The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity ~ Taking up the cross
Having been away for a month, it has been lovely to have a break – not quite what we had planned, but restful nevertheless. I began at the Hymn Society Conference at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester in late July. The sun shone, and there was no mobile phone reception. We spent other weeks in a Caravan on Romney Marsh, right next to the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Steam Railway. Clergy, it seems have always had a strange fascination with trains. But of course we went there because our much-anticipated trip to Israel was cancelled at the last minute. We had hoped against hope that things might quieten down, but alas, while they have a bit now, they hadn’t then, and it was almost certainly right not to go. We shall recreate the trip next August by the way, and if anyone would like to come, booking will soon be open!
Nevertheless, we have witnessed some terrible scenes on our televisions this last month or so. Terrorism, Jihad, cruelty, war and man’s inhumanity towards man – and it is the men - have dominated, it seems, even more than ever. Ukraine, Syria, Gaza, Iraq. Last summer I sat in a caravan in Kent watching parliament recalled to see if we should bomb Syria. This year I sat in the same place watching some world leaders saying we should enlist Syria’s Assad to tackle Islamic extremism. And last June I sat by the Sea of Galilee with my friend Daoud, whose company I was denied this year, who predicted it all.
So it has not been a good summer worldwide.
An airliner shot down.
A Palestinian government willing to sacrifice its own people to the wrath of Israel for political and publicity advantage.
And an American journalist brutally beheaded for wanting to tell the truth.
On Friday, the church commemorated the Beheading of John the Baptist. You know the story: John, cousin of Jesus, went around saying awkward things and calling on people to repent of their sins and be baptized. Some of us have visited the site where he did this. We have also visited the site where he was beheaded.
It’s called Machaerus, and all that is left now is a few pillars on top of a commanding position overlooking the Dead Sea East of the River Jordan. Herod Antipas built it for strategic reasons: he could see Masada and smoke signals could be relayed to and from Jerusalem from it. It was the first line of defence from an attack from the east. Nevertheless, Herod made it not only a defensive vantage point, but an opulent retreat, perhaps not unlike Hitler’s mountain-top Eagles’ Nest near Berchtesgaden – again – which some of us have visited! One can afford to relax in luxury if you can see your enemies coming and are perched atop a mountain in an impenetrable fortress.
According to the Jewish Historian Josephus, who also writes briefly about Jesus, giving us a contemporary, unbiased reference point for the events of the New Testament – according to Josephus, Herod had John the Baptist incarcerated at Machaerus before beheading him. There can be no doubt that John existed; that he annoyed Herod, and that Herod beheaded him accordingly. Matthew’s Gospel fleshes the story out, and there is no reason to suppose that the story about Salome dancing and Herodias demanding the head of John the Baptist is not true. For John was beheaded for upsetting the tyrant whose lifestyle and political methods he was brave enough to criticise. Herod Antipas, who did it, was weak, succumbing to the wiles of his step-daughter, Salome, whose mother manipulated him into disposing of the inconvenient John. John, who only spoke the truth and lost his head for it. Not unlike that poor American journalist James Foley, in fact.
Both men died in the desert, alone. And 2000 years apart, not much has changed. Nor has our strange relishment of such appalling deeds. Executions – hangings or beheadings - were until recently public spectacles, the guillotine and gallows drew large crowds in England and France – people even paid for a better view, and the severed heads were displayed on poles, not only I suggest, as a warning, but also for excitement. Various traditions and superstitions grew up concerning the magical, satanic or even healing properties of such macabre specimens.
And now beheadings have become public once more. Facebook, Twitter and other internet sites have got themselves all tied up over free speech and the dissemination of such material, which it seems, folk want to display and others want to see. Some modern thinkers wring their hands and bemoan how we have got to such a state in which children want, can and do see such gore, presumably after a quick tour of the chamber of horrors at Madame Tussauds. But it was ever thus, and it is not that long ago that children were taken to executions for entertainment.
Go further back, to around 1530, and one can add the spectacle of a burning at the stake to the daily diet of brutality and gore. In our own country, under successive monarchs, in the name of religion, good and conscientious men and women were publicly burned alive for not believing what they were supposed to believe, even if that was different to what they were supposed to believe last year.
So we should not be surprised at our news bulletins today. The Islamic year begins at the flight of Mohammed – called the Haj - from Mecca - in the year 622 AD. This makes this year, 1435. In the history of a culture, this puts Islam on a threshold – a threshold that could last about a hundred years, of great change. The English reformation began around 1530, and set in motion intercinine strife the repercussions of which still resonate today. When I was a school, I was taught that the world needs to watch out for when China – the sleeping dragon – wakes up. That has been – and still is true to a certain extent. But no-one really saw coming the problem of radical and violent Islam, which is now rearing its head, and cutting off the heads of others. And we should not overlook the fact that radical Islam not only does not share the values of a western liberalism, it despises those values.
Compromise or accommodation is not on the menu. So we have a problem – a problem that will affect us all. And the people it will affect probably most, are the reasonable, peace-loving Muslims in Britain, against whom a tide may well turn in the near future. Stories from Rotherham as well as Iraq will not help unreasonable, thought-avoiding, defensive, single-minded, intolerant readers of certain newspapers, to remain charitable or discriminatory – not of race, but of character. That very failing – to discern between race and character has led to so many injustices already, in so many directions, as it were. So we will see an effect in our political and national life, perhaps even as early as in next year’s General Election.
Now then, I should mention today’s readings – this being a sermon, rather than a Guardian article or historical critique…
St Paul reminds us, still, to:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another…. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
And then, if we look at today’s gospel reading, there are resonances, and warnings from our Lord. Speaking to his own friends before imminent trouble, he calls on them to take up their own crosses.
And his words remind me of that great play by Robert Bolt – A Man for All Seasons. Some of you will know it – seeing, reading or acting the play even, or watching the superb film of it made in the sixties. It is set in the 1530’s and concerns the mental and spiritual agonies of Sir Thomas More, one of Henry VII’s closest confidantes and friends. Thomas, however, cannot in conscience accept the divorce between Henry and Catherine of Aragon and will not sign the Act of Supremacy recognizing Anne Boleyn as Queen. Henry agonises too, but must have his way. Thomas will not relent, and so is tried for treason. The play draws heavily on real accounts of what happened at his trial. In an exchange with Richard Rich, one of his accusers, this very passage of scripture from today’s gospel is quoted:
“Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... but for Wales?”
History tells us that More was convicted on the testimony of his friends who turned private conversations into evidence, in return for political favours against which More had no defence other than to remain silent. Revealing the true nature of their integrity, and their expectation that More had none himself, Norfolk says to him:
“Oh, confound all this... I'm not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don't know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names.... You know those men! Can't you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?”
Thomas More’s reply, gleaned from the records of the trial is chilling and moving:
“And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”
Thomas More was executed at Tower Hill on 6 July 1535. And yes, he was beheaded. Which was seen as a merciful alternative to being hung, drawn and quartered in public. This is how Henry’s new Church of England set out its stall.
What Jesus says to his disciples – and by extension to us - is hard, and that is the Cross which Peter, and the others, and Christians today, will have to shoulder and walk with until Kingdom come. For some, Peter among them, there are literal overtones here, as he and many others – Thomas More among them - have followed Christ to their own crosses. And this is a text that Christians in Iraq, following John the Baptist, St Peter, and countless other over the centuries, understand profoundly. We pray for them, admire and revere their courage and calling, and thank God for own freedom of speech, security and safety, in return for which we must remain ever vigilant, clinging for dear life to the generosity, charity and conviction of our own calling to follow Christ, take up our own, relatively trivial crosses, and witnessing to the truth at every possible opportunity.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done”.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 26/11/17