Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Martyrs and the Mission of the Church

A Homily Preached on the Occasion of the Feast of the Martyrs of Uganda,
June 3, 2008

On June 3, 1886 thirty-two young men who were pages in the court of King Mwanga of Buganda (now Uganda) were burned to death on the king's orders. All thirty-two were recent converts to Christianity and they were burned to death because the king had the suspicion that in becoming Christians these young men had embraced a loyalty higher than himself. These martyrs were preceded in death by Bishop James Hannington, a Church of England missionary bishop, who was also martyred by King Mwanga on October 29, 1885.
The martyrdoms produced precisely the opposite effect from the one the king had in mind; far from repressing the Church, the martyrdoms planted new seeds for the Church and a key point was quickly and dramatically made: Christianity is not a white man's religion. The indigenous Anglican Church of Uganda was born and it is now one of the largest provinces of the Anglican Communion.
Perhaps King Mwanga had a better insight into the nature of the Christian faith than do most Christians living in Europe and North America. The king correctly understood something about the Christian faith that we often miss: to become a Christian is to embrace a loyalty higher than nation, tribe, family, political party or interest group. Mwanga, like the Nazis after him and the Romans before them, correctly perceived that there is something potentially dangerous about the Christian faith and it has something to do with the fact that the one to whom Christians are called to be loyal was executed as a political criminal. In a very real sense Jesus really was a political criminal, perhaps the ultimate political criminal, because he looked beyond the empire of Caesar to the Kingdom of God and no human political structure likes to be shown up as radically imperfect and temporary. Mwanga probably knew that once his people started to believe in King Jesus they would soon begin to compare King Mwanga to him and this simply would not do.
Now, you may be thinking that because we do not live under Caesar or the Nazis or King Mwanga the Martyrs of Uganda might serve as an inspiration for us but that they can offer us no direct lessons about our own situation. After all, we live in what some like to call a "Christian nation' (a Christian nation in which only about 32% of us go to church) and our presidential candidates like to be photographed on occasion coming out of a church (the values thing, you know).
But here is something to think about: The Daily Telegraph (London) recently reported that three evangelical ministers who were witnessing to their faith in a Muslim section of Manchester were threatened by police with arrest on the grounds that such activity constitutes a "hate crime". In a western democracy whose national Church is the Church of England it may be a hate crime to evangelize Muslims.
I mention this incident not to conjure up images of a Muslim Britain in which Christianity is banned by law and to move you to paranoia or, at least, anxiety. I mention this incident to remind us that while we often think of democracy as the best form of government and while we often offer thanks for a country in which we have freedom to worship, it is important to notice that democracies don't especially like the notion of being shown up as radically imperfect and temporary any more than King Mwanga did. Those of us who live in democracies do not live in the Kingdom of God and we need to think carefully about the fact that we are tolerated so long as we do not insist that what we believe somehow constitutes a standard by which our cultural norms and prejudices are to be judged. Christianity is to be tolerated so long as no one insists on applying it to anything that really matters. The liberal Catholic politicians who support abortion despite the teaching of the Catholic Church and the conservative Protestant politicians who live in opulence and are supported by preachers who live in opulence all say the same thing when the contradictions of their situation is pointed out: After all, religion is a private matter and they occupy positions of public trust.
My purpose here is not to get us worked up about the secular drift of America, the advance of Islam or about relativism, postmodernism, liberalism or some other abstraction. My purpose is to call our attention to the fact that we as a Church are losing our ability to understand and appreciate martyrdom. Most Americans, and even many American Christians, now associate martyrdom with suicide bombers and so now martyr has become a synonym for "religious fanatic" (for some people this is a redundancy). But in losing our ability to understand martyrdom we are losing our understanding of what the Church is.
Hebrews 10:32-39 helps us to understand the connection between martyrdom and the Church. This text is addressed to Christians who are undergoing persecutions of various sorts and for whom martyrdom is a distinct possibility. Hebrews 10:34 is of particular importance. Speaking to Christians who have had their homes and possessions plundered by angry pagan mobs, the letter says "and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one". What makes suffering for the Gospel and dying for the Gospel meaningful is the fact that those who do so bear witness to the fact that there is a possession more grand than any earthly possession and a possession more valuable than life itself and that is the possession we have in our Lord through whom we are inheritors of the Kingdom of God. Without this conviction the witness of the Church is nothing.
Later on in Hebrews 11, in the course of recounting all the Old Testament heroes who died without seeing the promises of God fulfilled, the letter says "These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they are strangers and exiles on the earth. For people that speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland...they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city" (Hebrews 11:13-14, 16). God is not ashamed to be addressed by those who by their way of life and way of death bear witness to the fact that they have a loyalty beyond politics, a homeland beyond a nation and an inheritance beyond earthly possessions.
The witness of the martyrs is absolutely necessary for the Church in affluent America because it calls us back from our fundamental temptation: the temptation to settle down to comfort, the temptation to put comfort before risk and pragmatism before Truth, the temptation to allow the Christian faith to be a veneer applied to a thoroughly secular and prosperous life. The martyrs remind us that the life and witness of the Church can only be founded on the Truth and that apart from this Truth we are of no use to God and of no use to the world. The martyrs remind us that there is a fate worse than death--an easy conformity to the world's notion of the "good life" and a path of endless compromise with the spirit of the age.
In his wonderful book The Everlasting Man G.K. Chesterton provides a description of why pagan Rome persecuted the Church: "It [the Church] was resented, because, in its own still and almost secret way, it had declared war. It had risen out of the ground to wreck the heaven of earth of heathenism. It did not try to destroy all that creation of gold and marble; but it contemplated a world without it. It dared to look right through it as though the gold and marble had been glass. Those who charged the Christians with burning down Rome with firebrands were slanderers; but they were at least far nearer to the nature of Christianity than those among the moderns who tell us that the Christians were a sort of ethical society, being martyred in languid fashion for telling men they had a duty to their neighbors, and only mildly disliked because they were meek and mild." Can we look through the gold and marble of our own day as thought it were glass? This is what the martyrs of all times and all places have done and their witness continually nourishes the Church of which they are the crown jewels.
Michael Petty


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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June 4, 2008 at 1:16 PM  
Blogger St. Peter's Tracts for the Times Moderator said...

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June 5, 2008 at 9:52 PM  
Blogger St. Peter's Tracts for the Times Moderator said...

You may find the audio of this sermon on the St. Peter's Anglican church website at http://www.saint-peters.net/files/8/File/sermons/2008/SPAC_06_03_08.mp3.

For further Sermons and Teachings, please visit http://www.saint-peters.net/sermons.

June 5, 2008 at 10:07 PM  

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