Almost fifty years after Francis Xavier had arrived in Japan as its first Christian apostle, the presence of several thousand baptised Christians in the land became a subject of suspicion to the ruler Hideyoshi, who soon began a period of persecution. Twenty-six men and women, monastic and lay, were first mutilated then crucified near Nagasaki in 1597. After their martyrdom, their bloodéd- clothes were kept and held in reverence by their fellow Christians. The period of persecution continued for another thirty-five years, many new witness-martyrs being added to their number.
Romans 8. 35–39
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, set in mid-seventeenth century Japan, focuses on Jesuit priest, Fr. Sebastian Rodrigues, and his passion to help the local Christians in the face of brutal oppression. The novel is a powerful depiction of the challenge faced – both by the fragile Christian community and by Fr. Sebastian himself – against those determined to force them to abandon their faith in God. Within every service of ordination, induction or commissioning for a minister or church related community worker these words are addressed to the candidate:
“Do you promise to live a holy life, and to maintain the truth of the gospel, whatever trouble or persecution may arise?”
To which the minister is invited to respond,
“Relying on the strength of Christ, I do.”
The question certainly accompanied my reading of Silence … would I “maintain the truth of the gospel, whatever trouble or persecution may arise”? What is chilling in Endo’s novel is the apparent silence of God – in contrast to the stark reality of the suffering experienced by the Japanese Christians. Endo writes, “Beneath the light of the candle I am sitting with my hands on my knees, staring in front of me. And I keep turning over in my mind and thought that I am at the end of the earth, in a place which you do not know and which your whole lives through you will never visit.”
Some of our sisters and brothers – in places where the Church faces “trouble and persecution” – know the reality of Endo’s battleground. We do well to acknowledge that “trouble and persecution” in our context are as nothing compared to what is embraced by those who risk life and livelihood in other parts of the world Church. They and we can but respond, “Relying on the strength of Christ I will hold fast to faith and God.” Ultimately such strength comes from the conviction that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God, from whose love in Christ Jesus our Lord, nothing can separate us, look with compassion on those who endure trouble and persecution as a consequence of their faithfulness to the gospel. May those who are tempted, in the face of suffering and hardship, to feel engulfed by silence know the peace that the world can neither give nor take away. Relying on your grace may we remain steadfast and faithful witnesses to your Word breathed into the world’s silence: even Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
The Rev’d Geoffrey Clarke is Minister of The Crossing Church & Centre, Worksop & Wales Kiveton Methodist Church