May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, when we think of those who have given their lives in war in the service of their countries. Our Gospel reading this morning* speaks of another kind of sacrifice – the persecutions that Christians may face, even to the point of losing their lives. Sadly, such persecution is not something that belongs to the bad old days of the Roman Empire before the Emperor Constantine effectively made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. It continues today – and perhaps on a scale undreamed of in the time when Christians were being thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. Red martyrdom, the kind where those who believe in Christ bear witness to him by the shedding of their blood and the giving of their lives, is rampant. We may not hear much about it in the media, because it suits its agenda more to portray Christians as persecutors than victims, but thousands die every year in places like the middle-east, Korea, and Africa – and tens of thousands more face torture, imprisonment, legalised discrimination, and all kinds of violence and other forms of persecution. And while we may not face such vile physical mistreatment in the West, it is becoming ever more difficult to express orthodox Christian points of view publicly without being facing scorn or attack in the media … and particularly on social media. Those who have traditional views on morality are judgmental or bigots; to defend life at its earliest or end stages is to be a misogynist or lacking in compassion; and to believe that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life is to be either simple minded or in some way prejudiced against those who believe otherwise ...
So persecution is a reality. But is it something we should fear? I think not. First of all, it is something that Christ warned us that we would face. Sadly, there will always be those who react to the truth of the Christian message with hatred and evil. And I say sadly not because of the suffering that this brings upon good people – although of course this is something to be deplored – but because it ought to make us fearful for the eternal destiny of those who wreak such evil upon God's faithful children. To behave with such hatred against Christ's Word, Christ's Church, and Christ's disciples is to surrender oneself to the power of the evil one and to become his tools – a terrible fate for anyone created by God to be with him forever in heaven. However, the fact that the Church faces such persecution in this world ought on another level to make us glad – it shows God's faithful are doing something right, for the powers of darkness would not pursue an enemy that they did not consider to be a threat.
There is also another positive to the suffering that some face in the world today. Even as the evil they face saddens us, it also ought to strengthen us. Faced with the threat of death – a threat that they know to be real and one that their persecutors will not hesitate to carry out – they refuse to renounce their faith. They will not deny Christ – and they will die rather than do so. Their courage should stiffen the backbones of those in more privileged parts of the world. They can die for the faith; therefore we can face the little inconveniences that may come by being true to Christ without fear.
Their faith unto death may also have a positive effect in that it may serve to bring many who are lost in the darkness of the world into the light of Christ's Church. It was in the third century that Tertullian said that 'the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.' His words were based on the evidence of his own eyes – Christians dying for Christ convinced many of the truth of the Gospel in a way that was uniquely persuasive. Their sacrifice saved many souls – sometimes even those of the ones who had taken their lives. Such faithful witness helps strengthen and renew the Church. And even as we weep for the suffering of the martyrs, we may take comfort from the knowledge that by it, by enduring to the end, they have won life for themselves, the only life that ultimately matters, eternal life in heaven.
There is one final reason why we might look on persecutions as having something positive about them. Our Lord, both in today's Gospel elsewhere in Sacred Scriptures, intimates that a time of intense tribulation will occur before he comes again. I am not suggesting that we are entering into the end times: it would be a little vain to presume that the suffering of this age are greater than that of the ages before ours; and our Lord told us specifically that the day and the hour of that time could not be known to us and therefore it is not something for us to speculate upon. But such persecutions may serve to remind us of the fact that we indeed do not know the day or the hour of when he will return or when our own time on this earth may end. In that way these persecutions may serve to remind us to live our lives with the thought ever in our minds that at any moment our time in the life may end and we will suddenly find ourselves standing before the judgement throne. This is something that is important for all Christians to remember – especially those who are unlikely to have the opportunity to attain their place in heaven by enduring a martyr's death. Instead their martyrdom, their witness, is to be the way in which they die daily to self, denying themselves, and taking up their cross to follow Christ faithfully in the Gospel way. And it is indeed something to rejoice in, because by it do we lovingly give our lives in service of God; and by it we have the hope of one day entering into his presence in heaven. Amen.