Sermon by the Vicar, Saints Simon & Jude 2017
Readings: Isaiah 28:14-16, Ephesians 2:19-end, John 15:17-end
To my knowledge, there is only one shrine dedicated to St Jude in England - which is in Faversham in Kent. As you know, St Jude is commonly thought of in western culture as the patron saint of lost causes. Once, when I went to the shrine in Kent, one of the people looking after the shrine asked me if there was any special reason why I had gone there. I attempted to introduce myself by saying "I'm a parish priest" and wanted to go on but before I was able to, the man simply said " Oh, I see. we get lots of those." I didn't say any more - but if I had been able to I would have been able to explain that in London, generally parish priests don't feel like that, and I certainly don't. Only a couple of weeks ago, in a major consultation on the Parish system held at St Mellitus College here in London, Bishop Graham of Kensington defended the Parish system in the aftermath of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. Before any of the statutory agencies made their presence felt, it was the Parishes of this neighbourhood, this one included, which were there, on the ground, doing the job they are intended to do in caring for the people of the neighbourhood, regardless of background, and on the basis of need alone. So, a lost cause this is certainly not. But let's look a little closer at Jude and Simon, as I do believe, like most saints, they speak directly to us today.
Simon and Jude are not heard of in the New Testament other than a few references in the Gospels and in the letter which bears Jude's name. The tradition, in both east and west, which is very early so is probably rooted in historical fact, is that they went to Edessa (or Urfa) in what is now eastern Turkey, and from there on to Persia, where they were both martyred for their faith - giving them their symbols of the axe by which, by tradition, they were beheaded. Simon is generally referred to as the Zealot to distinguish him from Simon Peter, or Cepha. Jude is associated with him again by tradition, in that not many people were prepared to pray through him because of the proximity of his name to that of Judas Iscariot. Whatever the case, they have been associated together and share the same feast day since the fourth century. The fact that they died as martyrs also strengthens their links with all the faithful, especially in our own time, which in many ways is the time of martyrs. Martyrdom also currently has a bad press as it may, in tabloid culture, be associated with suicide bombers and other forms of hate crimes. But Christian martyrdom is never like that as a martyr who sought his or her own death would in our faith no longer be thought of in that way. So, if we want a clue to what the meaning of contemporary martyrdom is, and where it is rooted, I suggest that we turn to the scriptures, and especially the readings set for today. From the three readings, for me, two key words emerge - The Cornerstone, and the Advocate. Without these there would be no roots and shoots of the faith of the martyrs or our own faith.
The Cornerstone. This is a biblical word used throughout the scriptures and it describes the solid foundations on which faith is built. For Christians of course, this is Jesus Christ. For this reason, one of the earliest descriptions of Jesus Christ in the New Testament is Lord. This is a title giving authority and weight to the stature of Jesus Christ in relation to our own lives. But very quickly, and by the time of the fourth century, the Christian creed of Nicea Constantinople, which we recite every Sunday, describes Jesus Christ as truly God and truly human. In other words, if we want to become truly human and alive, Christ is our model for in him we see God. From the same period, it was Irenaeus who said, " The Glory of God is a human being fully alive." With Christ as our corner stone we become fully alive and living for life. A common misperception of martyrs is that they somehow had a death wish. But the reality is the opposite. If we are truly alive with Christ as our corner stone, then death is nothing at all, and certainly nothing to be feared. Other so-called foundations on which we build are generally found to be wanting when we find ourselves at rock bottom. If we have built our foundations on money in the bank and we lose it, we are without foundation. If we have built our foundations on another person who deserts us, we are without foundation. We do know this, but the temptation is often so great that we can't resist it - there's probably nothing more terrifying or untrue to say to someone else " You are the reason I get up in the morning." Until you're not there. In his book, Prayer and the Pursuit of Happiness, Bishop Richard Harries points out that these projections onto other people are only natural in a secular society. In a believing context, God is the all knowing, the all loving, and the rock, but in a secular society we have a natural tendency to project those things onto other people, and of course it isn't sustainable. But Christ, truly God and truly human, is the unchangeable cornerstone, for the martyrs and for all of us. This is the root of the organic tree.
Now the Advocate. This is a term for lawyers who speak on our behalf in court, and of course The Holy Spirit. And in the organic tree of faith, it is the Holy Spirit which enables the tree to flourish and grow. We need roots and foundations, but the roots and foundations need to produce flourishing and abundant growth. For this reason, we pray, " Come Holy Spirit and renew the face of the earth." The martyrs and heroes of our faith showed both deep roots and firm foundations in the cornerstone, but also were flourishing and fully alive, showing organic growth like a tree. This is another reason why death would be nothing at all, as of course the Holy Spirit continues to be the advocate beyond our physical death. These two things have been central to Christian martyrs throughout the ages.
This is the contemporary and indeed timeless context in which martyrdom is set. Do not think of it as something out there and back there in time. The twentieth century, sometimes called the century of blood, was the century of Christian martyrdom, not least through the numerous genocides which took place throughout the century. In 2015, in a moving and powerful collective ceremony in the Armenian Church, one and a half million martyrs of the Armenian genocide in 1915 were canonised at one stroke. The Nazi holocaust of the Jews and others is at the same time commemorated in the Memorial at Yad Vashem in the State of Israel, but there are many other martyrs and victims of genocide from that century who have no memorial - be that in the gulags of the Soviet Union, the killing felids of Cambodia, or the silent mass graves of Rwanda or Srebrenica. In our own twenty first century, we need to hold in our prayers the victims of the genocide waged against Christians and Yezidis by Da'esh, whose fantasy Caliphate now lies in the ruins it was always destined for, and there will be an urgent need to bring to justice those who committed these crimes against humanity. We are fortunate and blessed to have many regular worshippers in this Church who come out of a context of active persecution and potential martyrdom. As we all learn together, it is for that reason that we have given supporting Christians in the Middle east and in areas where persecution is to be expected, a high profile in our Mission Action Plan. Martyrdom is not a strange out there and back there experience. It is now. So, let's use the Feast of Saints Simon and Jude to ask ourselves individually and collectively " What is our Corner Stone?” and “Do we allow the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to be active through us?” If the answer is yes, all our challenges will be put into perspective, not least our use of money in supporting the work of God's Church. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, can then be invoked elsewhere! Happy Feast.