Monday, April 22, 2013

Jesus Started It: Martyrs of Malice or Mercy?

Preached on Sunday, April 21, 2013

Scripture readings: Philippians 2:1-18; Acts 7:44-8:3

In our reading from the Book of Acts, the young man named Stephen is the first martyr; the first Christian martyr who died for his faith. Some Christians call him St. Stephen.

The other notable young man who became part of this story, who guarded the cloaks of those who were killing Stephen, was named Saul; named after the famous King Saul in the Old Testament.

Photos Taken Going to and from Kahlotus, WA
This young man Saul was one of the first haters of the church; one of the early haters of Jesus, and his followers. He became active in the organization of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Saul became a leading activist in the tracking, arresting, and jailing of Christians.

Later on, the Book of Acts describes him as “murderous” and that is likely so. (Acts 9:1) Still later, Saul the hater became Paul the apostle; the missionary for Jesus; the long, long-suffering lover of Jesus. Saul became St. Paul. Over time, Saul became a martyr in so many ways; beautiful and dreadful.

The word “martyr” seems to me to be a horrible word. It seems to mean something either frightening or threatening. At its core, “martyr” means nothing more than “witness”. A martyr speaks, acts, lives for a cause.

If the cause is unpopular, a martyr may suffer for his or her cause. A martyr may die for their cause. It has become a word of terror only because it has come to mean a person who makes other people die or suffer for their cause.

The cause that Stephen would speak for, act for, live for, and die for was Jesus; King Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Saul would also come to speak, act, live, suffer, and die for Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

There are many causes in the world, and many martyrs. It can be confusing and controversial, especially when being a martyr involves suffering and death.

America, the homeland, and freedom are a cause, and many, many people have died for this cause. Many more have suffered.

There were many martyrs for Jesus in the early days of the faith, and there continue to be so. There are many Christian martyrs in Islamic countries today, and in places like China and North Korea. Some Christians in Britain have lost their jobs and some Christians in the United States have been taken to court because they stood up for some part of their Christian faith.

Some martyrs are aggressive, and threatening, and violent. There are some people who become martyrs by hijacking airliners and flying them into office buildings, or by bombing spectators at a footrace. These martyrs are famous representatives of Islam.

Christianity has had its own violent martyrs. We have had our crusades and our wars of religion. Ireland was a place for Christian warfare only a few decades ago. The world has not forgotten this, and the world will use this knowledge against us.

But maybe this is a good thing. It is good for us to be humble; and that, in itself, has something to do with a wholesome martyrdom; being the best sort of martyr.

Because this is what we see in Stephen: those who made him a martyr were martyrs themselves. They were witnesses; witnesses of power, success, control, fear, anger, and hatred.

They believed in a God, whom they had refashioned in their own image; who was on their side. And they worked with all their might to call down a holy anger, and indignation, and vengeance upon Stephen and his friends.

Stephen prayed his martyr’s witness like this. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59) Stephen knew the mercy and grace of God who came into this world in Jesus; a God who died for the sin of the world on the cross. Stephen knew that, in Jesus, God had called his own mercy and grace down from heaven to earth to change the lives of those who would receive him, and to change the world through them.

Jesus had prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) So Stephen did the same. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Perhaps none of us will ever have to suffer or die for our witness to the cause of Jesus and his kingdom. But we can all be martyrs, because a martyr is simple a witness who speaks, and lives, and acts, and works, and is willing to suffer and die for their cause.

We can see the power of this kind of thing in the story of Stephen and Saul. The prayer of Stephen called mercy down from heaven and it came to rest on Saul. Only Saul didn’t know it yet.

Mercy lay in the stony, weedy, barren ground of Saul’s hater’s heart. In spite of the unfriendly, infertile soil of that heart, the seed would grow. It would enrage Saul all the more if he had guessed the plot against him; if he had known what Jesus was planning to do with him by making him (in spite of himself) a martyr of mercy.

Stephen died without knowing what his witness had done. He didn’t know what God would make of his prayer of forgiveness. He would join the cloud of the witnesses (the martyrs of mercy) who always watch the race on earth, as we run that race. (Hebrews 12:1) Stephen would watch it happen from another place.

Being a martyr has nothing in the world to do with being a doormat, or even a victim. Being a martyr means being a faithful witness, with the accent on being faithful. Sometimes this calls for courage.

Being a witness of Jesus who died to bring grace and mercy down from heaven into this world does not mean being a doormat or a victim, but it does mean being like Jesus, and this takes much more than courage.

I confess that I don’t use the word martyr very often. I don’t like the sound of the word, but it is what I must be. It is what I truly must want to be. It is why I speak and live the way I do. I often fail. I am sometimes faithful. I will tell you that we should all, each one of us, want to be martyrs with all our hearts. But this desire carries dangers that we may not imagine.

In my first church I had a great martyr in my Sunday school class. I sometimes called him my evangelist. I taught the oldest kids’ class. Glenn was in that class with me for over five years.

There was this bully in his class at school named Tony. Tony was big, and tough looking, and probably old for his grade. I think Glenn was in the sixth or seventh grade when he beat Tony up.

Tony had tried to bully Glenn. Tony was a much bigger kid than Glenn was, but Glenn stood up to him. The interesting thing is that it wasn’t long before Glenn was bringing Tony with him to Sunday school.

This is because Glenn was my evangelist. Glenn was as good a martyr in the act of fighting as Stephen was in the act of dying. This turned out to be very important; to be as good a martyr, or witness, in the act of fighting as we are in the act of praying; to be a witness for mercy. The danger is that this almost never happens.

I really don’t know how he did it. I don’t think that Glenn ever knew how he did it but, when he beat Tony, he somehow called down from heaven the grace and mercy of God into Tony’s life.

Saul, before he met Stephen, and before the seed of Stephen’s prayer took root in him, had another idea of what it meant to be a martyr. First of all his idea was to be an aggressive martyr. His job as martyr was to bring down the anger and the indignation of God on others. His job was to make others afraid, to make others hurt, to make others fail, even to make others dead.

If the Christians overwhelmed his side, and if they had conquered Jerusalem, and took him prisoner and tortured him, Saul would still have threatened them with the vengeance and the wrath of God. That would be his witness and his martyrdom.

This was the example that was set for him in his own people’s history. In the two centuries before Jesus, when the Jews rose up against the Greek kingdom that ruled over the Holy Land, they showed great courage. They succeed, in the end, but they often had setbacks. When the Greek king captured and tortured the Jewish rebels the rebels often threatened their captors.

The Second Book of Maccabees tells about a torture victim giving his witness to those who were torturing him. He said, “You have authority over men, mortal as you are, and can do as you please. But do not imagine that God has abandoned our race. Wait and see how his great power will torment you and your descendants.” (2 Maccabees 7:15-17)

What if Jesus has spoken words like that on the cross, instead of praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?” What kind of martyr would we be, with such a king? But what kind of martyr are we really, when we come down to it?

For most of my school years, as a kid, I was a bully victim. It’s a complicated story.

Sometimes, I swear, I had a dozen kids chasing me. In fact that was how they got caught once.

I was twelve years old, and my school was a big, old junior high near down town, in the city of Anaheim, in southern California. The old buildings had a lot of corners, and nooks, and crannies where bad things could happen, but you couldn’t hide a dozen kids chasing one boy through the school.

I was exploring possible escape routes one day (because it is always good to plan ahead for what you know is coming) when I unexpectedly came across a doorway that led to another route to get to the buses at the end of the day. When the last bell rang I got to that door and made it through.

This caught the other kids completely by surprise. They were so surprised that they forgot where they were.

They started shouting, “Get him! Get him!” That is what attracted the attention of the teachers. They got in a lot of trouble, and that was one of the best school days of my life in my seventh grade career. At the same time, it is a sad thing to be able to say something like that.

As a kid you don’t always know what to do. I tried fighting once, and it didn’t do me any good at all. And I got in trouble for it.

I wanted to be a witness. Even though my family wasn’t that much for church, I knew who Jesus was, and I believed that he loved me, and I was interested in doing what I thought he wanted me to do. So I “turned the other cheek” and I “did unto others what I would have others do to me.” (Matthew 5:39 and 7:12) But that didn’t work to my advantage either.

What I was most tempted to do (the biggest danger) was to think that, since I was doing what was right (and they weren’t) that I was better than they were. It was hard to avoid thinking that. (If you have ever been there, you know this.) There was real pleasure in thinking that: a dangerous pleasure. At the same time, I think I knew that it was a completely nasty pleasure and that, if I felt that way about it, I wasn’t really any better than they were.

One morning, in the seventh grade, another boy came up to me and said something like this: “I really admire you. Even though you don’t fight back you don’t give in to those guys.” So I don’t think I looked like a door mat or a mere victim. Who would admire that? It’s true that I would run for my life, but I wouldn’t cringe. I would take it and not whine, or complain, or cry about it: except I did cry about it to God, at night.

I had very strong experiences of the presence of God at such times. There were no words, but there was strength, and love, and steadiness.

Later on, after we had moved to my home town, there was a kid named Chris who belonged to the group that bullied me during my high school years. For some reason he asked me to help him with his homework. I did this, not because I was afraid of him, but because Jesus said, “Do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27) At that age I certainly thought that all those kids hated me. But Chris became a friend.

But there is no guarantee that anything like this will happen. Stephen’s prayer had no sentimental power over Saul. That prayer never tugged at his hard, hating heart. We will look at that next Sunday.

Our witness has no power in and of itself. Our life as a martyr has no guarantees in and of itself. Stephen never saw the fruit of his mercy and prayer during his short life. The power belongs to God alone, who asks us to pray for his mercy and grace to come down from heaven and work in this world.

Even though we seem to have a hard job to do, and even though we are tempted to say the opposite of any prayer for mercy to come down upon others, even though we seem to do all the talking, we are still silent partners in God’s work.

God is the strong partner who works in his own time and in his own wisdom. God works with a love that we are able to trust if only we have met him for ourselves and shared our lives with him.

The cross of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead are the power that changes people, and changes this world. In the future, Saul, in the days when he had become Paul, said this about the power of the cross and the rising of Jesus in his life. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

When my life as a martyr made me cry in the night, part of the silence of God in the darkness was the silence that came from God being the one who was crucified for me, and part of that silence came from my knowing this.

There are people whose martyrdom is a tactic to bring fear, and anger, and defeat to others. Jesus makes each one of us a different kind of martyr.

We do not need to suffer or die, unless there is no other way to live faithfully for a God who died on the cross to bring mercy and grace to work in the world, and to be a force that makes a difference and changes the world. So let us always pray to make everything we say and do fit the purpose of bringing that grace down even to a world of people who never seem to give any sign of wanting to be ruled by that grace.

There is no other way to be a proper martyr. There is no other way to be a true witness.

Stephen knew this. He had learned this from Jesus. So he prayed a prayer and lived a martyrdom that made haters into lovers and witnesses of Jesus.

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