‘[Jesus said] Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.' - Matthew 10:28
I want us to begin with a silly choice, one I’m sure you’ve never had to make. On Christmas morning you come downstairs to open your presents and you find to your surprise Father Christmas standing there holding a present in either hand. ‘Good morning, Happy Christmas’ says St Nick with a twinkle in his eye. Today you get to pick which present you’d like! You only get one but you can have whichever you like. Now at first it sounds like one of this horrible puzzles where you have to guess and there is no way of knowing whether you’ve guessed right. However, the surprise deepens as Father Christmas tells you to look on the label. You see St Nicholas is no grinch. He has detailed the options on the label. No guessing you know what you are choosing. In one box is your favourite chocolate in the other a lifetime’s supply of your favourite chocolate. ‘Which’ says Fr Christmas ‘would you like?’ Now it’s a silly story—and not just because it would never happen—but also because the choice is obvious. We’d all pick the lifetime’s supply over the option of just one bar. It’s a no brainer, right?
Today we celebrate the Feast of St Thomas Becket and the Gospel reading focuses us in on a similar but very real choice. Jesus says this: ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ (Matthew 10:28). At Christmas we have celebrated how much God values our bodies. When the world went wrong because of things we had done, God could have stayed in heaven and washed His hands of the whole human race; or He could have provided a spiritual escape route for all those who followed Him, leaving their bodies behind and floating off as some form of blessed ghost somewhere. But God didn't do that! God values our bodies so much that He came down from heaven, took on a body Himself, and suffered the worst that can happen to our flesh. Now, when we die, those who trust Jesus are promised new bodies, better bodies, and a full physical existence in God’s new Creation. God loves and values our bodies, and Christmas—in part—celebrates this truth. However, if Christmas celebrates in part the love of God for the material world, the Feast of St Thomas Becket reminds us of the importance of our souls. Again the Gospel verse:‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ Like in my rather silly introduction we face a choice which—when you think about it—is a real no-brainer. On the one hand we have those tyrants, dictators, and murderers who can kill the body. On the other hand we have the God who has the power to destroy both body and soul. To put it positively, we have the choice betwen choosing a body which like a single chocolate bar will run out, or on the other a body and soul, which like a lifetime's supply of chocolate will never run out. It really is a no-brainer. The tyrants think by killing the body they are getting rid of a Christian; kill enough bodies of Christians, and, they think, they can get rid of Christianity all together. What they miss is that those who give their lives for Christ, live on as saints in heaven, and as saints have far more power than they did on earth. So which do we choose to fear those who have the power to kill us and so lose our souls, or follow the One who promises us both body & soul forever. That is the choice which faced Archbishop Thomas Becket.
Thomas was born in London and became a close friend of King Henry II. He was only a deacon when he was appointed chancellor of England, living a life of luxury as the king’s best friend. However, the king was having a problem getting the Church to do what he wanted so when the Archbishop of Canterbury died who better to replace him than his best friend Thomas Becket. All did not go to plan for the king. When Thomas was ordained as archbishop of Canterbury, he underwent an abrupt conversion of life and began to defend the Church’s rights against the king. So much so, that Thomas had to take refuge in a French monastery for six years before the king would let him back. However, when Thomas returned to his diocese he continued to stand up to the king, and made the king so angry that King Henry cried out ‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest’. Four knights, inspired by these careless words, assassinated Thomas in his cathedral on 29th December 1170. What must Thomas have been thinking, as he hid away in that French monastery, or as the knights banged on the door of his cathedral threatening him with death? Might it have been those words we had read from the Gospel? Should he fear King Henry who could kill him, give in to the king’s demands and let the king run the church? Or should he rather fear God and the eternal choices of his decisions, and so stand up for the Church? Thomas made the right choice, even if it was the hard choice!
Not many of us face a king set on our death, but we do face pressure from the state, from our friends and family to ignore parts of Jesus’ teaching. Last week a Christian woman was arrested for standing in the street and praying silently in her head; not in China, North Korea, or Russia but in this country in England. We too feel afraid that people might laugh at us, or ignore us, or turn away from us if we talk about and live like Jesus. And so, just as we celebrate the birth of Jesus the feast of St Thomas Becket challenges us…are we willing to live for this Jesus whom we have just celebrated…even if it leads to suffering? We can easily be intimidated or distracted by the world but when we pause and reflect on the choice which faces us, it really is a no-brainer. ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ Let us pray, that we would make the right choice, and stand up for Jesus whatever comes our way. Amen (from Fr Mike).