Being a “martyr” is not like when your mom has to drive you to band practice and she makes everyone notice what a wonderful sacrifice she is making. At least that is not what being a martyr meant to the Bible writers and the early Christians. It is not the same as a martyr complex.
The word martyr derives from the Greek word for witness. When Jesus says to his disciples – “You will be my witnesses,” he could have been translated, “You will be my martyrs.” When governments and mobs started killing Jesus-followers for witnessing to what they had seen, heard and were experiencing, the dying part of being a martyr got attached to the word. Now all we think about martyrs is that they are dying for a cause.
Dying for a cause appeals to many people, like Islamic radicals driving a truck load of explosives into something or a band of marines saving their brothers. Dying for the cause can seem pretty exciting. When Paul was teaching the Corinthian church about spiritual gifts he confronted a group of people he had to correct about such enthusiasm. They were similar to the anti-disciples, here:
The church at Corinth had a faction in it which tended to care more about the gifts they received from God than they did about the intended recipients. They liked being radical for the sake of it. They were sort of like teenagers who are so thrilled to drive the car fast they don’t mind who dies in the process.
Some of the Christians in Corinth cared more about receiving the powerful gifts of the Spirit than they cared for the Giver of the gifts. It was like you might have reacted last Christmas when you had opened your sixth present and forgot to look at the tag that said who gave it to you. When it came to the exciting new possibilities of exercising the power of the Holy Spirit, some in the Corinthian church loved the expression of power. And some of them didn’t mind bearing witness to how great they were – even greater than Paul who brought them the news of God’s great gift in Jesus!
Paul’s corrective to those seeking power
In between chapters 12 and 14 of the first letter to the Corinthian church, right in the middle of his teaching on the gifts of the Spirit, Paul inserts a beautiful chapter about love. At the beginning he writes: If I…surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Surrendering one’s body to the flames might be considered another spiritual gift: the gift of martyrdom [link to Bible studies about them all]. Since Paul is talking about spiritual gifts, that’s always sounded right to me – and I know of people with that gift. Some of the Corinthians probably liked that idea of facing danger for their faith. They liked to be the ones to look like powerful witnesses of God’s work in the world. They wouldn’t mind going out in a firefight.
But those bold members of the church would most likely have expected to win a firefight. That kind of lust for power, competition to be the best, to be the most spiritual, to be the best looking Christian is still a problem in the church as a whole. At least I think it is a problem to see the church in competition with the Muslims for market share, or something, as if life were a mall and we want to be Nordstroms not the Dollar Store. In some famous cases, like the notorious Buddhist Thich Quang Duc, one might leap into the flames to burn away the dross and to etherialize one’s spirit, making a powerful point in the process. People do such things.
This lust for surrendering one’s body to the flames, for being a spectacular witness, is probably less a problem in Circle of Hope than it was in the Corinthian Church. In Circle of Hope most of us love love, and we are good at it. I think we are more likely to read the love chapter and de-emphasize chapters 12 and 14 as being “a bit much.” We will sacrifice almost anything to get love and we feel terrible if anyone says we are not giving enough. We’ll even sacrifice the truth to be seen as loving; we might even sacrifice Jesus if he got too scary looking.
We don’t fight, we don’t even want to have strong opinions, because we know that people won’t think we love them, worse yet, they won’t like us. So Paul would probably change chapter 13 for us: “Wait a minute, God may give it to you to surrender yourself to the flames some day as a witness for the truth. You may need to get into trouble with people who don’t like Jesus.” He might re-write the line for us: If I say I have love but never surrender my body to the flames, what kind of love is it?”
Our transhistorical body blog often pinches this general spirit among us. I hope we never forget how to say “Ouch!” We try to honor the martyrs who showed us how to keep faith in confusing, oppressive times so we can remember how to do it. To name three recent examples: March 24 — Oscar Romero, April 4 – Martin Luther King Jr., April 9 – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
These disciples were loving and well loved. But they certainly got themselves into trouble, didn’t they? They were martyrs for witnessing to the inconvenient truths of the gospel. Just like Jesus did, they got into trouble when they crossed the boundaries of class, ethnicity, tradition, politics and power. They insisted that Christ is all and there is no life unless he is in all and powerful people felt threatened and responded as powerful people often do. I am pondering whether we have a such a vision worth dying for or at least worth dying trying for, like our great ancestors in the faith. Will we share our revelation with love or will we let it be corrupted as we succumb to the constant drumbeat to support the powermongers or at least maintain as much personal power as we can?
This poem reflects the theme of our benefit last Friday night that promised to uncover the “real” St. Valentine. I’m not sure the event did that, and I am not sure this poem does much better, since it references later exaggerations as 3rd-century fact. But my valentine said it needed to see the light of blogosphere day. So I offer it to you.
The first almond blossoms had begun to green
when the Goths began to mass in the north.
Emperor Claudius, the Butcher, turned his eye
to the budding men of Rome’s underground.
Where love flowered, he put down his boot
and forbade the young men to seal their vows,
“Rome is doomed if her imperial needs
Are thwarted by the demands of squawking babes.”
The church in Rome had grown like a wild vine,
and tending it was a priest named Valentine,
who was blind to the edict and married the church
and included the faithless in proclaiming their faith.
The powers quickly found his garden of grace,
burst in and beat him beyond recognition,
then buried his love even deeper in their prison,
where forty-six captives soon sang praise by his side.
The jailer’s blind daughter in the first dew of spring
had never seen a flower or the first light of day.
The saint prayed again and light spread further;
his last words to Julia: “From your Valentine.”
On the day lovebirds mate in 269, they say,
the guards dragged him to the place of execution.
For marrying against the emperor’s order
he lost his head in a final spray of blood and love.
The powers rage against the blossom of covenant:
each spring a new war, each day a deeper blindness,
every season of time a new martyr to take a stand
in the ever-foolish cause of revealing God’s image.
I wanted to have a nice long visit with Stephen, since his day fell on a Sunday this year. But then the snow moved in big and we cancelled the public meetings. So let me offer a variation on what I wanted to deliver this way, on the blog.
If you read my blog, you know that I was mad at Carrie Underwood this week. She and I have a very rocky relationship. We were way in love, not too long ago, when she sang Jesus Take the Wheel
And the car came to a stop
She cried when she saw that baby in the backseat
Sleeping like a rock
And for the first time in a long time
She bowed her head to pray
She said I’m sorry for the way
I’ve been living my life
I know I’ve got to change
So from now on tonight
Jesus, take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can’t do this on my own
I’m letting go
So give me one more chance
To save me from this road I’m on
That was nice. And the video brings tears to my eyes, especially when the couple comes back together over their kitchen table after fighting about the bills.
But then Carrie wrote a song herself for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader which was almost exactly the Disneyfied thing I was complaining about before Christmas in the PM. She sang that “we would all be kings and queens of anything if we just believe (in whatever). It is written in the stars. Faith and love will keep us strong. Exactly who we are is just enough.” No mention of Jesus this time. No crying. No praying. No sorrow for the way she was living. No hint that she couldn’t do it on her own.
So Carrie and I are having a hard time. I hope we can work it out, because she seems very nice and I think she is one of the best people to ever win American Idol.
I think I understand her a little bit. Because here we are celebrating St. Stephen’s Day right after Christmas. It just seems a little out of place to get all martyr-y right after Christmas when we got all those presents and ate all that food. I don’t know why they didn’t just get all the martyr days into Lent where they belong! Christmas is totally the feast of lights in the midst of dark; it is very hopeful. Europeans of yore really wanted to get hunkered into the family bunker and eat a lot of stuff with fat in it so they could survive the blistering cold winter in Germany. Americans want to take the kids to the mall to cash in gift cards on the 26th, not consider the life of the first Christian martyr, who cashed in his life after he saw God revealed in glory! — talk about letting Jesus take the wheel! People usually skip St. Stephen because he is a bit much. If his day wasn’t referenced in the song Good King Wenceslas, we probably would never hear about Stephen at all.
Begin the Twelve Days right
I don’t know if there was a big strategy for when St. Stephen’s day should be celebrated, but I would not be surprised if some theologian thought it was very important to get a notable martyr on the calendar right at the beginning of the twelve days of Christmas. While the historical account of the birth of Jesus is definitely important to repeat, I’m sure some theologian would suspect that people might get lost in the angels and babies and warm family feeling of Mary and Joseph camping out in a barn and miss the whole point, so he thought, “We’d better stick something else in here — I’ve got it! St. Stephen!” Some hard guy like Martin Luther probably thought these verses about the incarnation should go on the Christmas cards of all true believers, not some sweet picture of a holy family surrounded by air-brushed cattle or something worse. After all, this is the meaning of the incarnation:
Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!Philippians 2:5-8
St. Stephen’s Day would certainly help us to consider the true goal of incarnation, if we let it actually get into our calendar, much more our consciousness. Stephen is just a regular person, he is not even one of the first apostles. He is just a guy with the mindset of Christ Jesus who gets noticed for having it by people who oppose the influence of his faith. He is a regular person who one day is eating dinner with his family and the next day is making himself nothing — a true servant of Jesus with nothing to tell the authorities but the truth. He is, like Jesus, obedient to death, while Paul is watching it all happen — look at him in the back of this painting dressed in green.
You can read the whole story of Stephen in Acts 6 and 7 Here is the part about how his martyrdom got started:
“Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. Acts 6:8-13
Stephen went through the whole history of Israel to prove that it was not he but his accusers who were detractors of Moses. He ends up telling it like it is:
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always 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— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:51-60
Let’s do some Bible study on being like Stephen who is like Jesus. Some people, like Stephen have the gift of martyrdom. Some say this is the spiritual gift you only use once! But it is more of an attitude, a mindset, like Jesus had, which gives us the spiritual strength to face our false accusers and hold on to our faith. The gift of martyrdom is the spiritually-born courage to be who we are and to obey the heavenly vision we have seen, even if people would like to hurt us, mock us, or even kill us.
Iraqi Christians need this spiritual capacity right now. Many of them have cancelled much of their usual Christmas celebration this year because Islamic militants have been attacking their church buildings for the past six months, and it is getting worse. The Kurdish government in Northern Iraq has offered Christians sanctuary, but it’s not like everyone has the money to get up and move. Since October attacks have escalated and priests and worshippers have been killed. One militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq, has explicitly stated that their fighters will kill Christians “wherever we can find them.”
In the United States, our people with the gift of martyrdom, must help us stand up against state-sponsored irreligiosity, against the Disneyfication of spirituality and much more. When I was in Costa Rica, my genial host, an American ex-pat, discovered I was a pastor and immediately said something like, “My family never talked about religion or politics at the table,” — giving me notice, in a very nice way, that I should watch what I say. It is a battle every day, just to be a faithful follower of Jesus. Even before you open your mouth, they tell you to shut up!
A self-giving lover and truth teller
So here is some encouragement from the Bible to let the movement of God’s Spirit in you make you like the self-giving lover and truth-teller Jesus and Stephen were, even if it costs you. And for those of you with the spiritual gift — I hope I encourage you to go ahead and get us ramped up to face what we have to face and not cave in to the pressure to dampen our flame or hide our faith altogether.
In some places in the Bible the idea of being gifted by the Spirit to act in ways the body of Christ needs is plainly stated. Gifts are particular aspects of God’s life in believers that some of us have more than others. We’ve all got the Spirit of God at work in us through our connection to Jesus, but some of us have a calling to do one thing more than another. The distribution of these gifts is not a science, but it is clearly observable. In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul says, while he is in the middle of a lengthy teaching on spiritual gifts that, “If I give all I possess to the poor, and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Give over my body to hardship could also be translated, and is translated as, “give my body to be burned.” That’s a clear reference to being martyred. The root of the word of “martyr” is about giving witness. One is burned because he or she is expressing their faith. The Apostle Paul is certainly into this. He tells the Philippians after they have contacted him in Rome, while he is under house arrest: “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life — or by death.” Philippians 1:20
To “deliver oneself up” is the gift of grace God gives members of the body of Christ by which they undergo suffering for the faith even to the point of death, while consistently being a witness of the truth and love in Christ. Jesus clearly taught that this would happen. He told us that all believers will suffer persecution at some level. (Merry Christmas!) — ” If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.” John 15:18-20
Some believers burn with a fearless witness that often puts them in danger Paul was like this. He told the church in Corinth” “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.” 2 Cor. 1:8-11
The one with the gift of martyrdom will be forgiving , like we saw Stephen ask God not to hold his murderers sins against them. Peter counsels people to be patient when they are persecuted, trusting in God, not vengeful, even joyful, full of praise: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” 1 Peter 4:12-16
The gift encourages others to passionate mission and prayer. The gifted ones keep us out on the front lines of our purpose The Apostle Paul was chained up in his house for being a Christian when he went to Rome and this is what he said about it: “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.” Philippians 1:12-14 When persecutions arise, there are those gifted to glorify God through them. This could be a gift given to meet the ongoing, daily persecution, or for the crisis situation.
We all need the Holy Spirit with us to face the inevitable opposition we will face because we follow Jesus. You who are gifted martyrs, please don’t hold back, even when you think we don’t want you around. We need your courage; we need you to keep us on the frontlines, lest we not be like Jesus at all — Jesus, who is ready to be born into trouble and to die with it on his shoulders, Jesus, who is confident that resurrection is in his future.