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Persecution and Resurrection

Persecution and Resurrection

The Venerable Christopher Brown, Ph.D.
June 6, 2016

The first Christian sermon took place in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, when the Apostle Peter, freshly empowered by the Spirit, delivered a gripping proclamation of the Gospel. It was not a call to accept Jesus as personal savior. Nor was it a declaration that we are justified by faith, and not by our own works. It was not a summons to make the world a better place by loving our neighbors as ourselves. Peter did not announce God's justice or Jesus' solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. These are all the sorts of things we hear in sermons today, and they are all part of the Gospel message. But the first Christian sermon was a witness to the Resurrection:

"This Jesus delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it...this Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses" (Acts 2:23-24, 32).

"Witness" is a curious word in the Bible. The Greek verb is "martureo" (μaρτυρέ), from which our word "martyr" is derived. It originally meant bearing legal witness in court. In the New Testament it is a declaration of fact -- mostly to report good news. Jesus said, "You shall be my witnesses (μάρτυρες) in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

When we hear word "martyr" we think of someone who has died for a cause. This meaning is already implicit in Jesus' teaching about bearing witness under duress: "You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness (μαρτύριον) before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour" (Matthew 10:18-19)

The understanding of witness or "martyrdom" as the giving of one's life becomes dominant in the early Christian persecutions of the second and third centuries. As the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament puts it, "full witness is now witness under threat. Witness, then, becomes a special term that is reserved for the one who seals the seriousness of witness by death."

The Recent Witness of the Copts

Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, elaborated on this understanding of witness in relation to the Coptic Christians who were murdered by ISIS militants in Libya.

"To witness is to be a martyr. I am told by the Coptic Bishop in England that the Coptic Christians murdered in Libya last [year] died proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord. They are martyrs, a word that means both one that dies for their faith and one that witnesses to faith...They are witnesses, unwilling, unjustly, wickedly, and they are martyrs in both senses of the word."

One of most haunting things I have ever seen is the ISIS video of this execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians, entitled, "A Message signed with blood to the Nations of the Cross." The victims are lined up on their knees along the edge of a Libyan beach. Their masked executioners stand behind them, as the leader in the center gives a long rant against the enemies of Islamic State. The Coptic Christians display no fear on their faces, and when the end comes, their lips are clearly moving in prayer. Experts have determined that they were speaking the name of Jesus as they were killed.

Later the Coptic Church in Egypt released the names of the victims, but there were only 20 names. It turns out that the 21st victim, Matthew Ayairga, was not Egyptian. He was from Chad and he was not a Christian. But he was so affected by the witness of his fellow prisoners' faith that when his captors asked him if he rejected Jesus, he reportedly said, "Their God is my God."

Archbishop Welby makes an explicit connection between the witness of martyrdom, and the specific witness to the resurrection.

"These martyrs too are caught up in the resurrection: their cruel deaths, the brutality of their persecution, their persecution is overcome by Christ himself at their side because they share his suffering, at their side because he rose from the dead."

Persecution and the Rise of Resurrection Faith

It is a fascinating fact that historically, faith in the resurrection of the dead grew out of the experience of persecution. The earliest Israelites knew nothing about resurrection. For Abraham and Moses, the afterlife offered only the shadowy netherworld of Sheol -- derived from the Hebrew verb šʼh, meaning "to be extinguished." Sheol was neither Heaven, nor Hell, but a sort of "eternal fade-out." Any hope of immortality was realized in the continuation of the family line through one's descendants.

Faith in resurrection develops gradually out of Israel's conviction that God is faithful and will vindicate his people. Psalm 16:10, attributed to King David (and quoted by Peter in his sermon at Pentecost), is an audacious affirmation of the faithfulness of God that looks beyond the pessimism of Sheol and points allusively to the idea of resurrection: "you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption."

But the first explicit reference to resurrection comes from Isaiah in the 8th century, "Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy" (Isaiah 26:19). These and a few other scattered scripture passages contain the seeds of a faith in resurrection that comes into full flower during the Maccabean persecution in the 2nd century BC.

Vindication of the Maccabean Martyrs

Between 333 and 332 B.C. Alexander of Macedonia conquered the world -- at least as far as India. As the 1st Book of Maccabees puts it, "He advanced to the ends of the earth, and plundered many nations." The entire world, it seemed, spoke Greek and embraced Greek culture. After Alexander's death, when the empire was split among his leading generals, Seleucus and his descendants ruled over Syria and the surrounding regions -- and hence, over the Jews.

The Jewish feast of Hanukkah celebrates the cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple in 168 B.C. after the successful rebellion of Judas Maccabeus against the Syrian King, Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus provoked this rebellion when he tried to force the Jews to renounce Jewish law, and worship the pagan gods of the Greeks -- like the rest of the Hellenistic world.

There is a passage in the 2nd Book of the Maccabees in which the King inflicts hideous tortures on eight Jewish brothers as their mother looks on. One brother, as he is about to die, says, "you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws."

Another brother extends his hands to be chopped off and said, "I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again." The text goes to say that the King and others who saw that witness, "were astonished at the young man's spirit, for he regarded his sufferings as nothing."

Another brother says, "One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him." Finally, as the youngest brother refuses the offer of great riches if he will renounce his faith, his mother says, "Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God's mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers."

Faith in the resurrection is a faith that was born in extreme duress. It is a courageous faith -- rooted in the conviction the Creator is faithful, and will raise up his people in a new act of creation.

Resurrection Faith

The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has alerted us to the fact that the persecution of Christians is as real today as ever. Yet it is doubtful that any of us will be called to bear witness to the resurrection with our lives. The worst that we have to face, perhaps, is the occasional caustic comment in the staff lounge at work, or the incomprehension of friends and colleagues that we still actually "go to church." But daily life isn't easy for anyone, and whatever troubles we face, each is a direct challenge of our faith in a sovereign God who loves us and is actively involved in our lives. Resurrection faith is not for the timid. It is a bold conviction that God will come through no matter trouble we face. Illness, loss, injustice, guilt, and ultimately the inevitable reality of our own death -- these things are not the last word!

As the Apostle Paul said, "the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed... as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies... For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:18, 23, 38-39).

When we live this out in our own lives, we bear witness to the Resurrection every day.

The Ven. Dr.. Christopher Brown is rector of Trinity Church, Potsdam. This piece was first published in the Albany Episcopalian and is reprinted with permission

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