Captivated beyond Measure
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
26 April 2009, 10:30 (Easter 3)
There are some things in life that you only believe if you see them yourselves. I’ve mentioned before, from this pulpit, the time I saw a squirrel climb a tree, run along to the end of a branch, jump off the branch into a canal, swim back to the bank, and then go back and do it all again. Just for fun! If one of my friends, even my family had told me about this, I would have checked their medication. But I saw it with my own eyes. I was a witness to these events.
Our legal system uses many different forms of evidence to try and establish the truth – circumstantial, forensic, and behavioural evidence. But alongside all of this runs the crucial aspect of witness evidence – people who saw something and can testify to the fact that it happened.
A witness establishes the truth about an event or about a person. They verify accusations or beliefs. And although you don’t hear this word used much in this context these days, the idea of Christians as ‘witnesses’ to their faith has a long and honourable history.
You find it occurring in two of our readings this morning Acts 3:15 and Luke 24:48
The tradition of Christianity that brought me to faith, evangelicalism, has long emphasized the importance of Christians witnessing to their faith. It was the very first thing I was told to do, after I made my own commitment to Christ at the age of 13 – go back home and tell the first person you meet about what you have done. I prayed hard that it would be my mother that I would meet first, because she would understand, but it was my father, who I imagined wouldn’t. And he turned to me with a glint in his eye and said, so I suppose you’ll become a Vicar next?......
This form of personal evangelism hasn’t always sat comfortably with our British culture, imbued as it is with a reticence and reserve about sharing intimate and personal information with friends let alone strangers. But it’s hard to escape it, if you read your Bible. Some of Jesus’ final words, spoken to his disciples, are pretty unequivocal:
You will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)
Part and parcel of being a Christian is the willingness to witness to our faith, by our words and by our actions. This story, of God’s involvement in our world, expressed most eloquently in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, is one that has gathered me up into its narrative, and I am a witness to its power to re-form and re-fashion human lives for the greater good, because it has happened to me. I am a witness to its truth. His story, the story of Jesus, is now my story too. And the witness says: let me tell this story to you.
All of which is fine, if occasionally uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, as challenges go, it is only just the beginning. For within the word ‘witness’, slipped so innocently into our 2 passages today, lies an unpalatable truth, something that will confront us with an unlooked for dose of Christian reality.
The word ‘witness’ is not what it seems, for we translate our English word ‘witness’ from the Greek word ‘martyr’.
I don’t need to rehearse the history for you. All down the ages, but perhaps especially in those early centuries when Christianity challenged many of the accepted norms of the societies of the ancient near east, the church has been persecuted and Christians have been martyred. Often in terrible and brutal ways.
Just this last week we have been remembering England’s patron Saint, St George, killed by the Emperor Diocletian in 303AD for refusing to deny his Christian faith and sacrifice to pagan gods.
It really is unsurprising, for a faith that emerged from a martyred leader, that martyrdom should have been such a central aspect of the development and spread of Christianity. But somehow that all seems such a long time ago, and from such a different world. Yes, we are vaguely aware of modern day martyrs, Janani Luwum and Archbishop Oscar Romero, and others, but when did someone last die on English soil for their faith?
Look behind me, to the 8 statues that adorn the pulpitum steps, all towering figures associated with this cathedral’s past.
Look at the figure on the extreme right, which is John Fisher. Fisher was Bishop of Rochester for 31 years, but was executed in 1535 for refusing to accept Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. Then up in the quire you will find the coat of arms of another Bishop of Rochester, Nicholas Ridley who was executed by Queen Mary in 1555 for opposing her plans to return England to the Roman Catholic tradition.
These are Rochester’s 2 English martyrs, both some time Bishops of Rochester, men of faith and principle and integrity from either side of the great religious divide of the 16th century, both of whom lost their lives because they were not prepared to compromise Christian truth as they understood it.
If the martyrdom of St Stephen, or St Peter, or St George, seems just too far away from our place and time to connect with us, what about these 2 men who challenge us every time we gather here in this wonderful space? What does it take to make our faith so important to us that we might be ready to die for it? And why is our version of Christianity so lukewarm, so tame, so watered down, that we make so little a sacrifice for it?
I do not say these things to heap guilt upon us. Goodness knows, I have been here long enough now for you to know how weak my own faith is, and to understand that if I issue any challenge from this pulpit then the first person to be challenged is me myself I.
No, it’s really a question that I hope we would all be willing to explore. What would it take for our faith to captivate us beyond measure?
In many other parts of the world today this is not an academic debate. In 1967 Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian Lutheran pastor imprisoned and tortured for his faith half a century ago, established a movement called Voice of the Martyrs, which continues to raise awareness of the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are killed, tortured, and imprisoned for being Christians each year, in a variety of countries around the world. It is an irony but perhaps no surprise that Christianity is at its strongest in such countries, where an allegiance to Christ is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
And you will be aware that our own Bishop, Bishop Michael, has pledged his future to support those who are under threat. Writing in the Telegraph a couple of weeks ago, after the announcement of his resignation, he said:
“The Church worldwide is growing rapidly and is very aware of its counter-cultural situation. In many parts of the Middle East, South and Central Asia, China and Africa, the expression of Christian faith and life is restricted at best and, in some cases, there is active persecution, both official and unofficial. I have for long been involved in assisting these brothers and sisters in the faith with advocacy of their cause; now I plan to devote more of my time to their struggle. It is crucial for the future of world Christianity that they survive and flourish; and in their clear and sacrificial witness, they have a great deal to teach the churches of the West”
Did you notice that last sentence? In their clear and sacrificial witness, they have a great deal to teach the churches of the West. A great deal to teach us indeed. Back to our word witness again, that awkward and challenging little thorn in the side of western Christianity.
The period following Christ’s resurrection was not, as we might sometimes imagine, a time for the disciples to bask in the assurance that they, after all, had backed the right horse. It was, in many ways, their moment of truth.
For it is the resurrection that changed the course of world history. It is not the quality of Jesus’ life, or the example of his suffering on the cross that inspired Jesus’ followers to lay down their lives; it is the empty tomb. Take away the resurrection, and the fledgling Christian faith would have died in its cradle. But something happened there that captivated them, inspired them, transformed them, and empowered them – and in an age untouched by our modern ability to transmit stories and pictures instantly around the globe, they took what they had witnessed to the ends of their known world, often at the cost of their lives.
So for us, these weeks after Easter are not to be a quiet let-down after the end of Lent, but our own moment of truth. Will we let the resurrection change US? For if it affects me no more than seeing a squirrel go swimming, then I may as well pack up my dog collar and go home. As God is my witness.........