Today’s Gospel reading contains very familiar words from Jesus, words that we hear again and again, in part because they occur in all three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, which means that they will show up at least once every year in the 3-year cycle of the lectionary. Perhaps they’ve lost a bit of their impact through our frequent hearing of them, but the meaning certainly was not lost on those who heard them for the first time directly from the mouth of Jesus.
Many of those hearers were to be included among the thousands of Christians who were tortured and martyred for their faith over the next 300 years. We heave a great sigh of relief when, living in America 2,000 years later, we assume that the meaning of cross-bearing has become purely metaphorical. But did Jesus ever intend these words to be heard metaphorically? If He were to visit us this morning and repeat the exact same words, how would we hear them? What meaning might we attach to them?
As is so often the case, we go off the rails when we pull a few words out of context and ignore the rest. Cross-bearing, in these words of Jesus, is all mixed in with self-denial, following Jesus, losing our lives for the sake of the Gospel and not being ashamed to self-identify with Jesus in the midst of a sinful and adulterous generation. In Matthew’s Gospel, this teaching occurs shortly after Jesus had quoted these words from Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (Matthew 15:8).
And therein lies the problem for many of us. We grasp the metaphorical meaning of cross-bearing and can sing many hymns that reference it. But then we stop well short of self-denial, confidently asserting that self-love is also a commandment of Jesus. We stop well short of following Jesus as foot-washers, because His servant mentality is in direct conflict with our self-aggrandizement, both personal and professional. We decidedly stop short of losing our lives for the sake of the Gospel. And while most of us would protest loudly that we never have been ashamed of Jesus and His words, our reluctance to speak up about our faith speaks louder than words, definitely to our shame.
It was not this way in the early Church. The first person whose martyrdom is recorded in the immediate post-apostolic period was St. Ignatius (c. 35-107), Bishop of Antioch, who had been a disciple of the Apostle John. In his teaching and writings, Ignatius frequently paraphrased Paul, Peter, and John, as when he quoted 1 Cor 1:18 in his letter to the Ephesians: "Let my spirit be counted as nothing for the sake of the Cross, which is a stumbling-block to those who do not believe, but to us salvation and life eternal" (Letter to the Ephesians 18). There was nothing metaphorical in his mind about being counted as nothing for the sake of the Cross. In fact, Ignatius famously sought martyrdom as a means of identifying more closely with Christ. He wrote, "Now I begin to be a disciple … Let fire and cross, flocks of beasts, broken bones, dismemberment … come upon me, so long as I attain to Jesus Christ."
This past Thursday was the day we commemorated another disciple of the Apostle John, Polycarp (c.69-c.155), Bishop of Smyrna in Asian Minor. His martyrdom was so dramatic that it inspired many subsequent generations of Christians to proclaim their faith at any cost. He was burned at the stake; but when he stood there and suffered without dying, he was pieced through with a spear. All this was solely because he refused to recant his Christian faith. St. Jerome quoted him as saying, "How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked." As he was dying he said, "I bless you Father for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ."
And so, what was Jesus saying to you and to me when He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it”? Was He suggesting that all of us should suffer the same fate as Ignatius, Polycarp and countless others? Probably not. Almost certainly not. If every Christian had been martyred in the first 3 centuries of the Church, Christianity would have died out altogether. And as incredibly admirable as were the testimonies of the early martyrs, who indeed were subjected to fire and cross, flocks of beasts, broken bones and dismemberment, in our day we have the example of Billy Graham (1918-2018), whose passing to glory this past week at the age of 99 peacefully ended the life of someone who knew what self-denial, cross-bearing, giving his life for the sake of the Gospel and not being ashamed of Jesus or His words really meant in 20th and 21st century terms. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”
What do you think about cross-bearing for the sake of Christ? Do you feel called to martyrdom? You probably are thinking, “God be praised, that’s definitely not my calling!” But you would be wrong, absolutely wrong, dead wrong. Martyrdom is the calling of every Christian, of every single person who names the Name of Jesus Christ. It’s decidedly not an option we can avoid.
Does that sound a trifle radical to you? If so, it’s simply because you may not know what the word “martyr” actually means. We’ve turned it into a word that refers only to those who are killed for their faith, though we, too, subvert it to something metaphorical when we speak of someone who has a “martyr complex,” someone who goes about in self-pity, feeling unjustly maligned by others. But that’s not the meaning of the word “martyr.” “Martyr” means “witness,” and the deaths of Ignatius, Polycarp, Stephen and thousands of contemporary Christians who cling to their faith in the Middle East, Asia and Africa are called martyrdoms in part because they bear witness to the fervent authenticity of their faith. They are witnesses first and foremost, even at the cost of their lives.
How would you react if you were told with some degree of certainty that you would be tortured and killed for your faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, the one Who says that those who are ashamed of Him and His words in this adulterous and sinful generation will find that “the Son of Man will also be ashamed of them when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels”? If you knew that simply entering this building as a place of worship were to jeopardize your life, would you be back next Sunday?
We can rejoice that at least at present such a thought is mostly hypothetical. Those who wish to make strong anti-Christian statements are likely to look for a more prominent platform than is provided by Grace Anglican Fellowship. But we know that already there have been exceptions. Should we throw off the commandment to be cross-bearers and, instead, hide our crosses in the closet? If we do that, then we will fall under every word of condemnation explicit and implicit in the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel and in many other places within His teaching.
It was Jesus, not Billy Graham, who said to his followers, “You shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). He does not say “you might be” or “you could be.” He does not say, “Some of you might be.” He does not say that His words apply only to those persons who have the gift of evangelism or who are blessed with powerfully eloquent and persuasive speech. He simply states that those who follow Him shall be His witnesses; and yes, the very word used here is indeed “martyrs:” “You shall be My martyrs even to the remotest part of the earth.” That definitely included northern Illinois when Jesus was speaking from Galilee.
The day after Billy Graham died, his son, Franklin Graham, posted this comment: “Many have said that his death ends an era; but he would be the first to say that when God’s ambassadors die in Christ, the Lord raises up others, because the preaching of the Gospel will go forward until the end of the age.” There may never be another Billy Graham in our lifetimes. In the 2,000-year history of the Church, God has raised up rather few Billy Graham’s, perhaps only one. Yet the spread of the Gospel message has gone “to the remotest part of the earth” simply because persons such as you and I have been obedient to the demands of Jesus that we, like Him, should take up our crosses, the very symbol of our Christian faith, and follow Him.
There is no such thing in the teaching of Jesus as a “silent witness.” He wasn’t looking for a silent majority to believe in Him, to honor Him with their lips in safe places and yet keep silent when it might result not in dismemberment but, worst case, in a bit of disagreement or ridicule from others. Surely we can endure a bit of ridicule for the sake of the One Who endured the Cross, the shame and spitting, the scourging and mockery, for our sake. And surely we can emulate the examples of thousands of Christians throughout the history of the Church who placed greater value on being Christ’s martyrs, His witnesses, than on anything else in their lives. “For,” as Jesus said, “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it.”
One final point for this morning. Often in Scripture a single, small word can make an enormous difference in understanding a passage or a thought. I mentioned that the words of Jesus about cross-bearing occur in all three synoptic Gospels, almost verbatim. But in Luke’s account, we have one of those little words, a word that’s a difference-maker. Luke reports that Jesus said, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” That not-so-little word “daily” speaks volumes.
Martyrdom, in the literal sense we give to it, can only occur once. But witnessing to our faith in Jesus Christ is not a Sunday thing. It’s a daily thing. It must happen first and foremost when we’re not in our safe place, in church with our church friends. It needs to happen daily, 7 days a week, on all those days when we feel emotionally vulnerable about speaking up, when we’re fearful about how our witness will be received.
In those moments we need to be hearing the voice of Jesus saying, “Take up your cross daily. For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
Let us pray, using the words of the collect for the feast of St. Polycarp, saint and martyr, a fearless witness to the Person and the words of Jesus Christ:
Almighty God, Who gave to Your servant Polycarp boldness to confess the name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world and courage to die for his faith: grant that we also may be ready to give an answer for the faith that is in us and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who lives and reigns with You, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.