This sermon was preached at Saint Oswald’s Parkside by the Revd Canon Bill Goodes on Sunday, 8 August, 2021. (Pentecost 11B)
“I am convinced that neither death nor life…nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” Romans 8:38f
Liturgy Planning always has its measure of surprises for me. The whole process reveals things about its participants that often lead to new understandings, fresh insights, different directions. Two things in particular surprised me as we prepared the liturgy for today’s Patronal Festival: the first was that our past celebrations of Saint Oswald had not been seen to focus much on his status as a Martyr, much more on Oswald as king, soldier, all round good person. The second surprise was that the term “martyr” today has a pretty poor press, and is associated with people who are not very attractive to be with!
So what do we mean when we call Oswald a “martyr? Who are the people that we honour as martyrs alongside our patron?
The word martyr comes directly from the greek word which is usually translated as “witness”. It is used in the New Testament first of all in the law-court sense, where someone is “called as a witness” to a crime, or to someone’s character. Then it is used of people reporting on Christ’s ministry, and then bearing witness to his resurrection. It is only in later writings that it takes the particular meaning of those who witness to Christ by losing their lives.
Some of these “witnesses” are warnings for preachers — the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen, so riled his hearers as he preached the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection, that they took up stones and stoned him to death. Others of those honoured as “witnesses” fell foul of those regimes who saw loyalty to the state identified with loyalty to particular gods,: regimes that put to death anyone who would not swear allegiance to those gods. Much of the Roman empire’s persecution of Christians was of this kind. These are the witnesses to Christ who were being spoken of in the short passage from Revelation that we heard as the first reading: “they have conquered the accuser…by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.”
And before we get too excited about how terrible the Romans were, there have been lots of times in Christian history where people who profess Christian belief have been put to death — often with considerable cruelty — by other Christians who understand Christian faith in a different way, and who happen to hold the political power at the time! Of course we can think of the martyrs of the Reformation, but just mention the word “inquisition” and remember how many victims there were of their zeal for what they termed “right belief”!
Then there have been Christians who have died while in the process of Christian activity — think of Oscar Romero killed in the middle of celebrating mass, Thomas Becket murdered in his Cathedral, Janani Luwum ambushed as he went about pastoral duties. Of course, there were political forces at work here, too — Romero was reputed to have said, “If I feed the poor they call me a saint; if I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist”, Christians in Uganda, led by Archbishop Luwum, were challenging the dictatorship, Becket’s power as Archbishop of Canterbury opposed the king’s proposed control of the Church. When Bishop Patteson was killed by the locals when he landed on the island of Malaita to preach Christ, he was killed, not for being a Christian, but in revenge: labour traders had been forcibly removing young men from the island to work in the sugar cane fields in Queensland.
Others who are honoured as martyrs have a more ambiguous claim to the title, and their status as martyrs depends very much on the judgement of the common people. In history lessons at school, Charles I of England had a very poor reputation as one who introduced unpopular taxations, and finally fell foul of the Puritan movement’s power. He was executed and yet was later recognized as a witness to the truth of the Established Church — a martyr. This recognition would certainly not have happened had the Puritan movement remained in power! Even our patron, Saint Oswald met his death in a way that not all would recognize as a Christian cause — in battle outside his own territory — was he trying, under the sign of the cross, to conquer new lands for his kingdom? However, the miracles associated with his death (and dismemberment!) quickly led to him being honoured as a saint, a martyr, and his remains a focus of religious pilgrimage very soon after.
So who are the martyrs that we honour today? Are they only people in the distant past, or are they still with us? Are they really the people who deny themselves a full life, make themselves miserable, to devote themselves to the welfare of someone else — people that we might say “make martyrs of themselves”? Are they people who just happen to be in church on the day that a crazed gunman has decided to attack? Are they people who devote themselves to an unpopular cause, exposing themselves to ridicule and perhaps violent opposition?
Jesus’ instructions to his disciples being sent out on mission include dire warnings that witnessing to him is not going to be comfortable — “sheep in the midst of wolves”, “handed over the councils”, “brother betraying brother”, “hated by all because of the name”. Being a witness to Jesus and even to his values, his way of looking at life, is not a comfortable life, and will lead some of his disciples, his witnesses, to an untimely death, to being modern-day martyrs.
But there are several bits of good news built into the rather dire readings for the day. First, there is the very end of the disciples’ “charge” “The one who endures to the end will be saved”. The Visionary in the Book of Revelation sees that the salvation, the power, the kingdom of God have meant that the one who has brought death to God’s servants has been overthrown, and that those who have died as servants have in fact conquered, through the Blood of Jesus. And Paul in that lovely passage from his letter to the Romans reminds us that God is with us, and that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus. These are our confidences as we go about our life of witness to the truth, the love, the justice, the goodness of Jesus in our life in the world in which we live.