Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 3rd March 2013
3 March 2013 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.
Those were the words spoken by the priest introducing the Ash Wednesday Liturgy two and a half weeks ago as we began this season of Lent - a season in which we are encouraged to focus on the shortcomings in our lives and on the need to change and amend them by the help of God’s grace.
However, as we make our way further into this season and draw closer to Holy Week, in addition to self-examination and repentance the focus of our attention is drawn in our readings and prayers towards the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross and we are called to walk with him on his journey towards suffering, death and resurrection.
During his earthly ministry Jesus said to his disciples, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.'
This teaching has been taken to heart by Christians down through the centuries and many have literally given up their lives for the sake of their faith.
During the next three weeks in my sermons at Matins I’m going to look at the lives of some of these martyrs - this week at the martyrs of the Early Church, next week at the martyrs of the Reformation period' and in the final week at the stories of some of the twentieth-century martyrs commemorated by the statues over the Great West Door of this Abbey.
As we look as these different groups of martyrs we will ask the questions - what led to their deaths and how can their example of being prepared to give up their lives inspire us today?
So why were some of the Christians in the early church martyred for their faith? Who were their persecutors and what were the particular fates which befell them?
In our New Testament lesson today as Jesus prayed for his followers, thinking ahead to the time he would no longer be physically with them, he addressed his Father, 'I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world.'
It wasn’t long before the hatred he predicted came to pass; the New Testament giving us plenty of evidence of the early church coming under persecution.
As we read through the Acts of the Apostles we discover that the disciples, having received the gift of the Holy Spirit were given the confidence to go into public places to proclaim that Jesus was the Son of God; that after his crucifixion, he had risen from the dead, had appeared to them and promised to be with them to the end of the age.
This infuriated the Jewish leaders and so the apostles were flogged and imprisoned on several occasions in an attempt to encourage their silence.
The first person to die for his proclamation of the faith was Stephen, whose story is in Acts Chapter 7. As he was being stoned he cried out, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against the.'
His words were reminiscent of those spoken by Jesus as he was nailed to the cross. We also gather in the story of Stephen that St Paul (before his conversion, when he was known as Saul) was present at that stoning and approved of what was happening. St Paul was of course himself martyred in Rome at a later date - beheaded, following his missionary journeys.
There were many others martyred for their faith during the Apostolic age - amongst them St James the Great who was beheaded, St Peter who was crucified upside down, St Bartholomew who was flayed alive, St Thomas who was killed with a spear, and St Mark who was dragged through the streets and then beheaded.
But it was in the second, third, and fourth centuries that Christians suffered persecution on a much wider scale at the hands of the Roman authorities. Some of these persecutions were local and intermittent but there were several periods of empire-wide persecution which was directed from the seat of government in Rome. But why did this happen?
Most often it was because they refused to worship the Roman gods or to pay homage to the Emperor as a divine being. This was seen as defiant and as displaying absolute disloyalty.
These early Christian martyrs experienced horrible deaths - apart from the beheadings and crucifixions already mentioned, some were torn apart by lions and other wild animals in great public arenas, others were roasted or boiled live, some were shot with arrows.
This coming week the Church will be commemorating Ss Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions. Perpetua was a young widow with a baby and Felicity was in the advanced stages of pregnancy. They were martyred during the persecution in Africa at the beginning of the third century - taken to the amphitheatre at Carthage, where they were tossed and gored by a wild cow and afterwards beheaded.
So why were these early Christians prepared to put themselves through such terrible suffering? What motivated them?
There’s some evidence from historical writings that these early Christians sought out and welcomed martyrdom, seeing their sacrifice as strengthening the Church. It was certainly the case that at times of persecution the church grew both spiritually and numerically. Tertullian, writing in the third century said, 'The more you cut us down, the more we grow; the seed is the blood of Christians.'
But surely their main motivation was that of faith and love. In our Old Testament lesson this morning we heard the great commandment, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might', a commandment which was endorsed by Jesus, who also said, 'No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.'
These early martyrs were so committed to their faith in Christ and to worshipping the one true God that under no circumstances were they going to betray that faith or abandon their love of God by worshipping the false gods of Rome or indeed a human being in the person of the emperor claiming divinity.
They were also no doubt motivated to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and like him to give up their lives, because they had the inner assurance that they would be with God beyond their physical death. In their minds they may have held those other words of Jesus, 'I tell you my friends, do not fear those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do.'
As we journey through Lent we might look back at those early Christians and find inspiration in the way they were prepared to walk the way of the cross, and to be challenged by their example of standing firm in their faith at a time when the church grew and flourished and continued to spread the knowledge of Christ’s love in the face of persecution.