The news out of Syria worsens by the day. I tweeted a string of stories yesterday morning that tax the soul: priests murdered, one horrifically beheaded on video; a suicide bombing near Maryamiyya Cathedral; Syrian Christians reasonably asking why the U.S. is at war with them.
Reading these stories can lead a person down a dark path of human emotions — hatred and despair being perhaps the most prominent. But today the church celebrates two men who might add a peculiar hope to that mix.
The witness of Peter and Paul
On June 29 the church commemorates the Apostles Peter and Paul, two saints with strong connections to both Syria and suffering.
The pair cofounded the church of Antioch in northern Syria. Traditionally, Peter began the work there, serving as church’s first bishop, while Paul and Barnabas arrived shortly thereafter to minister to both the Jewish and Gentile communities in the city. Paul’s own conversion happened in southern Syria, just outside Damascus.
From Antioch, Peter moved his ministry to Rome and was again followed some years later by Paul who found a robust Christian community there when he arrived. The two men famously disagreed in Antioch but found common voice in martyrdom. Both men died as witnesses to the gospel in Rome. Paul was beheaded, and Peter was crucified upside-down at his own request; he considered himself unworthy to die as his Savior.
Suffering for Christ
From the beginning Christians recognized martyrdom as the greatest expression of devotion. Peter’s first epistle prepared the church for its eventuality:
[I]f you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. . . . [K]eep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God’s will, than for doing wrong. (3.14-17)
Mark’s gospel, largely dictated by Peter while Mark served as his interpreter in Rome, hit the same note (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.14-15). No contemporary reader would view the line in chapter 8 as mere reporting: “Take up your cross.” It was a call to a very real choice.
In one of his final letters, Paul encouraged Timothy to “endure suffering,” adding:
I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Tim 4.5-8)
Hope of the resurrection
How could he know that? Both Paul and Peter had encounters with the risen Christ. They knew the power of the resurrection. That was their hope. In his first letter Peter leads with this point and ties it directly to suffering:
By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials. . . . (1.3-6)
In two places Paul says that if we die with Christ, we will also live with him (Rom 6.8, 2 Tim 2.11). Christians die in our baptisms. Whatever happens after that, no matter how traumatic, is not death. It is a witness to our hope in the resurrection.
May the martyrs — especially today Peter and Paul — pray for us as we pray for those who suffer.