Some more thoughts on Martyrdom

On the whole the response to the post below has been good – most people have understood very clearly the simple truth that dying to self is the hallmark of Christian discipleship, and that sometimes that involves the ultimate cost. But some people haven’t.

For example, let’s take Mark Harris. Mark Harris is a member of the Executive Council of the House of Deputies of TEC. This basically means he is TEC bigwig. He was not very happy with the video . Not happy at all…

For others, whose counterparts in previous generations, were burned at the stake for being homosexual, or heretics, or witches, images of burnings at the stake is a constant reminder that this end is always possible for them. And, unlike the martyrs they will not go to their deaths for what they believe alone, but for what they are perceived to be, “sinful men and women.”

One hopes that the producer of this video meant no such thing. It still remains that the horror of death by fire was met out by those in authority against enemies of state and religion. No matter that this was an illustration of how bishops should stand firm for what the producer believes is the issue, namely scripture as authoritative. The vivid presence of the fire and the visuals of the burning is a reminder of the miseries and terror visited on people by state and religion at its most righteous.

Me thinks Mark, you miss the point and read far too much into the video. Yes, the institutional church, despite the clear commandment from God “Thou shalt not kill” (and as an aside Mark, was that a commandment from God or just a nice thing that some nomadic tribe, or some hill people pretending to be a nomadic tribe, thought would be sensible? But I digress) has done some pretty nasty things in it’s time. You know, one might almost think that I’m being accused of advocating such things (the burning of witches, heretics, homosexuals – though incidentally I know of no recorded instance of the institutional church ever burning anybody for being a homosexual), that I am such a wicked person who wills death upon those I despise.

One hopes the the writer of the post on Mark Harris’ blog meant no such thing.

But back to the point. Harris doesn’t like the idea of somehow glorifying in the death of Latimer and Ridley and others down the years. “Never again”, he cries. And in his cry he misses the point entirely, that in response to the death of Latimer and Ridley, and those before them and those after them, even to this very day, the response of the church is very different. The response is simply this:

“The blood of the Martyrs is the Seed of the Church”

or, to use the Peter Ould translation of Tertullian’s original:

Come on!! Bring it on!!!

The church today continues to glory in the example of the martyrs down the ages. They demonstrated what it was to be a Christian, to be willing to let one’s body and soul and very being witness to Christ, for that is what the Greek martus means – witness. But fundamentally all Christians are martyrs, because they know what it is to die.

Christians have been living and dying at the same time for centuries. When we meet Jesus we discover that our sinful flesh with its desires and wounds, it’s ecstasies and pains, is not all as God intended us to be. Most of us find ourselves in front of Jesus as addicts, as those with behaviour patterns, rooted in years of sins the self has committed and sins others have committed. There may be spiritual dynamics in our craving for the joys of this world, not the next. All manner of things from the fallen world have shapes and affected us to make us the human beings we are today, the good and the bad. And in response Jesus says one thing.

“Die”

Did you hear that? It was a gentle whisper, a murmur in your ear. It was your conscience reawakened by the regenerating Spirit within, calling out softly. Hush, be still and listen again.

“Die”

“Die”, says Jesus. “Die”. Die to the things in you that are not of me. Sacrifice the ecstasy and joy that they seem to bring and instead come alive with the things that are of me. That’s what the first Apostles and disciples heard and they went out into God’s world, preaching the message of salvation from a destiny apart from God and instead the promise of the welcoming arms of God. But, they very soon discovered starting with Stephen, those arms of welcome cried out one word – “Die”.

“Die” said God to Anthony of Egypt and Benedict his spiritual successor. Die to a world trapped in material goods and personal gain. “Die” cried those arms to St Francis, to Ignatius of Loyola, die to a lifestyle of rich pickings and injustice. “Die” they said to Thomas a Beckett and Thomas More, die to a comfortable life at court where you can have as many chains of office as you want as long as you make Christianity what the king wants it to be. “Die”, the arms said to John Bunyan and John Wesley, die to a comfortable church that wants to keep you under its control and not have you cause any trouble and controversy.

On and on those arms of love and freedom cry out the simple message – “Die”. “Die”, they cried out to Max Kolbe, Paul Schneider, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and those who died at the hands of the right wing facist regimes. “Die” they cried out to the hundreds of Roman Catholic priests and nuns slaughtered by the left wing government during the Spanish Civil war.

On and on further the arms stretch out and cry. “Die” they cried to Oluwatoyin Olusase, martyred in Nigeria earlier this year. “Die” they cried to Magos Solompn Semere, also martyred this year in Eritrea because he would not deny the God of the Bible.

“Die” they cry to you and me, to Peter Ould and to Mark Harris. “Die” they cry to a people of God whose desires would, if carried out, let alone be blessed, say things about God that were untrue. Die to your sinful fallen nature and in your dying be a martus, a witness to the things that are true about God. In your death to your fallen self glorify me. This is what Jesus meant when he said that those who lose their life will gain it. Others attempt to hold onto their sin and they gain the whole world. But what does it profit them if they then lose their soul?

So to the punch-line. There is fundamentally no difference between those who bravely witnessed of Christ right into the flames and those in the church who today, die to their sin and witness to Christ in that. To push the point even further, every time someone who struggles with their sexuality, whether that is homosexuality, paedophilia, masturbation to fantasy, any form of fetish or even just an over active libido, but then chooses to die to that, they stand in the flames on Broad Street in Oxford with Latimer and Ridley. At times it will be easy, at times it may be very hard, especially in the dark night when God doesn’t appear to be there comforting and providing. But, and here’s the clincher, in acknowledging sin and then dying to it they enter the catholic, apostolic, holy path towards the loving arms of God.

Of course, if you refuse to recognise that sin is actually sin, then you have nothing to die to. I guess in those circumstances martyrs will really hack you off. For the rest of us, the martyrs let us know that the pain we experience, some of us daily, in dying to sin, is absolutely the right choice.

I’ll finish with today’s Epistle from the Eucharist (1 Thes 2:1-8):

You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not a failure. We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed-God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.

As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.

Nice one St Paul.

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  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “Of course, if you refuse to recognise that sin is actually sin, then you have nothing to die to.”

    Theologically liberal revisionists refuse to recognize same-sex behavior as sin. Why? They refuse to recognize the Authority of Scripture. Why? They think the Bible has errors. Why? They don’t think the Bible is divinely written. Why? They think the Bible is written by men. Why? So they can justify themselves and what they want to do. Truly I say, the liberal revisionists have made God after their own image and making. Pathetic and blasphemous.

  • Derek Smith

    Dear Peter

    Thanks for this post.

    I am currently preparing to take my cell group through the book of Revelation, and am reading a few commentaries and listening to some lectures for this. Your post highlights one of the lessons to be learnt from this book, that of witnessing to Jesus by ‘not loving our lives unto death’, and I may have to use it at some stage.

  • http://not-yet-titled.blogspot.com/ PJ

    You wrote, “to use the Peter Ould translation of Tertullian’s original: ‘Come on!! Bring it on!!!’”

    Dangerous, dangerous thought. And it sounds dangerously like another Peter, eager for the trial, confident in the time of decision he would show Jesus what he was made of. But Jesus already knew what Peter was made of: before the rooster crows three times you will deny you even knew me.

    IIRC, one of the standards the early church used to identify a true martyr for the faith was whether the person had done everything possible to avoid the confrontation. Even Jesus prayed, father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from my lips.

    And in all things, the bottom line is still, nevertheless, not my will but thy will be done.

  • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

    So how does “Yet not my will but thine” conflict with “bring it on”? PJ, It seems that you, like others, are reading far too much into far too little.

  • http://not-yet-titled.blogspot.com PJ

    I guess, Mr. Ould, the difference is the preceding “let this cup pass from my lips.” There is an eagerness in “bring it on” that is missing from the traditional martyrs. It may be a nuance, but it’s an important one. One standard the church used to recognize the martyrs whose blood is the seed of the church was that the martyr did not seek out martyrdom. The bishops taught those who sought that status did not deserve it. Perhaps it was an application of Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

    There is a strain of Christianity that is spoiling for a fight. They “play the man” with a sense of pride and personal strength. They seek out opportunities to show how faithfully they can “play the man.” And if the opportunities don’t arise, they create some. I don’t know enough about you, Mr. Ould, to know whether that’s a fit description of you. But it does describe too many people I know. And my experience of them makes me a little jumpy when I hear echoes of that attitude.

    As far as I can see, the Network Bishops are not are not those kind of people. They have spent years trying to find a way to avoid the moment of ultimate decision. Yet that moment seems to be seeking them out none the less. From my memories of TESM, I don’t think the Network Bishops have a “bring it on” spirit. It seems to be something more like “this is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you” reluctance to enforce discipline. It seems to be something like “we’ve done everything possible to avoid this day…” They’ve taken some criticism for it, but I find it a spirit worth commending.

    We will see what comes of it.

  • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

    “Bring it on” isn’t the spirit of seeking out martyrdom, it’s the spirit of “Yet not my will but yours”. If Christians are to be martyred then ultimately that it is in God’s sovereign hand.

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