Posted by on September 4, 2017

Jeremiah 15.15-21; Romans 12.9-21; Matthew 16.21-28

Kenneth Padley


Alongside the selection of hymns which I give to couples preparing for marriage, I carry an unwritten list that I prefer them to avoid. I’m thinking here about ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind forgive our foolish ways’ and more infamously ‘Fight the good fight with all thy might’. For similar reasons, Anna and I rejected my favourite hymn for our wedding because ‘For all the Saints’ reminds us that ‘the strife is fierce, the warfare long’.


This theme of conflict runs throughout today’s readings:

  • The prophet Jeremiah – glum at the best of times – was frequently in trouble with the authorities because of his whinging. His complaint this morning was shaped as a prayer to God:

O Lord, …

bring down retribution for me on my persecutors.
In your forbearance do not take me away;

know that on your account I suffer insult.

  • Next we heard that the first Roman Christians were also suffering for their faith. St Paul exhorted them to ‘bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them’.
  • And then in today’s gospel, future tribulations were anticipated:

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

All three texts today speak of religious conflict and persecution. Jeremiah and Paul and Jesus all knew what it was to be intimidated because of their beliefs.


Religious persecution remains a problem for Christians in many countries today.

  • Many stories do not reach the western media, but we know, for example, about the awful oppression of Christian minorities in Iraq and Syria by ISIS.
  • We know about the 276 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped and brutalised by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014.
  • We know about the Al Shabaab attack on Garissa University in 2015 which killed 148 Kenyan students.
  • And you may have seen the stories about the busload of Coptic Christians massacred in Egypt earlier this year, or the Taliban bombings of churches in Lahore in 2015 and 2016, each incident killing dozens of innocent Christians.


A website called Open Doors lists 50 countries where the persecution of Christians is high, very high or extreme. Topping this list are our friends in North Korea, but not all the countries on the list are among the ones you might expect. For example, Mexico and Columbia – both countries with majority Christian populations – are listed by Open Doors as places where Christians are persecuted. This is because of drugs cartels which target churches and Christians that speak out or whose social action challenges criminal networks. The Open Doors website is quite an eye-opener and contains helpful country by country pointers for prayer and information on the practical changes which might make a difference in each context.


Stories of religious persecution are horrifying and demand our prayers and, where possible, our lobbying. But how relevant is religious persecution to us in St Albans? Even when we are aware of what is going on in these countries, we can easily dismiss it as something that happens in distant benighted lands. Unless we take the Daily Mail too seriously, religious persecution seems unlikely to ever impact on my C21st western lifestyle.


So while I don’t want to ignore the seriousness of religious persecution, I want to broaden our reflections on this mornings’ texts towards the theme of conflict in general, something which everyone experiences in one way or another.

  • We find conflict in our families. Sometimes we bicker over small matters such as what to have for dinner: yuck I hate carrots, what about aubergine? Sometimes family conflict is much more serious: yuck I hate you, what about Mrs Smith next door?
  • Conflict is also something we know in our neighbourhoods. Mrs Smith may be fruity but Mr Smith’s fruit tree is overgrowing our fence. Disputes among neighbours, especially about shared space or boundaries, can become very fractious.
  • And conflict is something we experience in national life. It is the subject of political and economic debate. We have governments because awkward choices cannot be avoided – unless of course it’s about social welfare or third runways when the can may be kicked down the road at five-yearly intervals.


Conflict is the subject of endless books and courses by lifestyle gurus and management consultants. Some of these have been of great use to the churches over the years. But is there anything within the wisdom of our own faith to bring to the table? Are there values and principles in the gospel which mark out a distinctive Christian response to conflict?


Before we deal with positive Christian contributions to conflict resolution, we should first parry an aversion to conflict which can beset Christians in particular. Most people are conflict averse: when they see a problem coming, they run in the opposite direction. They’re like Peter in today’s gospel when he said ‘God forbid it, Lord! This suffering must never happen to you.’ Christians are particularly prone to this because we can mistakenly think that faith exempts us from disagreement. This risk is particularly high in the internal life of the Church. Such idealism often springs from a naive hope that faith solves everything such that life in the Church becomes an escape from reality. This approach leaves the door open to bullying and may end in disappointment and hurt. As Christians, we pursue a shared gospel vision but we remain individuals with different backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses. Faith does not exempt us from conflict, in the Church or the world.


So, what does Christianity bring to the table? Well,

  • While we can’t escape conflict, we don’t antagonize either. As Paul says later in his letter to the Romans, our goal is to ‘pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life’ (Rom 14.19).
  • Secondly, through prayer we can seek perspective on a problem. When we are faced with a knotty situation, by pausing, stepping back, and offering the situation to God we can consider not only the presenting issue but also explore any underlying difficulties, as well as consider a measured response. God will be in that; it is part of how prayer works.
  • Thirdly, as Christians, we embrace discussion. The Church of England has gone a long way in the last century to increase its representative and consultative bodies. At a local level that is your PCC, the Parochial Church Council. It is important for PCC to be engaging and for parishioners to be engaged with it. If you are a regular worshipper you should be on the Electoral Roll. Do take a form by the door if you have not yet done so.
  • Fourthly – and perhaps most importantly – as Christians we know how much God values us. This means that when we feel criticised or under pressure we can draw strength from the knowledge that we are a child of God, loved by him to the uttermost. That’s what Jeremiah did. Straight after his complaint that he was suffering on account of his faith, he wrote

Your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.

And if the love of God gives us an appreciation of our own worth, it reminds us that any with whom we find ourselves in conflict are loved by God too. ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them’, wrote Paul. Persecutors are cherished by the almighty as well as the persecuted. To which end Paul continued with advice about relationships:

‘Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all… Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God… No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ (Rom 12.17-21).

  • Finally, I would suggest that Christians approach conflict with a long view. We understand that our lives fall into God’s plan. We live in a fallen world but are citizens a Kingdom that is becoming. When we feel dented by the behaviour of others we should remember we are a work in progress: we may not always get things right but we need to stick at it. I’m sure Paul and Jeremiah didn’t always say or do the right thing. But they knew that, as God’s servants, they had to pick themselves up and have another go.


The Dutch Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, wrote that, ‘the goal of Christian community is not emotional harmony but to create communities of celebration and forgiveness’. More crudely, I would say that the Christian should approach conflict a bit like his taxes: when possible we avoid it but we should never evade it.

Posted in: Kenneth Padley, Sermons