Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Sheep of his Pasture

Third Sunday of Easter
5 May 2019
10.30 Eucharist
Revd Nicholas Mercer

I have now been in Bolton Abbey for just over a month

Coming to live at Bolton Abbey, I have been immediately struck by three things on my doorstep

The first is the peace

I love the peace and tranquillity of Bolton Abbey

As I look out of my study window, I can see the sheep grazing peacefully together down to Bolton Bridge with the beautiful sound of the curlews and oyster catchers above

The Augustinian monks who first came here, I believe, were especially good at finding places for their monasteries which had a profound spiritual quality

The second thing, in stark contrast, is the violence

Against the backdrop to this green and pleasant land is the destruction of Bolton Abbey

Although lost in time and now silent, the English Reformation is writ large in the very fabric of this site and building

It is often the first thing that I see in the morning when I go out for my run

The third thing is the modernity

Despite the antiquity of this site, everything about Bolton Priory seems so modern

The modernity of the Elizabethan settlement seems so apposite for our present time, and tragically, so too the modernity of religious struggle and persecution

There is a book called “Exciting Holiness” which has an example of Christian witness for almost every day of the year

It is a constant reminder for clergy (and anyone else) of examples of holiness throughout the ages

It seeks to inspire holiness in our own lives

As the Reverend Kate Botley described middle aged men, such as myself, as “pale, male and stale”, exciting one to holiness is perhaps no bad thing

Yesterday in Exciting Holiness, we remembered the English Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation.

The narrative provided said this:

 “This day is set aside to remember all who witnessed to their Christian faith during the conflicts of Church and State… Though the reform movement was aimed chiefly at the papacy, many men and women of holiness suffered for their allegiance for what they believed to be the truth of the Gospel. As the movement grew in strength, it suffered its own internecine struggles, with one group determined that they were keepers of the truth and that all others were therefore at best in a state of ignorance and at worst heretical.”

When I read the entry, I immediately thought of two things

The first was the Martyrs Memorial in Oxford which commemorates the deaths of Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley in the Marian restoration

But, secondly, I thought of a different type of internecine struggle

As we were celebrating together two weeks ago on Easter Sunday, simultaneously, bombs were going off in Sri Lanka.

They went off in various churches on the Island including

  • St Anthony’s Catholic Church in Columbo
  • St Sebastian’s in Negombo and
  • Protestant Zion Church in Batticaloa

Isis made it very clear that they were deliberately targeting Christians

These Sri Lankan Christians are people who/ today/ “suffer for their allegiance to the Gospel”

There is a tendency, or at least there was, to regard the persecution of Christians as something belonging to a bygone age

We are all aware of the persecutions of the early Christians by the Romans

No doubt, we recall stories like Androcles and the Lion which provided a sanitised versions of Christians in the amphitheatres

But after the reign of Nero, Christians suffered for the next two hundred and fifty years

It was only with the Edict of Milan, which we also remembered this week, that their suffering ended

We tend to gloss over this period of history, but it is estimated that, even in the fledgling Christian Church, over 5000 Christians were killed for their faith

The persecution of Christians also falls within living memory

The Orthodox Bishop, Kallistos Ware, in his excellent book on the Orthodox Church, said the persecution of Christians in Soviet Russia was a situation “for which there was no exact precedent in earlier Christian history”

He said

“Nothing on a remotely comparable scale had [even] happened in the persecutions under the Roman Empire”

Not only were Churches closed on a massive scale but huge numbers of bishops, clergy, monks, nuns and laity were sent to concentration camps.

It is estimated that over 130 bishops were killed and that tens of thousands of priest martyrs suffered a similar fate

But the tragedy of our present age, is that the persecution of Christians didn’t end with the fall of Communism

It is still as prevalent as ever and the figures are absolutely horrific

Each month, it is estimated that

  • 322 Christians are killed for their faith
  • 214 Churches and Christian properties are destroyed
  • 722 forms of violence are committed against Christians

Christians are the most persecuted group in the contemporary world.

As the Foreign Office report on persecution this week pointed out

“80 per cent of all the people who are suffering religious persecution are Christian”.

“In some parts of the world the persecution of Christians could amount to genocide”

It is so easy to forget in our comfortable Anglican lives that Christians are suffering all over the world

They are suffering today

And we should feel their pain and mourn their loss as if they were our own – because they are.

At first glance, the readings we have heard this morning seem to be far removed from the religious world I have just described

With lurid headlines and horrific photographs, one could be excused for letting these Biblical stories wash over us, drowned out by the media noise of our own distracted age

But, reading them more closely I was struck by the similarity between the readings this morning and Bolton Abbey

The first, similarity is that of peace

Both readings this morning concern sheep

In a sense, it all looks so perfect.

Grazing in good pasture under God’s protection

It is a metaphor which seems so appropriate for the people of God

As the psalmist says  “we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture”. Psalm 100

Psalm 23 says

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters”.

It is a psalm which could have been written for Bolton Abbey

In stark contrast, the second similarity is violence

Despite the near perfect image of peace and harmony in the readings, both flocks are damaged by violence

In the reading from Ezekiel, we hear how the shepherds ruled their sheep “with force and harshness” causing them to be scattered

How many times can we think of in our Church History, our Church, when the Church has tried to rule its flock with “force and harshness” and found that the sheep scattered as a result?

But as well as the harshness meted out by the shepherds, both flocks still fall prey to violence more generally

In the reading from Ezekiel, the flock falls prey to wild animals

In the New Testament, the flock is devoured by wolves

Violence has been visited on our own community here in Bolton Abbey and has continues to be visited on our brothers and sisters across the world to the present day

The last thing that struck me was the modernity

There is, of course, the tragic modernity of the violence to the flock

However, the modernity is most striking in relation to enduring message of our Lord Jesus Christ

Just over two weeks ago, we blessed the lambs from our own pastures

In a sense, we gave thanks for our own green and pleasant land under God’s protection

We recalled that Jesus is the Good Shepherd

And on Easter Day we remembered that Christ, the Good Shepherd, laid down his life for his sheep

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey said of the Church

“It is a place where the sovereignty of God is uttered and where God is reconciling the world to himself”

In this Easter period, like the countless Christians before us

  • We triumphantly proclaim the Resurrection/ The Sovereignty of God/ with our Christian brothers and sisters across the world
  • We remember their sufferings
  • Like Christ, we forgive our enemies
  • And, once again, as the sheep of his pasture, we pledge ourselves anew to the service of God and his Church

In the name etc