TODAY’S New Testament Epistle reading in the Prayer Book braces Christian people for the reality that they will suffer persecution if they are faithful to Christ.
The reading is from the conclusion of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in the Roman province of Galatia (now part of central Turkey):
‘Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand. As many as desire to make a fair shew in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh.But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.
‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.Brethren, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen’ (Galatians 6v11-18 – King James Version).
Paul wrote to the Galatians in around AD 48, probably from his base in Syrian Antioch. His letter followed his first missionary journey in which he preached the gospel in four Galatian cities; Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. But soon after he returned to Syria the new converts became the target for a deviant version of the Christian message which insisted that circumcision was essential for salvation. Paul wrote his letter to counter that serious theological error.
Paul argued that Christ’s death on the cross had abolished the need for circumcision as the mark of belonging to the chosen people of God. Faith in the crucified Jesus Christ was the new requirement for membership of God’s people in a world where humanity was generally living in sinful rebellion against him, hence Paul’s magnificent declaration: ‘But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.’
Because the world was hostile to Christ, suffering for him went with the territory for the faithful Christian. Paul mentioned his own physical suffering for Christ in his reference to his so-called ‘stigmata’: ‘For I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ These were the scars on Paul’s body from the violence he experienced in Galatia as described in the Acts of the Apostles. When he was preaching the gospel in Lystra, Paul was stoned by an angry mob who left him for dead outside the city. After his fellow Christian disciples gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city, Acts records (chapter 14 verse 20).
Former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright, in his outstanding biography Paul (SPCK, 2018), suggests the reason he survived the stoning was because he was knocked unconscious early on. Wright comments: ‘One such incident would have convinced many people that they were on a fool’s errand and ought to find less risky ways of getting their message across. But Paul’s resolve is only stiffened. His friends around him take him into the city. He explains that this kind of suffering is precisely the sign of two world’s clashing; they are on the cusp of the new world, and if this is what it costs, this is what it costs. So he will go on’ (p128).
In a book which hardly anyone read, Christians in the Community of the Dome (EP Books, 2017), I tried to chronicle the ways in which the politically correct establishment in the UK has made orthodox Christianity much harder to uphold in the public square since New Labour and then the Blairite Conservatives entrenched various changes to the laws, customs and morals of a once-Christian country. Stoning may not be on the cards for British Christians, but imprisonment certainly is for those who faithfully stand up for their biblical faith.
The Collect for the 15th Sunday after Trinity is a prayer for God’s protection for the Church in her inevitable suffering for Christ in a fallen world:
‘Keep, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy Church with thy perpetual mercy; and, because the frailty of man without thee cannot but fall, keep us ever by thy help from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable to our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’