Yesterday evening, as on many previous occasions, we held a short prayer vigil here in the monastery for persecuted Christians in the Near and Middle East, especially those in the grip of IS. For once I remembered to mention the vigil on Social Media, and it was heartwarming to see how many responded and joined in ‘virtually’. Inevitably, one or two people wanted to widen the terms of reference, not just Christians but also . . . . Anyone who follows the daily prayer intentions on our Facebook page will know that we never take an exclusive view of prayer — the fact that we don’t mention someone or something doesn’t mean we’re not praying for them — but given that today’s gospel, Matthew 5. 43–48, addresses the subject of loving our enemies, you may wonder why we insist that our vigil was, quite specifically, for our persecuted brethren.
It’s easy to forget that as Christians we are the original corporate person, as it were. We are one in Christ, and as St Paul famously reminds us in his analogy of the body, what affects one affects all. We have a duty of care towards one another. The first way in which we express that is through our union of prayer. Nothing can substitute for that. It is from our strength and unity as a Christian community that our action proceeds, and unity cannot exist without being grounded in prayer. Everything we read about the outrages perpetrated by IS reminds us that Christians face a persecution as evil as any in history. Some will argue that the numbers involved are fewer than were exterminated by the Nazis or that the atrocities reported by the media are exaggerated. Personally, I find it rather repugnant to play any kind of numbers game. The fact is that people are suffering because they acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and God. They are being driven from their homes, enslaved, killed. We pray for them and ask their prayers for us, mindful that they show us what it means to be a disciple. Those Coptic Christians who died in Libya calling on the name of Jesus must surely be an encouragement to us all. Last night we asked the Lord to have mercy, but we also gave thanks for the witness of his followers who were ‘faithful unto death’ and showed us what it means to love our enemies: