Evidence on Trial: Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Habakkuk 1: 1 – 4, 2: 1-4
Psalm 119: 137 – 144
2 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 4, 11 – 12
Luke 19: 1 – 10

“If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

What a question, I thought, when I first saw a poster with those words on! I was a brand new university student, fresh out of national service and my still short hair, I felt, marked me out from all the long-haired hippy-types in faded blue jeans. I suppose part of the shock was I had never thought about it. I grew up in a Christian home, had been a choir boy, altar server – even rang the church bell at times. We went to church as a family every Sunday. But would there be enough evidence to convict me? I had no idea how to answer that question.

In any case, people were not put on trial for being Christian in the 20th century – were they? Wasn’t that what martyrs were all about – people with hard to pronounce names from faraway places and times who were thrown to the lions, grilled on fires or crucified upside down. You see, even I knew the story of St Peter, long before I came to St Peter’s Cathedral with its upside-down cross coat of arms.

The first conscious memory I have of a 20th century martyr was hearing about a young girl killed by her parents some 300 kms from where I lived. Her name was Manche Masemola. Like me she went to Sunday School. One day she asked her parents if she could be baptised. They were furious and forbade her going back to the church. Then she had to stop going to school. She kept reading her bible, saying her prayers, asking to be baptised. In their fury, her parents eventually beat her to death. It was a horrific story – one that I could barely comprehend.[i] Christianity was so normal, such a part of my everyday life – wasn’t everyone a Christian.

In February 1977 a second 20th century martyr came into my consciousness. Archbishop Janani Luwum[ii] was reported killed in a road accident. It began to be widely said that his death came at the orders of then President of Uganda, Idi Amin. And then the stories came thick and fast – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maximilian Kolbe, Martin Luther King, Esther John, Wang Zhiming, Oscar Romero and others. All martyred in the 20th century; and coming from many different countries. In fact, in 1998 Westminister Abbey recognised that more people had died for their faith in Christ in the 20th century than at any other time in the history of Christianity. Many of you will have seen the ten statues above the great West Door.[iii] In 2001 I baptised a young Indonesian woman in Hong Kong. She was quite clear that she would not be able to go back home – her father and brothers would accuse her of blasphemy and kill her. What a choice!

So maybe there is something in that question after all. “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” There clearly had been enough evidence to convict all those people we now recognise as martyrs. Moving to New Zealand was a shock. It is such a secular country. In many cases people are aggressively anti-Christian. Not that I have heard of anyone being killed for their faith over there in recent times. But I certainly had to stand up for the fact that I was a Christian, and be able to articulate my faith.

Which brings me to today’s readings. In one way or another all suggest it is important to do a sort of ‘stock-take’ about our faith in God. Habakkuk is a strange little book tucked away in the Old Testament section known as the Minor Prophets. We know almost nothing about him. And the writing in his name seems to be a collection of texts most likely used in the regular worship services. What we can glean is that the writing would be classified as ‘theodicy’ – the argument that justifies the ways of God. It is likely set in the decade before the first sacking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian armies in 598 BC and asks the question: “Why, if God is all powerful, does God not do something about the wicked ways of so many people?” It’s the sort of question still asked today. The terrible tragedy on the Gold Coast earlier this week begs a question like, “How could God allow those four people to be killed in such a terrible way?” They were not bad people; they were simply out there enjoying themselves. Habakkuk speaks the voice of God in response to the questions. Each time the ‘righteous’ are vindicated – even when it appears otherwise! We could, I think, see this as a word of encouragement to people to stand strong in their faith, not give up. The theme is picked up in today’s psalm: “Righteous are you, Lord God, and just are your judgements…” (Psalm 119: 137)

St Paul (see 1 Thess 1: 1 – 4) writing to the Thessalonians suggests a number of check-points that ‘prove’ their faith. Paul gives thanks, always – why? Because your faith is growing abundantly; the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. This enables Paul to boast among the other church communities he visits about their steadfastness and faith during all their persecutions and afflictions. Growing faith, increasing love – these are tangible things that St Paul seems able to measure, to quantify and to comment on. I wonder what people say about us when they talk to their friends after visiting here? Do they comment on the growing faith, the increasing love we share for one another, the steadfastness under persecution?

Synod is something of a showcase for a diocese. We gather, as we are doing this weekend, people from every parish and ministry unit in the geographical area of greater Adelaide. We read and hear lots of reports – from parishes, schools, hospital and rest home chaplains, Anglicare and so on. All, in one way or another, speak of the health or otherwise of the diocese. It is good to get together, to listen to the concerns of other congregations, the tentative probings in new directions – and this afternoon, the qualities we have collectively identified as being desirable in a new Archbishop. I have little doubt that Jesus Christ himself would have difficulty in fulfilling even half of our wish list!

And there is Zaccheus. (Luke 19: 1ff) I always think of him as a horrible little man. No one liked him. No one would let him find a gap to see through the crowds and gape at Jesus. He was a tax-collector and very rich. We can feel the scorn in those words. He climbed a sycamore tree. Don’t you love the little detail – not just a tree, but a sycamore tree. And there Jesus spots him. “Zaccheus, hurry and come down; for I must stay in your house today.” Can you imagine what Zaccheus felt like? All those years of hatred and now this – the Master himself wants to come to his house. The change in Zaccheus appears to have been instant and presumably, otherwise we would not be reading about him, permanent. “Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Wow! When last did you hear of that happening? Did you ever?

Was there evidence to convict Zaccheus? The grumbling onlookers seemed to think so; although they did not seem to make the connection between their grumbling and Zaccheus’s complete change of heart. This was not a gradual ‘curving’ towards God, to pick up a concept Canon Jenny offered us last week. This was a good old-fashioned conversion experience. One moment the hated little man, forced, despite his wealth, to climb a tree to get a glimpse of the itinerant teacher. The next, a man of warm hospitality, offering to give away much of his wealth. A total turn around. Fruit indeed of a life touched by God.

So what is the fruit of our lives? What is the evidence that people will see and experience and which marks us as Christians? I come back time and time again to the words printed on the front cover of our service books each week. St Peter’s Cathedral is a Christ-centred, sacramental, inclusive, thinking, mission-oriented, faith community. That is a bold claim. Does the evidence stack up to prove it? It’s a good question for each one of us to ask of ourselves and our particular circles within the church community. I’d love to hear, as we hear at Synod, just how each of the different groups and organisations within St Peter’s Cathedral, responds to our claim to be a Christ-centred, sacramental, inclusive, thinking, mission-oriented, faith community.

So the question again: “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

[i] Born: 1913, South Africa; Died: February 4, 1928, Transvaal Province, South Africa; http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/manche-masemola

[ii] http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/101.html

[iii] http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/maximilian-kolbe