May my words be in the Name of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today marks the feast of Pentecost, one of the three great festival days of the Church, the day when we celebrate the birth of the Church. And it is wonderful indeed to read of the events of that first Pentecost, as recounted for us by St Luke in the Acts of the Apostles: there the disciples are, in that upper room in Jerusalem – hiding, for fear of the Jews, as St John tells us; the Holy Spirit comes upon them like a roaring wind and fire; and those who were moments before fearful pour out onto the streets to face the crowds who have been attracted by the noise and commotion. And the rest, as they say, is history – for the world was never the same again and never can be – for which we thank God and praise his Holy Name.
Now let us pause for a moment and consider something: the disciples had been right to be afraid – afraid for their very lives. Because there were people out there in the world that existed outside that upper room that wished them harm. And the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them that day did not change that. All the danger that had been outside waiting for them remained; what had changed was that they were no longer afraid of those dangers. The fear of suffering for their faith in Christ had left them; and instead they were willing to die if that was what it took to bring the faith to others.
And we know that many of them did; all of the apostles save St John the Evangelist were to die a martyr’s death – and he was not spared because he failed to face the dangers they faced – far from it. In fact, over the course of his long life he took as many risks as any of them, maybe more, but God had other plans for him … and hence we have not only his Gospel, but also his letters, and finally his Revelation written late in his life during a long and lonely exile … which was almost a martyrdom in itself.
So it might be said that the day of Pentecost is the day that the Spirit of Martyrdom entered the Church; the Spirit not of seeking out death for its own sake but of not being afraid to die for the faith if that was necessary; of risking death to bring that faith to the poor souls dwelling in places where it had not been heard; of refusing to deny the faith in the face of persecution and thereby inspire others to accept the faith in response to witnessing the courage it took to suffer and die for the faith.
Ah, you may be thinking – if only such a Spirit was in the Church today we would not have such difficulties, with attendances in decline and the lives of so many who profess to be Christians standing in sharp contrast to the faith those early martyrs died for, to the beliefs that they passed down from generation to generation. So let me tell you a story that shows that that Spirit indeed still lives with our Church. a story. It is one that should be familiar to most of you, as it received some news attention when it happened around 18 months ago – even though not so much as a story like this warranted – yet since with the passing of time the details will have faded in the minds of many, I thought I would run through them again.
In 2014 a number of men from a variety of different villages in Egypt went to work in Libya. They were fairly ordinary men – sons, husbands, fathers – who simply wanted to earn the money to provide a better standard of living for those they loved. In late 2014 and early 2015 twenty of them were taken captive by the forces of Islamic State. Why did they take prisoner these poor, working class men who were ethnically Arabs? It was because they were Christians, members of the Coptic Church.
Their captors set up a video camera and killed the men one by one and later placed the video online. They did so to send a message to the Christian west – that what they did to those men they hoped to do elsewhere until all Christians were gone, converted or dead. Before they killed each man, they gave him a chance to renounce his Christian faith. Each refused and died. When the 20 were gone, there was one more man left, a man from Chad, Mathew Ayairga. who by dint of being in the wrong place had been taken prisoner with the others. Matthew wasn't a Christian; but when his turn came and he was asked if he rejected Jesus, having witnessed the great faith of those who had already died, his reply was 'their God is my God.' He did this even though he knew they would kill him for it. And so he died, a martyr who had been brought to faith by the death of other who were willing to die for their faith.
The courage and faith of these 21 men shows well, I think, that the Spirit of the Martyrs is as strong in the Church today as it was on the day of the first Pentacost. There are still those willing to die for Christ; and all around the world new martyrs are being created everyday. They are mostly in what we in the West sometimes condescendingly call the 'third world.' Yet that is where the Church grows fastest, adding thousands of new brothers and sisters in Christ everyday; while we in the West agonise over our declining attendances and falling numbers.
So we do not need to long for the Spirit of Martyrdom to return to the Church and help make it strong again; we simply need to realise that it there and accept it into our own lives and live the faith as others in the Church elsewhere do – as if it were something worth dying for, as if it were the most important thing in our own lives, and as if it were the most precious gift we could give to another … and so as I end, I pray that you and I will each of us be filled with that Spirit … not one of longing for death, but one of being willing to die for the faith … willing to do anything to live the faith and to share the faith … so that, by God's grace, we and those whose lives we touch will be granted, like the martyrs, to be in God's presence for ever. Amen.