The following sermon was preached by Rev. Dr John Stephenson in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the Commemoration of St George, 23 April 2015.
Rev 12:7-12 & II Tim 2:3-13
Back when I was young, the violent persecution of Christians was something you could safely hold at arm’s length, both in place and—especially—in time. Yes, horrible things were happening to believers of all confessions in the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe, but the powerful military forces of the so-called Free World stood between us and them. And, yes, Christians were executed one by one and even massacred by the scores and hundreds under the pagan Roman Empire, but didn’t those dark days end when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan?
When I stood before the altar to receive my call into the ministry in the deceptive twilight of Christian civilisation known as Reagan’s America, didn’t this whole continent feel like an impregnable fortress, a defiant holdout known down there as the land of the free and up here as the true north strong and free, a part of the world where religious liberty was the oxygen in the air we breathed?
Thirty years later, I tremble for the men who will shortly stand before the altar to receive their calls into the ministry or the vicarage assignments that will propel them on the path toward ordination. For there is now not a square inch of this continent where someone who confesses Christ’s holy name is safe from the twin jihads of Islam and secularism. While the fate of George of Lydda, as he stood before the mighty Emperor Diocletian, may once have seemed only tangentially relevant to the Christians of our time and place, those days are no more.
Our keeping of St George’s Day might strike you as somewhat whimsical, which it did me when I first noticed my assignment as liturgist and preacher in this semester’s chapel schedule. Well, there may be a half-humorous allusion to the land of birth of two members of our faculty; there is a pleasing connection with our brother Paul Lüth’s calling as minister-in-charge of a church named in George’s honour; and today’s observance does form a fitting sequel to our praying a collect for Elizabeth our Queen as she entered her ninetieth year two days ago.
But all humour and whimsy screech to a shuddering halt when you realise that we stand all too eerily in George of Lydda’s shoes. Two major empire-wide persecutions broke out in antiquity, almost as lightning bolts from a clear blue sky, Diocletian’s being the second of these. If he hadn’t unleashed the last major persecution of the Church before Constantine the Great came to power, Christians would recognise Diocletian as a noble pagan; in certain respects he was a statesman and a man of vision.
But for whatever reason, Diocletian suddenly turned on the Church, which he was determined to decimate, and around this very day in 303 he ordered George of Lydda, a young man of noble birth who was one of his best and favourite soldiers, to deny Christ. George stood firm, withstood torture, and suffered death by beheading.
In the ancient Church bloody persecution was local and sporadic, but throughout the Islamic world it is becoming universal and constant. We can’t keep up with the number of simple Christians of all ages and both sexes who are at this time refusing to deny Christ, confessing His holy name, and falling to the sword or the gun. Twenty-one holy Coptic martyrs, thirty holy Ethiopian martyrs a couple of weeks later, twelve Christian refugees from North Africa just tipped into the Mediterranean, yea an increasing flood of victims slaughtered in hatred of the Faith, in odium fidei.
And another, no less determined form of persecution is gaining a fearful head of steam throughout the Western world. A couple of weeks ago the British Prime Minister began a General Election campaign insisting that the United Kingdom is still a Christian country. His statement rings hollow, though, inasmuch as it coincided with a judicial decision concerning a believing preschool teacher in London whom a lesbian colleague tricked into saying that marriage is possible only between a man and a woman. Sarah Mbuyi has been pronounced guilty of “gross misconduct” on a par with theft or violence in the workplace and hence rendered ineligible for further employment in her field (http://www.intoleranceagainstchristians.eu/case/hearing-confirms-christian-educator-rightly-dismissed-for-faith-in-london.html). Is this not an uncanny indication that the days have come when “No one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name” (Rv 13:17)? As you know full well, no Christian may ever budge from the confession that marriage is only possible between one man and one woman, for Christ and the Church are at stake in this proposition (Eph 5:31f.), and Christ and the Church are non-negotiable.
Unless you are blind and deaf, which many are, you can have no illusions about the fact that the very forces that have stricken Sarah Mbuyi are now powerfully at work on this continent, wielding the levers of power as they establish a form of totalitarianism that is no less malevolent then the tyrannies presided over by Hitler and Stalin. Is there not a horrible whiff of Nero Caesar about the current president of the United States?
Which brings us back to George of Lydda, who so courageously defied Emperor Diocletian. I’ve always wondered what St John means when he depicts the exalted Christ, in His letters to the seven churches, making His beautifully crafted promises to “the one who conquers.” Diocletian, of course, thought for a space of earthly time that he won and George lost, and the Islamic and secularist jihads think the same with respect to their many victims. But by standing firm, by confessing and not denying, by holding fast to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, George and his many companions across time and space are the true victors, the souls seen to occupy a special place of privilege under the heavenly altar at the opening of the fifth of the seven seals (Rv 6:9).
It goes without saying that you can’t become a martyr by committing suicide and mass murder in one fell sweep. No, you become a martyr by accepting your own death rather than denying Christ. In this way George did indeed slay the Dragon in his martyrdom already, quite apart from the extravagant legends that the middle ages wove around him.
Whatever be our fate here below, whether it be harassment or imprisonment or even a bloody death, may our seminary produce companions of George who slay the Dragon by confessing Jesus’ holy name; and may the Blessed Trinity and His holy angels protect those who will shortly go forth from here to serve the only Saviour of the world and the sheep of His pasture. Amen.