In his Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul gives this ringing exhortation to believers: “I urge you…in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (12:1). Yes, Paul was speaking of a “living sacrifice.” Living for Jesus regardless of the cost, surrendering all to God, making a total commitment to Jesus as the Lord of our lives forever, regardless of the cost.
Throughout His ministry, Jesus never made it easy for anyone to follow Him. In fact, He always encouraged prospective disciples to “count the cost.” That included taking up the cross, being willing to face the prospect of persecution, and even the possibility of martyrdom gratefully, even joyfully, for the privilege of being his disciples. How many of the original disciples (i.e. “the twelve”) can you name? I am sure most of you could name Matthew, who wrote the narrative that was destined to become the first book of the New Testament, and you would surely remember Simon Peter, the big fisherman, and perhaps Andrew who introduced his big brother to Jesus. How could any follower of Jesus who is familiar with the Gospel story forget the two brothers, James and John, who were also fishermen called by Jesus to become “fishers of men?” They had been nicknamed “sons of thunder.” And who could ever forget Judas, who betrayed Jesus into the hands of his enemies? But what about Thaddaeus or Simon the Zealot or Bartholomew, or the other James, “the son of Alphaeus” (Mark 3:16-19)?
It is understandable if most of us cannot name all of them – not all of them became as well known as those who became leaders in the apostolic church, or famous forever as authors of books and letters that became a part of the New Testament. However, all of them were “saints” in the New Testament sense of the word, which simply means “believers.” Recognition and influence are not the point; the important thing is their relationship to Jesus and their faithfulness to him, even unto death. According to tradition, all of the disciples, except for John, died a young martyr’s death. They were faithful to Jesus unto the end, in spite of persecution, imprisonment, torture, and the threat of execution. The Apostle John is the only one who lived to a ripe old age, living out his life as an exile on the island of Patmos, a small Greek island which was used as a penal colony for those who were considered enemies of Rome and a threat to the empire.
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about that “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding us in the spirit world (Hebrews 12:1), making reference to all the redeemed of heaven, including those who were numbered among the original twelve, except for Judas, whose name has become synonymous with “traitor.” All the “saints” through the ages, including those who died a martyr’s death, are included in that great company of saints who through the ages were willing to make any kind of sacrifice required of them as followers of Jesus. However, I did not name any of them in that blog post for the Pentecost season, so in this blog post, I want to call some of them to remembrance, lest we forget their names and the price they were willing to pay for their unwavering allegiance to Jesus Christ as their one and only “Lord.”
The martyrs are such a “great company,” but I am naming only a select few of the thousands, even the “tens of thousands” who did literally offer themselves as a “living sacrifice,” even to the point of death, to prove their love and devotion to Jesus as the Christ (i.e. the Messiah), the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:6). There are thousands of other believers, even millions, whose names are not even known to us. “All the saints who from their labors rest” (our faith set to music), who lived and died as those whose one sustaining passion was that of the Apostle Paul: “For me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
I have found myself in recent days thinking of so many “saints” through the ages who were willing to die as a “living sacrifice” for the Lord Jesus Christ: Polycarp, the first Bishop of Smryna, one of the seven churches of Asia Minor to whom the risen and reigning Christ sent a letter (Revelation 2:8-11), in which he said “I know your affliction…Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Polycarp was told his life would be spared if he denied Jesus as his Lord, He replied, “For more than eighty years I have known Him, loved and served Him. How could I deny Him now?” Those were his last words. That was also the fate of Athanasius, another of the Early Church fathers, who was told by his judge that the whole world was against him. This was his response: “Then Athanasius is against the whole world!” He too was burned at the stake because of his faithfulness to Jesus. Like Paul, who as a Roman citizen was beheaded because of his refusal to say “Caesar is Lord” and Peter who was crucified upside down because he did not consider himself worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord, there have been countless Christians who have gratefully, and even joyfully, died as martyrs for Christ’s sake.
Fast forward to more recent times…I am remembering the heroic German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned during World War II for opposing Hitler, then tortured for writing against the Nazi regime that was wreaking havoc across Europe, proclaiming a “master race,” sending Jews to concentration camps, and obsessed with a vision of world conquest. He was eventually hanged in a Nazi concentration camp only a few days before Berlin was liberated by Allied forces. His last words were “This is the end; but for me, the beginning of life.”
I am not only awestruck by the example of Christian martyrs who died so heroically, but by so many incredible “saints” from around the world who were willing to be called “fools for Christ,” who refused to be conformed to the values of this greedy, materialistic, success-oriented world – transformed non-conformists for whom no personal sacrifice was too great in the service of their Servant Lord (Romans 12:1), who rejoiced not only for “…the privilege of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well” (Philippians 1:29). They had the mind of Paul, who said “…whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss…because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord….I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ …becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead“ (Philippians 3:7-11).
I doubt many of you have heard of Toyohiko Kagawa, the great Japanese Christian who in a country where less than ten percent of the population were Christians, accepted disinheritance from his wealthy family in order to become a follower of Jesus Christ. On Christmas Day, 1909, he left his aristocratic family who had disowned him for becoming a Christian and moved into the slums of Tokyo, where he lived in a six-by-six foot room for fifteen years, serving in love and compassion the poverty-stricken and powerless, the diseased and dispossessed who had also been discarded. Kagawa became famous worldwide as an example of one who had the mind of Christ, who loved as He loved and served as He served. He earned thousands of dollars in royalties from the books he had written, yet he never spent more than $60.00 a month for himself and his family. He refused to conform to Japan’s nationalism and militarism, and for his continuing non-conformity, the judgment of his government was that he was a traitor. When they came to his door to arrest him, he did not resist but rejoiced that he was imprisoned for Christ’s sake. Once again, God had chosen “…what is foolish in this world to shame he wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
The name of Albert Schweitzer is more familiar. Why did someone who had fame, fortune, prestige, power, and acclaim as a prominent physician and gifted organist choose to pour out his life in service to the little-known people on the Ogowe River in the heart of Africa? It was because Christ had called him to “go” to those forgotten and neglected people who had no medical care. All his relatives, friends, and associates were sure he was out of his mind, giving up a brilliant career to devote himself to the backward natives of Lambarene. Schweitzer’s own comment about those who could not understand his motivation, especially those who also claimed to be Christians: “It moved me strangely to see them so far from understanding that the desire to love and serve, as Jesus loved and served, may sweep a man into a new course of life, although they read in the New Testament that it can do so, and found it there quite in order.”
How could any of us ever forget Mother Teresa, who also left her comfortable and safe environment to devote herself to the sick and suffering, to the diseased and dying, of Calcutta? Her ministry grew as others joined her ministry of mercy. You know the rest of the story, but I must share one incident that was publicized. One of her sisters was dressing the gangrenous wound of a soldier, and a bystander who was observing her tender and loving care said “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars,” to which she replied, “Neither would I.”
Perhaps some of you reading this blog, especially a few who are young and truly committed to making the most of the rest of your lives as Christians, will find a vocation (i.e. a “calling,” more than a job) that is worthy of you as a child of God. As one created in the image of God, as a “saint” (once again, that simply means a “believer” as the word is used in the New Testament), as a follower of Jesus who calls us to serve a broken and fragmented world that is groaning for justice and mercy, for grace and truth, for servant leaders in nations where so many are driven by greed and a hunger for power. Not the kind of power that heals but a power that hurts. Not the kind of power that serves but seeks to be served. Not the kind of power that unites but a power that divides and destroys. Today’s devotion in Our Daily Bread referred to Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” triology, calling to remembrance the image of the emaciated creature Gollum and his maniacal obsession with the “precious ring of power.” It is the word “precious” that caught my attention, and now moves me to ask, “What is most precious to you? What is it that gives your life real meaning? Do you have an authentic sense of purpose? Do you intend to make the most of the rest of your life? Do you want to make a difference? How will you be remembered? Who are your heroes? Whom do you want to emulate? Who do you consider successful? What kind of standards and values are you establishing for yourself?” As Christians, we have a perfect example – a new standard of greatness laid out for us in the life of Jesus, who “…came not to be served, but to serve.” Can you think of a more deserving model or a better example to follow? If you are a Christian, I challenge you to search your own heart and ask yourself, “How am I measuring up in the eyes of my Lord and Savior?”
There is only one life, and it will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.