Walking by faith – Second Sunday in Lent 2012

Among this week’s saints I notice the names of SS Perpetua and Felicity, martyred in Carthage, in what is now Tunisia, in the year 203. Perpetua was a young noblewoman with an infant son; Feliclity was her maidservant, who was heavily pregnant. Together with some men of their household they were preparing for baptism – as we might say, attending confirmation class – when they were denounced to the authorities as Christians, and imprisoned and condemned along with their teacher. While in prison they received baptism, Feliclity delivered her child which was taken away for adoption, and then they were given over to the wild animals in the arena. After entertaining the crowd for a while they were dispatched by a swordsman, who made a botched job of killing Perpetua. We have a contemporary account, written in part by the martyrs themselves, and a very moving insight into being Christian in North Africa in the early third century.

It seems rather exotic, the African heat, the strange names, the barbaric entertainment of the arena. In truth it is very ordinary. In many parts of the world people are called on to suffer in various ways simply for being Christian, and often they must be ordinary Christians as Perpetua and Feliclity and their companions were. To be sure, when Christianity is a capital offence, you need to be sincere in your attachment – but we are all sincere in our allegiance to Christ, and yet very ordinary. Can you imagine if the Guards came in and took some of us away, simply for being here?

Another name on this week’s list is that of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. With a name like that you know he had Irish connections, and indeed was a graduate of Trinity College. He was an English vicar who served as a chaplain in the British Army during the First World War, where his habit of sharing his cigarettes with the men earned him the nickname “Woodbine Willie”. He went on to develop a very powerful ministry among working-class people that challenged the cruelty and suffering found alike in the trenches and in the slums.

 

When one thinks of the Great War, one thinks of the very ordinary men – our own relations, probably – who found themselves in a foreign hell. And one thinks of the futility of the whole business. How did men survive in the mud and dirt of the trenches, knowing that one day they would be ordered out to die in their thousands, almost certainly to achieve nothing at all? What sort of patiotism, or sense of duty, or comradely loyalty, makes that possible? Studdert Kennedy found that the soldiers linked what they were doing to the Cross of Jesus – it seemed to sum up all the pain and suffering and futility of life. The deaths of Perpetua and Felicity must have seemed equally futile: to Perpetua’s old pagan father, such a waste of young life, abandoning their infant sons – for what? That little congregation in North Africa is long gone, swept away in the Muslim tide.

Jesus in today’s gospel tells us that following him means embracing futility, trusting only in God. It is taking up the cross; it is throwing one’s life away for Jesus’ sake; it is staking everything on God’s faithfulness. Paul takes up this idea when talking about old Abraham. Ninety-nine years old, still no sign of his promised child, not much life left in him – yet trusting God still. As Paul says, to hope for a son out of him, as good as dead, and Sarah no better – is just like Jesus embracing the cross out of love of God, accepting all that futility, in the hope of God’s faithfulness to his children.

Please God we will never have to face what Perpetua and Felicity and Woodbine Willie had to face. But we too have to live faithfully when life seems futile, worthless; when we see no success; when we know ourselves to be sinners; and when life seems to throw up problems and difficulties and no certainties. This too calls for that faithful walking in God’s way, regardless; loving him and our neighbour and leaving the rest in his hands.

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