Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pentecost - courage from above

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

The topic of martyrdom has been on my mind of late. Just so we are all clear as to what a martyr is, they are someone who actually suffers physical death, their death is inflicted out of a hatred for the Christian faith, and the death is voluntarily accepted. I got that out of my handy-dandy, big book of moral theology, a work I recommend that all clergy have on their desks. The reason I have been thinking about martyrdom is the truly appalling case of Meriam Ibrahim taking place in the Sudan at the moment. You may have read or heard her story reported in the media, or indeed noticed her name mentioned in prayers in this church recently.

To give a brief overview of her story: Meriam was born in the Sudan about 27 years ago. Her father, a Muslim, abandoned the family while she was a little girl and she was raised by her Orthodox Christian mother only, in that faith. Meriam proved to be an incredibly bright young woman, going on to qualify as a medical doctor, no mean achievement in any culture, but particularly remarkable in the Sudan. She met a young man, Dani, also a Christian, whom she married, and they soon had a child, a little boy, and she soon became pregnant with their second.

This idyllic sounding life was quickly shattered. Meriam was arrested and charged with adultery. Why? Because under Shari'a law a Muslim woman may not marry a Christian man. The court invalidated her marriage and sentenced her to 100 lashes for adultery – by which they mean any sexual relationship outside of marriage. Now, hang on a minute, you may be thinking; but Meriam is a Christian, not a Muslim. Which is exactly what she told the court. At which point things took a turn for the worse, if you can imagine that being possible. 'What?' said the court 'but your father was a Muslim. That makes you a Muslim. If you're a Christian that means you have committed the crime of apostasy, of turning from Islam, and for that the penalty is death!' And no amount of protesting that Meriam had been a Christian all her life could change their thinking. The court did suggest that if she renounced her Christian faith and 'returned' to Islam that her life would be spared. But she refused and the court confirmed its sentence that she would die by hanging. She was sent to prison, along with her 20-month old child, where she gave birth a few weeks later to her second child, a baby girl.

There has been international outrage at her treatment. Not only is this a blatant violation of her human rights – the Convention on human rights guarantees that not only may a person hold and practice whatever faith they choose, but they may also change faith should they wish – but it is also illegal under the laws of Sudan, which is not governed by Shari'a law but by a constitution which guarantees the right to religious freedom. The reaction from around the world has caused the government in Sudan to back-pedal a little. They have promised to release her, but they have not said when. It is to be hoped that they are not simply saying this while the full glare of the world's media spotlight is upon them and they are actualy waiting for the all attention to die down before they carry out the execution.

But, of course, Meriam could have avoided all this by just giving them what they want, by renouncing her faith and becoming a Muslim. It would have cost her her marriage, but it would have saved her life. But she did not do so. Why not? Where did her courage come from? What made a young woman, pregnant, and the mother of a small child, brave enough to stand before a court full of men willing to kill her for her faith and say 'do your worst – I will not deny Christ'? Indeed, what gives anyone the courage to be a martyr – whether as one of those witnesses of the early Church who died at the hands of the Romans; those who died down through the centuries on missionary journeys trying to bring the faith to others; or those thousands upon thousands who still die every year around the world, ignored by the media, all but forgotten by their brothers and sisters in the Western World, murdered for their faith in Christ, a faith they refuse to give up even in the face of death?

Does an answer lie in our reading today, the account of the descent of theHoly Spirit at Pentecost? Certainly we see a remarkable change in the disciples after that event. The people who ran when Christ was taken, and hid even after he was risen, and thought about going back to their old lives - St Peter for example going back to fishing - are changed. The cowering apostles and disciples rush out into the street, preaching the word, sharing the good news. And their new-found courage was not the thing of a moment, for we know that most of them went on to die a martyr's death.

Could we be like Meriam? Could we be like St Peter? Could we be like all those who died for the faith in between? St Colmcille, that great Irish saint and missionary, when he was drawing up his rule for hermits, said they should have 'a mind prepared for martyrdom.' Few in the western world are asked to go so far. But they are asked to witness to the faith, not by their deaths but by their lives; by living out the faith; and defending it when challenged themselves or when they see it challenged in the world. I pray that all here will, in the power of the Holy Spirit, have the courage to follow the example of Meriam to that extent at least; even as I ask that you pray for her safe release.


To him who is the shepherd and guardian of our souls, by whose wounds we are healed, and who is with us always until the end of the ages, be glory now and forever. Amen

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