Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday after Trinity, 21st June 2015

The scene is Armenia, around 257AD. ‘Armenia has been conquered by the Romans, who have outlawed Christianity, the growing new faith, and condemned all Christians to death. Paolina, who had loved the Roman proconsul Severo, married the Armenian nobleman Poliuto under pressure from her father Felice, governor of Armenia, who had told her that her lover Severo had been killed in battle.’ [Glyndebourne 2015 Programme Book]

Severo had not in fact perished. He eventually returned home safely. Paolina is dreadfully torn between her love for him and her duty to remain faithful to her new husband Poliuto.

Meanwhile Poliuto has become a Christian convert, and is baptised. Paolina warns him that he will be killed if the Romans find out. They do find out. Poliuto is condemned to death – but his sentence is suspended, to see if he is willing to renounce Christianity and go back to the old religion, the worship of the traditional Roman gods, Jupiter and Apollo and Mars and Co.

Severo, who, as the Roman proconsul, would be the man to condemn Poliuto to death, meanwhile tries to get his old girlfriend Paolina to love him again, but she says she is now committed to Poliuto – although she admits that she still has feelings for her old love too.

Poliuto refuses to recant. He says that death won’t matter, as he is confident of salvation in heaven. Paolina tries to persuade him out of it, to no avail. She is then so impressed by Poliuto’s new faith that she herself decides to convert, even if it will bring a death sentence on her as well.

Paolina is baptised, and together she and Poliuto march off to face the lions.

That was a very quick résumé of Donizetti’s opera ‘Poliuto’, which is being performed at Glyndebourne. If you haven’t been as fortunate as I was and got a ticket, then I really recommend you listen to it on BBC Radio 3 tomorrow night at 7.30. It is full of beautiful tunes and fantastic singing, and has never been performed in England before.

The opening scene involves rather a sinister back street in which people appear from round the corner rather furtively and look to right and left before they dart across the end of a passage, through which some daylight appears. We realise that they are afraid that there might be a sniper, who will shoot them as they cross the entrance. It sets the scene – this is how the early Christians felt, under constant threat.

The opera is set against the background of the early days of Christianity, when it wasn’t a mainstream religion, and indeed when Christians were persecuted. It wasn’t until the Emperor Constantine, thirty years after the action in this opera, that Romans adopted Christianity as their official religion.

The sentence of death, which awaited the Christians, involved being thrown to the lions in the arena, a particularly horrible death. 250 years after Christ, the situation which St Paul mentions in his second letter to the Corinthians was still going on, that Christ’s ministers proved themselves ‘in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes [which is floggings], in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours … as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing.’ (2 Cor. 6:4, 10)

As these extremes of contradiction show, early Christians were very likely to be martyred for their faith, or if not actually martyred, certainly persecuted and subjected to all sorts of hardship.

Armenia, where the story of Poliuto is set, actually became the very first Christian country. Armenia adopted Christianity as its official religion only a few years after the action depicted in the opera, around 300AD. Armenia is to the north of Turkey in Asia Minor. It’s one of the oldest countries in the world, founded in 2,492BC.

Further south, in that other cradle of civilisation, between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, in what was called Mesopotamia, ‘between the rivers’, in Greek, the same drama is unfolding, even today. Where the so-called Islamic State has become dominant, to be a Christian is to put oneself in mortal danger. Why would you risk your life in such circumstances?

Poliuto, in the opera, says that he is not afraid of death because he believes that eternal salvation will await him after death. Eventually Paolina his wife is so impressed by his example that she decides to convert and be baptised so she can join him in martyrdom.

It all feels very far away, both in time and in geographical distance. The Christians who are confronting persecution and death today are thousands of miles away, in the Middle East. It doesn’t really affect us. It’s only when we see young people from Moslem backgrounds in this country leaving to go and fight for Islamic State, or girls leaving to become jihadi brides, that the idea of self-sacrifice for religious reasons comes nearer home.

We don’t understand why they would want to do it. We are too down to earth, I think. We compartmentalise things. There is our spiritual, religious life, and our day-to-day practical life. For instance, when I said, from this pulpit last week, that the Bible is telling us to welcome and care for refugees, immigrants who are destitute and seeking a better life, I was met with the observation that this is all very well, but ‘we haven’t enough room for them.’

In other words, never mind what the Bible says – or even what we might think God is telling us – it comes down to practical considerations: but perhaps the Bible just isn’t ‘practical’ enough. Just think what that argument would look like in the context of one of the early martyrs. It wasn’t just a question whether following what the Bible said was a bit impractical. It was a matter of life and death: and the martyrs accepted death.

This is a mighty truth at the heart of Christianity. Jesus was prepared to die for what He was. He gave His life. The early Christians too were prepared to make that ultimate sacrifice, to die for what they believed, for their faith.

Poliuto, as one of the early Christian martyrs, says that he is not afraid of death because he believes that eternal salvation will await him after death. Would we risk death for that? What does it actually mean?

What is ‘eternal salvation’? St Paul describes what it means, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. He writes, ‘Our troubles are slight and short-lived; and their outcome an eternal glory which outweighs them far. Meanwhile our eyes are fixed, not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen: for what is seen passes away; what is unseen is eternal’ (2 Cor. 4:17-18, NEB).

For St Paul, God is, God works, through Jesus. The fact of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is there: it is the way that God confronts us. God is not just an Unmoved Mover, a Blind Watchmaker, somehow setting the mechanism of evolution in motion and then standing back to see it destroy itself. For St Paul, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding men’s misdeeds against them.’ (2 Cor. 5:18)

By raising Christ from the dead, God showed that He was involved with us, that He cared about us. Faith in that, knowledge of that, made the early Christians brave in the face of persecution. ‘Hard-pressed on every side, we are never hemmed in; bewildered, we are never at our wits’ end; hunted, we are never abandoned to our fate; struck down, we are not left to die.’ (2 Cor. 5:8-9, NEB).

What would make us willing to give up everything, even to make the ultimate sacrifice? Whatever it is, whatever inspired the early Christians like Poliuto, it is still at work among the Christians in Iraq, Syria and Libya in the face of Islamic State. We can be very thankful that we are not there, not exposed to mortal danger for our faith.

Even so, perhaps we ought to reflect more on what ‘the Jesus event’ as some theologians call it, [For Paul, everything depends on the whole ‘Jesus event’, and what God has done in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.’ Burridge, R.A., 2007, Imitating Jesus, Grand Rapids/Cambridge, Wm. B. Eerdmans, p. 82] the story of Jesus, really means – and what our response to it ought to be. Is it all right just to go to church once a week, and do nothing else about one’s faith? Is it all right just to carry on our lives without thinking how our way of life has an impact, an impact on God’s creation?

For example, this is what Pope Francis’ encyclical, ‘Laudato si’,’ from St Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, “Laudato si’, mi’ Signore”, ‘Praise be to thee, My Lord’, is all about. Some things are necessary to life, and others are optional, open to choice. If the rich and powerful keep choosing more than they need for life, the life of all of us will be destroyed. The Pope is saying that, unless we give up our appetite for luxuries, the world will be destroyed.

How will the Pope’s message be received? Will it be compartmentalised, put into a dusty box called ‘climate change’? I hope not. I hope we will all be brave enough – not to face the lions, like the early Christians – but brave enough to look at our lives in the light of Christ, in the light of Christ’s sacrifice. Can we just bumble along? And is there anything more important than the actions which begin with going to church? Let’s really ponder on it. I think it will change our lives.