Tuesday, September 02, 2014

You call that Love?

Revelation 20:1-6                                                                                                                           Romans 12:9-21                                                                                                                           Matthew 16:21-26

"It is not the punishment but the cause that makes a martyr."  St. Augustine

"Martyr" is among the many terms generally associated with religion that is misunderstood and grossly misappropriated.  The Church traditionally considers St. Stephen to be Christianity's first "martyr" (Acts 7:54-60) strictly because he was stoned to death but according to a more appropriate definition of the word from its Greek origin, we will discover Stephen is not the first. 

Throughout the Church's history, those who have died in service to Christ and His Church continue to be remembered and honored for having given their all to the bitter end.  To be sure, there is nothing wrong - and much that is inspirational - with remembering these folks and their faithfulness.  But like we do at funerals; is it not better to remember how they lived rather than dwell on how they died?

Religious leaders have tried to make a martyr's death glorious as something to which we should all aspire.  However, I doubt many of us have a death wish.  In fact we spend incomprehensible amounts of money every year doing all we can to avoid death!  Yet glorifying a "martyr's death" comes close to suggesting our lives and the work we do for The Lord in the here-and-now do not matter unless or until our lives are forcibly taken from us.  Like I said earlier, the word is "grossly misappropriated".

The Bible, particularly the Revelation, promises Divine Retribution for those who have given their lives in service to the Word.  However, as St. Augustine had observed, it is not the death itself which makes a martyr.  Rather it is the cause to which these faithful had given themselves entirely.  The death was incidental; it was the service in faithfulness they gave which we must remember, honor, and emulate.

The word "martyr" itself, having come to mean "murdered saint" (my choice of phrase), actually has its origin from the Greek martur which means "witness" (not "dead" witness).  So going back to what St. Augustine observed, it is not the death that speaks to faithfulness; it is rather the life we choose to give in service to the Church and in witness for Christ.  Even Jesus taught, "When they persecute you in this city, flee to another ..." (Mt 10:23).

This much can be taken from Jesus' words themselves according to Matthew's Gospel, although we are still more traditionally inclined to read literally that which likely has a much broader and more fully encompassing meaning.  When Jesus says, "Those who lose their life for My sake will find it" (Mt 16:25), can it be strictly said that He is referring to physical death as the only means by which we "lose" our lives, when our lives are forcibly taken from us against our will?  Or could it more appropriately be said that we "lose" our lives when we give our lives so completely by "denying [ourselves] and taking up [our] cross and following Jesus" (Mt 16:24) with purpose and conviction?    

It is the latter choice we are compelled to make rather than the former.  Even though it has been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, we should bear in mind that the Church needs live witnesses, faithful witnesses, engaged witnesses in order to thrive in faithful vitality.  Faithful service may cost us our lives, but that cost should not be strictly defined according to an untimely death.  While we do not - and probably should not - aspire to literally die for Christ, we can - and should - seek to understand where "our" lives end and Christ's life in us begins.  This requires much more from us than to simply allow ourselves to be murdered - and it reaches far beyond the moment of confession, profession of faith, baptism and/or confirmation.

While there are many Scripture passages that speak to the same ideal, our lectionary reading from Romans actually defines well what it means to give of ourselves so completely that the value of "our" own life is directly relative to the value we assign the life of others - including our "enemies"!  Yes, even those who have wronged us are still, by biblical standards, deserving of our devotion TO CHRIST! 

We are not being weak or being played when we "serve" our enemies as St. Paul encourages and Jesus actually commands (remember the strength you exercised the last time you bit your tongue rather than answer for evil done to you!  Even a weak fool can give in to his or her emotions and lash out.).  And we are stronger still by living into our Lord's assurance that "vengeance" belongs to Him; and it is affirmed in the Revelation that those who lust for the blood of faithful witnesses will stand before The Lord and will answer for their evil and their bloodlust - and this judgment is reserved for ALL who wish and do harm to another!  And we would all do well to remember this in the upcoming election season!

We are clearly not called to be "judge, jury, and executioner".  Those roles belong to the life we choose for ourselves irrespective of Christ Jesus and any supposed - and certainly limited - loyalty we have to Him; for it truly can be said that when we return evil for evil, we are affirming and defending self - not Christ.  In this we are compelled to ask ourselves, "When does an evil act become a righteous act?  ANSWER: It doesn't".  And when we do return evil for evil - OR - instigate evil, there is no "witness", no faithfulness, no "martyr"; only the life we demand to keep and defend for ourselves - the very life Jesus says we will lose one way or the other; the very life which is not ours to keep nor take - only to define by how much of ourselves we freely give.

In keeping with making disciples who make disciples - and becoming better disciples ourselves - we need to understand that in giving of ourselves so completely to others, we are entering into and purposefully developing relationships - not church "programs" which can almost be done mindlessly.  This is important for us to understand the difference because "programs" can be done without actually engaging in people's lives on a personal level in developing relationships - like the Food Pantry. 

This is not to suggest there are no useful "programs", of course (Sunday school is a "program" - and a necessary one for all ages of disciples), but we have to understand that an earnest relationship is where we give ourselves completely - or should - without reservation and without restrictions.  The "programs" involve a season, a finite period of time.  A "program" might be taxing to plan and implement but once it's done, it's done.  We disengage.

This must not and cannot be so with relationships; for I am convinced it is the blood AND the sweat AND the tears AND the bonds of relationships that are the "seed of the Church" as we witness in the early chapters of Acts.  While these relationships do not literally require spilled blood, they do require a devotion defined by how much of ourselves we are willing to give to those relationships for the sake of Christ and His Holy Church.  "Programs" designed to bring people into and introduce them to the Church can be useful - but only if and when we are willing to give of ourselves not strictly to the "program" itself but to the people who may come - the same people who will return only when they learn to trust not our "programs" but us ... we who are the Body of Christ Himself in the world today.

This is what is called "love".  "Love" is what we do rather than what we may feel, and it is the "labor" to which we are called.  This Love is defined by what we give - not by what is taken from us.  This Love is the cost AND the price AND the privilege AND the blessing of discipleship.  This Love is the life fully devoted to Christ in which we gain much more than we will ever lose - because the assurance which comes from our Lord is the assurance that Love -  fully giving and fully given Love - will build up and sustain the Church; nothing less.  Messiah's own blood was sufficient to make this kind of Love possible to even comprehend, so nothing less than our whole life will do.  For Him, for His Church, and for the fullness of life which is promised and reserved for the faithful witness - in the Name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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