Sunday 24th August 2014
Sometimes the title or name you give to a person has major implications, for that person and for you. For example, from the day I called Paul husband, our relationship changed and became more committed, more intimate and more public – that new name or title was given in front of a church full of people, after all. The day I was called deacon, the day I was called priest, the day I was called priest in charge, each of those days changed the way others saw me and the way I saw myself. Responsibilities attached themselves to me, the expectations others had of me changed. It’s happened to all of us, whether the ‘who are you’ is answered by the word ‘Dad’ or ‘Lance-Corporal’ or ‘Assistant Manager’ or ‘Class 2 teacher’ or ‘barista’ or ‘new sixthformer’ or ‘Grandma’… you get the idea – when these names are given to us, we take on the tasks, responsibilities, authority and dignity (or not) of the role.
The one title I can be sure that every one of us shares today is perhaps the most important one that we have. Christian. The word was a first century invention in Syria to describe the people who followed a man with a title: Christ, or Messiah. Simon Peter gave Jesus that title first, and was rewarded with a title of his own – Peter, the rock. The Christ is a title for the son of God, the one sent by God to save humanity. There is no greater title, and thus no greater responsibility, authority or dignity – it is greater than any King or Emperor. Christians are the followers of Christ, and to them comes the responsibility of living in the way that Christ taught and sharing His teaching with others. It is no small calling, no ordinary title. Every one of us who is privileged to call ourself Christian lives with the great promise and joy that knowing Jesus gives, but also lives with the knowledge that others may look down on us and condemn us for our faith.
You’ll be aware, I am sure, of the effect that the title of a follower of Christ has for fellow followers in other parts of the world. In some parts of the Middle East followers are referred to as Nasrani – or Nazarenes, a reference to Jesus being a Nazarene, a man from Nazareth. In the way that we generally use the cross as a symbol to identify ourselves by, Nasrani followers of Jesus also use the Arabic letter N to identify themselves. Right at the moment, to be Nasrani in Iraq is to be persecuted. Following Jesus in the way of persecution is one of the things that can happen to all followers of Christ, but for most of us in the West, we don’t experience it beyond comments at the water cooler or the verbal rejection of others who say they don’t do God. In Iraq, the Islamic State movement, ISIS, is actively persecuting those who don’t follow their brand of Sunni Islam. Nasrani followers of Jesus have come home to find the N painted on their houses as a marker to ISIS troops – this is a house where you can enter and offer a choice to the inhabitants: pay a high tax and convert to Islam, or die. Nasrani’s have been forced to flee their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They have seen relatives murdered – children and women as well as men – and they are seeing the vulnerable, elderly and children, die of thirst and exhaustion in the desert where they are seeking refuge. Those people are being persecuted for wearing the same title that we do – they have the same priorities as we do, the same devotion to God and commitment to living in the way of Christ. They are Christians, we are Nasrani.
So for us here, in a place where we are safe, the responsibility that comes with the title Christian includes a responsibility to our Nasrani sisters and brothers feeling persecution in Iraq. Some of you might be thinking that there is nothing you can do. We aren’t all wealthy, and the Middle East is far away – a matter for governments, not for us. But the wonderful thing about following the Messiah of the world is that there really is always something we can do.
The Church of England has a website about the situation in Iraq and what we can do about it with some very helpful links. If you are internet savvy, look at it: https://www.churchofengland.org/our-views/international-affairs/north-africa-and-the-middle-east/iraq.aspx. The Church has also produced potters to remind us what we can do, and I’ve got posters today for each of our churches. It has three words at the top: Pray. Act. Give. These things we can do to support the Nasrani’s and all who are persecuted for their faith.
Firstly, pray. We can all do that. Ask our Lord to protect and help all who are persecuted for bearing the title of Nasrani, of Christian. Pray that food and other supplies will get through. This week one of the doctors working with refugees sent a message about a young boy called Fahad who is very anxious because school should be starting again soon and he does not know where, if at all, he will be able to go to get his lessons. It’s something we can take for granted for our children. So let’s pray for Fahad and the other children who don’t have access to their schools any more. Follow the news and pray for the situation as you understand it, in Iraq and wherever people are persecuted for their faith or beliefs.
Secondly, act. 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. Our MP, Andrea Leadsom, is more likely to press for helping refugees if she hears from lots of us. And we can also act by showing publicly that we share the same title that those who are being persecuted have. We say Christian, they say Nasrani, but it amounts to the same thing in the way that the titles Christ and Messiah amount to the same thing. They are being persecuted for being Nasrani, and that is why the Church of England urges its members to say with them, we are Nasrani. We share the same name, the same calling, the same Lord.
Thirdly, give. I know that not everyone has money to spare, but even a tiny bit helps – and those of us who do have a bit more can give a bit more. It is often difficult to know who to give to. How do we get money to the right people in this sort of situation? That’s where being Anglican can be a real help, because within the Anglican communion there are ways of doing things that get straight to people in need. Last week I was able to give directly to a hospital in Gaza by doing it through a fund administered by the Diocese of Jerusalem. When it comes to supporting our sisters and brothers in Iraq, the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf directs us to an organisation run through St George’s church in Baghdad, http://frrme.org/ - the foundation for relief and reconciliation in the Middle East. Canon Andrew White – often referred to as the vicar of Baghdad – set this foundation up, and at the moment they are directing funds to relief operations in the north. Those of you who use social media could ‘like’ Andrew White on facebook in order to follow what he and the foundation are doing to help. (It was from Canon White’s facebook status’s that I got the news and image of Fahad, for example). Christian Aid have an Iraq crisis appeal, so if you prefer to use a locally based aid charity, give to them.
Jesus said, who do you say I am? The title made a difference. So does ours. We are Christian, we are Nasrani. Let’s make sure that it makes a difference to us and to those in need today because they follow Jesus, the Christ.