James Hannington Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, and His Companions Martyrs, 1885 — Commemoration
16 ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
I’m not sure we should have favourite Bible verses, but today’s Gospel reading contains one of mine! “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” says Jesus. Not quite as powerful, perhaps as ‘For God so loved the world” or as resonant and long lasting as the image of a wayward son or a good Samaritans, but still I find it a most profound and helpful verse – and part of a profound and powerful passage.
Christians, especially Anglicans, are often looked at as being somewhat bloodless in their faith. We are considered by the majority of people to be the acceptable face of religion! Whether it’s true or not – apart from the odd fundamentalist or religious nut - we are looked on as a relatively mellow and bloodless kind of religion. Here I could get into a long discussion about what happens when people add the name of Christian faith to their campaigns and crusades and the less than illustrious history of the Church – but after a couple of thousand years and the ubiquity of Christendom in the west there’s a certain level of blandness ascribed to Christianity. In Western Culture at least…
But Jesus doesn’t give us that impression. No bloodless faith in his world. His is a faith that is full of passion and compassion, life, love, wisdom and grace. But also a faith that is strong, life changing, risky and dangerous.
There is an expectation in Jesus’ talking of faith that it is and will be dangerous to stand up for faith. But there is also an expectation that those of follow the way of Christ will be able to stand. Far from the images of ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ we see in today’s lesson a strength in refusing to fight back against persecutors, to speak out without violence for that which is right. Jesus reassures his hearers that that those who are taken prisoner for their faith will be given words to say and the courage of the Holy Spirit even under persecution. I am grateful that we don’t suffer being tortured and put to death for our faith, as Bishop Hannington and his companions did and the persecutions we suffer are (relatively) mild in our society – though I know some of you will have experience of the danger of speaking out for faith – but there is still a calling to stand, to share, to change our world with the life of faith no matter what the cost.
And into this Jesus speaks these words – be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
What does that mean, though?
I think it means be canny (as they say in Scotland and the North of England) – listen and learn, take your opportunities where you can, be crafty. Yet at the same time be honest, and transparent, be people of integrity. Act, and be, righteous.
We are not called to naivety, or to being treated like doormats. We are called to be strong, and committed and faithful and loving, even when it hurts. We are called to be Christ like in our words and our actions, and even our thinking.
If we are willing to stand up for that which is right, and to share the faith which Christ calls us to – a transforming, disturbing, honest and powerful faith. A faith that calls all to leaving behind dishonesty and abuse, injustice and inequality. Faith that calls to love and serve one another, to know ourselves loved and to act with love towards all.
If we are willing to stand for that faith then we will put ourselves at risky of persecution, marginalisation, condemnation. Or just of apathy and disregard. But in following Christ we are challenged to live lives which are completely dependent on God, that are different to the lives we would live without God, and that make a difference to the world as much as we allow the Spirit moving in us to make a difference to ourselves.
May we be, with the Spirit’s help, wise as serpents and innocent as doves.