to be said, but compared to many places around the world, and compared to many points in history, we are so lucky. And yet do we fully appreciate and treasure that pearl of great value which is given to us freely by God and with so little risk to ourselves? Are we using this great freedom to its maximum advantage both in terms of being the best follower of Christ we can be and in terms of supporting our brothers and sisters in Christ who right now, this very moment, are in prison camps for sharing our faith? How do we support them? Firstly by prayer – pray for the persecuted church around the world, that they may know something of the freedom we have. Secondly there are charities like Open Doors who actively work with and for the persecuted church – sending bibles, campaigning for justice. Other charities are available but do have a look and pray about this subject.
But there is also a flip side to persecution that I want to look at briefly. Persecution of the church, especially on a nationwide scale, seems to result in two main consequences: firstly, many parts of the church are driven underground. This underground church may emulate in many ways the first Christian believers who had to contend with the persecution of the Roman Emperors before Constantine. We all like to imagine, I suspect, that if persecution against the church broke out here that we would be the underground church.
But there is another consequence which is much less ‘romantic’ and perhaps ought to worry us more. That is not the underground church but the compromised church. The Hungarian state eventually achieved equilibrium with the church prior to the fall of communism not by stamping it out but by installing church leaders who promised not to make trouble for the state. In Russia those parts of the Orthodox church which were not driven underground became headed by Bishops over whom the KGB had sufficient control. In China today there are two versions of the Roman Catholic Church – those whose bishops are in communion with Rome and who exist as an underground church and those whose bishops are state appointed and controlled.
Why do states seek to persecute the church and, if they cannot stamp it out, to compromise it, its leaders and its doctrines? Firstly because Christians seek to owe their ultimate loyalty not to temporal rulers and powers but to the King of Kings, and despots never like that. But secondly because, properly understood, Christianity has always been a faith which seeks to radically transform the values of the world – in which the poor are treasured, in which strength is found in weakness, in which prisoners are set free, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, in which the first are last and the last are first.
By the values of her society and her time Mary, the Mother of Jesus, had little value. She was a young, unmarried, girl who was pregnant out of wedlock. And yet her song of praise sets out God’s radical agenda for a different type of world:
“He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
But has sent the rich empty away.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ. We are very lucky in this place and this time not to be the persecuted church but to be able to practice our faith in freedom. However, there is a more insidious challenge before us, and that is to avoid constantly the temptation to become the compromised church. That we compromise the radical, transformative nature of God’s program into nothing more than a program of inoffensive niceness. God calls his church not just to worship him on a Sunday and to try and be nice to one another but to be a place which strives for justice, which resists evil and oppression wherever it is found, and to be a place where the values of the world are overturned and replaced with the values of his Kingdom.
I’ll leave you with this to think about whilst I’m away: If Christianity as we know it were outlawed tomorrow and we were rounded up would we serve one another secret communion in the camps and give our lives like Maximilian Kolbe or would we compromise with the state? And if we tell ourselves we would never compromise with the state then it may be worth pondering the extent to which we already face and respond to that challenge every single day.
 The biography of Maximillian Kolbe here is adapted from his Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilian_Kolbe