Editor's Note: Below is a "Monday Sermon," from our series of sermons at the Patheos Preachers Portal that pastors can enjoy and learn from. It is our hope that this particular series from Daniel Harrell, which preaches through the Church Fathers, will encourage pastors, show them a way of approaching theological education from the pulpit, and refresh their theological memories. See Reverend Harrell's columnist page for more information.
As a minister, I talk often with people struggling through ethical dilemmas at work, wrestling with forgiveness in relationships, sorting out lifestyle choices related to money, fighting temptations related to sex, or bearing responsibilities tied to needy people. The irony is that none of these problems would be problems if these same people weren't Christians. "It's funny," admitted one person, "I'm often caught with this strange realization of how simply abandoning my faith would take care of most of my stress. My ethical dilemmas would evaporate and I wouldn't feel the responsibility. I probably wouldn't feel the guilt either." "We usually have it backward," another admitted. "We usually think that if we love and obey God our troubles will go away. But that's not how it is at all. I find that the closer I get to God, the harder my life becomes."
Jesus did say that to follow him required bearing a cross. We speak of the gospel in terms of saving your life, but Jesus calls you to lose your life first. He calls you to be perfect as God is perfect, to love your enemies, to sell your possessions, to return good for evil, to care for the poor, to go last and be least. And for what?
You'll be blessed, he says. When? Well, you may have to wait for that. God has great plans for those who belong to Him. These plans may not be so evident in this life, but definitely after you die, then you'll be glad you believed. Of course in a culture where gratification can be but a few mouse clicks away, promises of post-mortem happiness are not terribly enticing. Impatient, Christianity often loses sight of its eternal joy in favor of what can get enjoyed in the present. Faith gets boxed and sold as a quick fix, your best life now and all of that. I'm still waiting for that testimony from someone whose life was falling apart when they found Jesus—only to have things get worse. Unfortunately, if this testimony ever did happen, folks would probably deride the person for being a martyr, you know, one of those self-absorbed types who turn up the melodrama on their travails so that others will pay them attention. Or worse, a person who uses their sense of self-sacrifice as way of making them seem a better person than you are. Nobody likes a self-righteous masochist.
It is a shame that martyrdom has taken on that characterization. Though it may be that the derision of martyrs is more a defense mechanism to cover our own fears. Would you ever suffer for what you believe? I read once of a newly converted couple in Iran, shopkeepers who were arrested by police for holding a Bible study. The police locked the couple in jail, severely beat them and interrogated them for four days, charging them with committing activities against national security. After a sham court hearing, they were freed on bail charges of $75,000, only to return home to find that shop ransacked by locals who knew of their beliefs in Jesus. Soon afterward, the couple received threats of further violence against their business and their family. Believing in Jesus, yet fearing for their life, they recanted their faith. I wasn't expecting to read that last part. Somehow I felt disappointed. I was expecting to read how this couple refused to denounce Christ and gladly suffered the consequences. I was expecting their faith to be stronger than mine. Far from feeling derision, I needed them to endure as martyrs if only to demonstrate that to live is Christ and to die is gain.
For the first Christians in Rome, as today in Iran, believing in Jesus was a life or death proposition. To be a Christian was to be an outlaw, an outcast, a criminal, and a troublemaker. Human life was cheap in the Roman world and perceived troublemakers were dispatched without a care. Many who stepped forward to accept Jesus stepped backward once the government turned up the heat. This wasn't what they had signed up for. But for others, Paul's promise that "to live is Christ and to die is gain" grounded their faith in a reality that stretched beyond the boundaries of earthly life. Drawing their courage from their Lord who rose from the dead, these martyrs endured suffering without fear. They could confidently sing with the Psalmist: "With the LORD on my side I am not afraid. What can man do to me?"