“Martyrs for Christ” (Mark 8:31-38)
Would you be willing to sacrifice your life for a cause you believed in? When a person loses his or her life for a cause, they are often called a “martyr.” In news from the Middle East, you sometimes hear about people strapping bombs to themselves and taking their own lives for their cause, and many call them “martyrs.” The men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center eight years ago were hailed as “martyrs.” But this is not martyrdom. That is murder. And it is madness to believe that you will receive paradise as a result of such acts. I'm afraid they received something much different.
Christians in times past and even today have given their lives for their confession of faith in Christ. Yesterday on our church calendar, we remembered Perpetua and Felicitas, two young women who were executed on March 7, 203. Their only crime? Refusing to recant their confession of faith in Christ. I also love the story of the ancient Christian martyr Polycarp. Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna, which today is called Izmir in western Turkey. Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John and at the age of 86 was arrested and put on trial for being a Christian. The Roman proconsul told Polycarp that his life would be spared if he would curse Christ. But Polycarp replied, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” the sentence was handed down, and Polycarp was burned at the stake, with a soldier stabbing him to death shortly after the fire was lit.
Events similar to the deaths of Perpetua, Felicitas, and Polycarp happen all around the world even today. They just don't make the headlines. The organization International Christian Concern just released their annual list of the world's 10 worst persecutors of Christians. You can find it at their website www.persecution.org. In the report, they mention hundreds of acts of persecution against Christians around the world, such as this one from Eritrea, a country in east Africa:
Ms. Azib Simon was attending a banned evangelical church in Eritrea. After finding out about her participation in the underground church, the officials of Eritrea arrested her in December 2007. She was never charged with any crime and she was never allowed to see a lawyer. Instead, she was thrown into the prison at the infamous Wi’a Military Training Center. Azib was tortured by officials who tried to force her to sign a paper recanting her faith. She refused to recant, and the torture and the inhumane condition at the prison weakened her immune system. She contracted malaria in July 2008. The Eritrean authorities gave her two choices: either recant your faith and get medication for your malaria or die of the malaria. Azib chose to keep her faith and refused the medication. As a result, she died the slow and painful death inflicted on her by the authorities’ refusal to give her treatment. (http://persecution.org/suffering/pdfs/ICC_Hall_of_Shame_2009.pdf)Would you be willing to be a martyr for Jesus? We defined a martyr as someone willing to give their life for a certain cause. In the Christian sense, a martyr is one who loses their life because they have publicly confessed their faith in Jesus as their God and Savior.
Today’s text talks about “losing your life.” Martyrdom according to our text goes beyond just physical death. According to our text, being a martyr means to give up your life for Jesus … not necessarily literally (although it might entail that), but primarily spiritually.
Jesus said, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. To deny yourself means to turn away from the idolatry of self-centeredness. This is much more radical than denying yourself something during Lent, such as chocolate or coffee. To deny yourself means to cease to make self the object of our life and action. Instead, God must be at the center of our life, not our self. You’ve seen those bumper stickers that say, “God is my co-pilot.” That, too, falls short of denying yourself. God should be your pilot. It God is your co-pilot, then he's in the wrong seat. He should be “in the driver's seat.”
Jesus said, For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. When we trust in our own efforts to save ourselves, that’s when we lose our life. Paul says in Galatians 5, You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. On the other hand, when we lose our life in Christ, that is, when we trust in Him alone and not in our own efforts to save ourselves, that’s when our lives are saved.
At the time when Jesus spoke these words, a criminal who was condemned to crucifixion was made to carry the cross beams of his own cross to the place of execution. So, the words “take up your cross” had a very specific meaning. When Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me” that was talk about death … being willing to die … to be a martyr. Christians across the centuries have faced real alternatives of confessing Christ and dying or denying him and living.
Not many of us would be willing to be a martyr. In fact, martyrdom is something that a person really doesn’t choose. It’s something that comes to a person from an outside source.
Peter would not have been willing to be a martyr at first. He would have nothing of Jesus’ talk about death for himself. And talk about death for Peter would have been out of the question. That’s why Jesus had to rebuke Peter in such strong language. It was really Satan behind the whole thing. Like the temptations he threw at Jesus in the wilderness, Satan was trying once again to get Jesus off of his necessary trip to the cross.
In a way, we might say that Jesus was “martyred” for us. He died for a cause. His cause was our salvation. But his “martyrdom” is different because, although it looked like it came to him from an outside source … although it appeared as though he didn’t choose to die … he really did. He was in control the whole time. He willingly and lovingly gave up his life for the life of the world.
Jesus asked, What can a man give in return for his life? The answer is nothing. Ps. 49:7-8 (NIV) says, No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him – the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough. The death of one man is not enough for the life of another.
However, the death of God’s one and only Son WAS enough for the life of the world. The price for your life has been paid. Jesus gave his life as the price for your life. Unlike suicide bombers who expect to receive paradise as a result of their sacrifice, you and I truly receive paradise as a result of the sacrifice of Jesus.
Today’s Epistle from Romans 5 says, But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
Jesus suffered and died for us. Our life is shaped by His life. Therefore, following Jesus means suffering and death … not necessarily the death of our body, but the death of our old sinful selves in the waters of Holy Baptism.
Baptism is a martyrdom of sorts. In Gal 2:20, St. Paul says I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. And then in Romans 6, Paul writes, all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. In baptism we are crucified with Christ. We become his “martyrs.” Our life is buried with Him. We receive new life. And we can now bear witness to him with our lives.
You see, the original meaning of the word “martyr” is to “bear witness.” So, today, you and I can be “martyrs” as we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. As we so, we “bear witness” who we are as baptized children of God, but more importantly, we confess who Jesus is … the Savior of the world who died and rose again to forgive us and to give us eternal life.
In conclusion this morning, put yourself in the shoes of those who first heard Mark’s Gospel read, in particular, today’s words from our Lord. Imagine that you are a Roman Christian, hearing these words for the first time. How would these words affect you? Certainly they would be words to strengthen you in the face of persecution and trials. They would be words that would tell you that suffering is normal in the life of discipleship, and that suffering was not only the destiny of Christ, but the destiny of a follower of Christ. Imagine enduring a measure of suffering and self-denial, expecting the day when you may have to die for your confession of Christ. And then imagine receiving Paul’s letter from which we read today and hearing these words: Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
May these words encourage you today in whatever way you are suffering. May these words encourage you today in your self-denial, living a life of daily repentance, taking yourself off of the throne of your life and putting God there. And may these words encourage you in your daily confession of Christ as your loving Savior … for in Baptism, you have become his “martyr.”