Sunday 17th May 2020 – 1 Peter 3: 13-22

My wife Jo and I studied together at St. John’s College, Nottingham when we were training to become priests in the Church of England. We both had overseas placements in the Summer of 1998. I went to Sri Lanka for 8 weeks and Jo went to South Africa. My placement was at Lanka Bible College on Christopher Road in Peradeniya, near Kandy which can be picked out on the map below in the centre of the island country. The main building of the college features in the image above! [1]

Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, is an island country lying in the Indian Ocean and separated from the Indian peninsula by the Palk Strait. It is located between latitudes 5°55′ and 9°51′ N and longitudes 79°41′ and 81°53′ E and has a maximum length of 268 miles (432 km) and a maximum width of 139 miles (224 km), (c) Encyclopedia Britannica, 1998.

Sri Lanka is primarily a Buddhist and Hindu country. Christians are very much in the minority – perhaps less than 5% of the population. The church is growing quite quickly, particularly in rural areas. … I want to introduce you to two of the people I met while I was staying there. … A woman called Lalani and a man called Anargith.

Anargith gave up work in the capital city, Colombo, to be a missionary in one of the driest and poorest parts of Sri Lanka. He exchanged a comfortable flat for a small grass-roofed mud house with no running water or sanitation. The nearest church was around 50 km away. He started sharing his faith with people in the villages around where he lived and, when I met him, he had a small group of people meeting in his home. In the months after I returned from Sri Lanka they began to build a church. When I last heard from Anargith, which must over 15 years ago now, none of the people in his church had yet been baptised.

Anargith explained that it would only be when they got baptised they would be marked out as converts from Buddhism. It was important that their faith was strong enough to cope with the persecution they most probably would face. They would be threatened and, if experience elsewhere in Sri Lanka was to be matched, the church building and their houses could be burnt down.

Lalani’s story is a little different. When I met her, she was Pastor of an Assemblies of God church in southern Sri Lanka. In the mid to late 1990s, her husband Lionel had a successful ministry in their village – a lot of people were becoming Christians. He received threats from local Buddhist community leaders, but he continued to work, and the church continued to grow.

A contract was taken out on his life and he was shot and killed.

Lalani had trained with her husband and after he died took over the role of Pastor to the Church in their village. When I met her she was still working in that same village – witnessing to people that she knows were involved in her husband’s death.

These are stories that have touched me personally. But throughout the world today there are many Christians suffering and dying for the faith that they hold so dear:

  • Many of the Saints who fill our Anglican calendar were martyred.
  • In Pakistan, Christians have regularly been accused under strict blasphemy laws and imprisoned without trial.
  • Some time ago I was told an astounding fact: There were more Christians tortured and killed in the 20th century than throughout the whole of the history of the church before that.

    One example of persecution in the 20th century is the deaths of seven bishops in Romania. Pictured are six of those seven bishops of the Eastern-rite Romanian Catholic Church who died during a fierce anti-religious campaign waged under the communist regime in Romania. Pope Francis recognized their martyrdom and beatified them in Romania on 2nd June 2019. Clockwise: Auxiliary Bishop Vasile Aftenie of Fagaras and Alba Iulia; Bishop Ioan Balan of Lugoj, Auxiliary Bishop Tit Liviu Chinezu of Fagaras and Alba Iulia; Bishop Valeriu Traian Frentiu of Oradea Mare; Bishop Ioan Suciu, apostolic administrator of Fagaras and Alba Iulia; and Bishop Alexandru Rusu of Maramures. Not pictured is Bishop Iuliu Hossu of Gherla. (CNS photo/courtesy Romanian Catholic bishops’ conference). [2]

Since the time of the early church, when the gospel has been proclaimed persecution and suffering have been close at hand. Sacrifices have been made, both by those sharing the good news of God’s kingdom and those accepting God’s rule. And Peter’s epistle reflects that. The passage set for today is about suffering for being a Christian.

But what do stories of persecution in Sri Lanka, or words of comfort from an apostle to Christians in the early church have to do with us in our communities?

Peter wants to stress that being a Christian will not be an easy ride. We can’t take our status as children of God for granted and then sit back with our feet up. Peter warns us what to expect, so as to enable us to be prepared. He then makes it clear what we are called to do:

First, says Peter: “Do what is just and right even if there is a personal cost. … For it is better to suffer for doing what is right than what is wrong.” When you see injustice in your local community do something about it, even if it is inconvenient, even if there is a real cost to you. Be the difference that makes the difference in your community.

Secondly, says Peter: “Be a witness to what God has done in Christ.” Share the faith that is in you. “For Christ suffered for sins in order to bring you to God.” What God does in history is consistent – right from the time of Noah, God has been active saving and transforming his world. Christ’s death and resurrection is part of that plan of salvation which is brought right up to date in our own generation in our own baptism. God’s work of salvation made real for us in our own baptism. God’s work of salvation made real for other’s as we share our hope with them.

And thirdly, let’s remember that in our own country we belong to the majority, there are others who experience being in the minority in our culture. How will we behave towards them? Will we ostracise them? Or will we welcome and support them? Will we push them away? Or will we recognise that although they are different from us, although they may worship in a different way to us, they too are God’s children.

Sadly, the Church, of whatever denomination, over the centuries, has not been good at accepting difference and has justified all sorts of atrocities in the pursuit of purity of doctrine. In our generation we are just as capable of bigotry. We can so easily slip into a pattern of thought which makes the other person less valuable than we are and that makes it seem OK to ridicule and hurt those different from ourselves. Our faith as Christians calls us to love and not to hatred. It calls those of us with  the privilege of being in the majority to give space to other views, to recognise those different from ourselves and children of God and fellow human beings. Our faith calls on us to be those who create the space for good dialogue and who always see the good in our neighbours.

So let me remind you of Anargith and Lalani who testify that God is with them in the midst of persecution.

Let me remind you of Peter, who is convinced that we will not find life easy as we give ourselves to God. But who is just as convinced that we will know we are ‘saved’: that we sit in the heart of God’s will, safe and secure in God’s love. Sure too, that as we seek to serve Jesus and to live lives that honour our Lord, we are doing something worthwhile even if we suffer for doing so.

References

  1. http://www.lbcs.edu.lk, accessed on 13th May 2020.
  2. https://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/11622/pope-to-beatify-beatify-seven-bishop-martyrs-in-romania, accessed on 13th May 2020.

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