One of my favourite verses of scripture is John 10:10 ‘I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.’ Jesus came, not just to give eternal life to those who believe in him, but to give us a life here on earth that is fuller and more abundant. Our life on earth as Christians should be full of hope, joy, peace, love and fulfilment. But this does not mean that the Christian life is easy.
Jesus in our Gospel reading today makes it clear that following him is not an easy path to follow. It was not easy 2,000 years ago and it is not easy today. To be a follower of Christ can mean great cost and sacrifice. Jesus said to his disciples “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) That means dying to self and living for Christ, putting God first in our lives, and allowing God to take charge of our lives. And that’s hard, really hard.
I am by nature a very self-centred person, I tend to inhabit the Kingdom of Simon, where I am king, rather than the Kingdom of God, where Jesus is king. I suspect that I’m not alone in this. We live in a self-obsessed, self-centred world, where the focus seems to be on promoting ourselves, and putting ourselves first. Therefore to be a Christian and to put God first goes against the values of our modern age, it is counter cultural. To do this is not easy, I need to recommit myself to God afresh every single day, because I know that I fail in putting him first, but I also know that because he loves me he gives me a fresh start each day. And whatever the sacrifices we are called to make in following Christ, the rewards far outweigh them.
In our Gospel reading a scribe came to Jesus and said “Teacher I will follow you wherever you go”, Jesus replied “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Mt 8:20). Although Jesus had a home base in Capernaum, his travelling ministry left him and his disciples at the mercy of others’ hospitality, he was effectively homeless. Matthew records Jesus’ words not only as a historical record, but also as a challenge for us today, what are prepared to sacrifice for the sake of following Jesus?
Jesus makes it clear that commitment to him should take precedence over all other things. Another person comes to him and says “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” (Mt 8:21), but Jesus replies “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” (Mt 8:22)
These words are probably not quite as harsh as they first seem. It’s unlikely that this particular disciple was asking to attend his father's funeral later that day, the likelihood was that his father was not yet dead, and therefore he was requesting to wait until his father had died before following Jesus, which may have been years away.
Another possibility is that there was a custom in Jesus’ day that the eldest son would return to the tomb a year after the father's death to "rebury" his father by neatly arranging his now bare bones in a container and sliding it into a slot in the wall. If the father of the man in Matthew's account had died, this young man might have been referring to his father's reburial, and asking for as much as a year's delay before following Jesus.
How different am I to the scribe? There have been times when I have said to God ‘Lord I will go wherever you lead me, and do whatever you want me to do, BUT….’ and then come my list of terms and conditions.
But what Jesus’ response shows is that he has to take the supreme position in our lives.
Jackie Pullinger has devoted her life to working amongst the drug addicts and gangs in Hong Kong, which she started doing at the age of 21. In a talk she said ‘God wants us to have soft hearts and hard feet. The trouble with so many of us is that we have hard hearts and soft feet.’ God wants us to have soft hearts – hearts of love and compassion. But if we are to make any difference to the world, this will lead to hard feet as we travel along tough paths and face challenges. Jackie is a glowing example of this in her willingness to go without sleep, food and comfort in order to serve others. This comes from a soft heart: a heart filled with compassion. The toughness is in her feet, not her heart.
Len and Vera Russell speaking at St Martin’s said that after they had retired they felt God was calling them to be missionaries overseas, and they prayed “God we are prepared to serve you anywhere in the world, BUT not Africa.” So where did they end up? Kenya. Where they worked with the Africa Inland Mission for 14 years. Despite their reservations they were willing to go where God sent them, they had soft hearts and tough feet.
If we are serious about following Jesus, we will be called to make sacrifices; there will be a cost involved. Jesus wants disciples, not church goers. A disciple is one who wants to follow his master, become like him, and do the things he did, and if necessary to suffer for him.
The costs and sacrifices we face in following Christ here in the UK, are small in comparison to what other Christians around the world are having to face.
In our reading from Revelation Jesus warns the church in Smyrna that they are going to face persecution and he says to them ‘Be faithful, even to the point of death.’ (Revelation 2:10), and in John’s gospel Jesus warned his disciples “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20).
Today around the world many Christians are paying the highest cost for following Jesus. Imagine if over a ten year period you lost 1276 people from your church. Not because they stopped coming to church, or decided to worship somewhere else, but because they were killed. 1276 people, men, women and children murdered.
For Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of St George’s Church in Baghdad, the only Anglican church in Iraq, he doesn’t need to imagine this, this is what has happened to his congregation over the last ten years – and that was before the current crisis in Iraq.
In January the Catholic Online had the following headline Persecution ofChristians in the Middle East the worst ever in history The article went on to say The persecution of Christians in the Middle East is accelerating and nobody is paying attention. The rise in Islamic militancy is a by product of the Arab Spring and Christian minorities throughout the Islamic world are facing threats that until now, were considered unimaginable.Since this article was published, things have got a lot worse for Christians, with huge swathes of Iraq and Syria falling to the terrorist organisation the Islamic State.
In June Mosul, the ancient biblical city of Nineveh fell to the Islamic State. Mosul and the area surrounding it was the heartland of the Christian community in Iraq, and one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, but now that Christian presence has been eradicated. Christians had a choice convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, or face death. Most people have fled to the comparative safety of Kurdistan, and are living in desperate conditions in giant refugee camps. Patriarch Louis Sako one of Iraq’s senior Chaldean Catholic clerics said in an interview in July “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.”
In 2003 before the Iraq War there were 1,500,000 Christians in Iraq, representing 5% of the population, that number is now estimated to have fallen to as low as 200,000 Christians. What is happening in Iraq has been described as genocide – a deliberate attempt to wipe away all Christian presence from the Middle East.
But it’s not just in Iraq, or Syria where Christian’s are being targeted, in Nigeria, Sudan and Kenya thousands of Christians have been kidnapped and killed by Boko Haram, and in Pakistan churches have been targeted by extremists. And yet we hear so little about it in our news, and from our politicians. In the New York Times this week Ronald S Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress wrote ‘Why is the world silent while Christians are being slaughtered in the Middle East and Africa?’
Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:26 writes that we are the body of Christ and ‘If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.’ Today the body of Christ is suffering. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ who are being driven from their homes, and killed, we cannot stand by and do nothing.
1 Stay informed
To pray effectively it is important to stay informed of what is taking place on the ground – follow the news, read CanonAndrew White’s blog, read and use the resources provided by Open Doors and the Barnabas Fund.
Pray for the Iraqi Christians forced from their homes and under threat of death.
Pray for God’s protecting hand to be with them and his provision for them is plentiful in this time of urgent need.
Pray for those that are persecuting them
3 Write to your MP
Churches and individuals are being encouraged to write to their local MPs urging them to press the Government to increase Britain's humanitarian efforts for all those affected by the crisis and to ask for asylum to be granted to a fair number of those who will be unable to return to their homes.
4 Highlight the plight of Christians
Tools such as social media, can be used to highlight what is happening in the Middle East, and raise public awareness on what is happening.
On Twitter and Facebook many people have changed their profile pictures to the Arabic letter ‘N’, which has been daubed on the homes of Christians (often called 'Nasrani' in Arabic) in Mosul to identify them as targets for persecution or execution. Download a poster HERE.
This symbol has now been used to show solidarity with the Christians and other ethnic communities who have been targeted by the IS, and to champion freedom of religion and belief for all people.
To organisations and charities seeking to bring relief and aid to those displaced by the fighting. Especially the Foundation For Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.
In a speech in May Canon Andrew White said “People say ‘How do you keep going?’ And I think that I have said to my people so many times, ‘I’m not going to leave you, don’t you leave me’ and I can’t say that any more. Because I know that if my people stay they may be killed. I’ve seen so many of my people killed, and I’ve cried and cried and cried, because my loved ones are no more. And one of our young girls turned around and said, ‘When you’ve lost everything Jesus is all you’ve got left, and we’ve lost everything. But we haven’t lost Jesus, he’s still there with us.’”
If we are serious about following Jesus, whether that be in Walsall, Africa, China or the Middle East, there will be a cost involved. But it is in taking up our cross and following Jesus, that we discover true life. Jesus said “whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Mt 16:25) And though we may face hardships on the way, we have the reassurance that Jesus is still there with us.
A video about St George's Church in Baghdad, filmed in 2012