February 28, 2021
How far are you willing to go for your faith?
Are you willing to put your life on the line if needed?
There are countless stories of martyrdom throughout Christian history, beginning with Stephen in the Book of Acts. I would like to share a couple stories with you which have assisted shaping the faith of many others.
Silence, written by Shusaku Endo, and adapted into a movie by the same title by Martin Scorsese, tells the story of Jesuit Priests in seventeenth century Japan as they care for communities of Christians. However, Christianity is not allowed in Japan at the time and they must practice their faith secretly. Fathers Sebastiao Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe are sent to search for another Jesuit priest that had supposedly renounced his faith, Father Cristovao Ferreria. In their searching, Rodrigues and Garupe are both imprisoned and asked to renounce their faith. Garupe stands firm and dies trying to save other professed believers. Rodrigues follows in the line of Ferreria in renouncing his faith after much discernment and saving the lives of many others, yet we eventually find out that he never truly left his faith behind.
Vibia Perpetua was born in the year 182 in the Roman city of Carthage, which was near the northern coast of Africa. We hear of her story from her own words written in a diary. In conversation with her father, she asks, “Do you see this pitcher lying here? Can this pitcher be called anything other than what it is?” His response of no, leads her to make the proclamation, “Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.” Now, Perpetua recently had a baby, yet this did not stop the Roman guards from taking her and several other believers to the city dungeon. Her and the other prisoners, including Felicity another young mother, are herded into the local amphitheater to face wild animals in celebration of Caesar’s birthday. Perpetua and Felicity would die as martyrs of the Christian faith as they faced off against a wild cow. Perpetua leaves for us, her final written words, “Stand fast in the faith, and love one another, all of you, and be not offended at my sufferings.”[i]
The gospel lesson this week is enough to give Peter whiplash and could leave one questioning his faith.
In the verses preceding the reading for this week, we hear Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. A truth that the disciples were beginning to suspect as they witnessed Jesus performing miracles and healing the sick. It is still not the time for others to know and Jesus instructs them to tell no one, much like he does to those whom he heals and sends on their way. Peter is excited because he is correct. It is like knowing the correct response in Final Jeopardy!
Jesus’ next proclamation is what brings everything to a standstill. You could say that this is the turning point of Jesus’ ministry and he is no longer teaching in parables but making himself as clear as possible so that the disciples understand what he is talking about. Everything has been going great up to this point as they go from town-to-town healing and listening to Jesus preach. It is now here in Caesarea Philippi, where many different gods have been elevated, in which Peter proclaims Jesus as the Messiah. Not only that, but Jesus also goes on to tell the disciples what the Messiah will encounter. Jesus’ teaching the “Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” has them speechless. It is what provokes Peter into rebuking Jesus and telling him that there is no way this can happen. From Peter proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, to now Peter being rebuked himself, “Get behind me, Satan,” there is no surprise he gets whiplash.
There is a lot going on here. And as we have learned about Peter, he is quicker to speak than he is to stop, breath, and think. What is getting in the way of Peter’s understanding? For one, Peter, and I am assuming the other disciples, thought that Jesus would be with them forever. The idea of a Messiah is one that comes to bring the reign of God and no where does that say anything about suffering. However, Jesus is clear, he must undergo great suffering! As Jesus continues his teaching after rebuking Peter, there is a fear that they too could encounter this same fate that Jesus refers to in his great suffering.
This is the first of Jesus’ three passion predictions in the gospel of Mark, therefore it is going to take a bit for everyone to fully perceive what he is talking about. They must take a second to catch their breath as Jesus tries to make this revelation as plain as possible for them to understand. Also, as he tells them, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” has their anxiety ramping up and wondering what they have agreed to in following the Messiah. Yet, all twelve stand firm and continue to follow Jesus.
Let’s pause to think about Mark for a second as he is writing his gospel after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and what many of those following Jesus were thinking. Mark is writing this in the aftermaths of the destroyed Temple, where others are aware of what has happened and probably also aware of those that have already been martyred for their faith. Stephen became the first Christian martyr; James, brother of Jesus, was killed roughly ten years after Jesus; and by the time Mark was writing his gospel, most should have known that Peter was killed in Rome in 64. There was truth to the words Jesus spoke to the disciples, and to follow him brought dangers that required being courageous and steadfast in their faith. The suffering that martyrs have embraced throughout time can be unimaginable.
This martyrdom and suffering are difficult for us to understand a couple of thousand years later. Living in America, probably makes it even more difficult. You have probably never been persecuted for your faith. The freedom that we have in our country allows the participation of open worship and we do not have to hide like those in seventeenth century Japan or other areas around the globe even today. Because of that, it is easy to become complacent and take our freedom for granted and call on our faith only when it may be needed. Many have turned their faith into a thing of convenience and do not rely on the Spirit to guide their life daily. Suffering for our faith is a foreign concept.
The apostles knew otherwise. While these words of Jesus took their breath away, they would learn to live his truth that he taught them in Caesarea Philippi. Their cost of discipleship would include denying themselves and taking up their crosses; a focus on not saving their own lives, but first losing their lives for the sake of the gospel; and living to see the grace, mercy, and love revealed in Jesus’ crucifixion and not being ashamed by it.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we too can learn to live into the cost of discipleship which draws us closer to the living God. We can be thankful for the freedom of living our faith out loud and not having to hide it or worship in secret places. While our suffering may not mirror that of Jesus’ disciples, and I pray that it does not, there is still suffering that occurs. Living a life of faith and commitment to Christ takes courage and sacrifice. Jesus invited us on this journey in our baptisms. In our times of joy as well as our suffering, we receive the promise that we will not be alone.
Jesus’ revelation of his own suffering and death has turned the page on the ministry that he and the disciples have been doing. The thought of suffering brings much pause and anxiety to the disciples as they attempt to understand Jesus’ words. When we contemplate suffering in our own time, we too want to turn the other way and take the much easier road. Yet, through stories like Perpetua and other martyrs, the power of faith is revealed. While it is easy to turn the other way, Christ gives us the reassurance that whatever it is we must walk through, we will not be alone. Jesus has shown us a way through our suffering, as he walks straight into his own. Suffering is not a place to rest or give up, but a place to move forward from with the mercy, love, and grace of the Triune God.