NO FEAR & FEAR – A Sermon for Evensong on the 5th Sunday of Easter
Preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mary’s, fordingbridge at 6.30p.m. on Sunday, May 19th.
The two readings we’ve heard this evening could be characterised as ‘No Fear’ and ‘Fear’!
The first was a story I’m sure most of us will remember from childhood, the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den.
It’s a shame we didn’t hear the first few verses of chapter 6, which set the scene. Daniel was one of the young, noble Israelites who were taken from Jerusalem to Babylon after the defeat of King Jehoiakim of Judah by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 598BC after a siege of Jerusalem.
By command of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel, along with the other able young men, received an education in the ‘literature and language of the Chaldeans’, so that they could enter what we would call ‘the Civil Service’.
By the beginning of Chapter 6, some years later, the then King, Darius, divides his Kingdom into three, each part with a President, and under each President 40 Satraps, accountable to the President. Daniel’s distinction in the role of President was such that Darius is planning to make him President of the whole Kingdom – which isn’t going down too well with the other Presidents and the 120 Satraps.
And this is where our story begins, as the Presidents and the Satraps conspire against him. They know they won’t be able to find fault with his Presidency, so they decide to pick on his faith instead. Verse 5 reads, ‘The men said, ‘We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God’’ [Dan 6:5]. So, they have a cunning plot, which is to convince Darius to sign a law – a law of the Medes and the Persians which cannot be changed – a law stating that anyone who offers worship to anybody else than Darius the King would be thrown into the lion’s den. And they have Daniel in their grasp!
He, knowing the law has been signed, continues to pray as he always has. He shows no fear, doesn’t change his daily pattern of prayer – praying three times a day with the windows open towards Jerusalem – and acts as if nothing has changed.
He shows no fear.
It’s not difficult to think of modern parallels. A young man, fleeing from war in his own country, ends up in another country as a refugee, works hard, gets a good job, and is accused of ‘coming over here and stealing our jobs’, etc.
A person who dresses differently is attacked in the street. Someone who practises a different faith from the majority – who may not practise their own faith, but resent people who are different – someone who practises a different faith from the majority, or dresses differently, or eats different foods, might be told to ‘Go back where you belong’, even if they are second or third generation immigrants, who belong here, or if they have nowhere safe to go back to.
Even though everyone who lives in this country is the descendent of an immigrant at some point in their past, we still have the tendency to be afraid of, or repulsed by, people who are different; and that difference might be colour, dress, sexuality, social class, nationality, faith, or almost anything else.
Daniel was doing a really good job as President, but was targeted because he was different. And, in his case, he showed no fear – not an easy thing to do.
The Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, at the invitation of Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, has chaired a report on the persecution of Christians around the world – a draft of the findings was published about a week ago, and the full report is due out in the next month or so. The findings are shocking. They show that the persecution of Christians in some parts of the world has neared genocide levels. The Bishop writes:
Evidence shows not only the geographic spread of anti-Christian persecution, but also its increasing severity. In some regions, the level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the UN.
It is not only Christians who are persecuted for their faith – something like 1/3 of the world’s population is so persecuted. But Christians form about 80% of those who are persecuted.
Those who were here last week in the morning, or at Breamore, or at the Churches Together Lunch, may have heard something about the charity ‘Open Doors’ which tries to support Christians around the world who are persecuted. Irene, who spoke to us, gave examples of their work in the Middle East, Nigeria and Kyrgyzstan. We have their literature at the back of the Church.
Like Daniel, many Christians around the world who are persecuted, or discriminated against, because of their faith show no fear in the face of the difficulties they experience. They continue to need our prayers and support.
The second Reading we heard earlier, from the end of St Mark’s Gospel, takes the opposite track. What most commentators think is the original end of Mark’s Gospel, Chapter 16, verse 8, ends with the words, ‘ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ’, ‘For they were afraid’ – a rather odd ending in English, and even more so in Greek.
We heard the final events of Good Friday, when Joseph (of Arimathea) lays Jesus’ body in the tomb hewn out of the rock and rolls a stone in front of the tomb to seal it; and of early Easter morning when the women arrive at the tomb and find that same stone has been unexpectedly rolled away.
It’s always worth reading the versions from the different Gospels side by side – in this case, we have four versions to look at – and seeing the similarities and differences between the accounts.
Mark’s Gospel is all about the women. They find the tomb is open, the body has gone, the young man – is he an angel, as in other Gospels, or is he a young man? Is he Mark himself, as some have suggested? The young man is sitting in the tomb, and he tells them not to be afraid, Jesus is risen, go and tell the Disciples. And having received this amazing news, ‘They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid [Mk 16:8].
Unlike Daniel, and in different circumstances, they were full of fear. And, we might think, quite justifiably!
Why does Mark end his Gospel like this? What was he saying to his first readers and to us? Think back to the beginning of the Gospel. Mark 1:1 reads, ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. Mark sets out his stall at the very brisk start of this Gospel.
And now, at the very end of the Gospel, he seems to be saying, ‘So, that’s what I said at the beginning. What do you make of it? It’s over to you, now! You’ve heard the story, you’ve got the evidence, is this ‘the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’?
Now, clearly, the message did get out. The other Disciples came to realise that Jesus was risen. He appeared to them and to others, and the gift of the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and the Church was born, and people have borne witness to the risen Christ down all the ages since then, in easy places, and in the terrible places of persecution.
But Mark seems to be inviting us to make our choice. Fear or No Fear? Will we be like the women, saying nothing about our faith because of fear; or will we be like Daniel, continuing to do what we know to be right, even in the face of difficulties?
None of us knows how we would react in the ‘time of trial’, but we can begin practising now. Amen.