A Sermon for Sunday: St. Januarius and his Companions/Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost; Revd Dr Robert Wilson

St. Januarius and his Companions/Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Januarius and his companions, as well as commemorating the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. About St. Januarius little is known except that he was among the many martyrs during the great persecution under the Emperor Diocletian. The Martyrology states that “At Pozzuoli, in Campania, the holy martyrs Januarius, bishop of Beneventum, Festus his deacon, Desiderius his lector, Socius a deacon of the Church at Misenum, Proculus a deacon of Pozzuoli, Eutychius and Acutius who, after being bound with chains, were cast into prison and beheaded under Diocletian (305). The body of St. Januarius was taken to Naples and honourably buried in the Church where his blood is preserved in a glass phial. The phial is placed near the head of the holy martyr, the blood liquefies and bubbles as if it has just been shed.”

But why was the persecution of Christianity under the pagan Roman empire so severe? We so often celebrate the feasts of the martyrs from the early centuries of the Church that we do not stop to ask ourselves the question as to why the early Christians were persecuted. The ancient Roman civilisation prided itself on being broad minded and tolerant of many different religious opinions. The proviso was that the religion was not seen as a danger to the civil peace. In proclaiming that there was only one God who had created and redeemed the world in the person of Jesus Christ Christians were seen to be undermining the authority of the Emperor. They proclaimed that there was another king, one called Jesus. They could therefore have no part in the cult of the Emperor, for to do so would be to repudiate their faith. This meant that they were in constant danger of being put in a position in which they were told either to participate in the cult of the Emperor, or face death. Those who faced death were those who we now venerate as martyrs, those who bore witness to the strength of their own faith with their own blood. Initially, the empire did not pursue a systematic policy of persecution, but Christians were always suspect as lacking loyalty to the State and liable to suffer persecution and death. In the middle of the third century, as the Church continued to grow, the Emperor Decius made it an official policy for all to participate in the cult of the Emperor as a badge of civil loyalty. However, as the century progressed there was a period of relative peace for the Church, before what is called the great persecution under Diocletian at the beginning of the third century in which an attempt was made to obliterate Christianity altogether. However, despite the severity of the persecution the faith was now sufficiently strong to withstand it. Soon after the Empire admitted defeat and toleration was finally officially given to Christianity by the Emperor Constantine.

Jesus had himself said that as he met with repudiation, reversal, suffering and death in the world, so his followers would also experience persecution. In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew the disciples are warned to take heed that they are not seduced by false Christs and false prophets. They will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but they must not be troubled for the end will not be yet. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be pestilences, famines and earthquakes. They will be delivered up to be afflicted and put to death. “And then shall many be scandalised, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall arise, and shall seduce many. And because iniquity has abounded, the charity of many shall grow cold. But he that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved.”

These words speak powerfully to us at the present time. In our own time there are wars and pestilences. Many are scandalised by the Christian faith and have been seduced by false prophets. In many ways the situation in the Western world is now reverting back to the paganism that Christianity eventually displaced. As in ancient Rome people were taught to worship the civil power in the person of the Emperor, so now they are taught to see the power of the State as the solution to every problem. The uncertainty caused by contemporary wars and rumours of wars as well as pestilences has been used by governments to create a climate of constant fear. This is then used by governments to give themselves even more power, since all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This used to be called totalitarianism, but now it is gradually reemerging in a more subtle and therefore more dangerous way than before. There may not be anything as explicit as the cult of the pagan emperor, but there is certainly today a cult of the strong leader and a belief that the ever increasing power of the State is the solution to every problem. Those who question this are seen as lacking in patriotism towards the State and as a danger to society. Iniquity is certainly abounding and the charity of many growing cold in our own time.

Despite the severity of the present situation we should not despair. We must remember the words of the Gospel that “he that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved”. These are indeed times of great trial and uncertainty, but they should embolden us to persevere. Let us pray for grace to persevere in our own time. We can make our own the words of the Collect for this Sunday (which we are commemorating today)

Grant, O Lord, unto thy people grace to withstand the temptations of the devil, and with pure minds to follow thee, the only God, through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who livest and reignest with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

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