Like lambs into the midst of wolves

Sermon preached by David Povall
on Sunday 7th July 2019 (Third Sunday after Trinity)

Isaiah 66.10–14; Psalm 66.1–8; Galatians 6.7–16; Luke 10.1–11,16–20

See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.

I am going to tell you two stories of Christian mission.

First, in the 16th century the Jesuits, then quite a recently founded religious order, sent a mission to the Chinese Empire. China was inaccessible, the only European foothold being the Portuguese settlement in Macao, with access to the interior being strictly controlled and limited. The Jesuits were aware that the Empire was centralised, with all power flowing down from the Emperor through successive layers of aristocracy and bureaucracy. Their plan was, therefore, to target the ruling class, and hope in due course to gain access to the Emperor himself: if he converted to Christianity, the whole of China would be ordered to do the same.

At first, they adopted the saffron robes of Buddhist monks, but they soon realised that monks were regarded as being of low status. So instead they grew the full beards and adopted the big hats and full-sleeved robes of those who had passed the competitive exams necessary to join the Imperial Civil Service: the robes of literate and learned men. In order to insinuate themselves into the regard of the ruling class, they bribed servants to gain access to Mandarins, they produced a map of the world annotated in Chinese, they sought to impress with their knowledge of astronomy, optics and the natural sciences. And it worked… to a point: the governor gave them permission to build a house and chapel in Zhaoqing. The Mandarins were fascinated by them and by the knowledge they displayed, but they didn’t convert: the idea of choosing one religion over another was quite alien to the syncretistic thinking of the Chinese elite. The few who did come forward for baptism were socially marginal, the old and the young, people of modest means and no power. In response, the Jesuits adjusted their message, seeking common ground with Confucian thinking and playing down the more difficult and challenging features of the Christian faith like the Virgin Birth and the Crucifixion.

Jesuit influence among the Mandarins and even at the Imperial Court lasted over 200 years, but the Chinese Empire was never converted. To this day, the few Christians in China have remained on the margins, at best tolerated and at worst brutally persecuted.

The second story is of 19th century England. In 1856, the Reverend Charles Lowder moved to a mission church in Wapping. Lowder was a difficult, stubborn and combative man, utterly committed to the Ritualist movement of Anglo-Catholicism: clergy who insisted on Catholic teaching combined with Catholic liturgical practice. At a time when “papist” practices were regarded with deep suspicion, Lowder’s uncompromising adherence to what were then Continental practices was met with hostility. Bricks were thrown through the chapel’s windows and intruders disrupted services. Lowder was only rescued by the police from being thrown by a mob into the docks. And so his ministry continued for 10 years until 1866, when two things happened: first, he finally managed to open a permanent church – now known as St Peter’s, London Docks; second, cholera came to the East End. Despite advances in medical knowledge, cholera was still popularly understood to be spread by miasmata or “bad air”. All who could afford to leave the East End did so in fear of infection, and that included doctors and clergy. Lowder stayed. He raised money for medical supplies and arranged for volunteers to come in and care for the sick, and he remained a visible presence in his parish, visiting the sick and delivering supplies. There remains in local folklore the image of Fr Lowder, in his cassock, tenderly carrying away the body of an orphan for burial. After the epidemic, St Peter’s was taken to the heart of the community, with up to 800 communicants each Sunday. In 1880, when Lowder died of over-work, the East End turned out to mourn him, and St Peter’s remains to this day as an outpost of sound Catholic teaching and positive social action.

When I am writing and delivering sermons, I am often aware that the points I want to make are really directed at myself. When I am having a good therapeutic shout at you, I am usually pointing at my own failings, and I am uncomfortably conscious that I can be rather timid about declaring and defending my faith outside the walls of a church. When someone says, “You go to church?” in much the same tone in which they would say, “You eat worms?”, I know that I too often reply with a feeble pleasantry, “Well, it gets me out of bed on Sunday”, rather than, “Yes, I do. It is my purpose in life.” When conversation at work becomes indecent or blasphemous, I am likely to laugh politely or even join in. Isn’t it easy to soft-pedal our Christianity in order to fit in, not to be thought of as stuffy, or to avoid ridicule? Isn’t it easy to convince ourselves that we are playing the long game as evangelists, showing people that Christians aren’t po-faced or puritanical, in the hope they might become interested?

In the last couple of weeks, we have seen the Court of Protection order that a woman should have an abortion against her will and against the will of her family. Lay people and parish clergy, both Roman Catholic and Church of England, took to social media to condemn this abomination and to sign a petition. From the hierarchies of both churches: silence (apart from one Catholic auxiliary bishop, who described it as a “sad and distressing situation”). I suspect that they felt the subject too contentious and the Christian position too far from the dominant narrative of liberal secularism. They did not want to seem “out of touch”, “medieval”, “judgemental”, or any of the other standard terms of abuse directed at the faithful.

But we were not sent to keep our heads down or to placate the the powerful, whether they are the Emperor of China or those who influence public opinion. We were sent as lambs among wolves: that is as inevitable victims.  Remember that of the twelve apostles (including Matthias) eleven were martyred. And we have to accept that, as Christians, at best we will be thought odd. In western society, where our beliefs on sin and sanctity and our claim to be the only true religion are in stark contrast to accepted and acceptable attitudes, there are already the beginnings of a new persecution: the law has been used to try to force Christians to act against their conscience. I fear that in years to come, we are going to have to be stubborn and brave, as Fr Lowder was. As Pope Benedict has said, “Because the world is ruled by the powers of evil, [our] preaching is at the same time a struggle with those powers.” We have been sent to take the message of Christ crucified into the world, not timidly, not half-heartedly, but in clear and loud opposition to it and to its sin and injustice.

Let us join our prayers with those of St Paul: May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Amen.

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