Tabalia, Guadacanal, Solomon Islands.
||Jeremiah 15: 15-21
||2 Timothy 2: 8-13
||John 11: 20-27
It is a huge privilege to be here at Tabalia for the Memorial Eucharist of the seven Martyrs of the Melanesian Brotherhood. Today we remember with thanksgiving the lives of seven brothers who were killed in 2003 as a result of their Christian witness and work for reconciliation.
This day reminds us of the costly call of being a disciple. I feel inadequate to speak about such witnessing. You will know that the English word for ‘witness’ springs from the Greek word ‘marturion’ from which we get the word ‘martyr’. Being a witness and being a martyr go together. I am the product of late Christendom in the western world where the Church has been both comfortable and slightly ineffective in its witness. In the West, we have not really seen persecution or martyrdoms since the dissenting church of Germany stood up against Hitler during the 2nd World War (Bonhoeffer, Kolbe and others). Today in other parts of the world we are aware of many Christian communities suffering for their faith: churches in Pakistan being burnt to the ground with Christian worshippers inside; Christian children kidnapped and killed in Nigeria; beheadings, stoning and crucifixion of Christians in the Middle East these past two years.
However, we should not be surprised. The New Testament highlights the cost of discipleship and most of the original 12 died for their faith. Hebrews 11: 35-38 describes the horrors that many followers of Jesus suffered:
‘Some were tortured, refusing to accept release in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword…they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented- of whom the world were not worthy.’
Paradoxically, such suffering is often linked to the growth, of the Church. In Acts 6, the persecution of the Church leads to followers of the Way departing Jerusalem and the Gospel spreading to all parts of the world. In the late 1990’s, the Anglican Church in Nigeria grew by 150%… whilst being persecuted. Tertullian’s observation holds true: ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’ I wonder, then, what the impact of the martyrdom of these seven brothers has been on Melanesian society these past 13 years?
Certainly the Melanesian Brotherhood has a legacy of costly witness. Charles Fox recalls dropping off two brothers at a heathen village to evangelise there: ‘I took them ashore and I rowed back to the Southern Cross. I watched these two young men standing there with nothing but their haversacks, among a heathen people of whose language they knew not a word, who might easily kill or starve them after we had gone. They were a thousand miles from their own homes and knew that the Mission Ship would not come back for a year. A year later, we found them standing there once more- this time with 20 of the people prepared for baptism. After some years there were several hundred Christians there.’
Bishop George Selwyn was clear about the costly calling of being a missionary. Preaching in 1854, he said:
‘Missionaries must be ready to put their lives in their hands and go out to preach the gospel to others with no weapon but prayer and with no refuge but God.’
The seven martyrs, courageously working for disarmament in 2003, stand in the line of prophetic witness seen in Jeremiah who is called by God to speak hard words to his people: ‘You shall serve as my mouth and it is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them… They will fight against you but they shall not prevail over you for I am with you.’ ( Jeremiah 15: 20). Jeremiah suffered for declaring God’s laws and ways- for putting a spotlight on corruption in his own nation. He was treated as a slanderer and traitor.
What are the hard words you, the Melanesian Brotherhood, are called to speak to the Government, the Church and the people of Melanesia today?
The bible and Christian witness down the centuries is clear about the cost of discipleship.
St Paul, in his letter to Timothy, is clear that ‘Jesus Christ raised from the dead’ is our Gospel. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the good news we have to share. In fact, we do not have anything else as precious to offer. All our talents, skills and resources are nothing without this belief in the resurrection. Jesus Christ raised from the dead is hope for us, hope for the world.
It is the resurrection of Jesus that gives the cost of discipleship a divine perspective. The promise that we belong to God and will live with him for ever can give us the freedom to speak up. It can give us the strength to swim against the stream. It can give us the courage to act according to God’s ways.
A British missionary from the 19th Century, who returned from a situation of great personal danger, was asked how he and his wife had been able to go in the first place. He pondered the question and then replied: ‘Well, we died before we went.’ They had faced up to the likelihood of death before they set out on their missionary journey.
To the heartbroken Martha, Jesus says:
‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?
….your brother will rise again!’
But how can we be such faithful witnesses as those holy disciples who have gone before us? Even knowing the truth of the resurrection, I ask myself how would I react under persecution, in a situation of personal danger for the sake of the gospel? I am afraid of physical violence. As a young person, I would often have dreams where I was in the middle of a battle, or a fight. In my dreams, I was always hiding behind a rock or in the bushes or pretending to be dead! I was never the hero standing up bravely to defend the weak. I do not feel cut out to be a martyr. At heart, I am a coward.
So what makes a faithful witness?
I take encouragement from the disciples who all fled the Garden of Gethsemane at the first sign of danger. Yet, they went on to witness courageously for Jesus later in their lives. Peter, especially. He denied he knew Jesus three times at his trial. Just a few hours before, at the last supper, Peter was full of confidence: ‘I will never desert you, Lord!’ And yet he did. The cock crowed. He went out and wept bitterly. But following the resurrection, the risen Jesus met with Peter. He forgave him, he restored him, he put him back together again. He even made Peter, a coward and a deserter, his chief apostle. And when the time came for Peter to be tested again in his witness, he did not fail. Legend has it that he was walking out of Rome on the Appian Way, away from the terrible persecution of the Church by the Emperor Nero. As he walked, he met the Lord walking in the opposite direction back towards Rome. ‘Where are you going, Lord?’ Asks Peter. ‘I am going to Rome to die for you’, replies Jesus. And Peter stops in his tracks, turns around and returns to care for the persecuted and suffering Church in Rome. There he is killed. He asks to be crucified upside down, not feeling worthy to be killed as Jesus was.
The story of cowardly Peter becoming brave gives me hope that I , too, might be able do the right thing, if the time came.
Paul says to Timothy: ‘If we are faithless, God remains faithful’. Here, too, is an insight to help us and encourage us.
It is not about how good we are;
It is not about how full of faith we are.
It seems to be about knowing how good and faithful God is, that really matters.
It is about bringing ourselves, with all our weaknesses, frailties and faults, into close relationship with the God of grace.
An unusual story for this climate to help explain: In England we can be as cold as you can be hot, here in the Solomon Islands. When Brothers John and Nelson visited Chester Diocese in 1992, they stayed at my home in Acton and I took them ice skating with the young people from where I was parish priest. It was a first time for John and Nelson! The young people loved them for trying something very strange to them and helped them learn to skate.
In the winter of 1962/3 in England there was a big freeze on Boxing Day. Temperatures remained below freezing for 3 months. In a village in south east England, when the children came out to play on Boxing Day, they could not play football because the ground was hard and covered in snow. However, the village pond had frozen over. A boy quickly put on his skates and whizzed out from the side to the middle. The ice cracked and broke. The boy disappeared and drowned. A terrible tragedy, the village was in mourning and nobody went skating for the rest of the Christmas holidays despite the temperature remaining below freezing. By February half term holidays, the cold weather continued. The children in the village decided to go skating but were very careful. Here is what they did: they tied a rope around the waist of the smallest boy and put him on the ice. The other children stood on the bank holding onto the length of rope to pull him out if the ice cracked. The boy edged tentatively out to the middle, step by step. Looking back anxiously to check everyone was holding onto the rope in case he fell through the ice. Eventually reaching the middle, the boy was confident enough to jump up and down enthusiastically, proving the ice was thick enough. It was safe for everyone to skate.
Of course it was. When the ice cracked on Boxing Day, it had just frozen and was barely an inch thick. Now 6 weeks later of continuous freezing temperatures, the ice was at least three feet thick.
It’s not how much faith you’ve got that matters. It’s what you have got your faith in that counts. Our God is the God of the universe, the Lord of all creation. A little faith in this great God is sufficient. He is faithful to us. He calls us to be faithful to him. He longs to use us in his mission to reconcile the world to himself.
The seven brothers were faithful but they were not superheroes. They were ordinary human beings, disciples of Jesus who witnessed in an extraordinary way. They did it by putting their trust in the one who is faithful- a trust they had learnt through their life and prayer together in community. They have witnessed to him who is the resurrection and the life. And we know that ‘our brothers will rise again!’
This morning we honour them, we thank God for them and we try to learn from them:
‘I want to live the Gospel
O Lord, give me grace’.
Bishop of Shrewsbury, England. 23rd April 2016 (St George’s Day)