This is a sermon for the feast of St. Faith of Agen. The Scripture it references is John 15:18-21.
Mahatma Gandhi said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Gandhi, of course, spoke out of a particular political and social context. For him, Christians were oppressive colonial overlords; economically exploitative, power-hungry, and deeply, deeply racist.
I hope it goes without saying that Gandhi’s observation was correct; Christians in his experience were so unlike Christ.
If we put that next to what Jesus said in our gospel reading today, though, we realise that we may have – at least potentially – something which may allow Christians to be a bit self-deceptive.
You see, Jesus said: If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you… If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.
The problem – or at least the potential problem – is that we can read this and, even when we’re not being very like Christ at all, can convince ourselves that it’s good and right that the world hates us, because after all, they hated Christ first. That the criticisms of those around us are evidence of how much we have it right.
And this is where the stories of the martyrs can be quite helpful to us.
Take St. Faith. (It’s her day, after all!)
When we look at Faith, although the accounts describe her answering to the authorities with confidence and a “clear voice,” they describe a powerless person who refused to compromise her integrity in the face of personal threat.
Now, that’s Christ-like.
I think, for example, of what Paul wrote in Philippians:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
even death on a cross.”
There are some key phrases here. Jesus didn’t regard who he was as “something to be exploited.” As God himself, he set aside his power and his knowledge, “emptying himself” and placing himself in the hands of those whom he had come to save.
God could have chosen to accomplish God’s will by brute force, but he didn’t. He emptied himself, humbled himself, made himself vulnerable. And accepted that in doing so, suffering from human brutality was part of the deal. He deliberately yielded control of the situation to those who would kill him.
But this is where I wonder whether there’s a challenge for us. I’ve observed that for many of us, perhaps even most of us, in our culture today, we like our illusions of being in control. We will go to extraordinary lengths to keep them in place. We don’t like to admit that at times we are powerless, or worse, overpowered; and we’ve bought into the idea that it is shameful not to be in command of our circumstances.
This has two unfortunate outcomes; first, it stigmatises people who are, for whatever reason, not in control in some way. Hospital wards are full of people who are not only sick or injured, but struggling with feeling guilty, ashamed or worthless at their physical circumstances; and a lot of pastoral care in those circumstances is about helping people to accept that their physical situation doesn’t also indicate a sort of moral deficiency. (Oh, they won’t call it that, but beneath the frustration and sense of worthlessness, it’s often there). And all of us, as we age – and I’ll get there eventually too – will have to wrestle with questions of our personal identity and value as our bodies gradually fail us.
And that’s before we even touch questions of mental illness or other, less tangible constraints on our lives.
But the other unfortunate outcome of us fighting very hard to hold on to control is that we use it as an excuse to behave badly.
This is where we come back to Gandhi’s comment that Christians – in his experience – were not very like Christ. They were very willing to behave badly towards others, to control and exploit and oppress others, rather than give up an ounce of control over their own circumstances.
But if the stories of the martyrs tell us anything, it’s that we’re not really in control. God may write happy endings to our stories, but in this life, natural forces, political and social forces, cultural and economic and family pressures, and sheer happenstance, set the parameters within which we have some limited scope.
If Faith had had this propensity to buy into the lie of being in control, she could have turned away from martyrdom, taken up nominal Paganism, told herself that she had chosen this or that suitor, and settled down to make the best of things. It might not even have been, on paper, a bad outcome, and I doubt any of us would have judged her for it. After all, she was very young.
But she didn’t. She chose to be like Christ; not exploitative of her circumstances, but humble and obedient, even to death.
That’s hard for us to contemplate. Few of us are up close to martyrdom in our own lives. But it is, for many Christians even today, the end result of an absolute integrity; a lack of hypocrisy which refuses to compromise, refuses to bargain, but accepts that being like Christ comes at a price.
But while the world may hate us if we’re truly like Christ, surely what we can see by now is that it certainly won’t respect us if we give that up in a hypocritical search for power and control. And it won’t love us if we interact with wider society in a way which harms others; which we all too often have.
Instead, if our lives are going to show people Christ, if they’re going to point people to the one who sent us… we’re going to actually have to be Christ like. Emptying ourselves, and humbling ourselves; not just individually, of course, but institutionally.
I leave you to ponder what that might mean for the wider church.
But as for what it means for us at a local level, I’d say we need to remember that a conversation with you might be the only sermon someone hears this week. The only chance they might have to glimpse something of God might well be through you; and they’ll be watching, not just for what you say, but how you act; and keenly aware of any lack of authenticity or integrity.
Our lives are meant to show God to others. For most of us that will never carry us to the point of death, but the martyrs like Faith show us that even if it does, God can be at work in and through that to inspire and encourage those who come after.
Some things are worth dying for. But for most of us, what is going to matter is what we really think is worth living for; and whether those around us find us to be at all like Christ.