Bishop Ross Bay presided and preached at St Alban’s, Balmoral, On Sunday 26th June 2016. It was the celebration of their Patronal Festival, and the readings were 2 Maccabees 6:18,21-31, 1 Peter 2:19-24, and Matthew 10:16-22.
It is good to be here with you to celebrate your feast of title. St Alban’s Day fell during the week past, and I was glad to keep it both at our Wednesday Eucharist in the Bishop’s chapel, and at evensong in the cathedral. So I feel that dear Alban has had good attention from me this week.
Perhaps some of you have like me have enjoyed the opportunity to visit St Alban’s Cathedral in England and to see the shrine of Alban. It is such a beautiful and cultured town, and so it is hard to imagine the events of 1700 years ago taking place there.
Alban gave shelter to a fugitive, who was a Christian priest being hunted by the authorities. It was the time of Roman occupation, and of state-organised persecution of Christians. Alban was so impressed by the courage and faith of this priest, that he wanted to know more about this faith, and converted. When the authorities came searching, Alban was faced with terrible choices about his new-found faith. What was his responsibility to the priest that had brought him the good news of salvation? He wanted to protect the priest, and so exchanged clothes with him to allow him to escape.
But the subterfuge was not allowed to go unpunished. For it, Alban suffered the fate that belonged to the priest. He lost his life, beheaded by the authorities, the first known Christian martyr in Britain. Alban had followed the example of the Saviour whose love he had only just come to know, by laying down his life for the sake of another. The words from Peter’s letter apply so aptly to Alban. “It is a sign of grace if, because God is in his thoughts, someone endures the pain of undeserved suffering . . . . It is your vocation because Christ himself suffered on your behalf, and left you an example in order that you should follow in his steps.” Sadly, the priest himself was later also captured, and martyred.
That sense of integrity, of being true to what you believe, is somewhat paralleled in the story of Eleazar in the reading we heard from Maccabees. Again we have a period where a ruling power has outlawed the practice of religion, this time Judaism in the 2nd century BC. A choice has to be made by this leading teacher of the faith, as to whether he will pretend he is eating food forbidden by Jewish Law. But he cannot take part in a deceit, for what example will that offer to the generation that follows? So he goes to his death, believing it to be the right and noble thing to do if the faith that has shaped his 90 years is to mean anything.
So returning to Alban, it is hard to imagine it all when visiting St Alban’s today. Harder still to translate that from there, which at least looks a little ancient, into Aotearoa New Zealand, Auckland, Balmoral. Praise God that we have not known persecution in our nation because of our faith. Ridicule sometimes, and strange looks if we are too honest or passionate about what we believe, and a sense of marginalisation as a minority religion compared to what we once knew. But nothing we could call suffering as such.
Not that it is absent from the world. It is very real for people in the region from Syria to the west, right through Iraq and Iran and across to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Likewise in Sudan and Somalia,
and in many other nations to a greater or lesser extent. Some of it is localised, and in other cases it is state organised.
Research indicates that around the world every month 322 Christians are killed for their faith, 214 Christian churches or other properties are destroyed, and 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians.
And none of that is to suggest that only people of Christian faith suffer in this way. Similar acts of persecution are visited on many people because of their religious faith, or political stance, or their race, or their gender, or their sexuality. Some part of human nature seems to almost compel people to react negatively to difference, and especially to those who seek to maintain a level of integrity about what they personally believe or think.
Certainly Jesus knew that it would be so for his followers. The sayings we have heard from Matthew come in the context of Jesus sending out the Twelve to extend his mission. They had witnessed so many acts of power by Jesus, and are now being given authority to go and do the same things.
You might imagine that they would have been preparing with a great deal of confidence about how this would go for them. And then Jesus tells them about persecution, in a way that suggests that proclamation and opposition to it, even to the point of persecution, are two inseparable realities. This opposition will come from many sides, says Jesus, including their own people, and even their own families. It is a sobering message for those who choose to stand for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and as agents of the Kingdom of God. But, as Peter tells his readers, it is better to suffer for having behaved well.
Again, so hard to translate this directly into our church and our lives, and to try to find parallels would minimise the reality of what Jesus was saying, what Alban demonstrated, and what Christians in other parts of the world genuinely suffer right now.
But I hope that we can see in it, and in all the Scriptures today, a call to live with integrity. Are we prepared to actually live out the things that we believe, and so demonstrate the kind of discipleship that enables an effective proclamation of Christ?
Now let’s be clear about what that doesn’t mean. This is not about proclamation from a point of strength, whereby we are imposing on others the things that we believe, and not resiling from them until we have coerced others to accept what we say. In that dynamic, we are at risk of being the persecutor. We see it too often in our debates within the church. So it’s not about feeling it’s not fair that people disagree with me, and fighting back.
Conversely, neither is it about being passive, and allowing anything to happen to us, out of some sense that whatever happens must be God’s will, that we should suffer, and that we just have to accept it. We should stand against the suffering of any human being, including ourselves, and declare it to be wrong.
But within all of that, there are things to be learned about finding courage and strength in weakness. It does not come naturally to most of us. It does not make sense. But as in the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, it is here that the power of God is found and can be seen. Remember the reaction of the centurion witnessing the death of Jesus: “Truly this was God’s Son.”
Blessed Alban’s witness was such that for all these centuries people have continued to visit the place of his death, and to recognise the kind of faith that played its part in the growth of Christianity in Britain.
God looks to us to play our part in our place and time, to live out our faith with courage, consistency, integrity, and humility. We are likely never to have to truly suffer for doing so, and so perhaps that can make our compromises and failings that much harder to identify, because the choices are not so clear cut. Let us at all times examine ourselves well, and endeavour to hold ourselves on the path of discipleship with Jesus Christ, the gift of whose life is truly life indeed.