|4:45pm||Sunday Organ Recital - Paul Carr|
Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter (14 May 2017) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean.
The Dean reminds us of the need to 'stop and listen for the voice of God that tells us when we’re being inhuman: and rather than reaching for the nearest stone or insult to throw, reach for love and forgiveness instead'.
In the news last week was a picture of men looking angry, with fists raised in the air, shouting. It could have been anywhere – political demonstrators in Trafalgar Square or Istanbul, supporters of Daesh in Raqqa, a group hunting gay people in Chechnya, or the mob in an Egyptian village last year who stripped a Christian grandmother naked and burned her house.
It doesn’t only happen in other places. The angry men could also have been the mob in a London suburb last month who beat and badly injured an Iranian asylum seeker. People in this country have been persecuted, murdered, beaten by members of another group for being the wrong kind of person, or faith, or race, or sexuality, or just being disabled. Religion is only one of many markers of difference which can ignite anger, hatred and deadly violence.
Could we be as violent and inhuman to others as that? Of course not, we would think. And indeed there’s a lot of goodness in the world. Truly evil people are in a very small minority, and which of us wants to be inhuman? But the worrying reality remains that many people can act in an inhuman way and think it to be justifiable and right. The corrupting power of mass thinking, of blind rage, the power of the mob, can touch any one of us.
People might react with horror to the idea of being part of a mindless mob, while they post contemptuous comments on Twitter about the actions and thoughts of others with whom they disagree. Women politicians and campaigners in the news get rape and death threats, for example – that’s the technological version of mob power at work.
Today’s reading from the history of the first Christians is about the killing of our first martyr, Stephen. A gifted leader in the early church, Stephen led people to follow Jesus, and the leaders of the mainstream Jewish faith tried to stop him, as they did Jesus and the other apostles, by accusing him of blasphemy against the Temple in Jerusalem. Stephen’s speech in his defence listed how through its history the Jewish nation hadn’t listened to God, and that not accepting Jesus as God’s Messiah was yet another example of Israel’s rejection of what God wants to say to them.
Of course Stephen’s opponents didn’t want to hear it. They were enraged, they put their hands over their ears so they didn’t have to listen, and they took Stephen out and stoned him. Hard to hear the uncomfortable words that confront you; so much easier to eliminate the challenging voice of your opponent for ever.
But there’s a subtext in this martyrdom, as with other examples of mob violence. Let’s go back to that picture of angry men waving their fists. It could have been a picture of Stephen’s martyrdom. It was actually about the conviction last week of the governor of Jakarta in Indonesia for blasphemy against the Koran.
This could be seen as religious persecution, because the governor is from the minority Christian community in Indonesia, when some in the majority Muslim community reject the democratic ideal that it’s the conduct not the faith of the person that matters in politics.
But many moderate Muslims oppose the misuse of the blasphemy laws for political ends; and moreover, the governor is a member of the minority Chinese ethnic community: his ethnicity as well as his faith are too challenging for those who have used Islam to their own advantage to argue that only ethnic Muslims should rule Muslims. It’s a toxic mix of religion, and politics, and anger against the wider world, focused on a vulnerable minority.
And so it was for Stephen. He was from the Greek world, what was called a Hellenised Jew. He wasn’t a native of Israel, and could be labelled by the Jewish leaders as an outsider corrupting true Jews – in the same way that Jesus and the apostles were regarded as different and suspect because they were northerners from Galilee, not from the heart of the southern Jerusalem establishment.
And Saul, who went along with Stephen’s murder and who became a leader of the mob, was himself a Hellenised Jew, from a Greek city now in modern Turkey, who’d adopted Jerusalem as his home but who wasn’t a native. Saul joined the mob in part to prove his true Jewish credentials.
It wasn’t for a while that Saul was stopped in his tracks by a vision of Jesus, and realised that what Stephen was saying was true, and if it was, then he was in the wrong. It took days of blindness and years of praying for Paul to work through the consequences of admitting that he was wrong. But in meeting Jesus he found that he was loved by God as he was, and he didn’t have to earn the approval of God or of people.
Stephen confronted his persecutors, including Paul, because he wanted them to know the love of God. As the Gospel reading reminds us, Stephen followed the way of Jesus Christ, showing in his life what God is like, the God in Christ who fearlessly dies for us, who asks us to forgive our enemies and treat them as human, even when they are inhuman to us – as Stephen asks that his killers would find forgiveness.
So, like Stephen, we too are asked by God to follow Jesus, in whom is the way to life, and to allow others to see what God is like in Jesus, and to see something of what God is like through us.
It's not easy to stand against the mob, to be human in the midst of inhumanity. I heard a man on the radio last week saying that Jeremy Corbyn was – well, I won’t use the word, but he called him an idiot. How many of us have said something similar about politicians or others? And of course they’re not idiots – they are children of God like us, who we may disagree with, but who tries to do what they believe in, as we do. How easy it is to write off those who we disagree with, and how inhuman and unchristian it is too.
We want to believe that we’re really nice, good people who simply couldn’t do any harm. To realise like Paul that we too can be wrong, inhuman and hurtful to others is harder than stopping our ears and beating up someone else, verbally if not physically, so that we can reinforce our self-image as really nice people. I suspect you too are capable of it, as I know that I’ve done it.
When we feel the pressure of the mob, let’s stop and listen for the voice of God that tells us when we’re being inhuman: and rather than reaching for the nearest stone or insult to throw, reach for love and forgiveness instead.
Not for nothing does the Church put following Jesus together with martyrdom. They went together for Jesus, and for Stephen, and may do so for us. Let’s pray that martyrdom isn’t something we might inflict on others, but is the letting go of our own inhumanity, to embrace the love of God in Jesus – so that we may pray with Stephen that the Lord Jesus will receive our spirit, and forgive the sins of others – and of ourselves.