Sermon - Sunday, 24 February 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 24 February 2019.

Scripture:  Psalm 37: 1-11, 39-40 / Luke 6: 27-38

Text: But I tell you who hear me, Jesus said, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you                                                                      (John 6: 27, 28) 

            IN THE NAME OF GOD, FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

On 29th January last, Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld its decision to acquit a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had spent eight years on death row over blasphemy charges. 

Citing a complete lack of evidence, her conviction and death sentence had been thrown out by the Supreme Court in October 2018.

At January’s appeal hearing, Pakistan’s Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa announced the acquittal would stand and told the lawyer representing the dozens of petitioners that they could not point out even a single mistake in law in the Supreme Court’s verdict.

The Court’s decision sparked violent protests across the country as the case had become a totemic cause for some of Pakistan’s fundamentalist Islamic preachers.

The claims against Ms Bibi, a mother of five, began in June 2009 when she was picking berries with other farmworkers in a field in Punjab and got into an argument with two Muslim women who, it is claimed, refused to drink water she fetched because the cup had been touched by a Christian.

The women later went to a local mullah and alleged Ms Bibi had insulted the prophet Muhammad during the exchange.

Ms Bibi and her lawyers always strenuously denied the allegations yet, despite a lack of evidence or witnesses, in 2010 a local court moved to convict Ms Bibi on blasphemy charges.

Asia Bibi’s conviction attracted international condemnation and her subsequent appeals and eventual acquittal have provoked heated debate about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws which human rights activists have long claimed are often being used to settle personal scores.

Along with Popes Benedict and Francis, through its World Mission Committee, the Church of Scotland was one of many churches and organisations which championed Asia Bibi’s cause, refused to let her case be swept under the carpet, kept her name in the public domain and repeatedly petitioned the Pakistan authorities for her conviction to be overturned.

With a Muslim cleric having announced a bounty of 500,000 Pakistani rupees to anyone who would kill her, Asia Bibi’s lawyer returned to Pakistan for January’s proceedings after himself fleeing the country to the Netherlands amid death threats while the Punjab Governor, Salmaan Taseer, was one of several people assassinated for advocating on her behalf and opposing the blasphemy laws.

Before becoming prime minister, former cricketer Imran Khan defended the death sentence for blasphemers but urged public respect for the rule of law amid unrest over Ms Bibi’s case.

Meanwhile, following her acquittal and release, the Pakistan government has stressed its ability to protect Ms Bibi and uphold the court’s verdict and it is expected she will join her two daughters in Canada where they have already been granted asylum.

So what was it Jesus said about loving your enemies, blessing those who curse you and praying for those who ill-treat you?

Although it attracted a lot of international attention and became very high profile, sadly the case of Asia Bibi being persecuted because of her Christian faith is not an isolated incident.

At a recent service held at London’s Westminster Abbey to celebrate the contribution of the Christian community in the Middle East, the Duke of Rothesay spoke about the dire situation being experienced by Christian minorities in Syria and throughout the region.

Making a strong plea for co-existence and understanding between people of different faiths, saying extremism and division are not inevitable, the Duke recalled meeting many Christians facing oppression and persecution.

Far from finding people embittered by their experiences, Prince Charles remarked;

Time and again I have been deeply humbled and profoundly moved by the extraordinary grace and capacity for forgiveness that I have seen in those who have suffered so much.

One such person was a Dominican sister from Nineveh in Northern Iraq.

In 2014 she had fled along with 100,000 other Christians as Islamic State extremists advanced, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, homes and churches reduced to rubble, communities destroyed.

The same sister has since returned to Nineveh to rebuild those communities.

Churches, schools, orphanages and businesses are rising from the rubble, and the fabric of that society, which had been so cruelly torn apart, is gradually being restored the Prince said before adding;

It was the most wonderful testament to the resilience of humanity and the extraordinary power of faith to resist even the most brutal efforts to extinguish it.

So what was it Jesus said about loving your enemies, blessing those who curse you and praying for those who ill-treat you?

Known as Sermon on the Plain, with its obvious links and connections to the more famous Sermon on the Mount, these verses take us to the radical heart of Jesus’ teaching.

Although at one level easy enough to understand, what Jesus proposes, especially the part about loving enemies, is almost impossibly difficult to do.

Loving God, loving our family, loving our close friends: most of us would hope we can aspire to do so at least some if not all of the time.

Loving ourselves: that can sometimes be a challenge?

However, when it comes to loving those who are different from us, loving those who are difficult, manipulative and demanding, loving those who have gone out of their way to hurt, betray, insult, demean and who have taken delight in putting us down: even before you ask these questions, you already know such love is beyond you.

Does Jesus expect Asia Bibi to love the women who lied about her or the court who sentenced her to death?

And what about those who have suffered so brutally at the hands of Isis, does Jesus’ teaching apply to them?

Of course it is a step too far – and that is just the point.

If left to ourselves, such love would be quite beyond us.

However, we are not left to ourselves because we dare to believe we are held in the grace of God – and it is by the gift of divine grace, the grace of God in Christ, we are given the capacity to love, to love not only those we like but those we don’t.

Several years ago I attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and listened to two people with very different experiences of what is known as ‘the troubles’.

The first person, a man in his 50s, spoke about his many years involvement with one of the protestant paramilitary groups.

He spoke of hate, a hate of the IRA and the nationalist catholic community, a hate which led him to commit acts of terrorism, bombing, shooting, maiming, killing and resulted in his conviction, a life sentence, and 14 years spent in jail.

The second person, a woman in her 60’s, had been widowed one morning when her RUC police officer husband left for work and an IRA bomb exploded under his car.

Without a hint of self-pity both the man – he was now a minister in the Presbytery Church of Ireland – and the woman – she was an elder in her congregation – spoke of their struggle, the former to come to terms with who he had been and what he had done, the latter with what had been done to her and her family.

With searing honesty they described it as an ongoing struggle, something they lived with each and every day – but they also added it was only by the gift of grace, the grace of God in Christ, they had learned to forgive, the one to forgive himself for what he had been and done, the other to forgive what others had done to her.

So what was it Jesus said about loving your enemies, blessing those who curse you and praying for those who ill-treat you – and to whom did he say it?

When reading passages like the Sermon on the Plain, the temptation is always to imagine Jesus is speaking to someone else.

He isn’t; he is speaking to you, he is speaking to me, and he invites all of us, whoever we are and whatever we have done or suffered, to live and act quite differently.

Easy – of course not – Jesus warned people if they wanted to follow, they too would need to pick up their cross - but then we dare to believe for all our faults and failings and mistakes, God in Christ reaches out to us in love.

So what was it Jesus said about loving your enemies, blessing those who curse you and praying for those who ill-treat you?

When love is the motivating influence in all the events and circumstances of home and family and church and working and community life then like Christian people the world over we too have the opportunity to give wonderful testament to the resilience of humanity and the extraordinary power of faith to resist even the most brutal efforts to extinguish it.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen