Suffering, regardless of its cause is a human tragedy. Today we consider the axis between strength and weakness in the giving up of life for faith. As a follower of Jesus, I join you in reflecting on those whose lives have been burdened, bruised and broken because of their standing in faith.
Three places of deep animosity
From the outset of the Christian story, followers of Jesus knew that obedience to the Gospel would extract its own reward. In following Jesus, it was not ambiguous in the price we would pay as we followed his life and witness.
There were three arenas in which his words and actions drew a violent response.
When Jesus threatened the prevailing economic model revolving around commerce at the temple and kicked out the merchants, it was only a matter of time before he would face their angry response.
So today in countries where Christians denounce corruption and the prevailing economic model, their lives are endangered.
When Jesus threatened political power or the legitimacy of the ruling elite and institutions, in short time he paid the price for his prophetic call.
That too, today, is played out in countries where governments are hostile, reactionary and totalitarian, stomping out a Christian witness when it seeks to uphold fairness to their social order.
Thirdly as Jesus equated himself with God, which was seen as blasphemous by the religious leaders of his time, this was enough to result in death.
This strikes as the heart of faith, belief and worship. While threatening economic models or opposing political authority is understandably resisted by the prevailing powers, it is quite another thing that holding to your belief in the God of your faith becomes the trigger for persecution and martyrdom.
Hostility to a vibrant, deeply committed Christian faith is inevitable. But here, a confessional moment: I’m from Canada, voted again by the US News and World Report as the third best country in which to live. Martyrdom is outside of my experience. I sit in humility at the feet of those who know what it means to feel the lash; as I hear them speak of what it means to face death.
Even so, while such suffering is outside of my purview, here today we reflect on the biblical reminder of Christ’s call to be faithful in life and witness.
There are two stands we can take. The first is to be energized by the struggle of our brothers and sisters, defending them before the accusers, before their courts, their governments and in the public forums. They need to know we are standing with them. They need to know we are doing all we can to mitigate suffering and persecution. Their families when tragically ripped apart by imprisonment or killing, need our help in every way possible, sustaining them in spirit and in treasure.
As much as we are obliged by the Gospel to stand with those in such dire circumstances, there a second stand we can take and that is to become the counter-culture of today’s self-adulation and interest. Within much of the world the impulse is towards self-preservation, to ensure that the big “I” is served, first and always. We use the term, narcissism, a word from Greek mythology. You will recall that Narcissus, seeing himself in reflection, fell in love with his own image.
A biblical review
In the face of today’s prevailing self-adulation, the witness of those who give their lives for the Gospel is prophetic. Let me take you to the writer of Hebrews, who scrolls through many who had lost their lives
And what more shall I say? … who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword…. — the world was not worthy of them… These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. Heb. 11.
What does it mean to “be worthy of them”? We understand that following Jesus is not easy. Many times, Jesus warned us, advising us that his way is not the easy way.
But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time, you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Mat 19:20
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Mat 5:10
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. Mat 16:24
There is no surprise. Jesus made it clear. So did St Paul the Apostle:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.
This cross, this symbol, how might it have been seen then?
For the ruling military power, to be crucified was to say you had been judged of sedition, of trying to overthrow a government. For rulers it was the worst of crimes. The cross symbolized their absolute power over another who would try and depose them.
For the scholarly community the cross was disgusting and absurd. Think of trying to persuade a Greek that Jesus, crucified by the Romans, was the way the truth and the life? Their litmus test was a brilliant explanation matching tradition. The cross for them was foolishness.
Then for the religious leaders, the law of Moses saw a hanged man as one under the divine curse. The very idea that the Messiah was to be hanged was blasphemous. The cross was a stumbling block.
Last century, for Nietzsche the cross spoke of weakness.
This century, the cross speaks of my power, my ascendancy, my wellbeing. The ancient message and symbol of the cross has been torn from its moorings and transformed into the glitter of jewelry, camouflaging its reality, its history, its power and its call.
Yet even as we have sanitized this symbol of death and popularized its gruesome reality which spoke of death, its power continues to be compelling.
It is two dimensional: its vertical describes the coming of the Christ into life. We call it the incarnation, for it is a moment in which God becomes human flesh, and by his living among us, we come to know and experience the redemptive presence of this God of creation.
It is horizontal, reaching out. Here we witness the very nature of being a follower of Jesus. His warnings and promises were not simple chatter. He meant what he said. The outstretched arms speak of inclusion, of giving, of suffering, of loving others, and when outstretched it doesn’t stop until the whole world is held in its embrace.
With this reminder of the role of the cross, of the way Jesus walked up to its ugly presence, we reflect on its meaning for us and what we might hear from a martyr if today he or she would visit us on this stage and speak about what they would want us to understand.
As we listen, let us not slip into a soft and easy way of interpreting “taking up his cross” by trivializing it into something unpleasant that we experience in life. In harsh terms, it means laying down our life in witness, in truth and in sacrifice. In short it is to accept death as a consequence to a faithful follower of Jesus.
What might we hear?
I suspect we might be taken back into the Gospels to listen to the conversation of Jesus and a young lawyer who asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with his two great commandments: to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.
Which triggers these obvious questions:
1. What does it look like in daily life, to love God with all my heart, soul and strength.?
2. What does it look like to love my neighbor as myself?
I suspect none of us here will be faced with martyrdom. But each of us is faced daily with what it means to follow him. Christian martyrs, who in many times and places under many circumstances are honored for their courage and resolve. Today many of us in various ways seek to resolve the conditions which lead to martyrdom. There are important ways in which we can engage in pressing governments, courts, political leaders, even mobs and military militia in giving space for the sacred. By God’s help we will accelerate that work.
But for most of us, our role in faithful witness in loving God and our neighbor, might be captured by this prayer of commitment from my colleague in faith Norm Allen:
May God bless us with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that we may seek truth boldly and love deeply within our hearts.
May God bless us with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless us with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and transform their pain into joy. Amen