“The Gift of Martyrdom?”
Earlier this year, when the churches of Saskatoon gathered to participate in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we held a Saturday afternoon workshop to think about and discuss the different gifts that the various church traditions bring to the Christian Church as a whole. We talked about the distinctive qualities of each branch of the Christian Church, and considered what gifts we could offer to one another, and which gifts we would be blessed to receive from others.
The United Church offered their willingness to risk and try things differently, and the Mennonites brought their commitment to peace and social justice. The evangelicals contributed their boldness in sharing their faith with others, and we Presbyterians shared our distinctive form of leadership in the church – with lay people and clergy working together in sessions and presbyteries.
The workshop was going really well, and I was amazed at how easily most of those present were able to name and to welcome the gifts of the other churches. It was a wonderful celebration of the Apostle Paul’s teaching – that there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.
But then I wandered over to the table where the Ukrainian Catholics were discussing their gifts and making a decision on which one to offer to the whole Church. A little earlier, others had mentioned the beautiful and meditative chanting of prayers in the Ukrainian Catholic tradition, and the meaningful wedding liturgy with the crowning of the bride and groom which many other Christians had experienced. A few people had even mentioned perogies and cabbage rolls – the food, the hospitality of the people, these were gifts that many were ready to receive!
But when I asked what gift the group had settled on, they said, “We’ve chosen the gift of martyrdom.” “Oh…” I said thoughtfully, hoping I was covering my surprise. And inside I was thinking, “I’m not sure if I want to receive the gift of martyrdom… I’ll take the prayer, I’ll take the chanting, I’ll even take it in Ukrainian even though I won’t know what I’m saying… and I’ll certainly take the perogies… but martyrdom is not really what I am looking for in my faith.
As I listened more to what these Ukrainian Catholic Christians wanted to share, I soon began to understand their gift a little differently though. Of course they weren’t saying that they were going to go out looking for a way to get killed for their faith, and they weren’t inviting us to do that either. But they were looking back at the history of their Church and the people of faith who had come before them. They were remembering the many individuals who had been so committed and so faithful that they were even willing to die for their faith, and they were recognizing the gift of their witness for all of us who try to follow the way of Jesus today.
The usual understanding of a martyr is someone who is killed for following their faith, through stoning (as was Stephen in today’s first reading), burning at the stake, crucifixion, or other forms of torture or capital punishment. But the word “martyr” wasn’t always used to refer just to those who were killed for their faith. Once Christians started to undergo persecution, the term came to be applied to those who suffered various hardships for their faith. The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word,μάρτυς, which simply means “witness.” A martyr is someone who serves as a witness – someone who does not deny Christ and who remains faithful even when that faithfulness results in suffering, hardship, persecution, or even death.
Certainly, there was a brief period in the early history of Christianity in which some particularly devout Christians actually hoped for and sought after martyrdom. I guess they believed that being killed for their faith was the greatest witness they could give to their confidence in the saving love of God in Jesus Christ. Some of them went to their deaths happy because they believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that they were going to be with God, and in the process of their deaths they were serving as a witness to others.
But I don’t think my Ukrainian Catholic friends were suggesting that they actually wanted to become martyrs. I think what they wanted to share with us was the gift of paying attention to, and learning from, those who have gone before us in following the way of Jesus – especially those who followed Jesus’ way of suffering because they decided that there was something more important than their own comfort, or peace, or even their own life.
Let me share with you a couple of stories:
Stephen is first mentioned in the book of Acts as one of seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community in the early church. But Stephen didn’t just serve food and care for the poor, he also spoke about God and his faith in Christ, and he is traditionally regarded as the first martyr of Christianity.
In a long speech to the Sanhedrin comprising almost the whole of Acts Chapter 7, Stephen presents his view of the history of Israel. The God of glory, he says, appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia, thus establishing at the beginning of the speech one of its major themes, that God does not dwell only in one particular building. God was with Joseph, too, in Egypt.
Stephen recounts the stories of the patriarchs in some depth, and goes into even more detail in the case of Moses. God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and inspired Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. Nevertheless, the Israelites turned to other gods. This establishes the second main theme of Stephen’s speech, Israel’s disobedience to God. Stephen was accused of declaring that Jesus would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem and of changing the customs of Moses, but he appeals to the Jewish scriptures to prove how the laws of Moses were not subverted by Jesus but, instead, were being fulfilled.
He denounces his listeners as “stiff-necked” people who, just as their ancestors had done, resist the Holy Spirit. “Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him.”
Thus castigated, the crowd could contain their anger no longer. However Stephen, seemingly now oblivious to them, looked up and cried, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” To the Sanhedrin, this claim that the recently executed Jesus was standing by the side of God was such intense blasphemy that they covered their ears so as not to hear it.
They rushed upon Stephen, drove him outside the city, and stoned him. The witnesses, whose duty it was to throw the first stones, laid their coats down so as to be able to do this, at the feet of a “young man named Saul”, later to be known as Paul the Apostle. Stephen prayed that the Lord would receive his spirit and his killers be forgiven, sank to his knees, and died.
One of the things that I find most interesting about Stephen’s story is how closely it mirrors Jesus’ own story. Both Jesus and Stephen cared for the poor, and shared food with the hungry. Both Jesus and Stephen spoke publicly about the Scriptures, and reinterpreted them in a way that got others upset with them. Both Jesus and Stephen were put on trial for blasphemy, and neither one was willing to change their story. Both Jesus and Stephen could see that their actions and words were going to get them killed, and they didn’t back down.
I don’t think either of them went looking for martyrdom… Remember how Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, asking God for some kind of alternative to death? But both Jesus and Stephen ended up being killed at the will of an angry mob, all the while praying for God to forgive their murderers.
Óscar Romerowas a bishop of the Catholic Church in El Salvador. In February 1977, he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador.
Less than a month later, Rutilio Grande, a progressive Jesuit priest and personal friend of Romero who had been creating self-reliance groups among the poor, was assassinated. His death had a profound impact on Romero, who later stated, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path'”. Romero urged the government to investigate, but they ignored his request. Furthermore, the censored press remained silent.
Tension was noted by the closure of schools and the lack of Catholic priests invited to participate in government. In response to Fr. Rutilio’s murder, Romero revealed a radicalism that had not been evident earlier. Traditionally, the church had been seen as complicit in the aims of the state and military to privilege the wealthy and powerful while the majority of the population remained in abject poverty. But Romero spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture.
In 1979, the Revolutionary Government Junta came to power amidst a wave of human rights abuses by paramilitary right-wing groups and the government in an escalation of violence that would become the Salvadoran Civil War. Romero criticized the United States for giving military aid to the new government and wrote to President Jimmy Carter in February 1980, warning that increased US military aid would “undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the political repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for their most basic human rights”.
In a speech at the University of Louvain in February 1980, Romero denounced the persecution of members of the Catholic Church who had worked on behalf of the poor. He said:
“In less than three years, more than fifty priests have been attacked, threatened, calumniated. Six are already martyrs—they were murdered. Some have been tortured and others expelled [from the country]. Nuns have also been persecuted. The archdiocesan radio station and educational institutions that are Catholic or of a Christian inspiration have been attacked, threatened, intimidated, even bombed. Several parish communities have been raided. If all this has happened to persons who are the most evident representatives of the Church, you can guess what has happened to ordinary Christians, to the campesinos, catechists, lay ministers, and to the ecclesial base communities. There have been threats, arrests, tortures, murders, numbering in the hundreds and thousands….
“But it is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.”
Romero was assassinated on March 24th 1980 while celebrating Mass, one day after a sermon in which he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. As soon as he finished his sermon, Romero proceeded to the middle of the altar and at that moment he was shot.
Just the other day, as I was browsing on Twitter, I noticed a challenging and inspiring tweet about preaching. It said, “Preach like you can’t get fired.” In other words, preach with courage, preach with conviction. Always seek to proclaim the truth without worrying about what people will think, or how they will react, or whether they might not like you for what you say.
But Jesus, and Stephen, and Romero not only preached like they couldn’t get fired… they preached like they couldn’t get killed. Not because they were naive, or because they were reckless, but because they decided that what they had to say, and what they had to do… the witness they had to proclaim was more important than their lives.
The context in which we live here in Canada means that most of us will never be asked to die for our faith. And yet, our faith still calls us to measure our priorities, to take a stand, and to express our beliefs through action. People like me need to consider what we will preach and where we will preach – how we will take the message outside the relative safety of these church walls. And all of us need to consider when God may be calling us to stand up for someone or something important – for the poor, for the persecuted, for the abused earth. We need to consider when and how we are going to speak up when we see something happening that should not be happening. We need to consider when and how we are going to act when no one else seems to care.
And we can find the courage we need to do these kinds of things – not because we’re so special or talented or brave – but because of Jesus who has shown us the way, who has walked the path before us. Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also… I am the way, the truth and the life… the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”
It’s hard to imagine doing greater works than Jesus… but we don’t have to worry about how great or how wonderful our witness will be… we don’t have to try to become martyrs. We just have to follow Jesus, and do our best to be faithful and courageous in the time and place and circumstances in which we live.
Today, let’s give thanks with our Ukrainian Catholic friends for the gift of the witness of the martyrs – for Jesus, for Stephen, for Romero, and for thousands of other women and men who inspire us by their faith, their courage, and their sacrificial love. May our lives begin to look more and more like theirs as we put God’s priorities before our own, and trust that we are always in God’s care. Amen.