Sermon for 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A

Based on Acts 7:55-60

By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

"Of Martyrs and Martyrdom"

Martyrs and martyrdom….Today, when we think of those words, they often conjure up negative connotations in our minds. For example, we may say to ourselves or out loud that: "He or she has a martyr's complex." What we mean by that is that such a person seems preoccupied, even obsessed, with their own pain, suffering, hurt, or sickness for the purpose of getting other people to pity them, to feel sorry for them.

In other words, they use their real or imagined suffering and sickness by convincing themselves and others that they are such great people because they are martyrs. In the eyes of others, such "martyrs" seem overly self-centred, manipulative and display hypochondriac behaviours. They become so focussed on their situation that they blow it all out of proportion--thus making mountains out of molehills. That's one negative example of martyrs and martyrdom.

There are others too…One of the more subtle versions is more difficult to talk about--since it violates our comfort zones; stirs up guilt feelings; makes us ashamed of ourselves; and may even convict us of our sins. I don't know if you're like me, but true, sincere Christian martyrs make me nervous! Why? Well, whenever I meet or read about true Christian martyrs and the stories of their martyrdom; I get nervous because their lives, along with the circumstances surrounding their suffering and death reveal to me how much greater they were--and still are--than myself. These martyrs and their martyrdom stories draw me up short; make me realize how I have failed miserably in so many circumstances to be the kind of Christian that they were; to do the Christ-like things that they did; to speak the Christ-like words that they spoke. In short, these martyrs and their martyrdom convict me of my sins and tell me that I still have a lot of growing to do as a follower of Christ.

The story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr in our passage from Acts is a case in point. My life pales in comparison to Stephen's. Stephen was a true, sincere Christian martyr. His death was not self-serving; quite the contrary, it was an authentic witness to Jesus Christ and the gospel message of love, forgiveness and reconciliation--even with one's enemies. In the New Testament Greek, the word martyr means, literally, witness. To be a martyr is to be a witness, to be a witness is to be a martyr. Many scholars believe that Stephen's martyrdom was one of the key factors that led Paul to become an apostle of Jesus Christ.

This powerful witness of Stephen's martyrdom raises an important question for us Christians here today, namely: What sort of witnesses are we? How authentic, how true and sincere is our Christian witness? When non-Christians observe our lives, does our Christianity shine through? As the old question goes: If we stood trial in a court of law, would there be enough evidence to convict us of being guilty of practicing Christianity? The following story, told by Karen Blixen, in here book, Out of Africa, emphasizes how crucial these questions are to our Christian witness.

"There was a young Kikuyu by the name Kitau, who came in from the Kikuyu Reserve and took service with me. He was a meditative boy, an observant, attentive servant, and I liked him well. After 3 months he one day asked me for a letter of recommendation to my old friend Sheik Ali ben Salin, the Lewali of the Coast, at Mombassa, for he had seen him in my house now and then, he said he wished to go and work for him. I did not want Kitau to leave just when he had learned the routine of the house, and I said that I would rather raise his pay. No, he told me that he had made up his mind, up in the Reserve, that he would become either a Christian or a Mohammedan, only he did not yet know which. For this reason he had come and worked for me, since I was a Christian, and he had stayed for 3 months in my house to see the testurde--the ways and habits of the Christians. From me he would go for 3 months to Sheik Ali in Mombasa and study the testurde of the Mohammedans, then he would decide. I believe that even an archbishop, when he had these facts laid before him, would have said, or at least would have thought, as I said 'Good God, Kitau, you might have told me that when you came here.' "

This story reminds us that people from outside the church are observing us as Christians--just as Kitau observed Karen Blixen. Who and what do they see when they observe us? How convincing and authentic is our Christian witness? Does our Christian faith begin when we enter the church door on Sunday and end when we leave an hour or so later? Do people meet Christ and the message of his gospel when they encounter us each day?

When Jesus calls us to be his followers, he wants us to realize that this involves a whole-hearted commitment on our part--he wants to be our Lord, Saviour, brother, and friend in every aspect of our lives. He wants us to know that to be his followers is costly--that's why he said we must be prepared to take up our crosses daily. He tells us that it is precisely in giving him our whole-hearted commitment; in opening up every area of our lives to him; in counting the cost; in taking up our crosses daily; in all of this our lives paradoxically become more whole. We are given much more than we receive; each day becomes a precious gift; in which God presents numerous opportunities to grow into a more mature, deeper relationship with him. Life is rich and full of adventure when we witness to Christ and his gospel. Stephen, the first Christian martyr found it to be so, and so have countless other Christian martyrs down through the ages. One of the more recent martyrs who found this to be so was Oscar Romero.

A week before he was killed, Archbishop Romero spoke the following prophetic words: "I have frequently been threatened with death. I should tell you that as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me I will come to life again in the Salvadoran people. If they kill me, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. My death will be for the liberation of my people and as a testimony of hope for the future." In March of 1980, Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. No doubt, since his martyr's death, he has been, and continues to, be a source of inspiration for many Christians in El Salvador and worldwide.

Down through the ages, right up to our day, the martyrs like Stephen and Oscar Romero have been a powerful witness to believers and non-believers alike--for they make Christ and the message of his gospel more real, true, and believable. They also are a clarion-call to every follower of Christ to bear witness to the world in our every thought, word, and action. The question for each of us remains: What kind of witnesses are we for Christ and his gospel?

May we pray that God would grant us faithfulness in all of our thoughts, words and actions.

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