Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Faith Sealed in Blood

Audio of this sermon is available here.

"The gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18). In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul reveals an important truth about the gospel: it doesn't make sense unless it does.

Today, we celebrate the life and death of Justin Martyr, who was killed for his faith in 165, and that's exactly what he wanted to happen. Justin began life as a pagan in search of a philosophy. Wikipedia tells us that Justin tried Stoic philosophy, Peripatetic philosophy, Pythagorean philosophy, and finally Platonic philosophy before he found an intellectual home. Still, something was missing. He wanted a philosophy that meant something--that was real enough to change someone's life. For Justin, words were powerful, but he was looking for something even stronger, and that's when he found Christianity.

At that time, Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire. Anyone who was found to be following the Way of Jesus was liable to torture and death. And Justin thought that was amazing. In his Second Apology, he wrote, "When I was a disciple of Plato, hearing the accusations made against the Christians and seeing them intrepid in the face of death and of all that men fear, I said to myself that it was impossible that they should be living in evil and in the love of pleasure" (II Apol., xviii, 1 - qtd by New Advent). In other words, if Christians were willing to be killed for their faith rather than renounce the philosophy of Jesus and even pretend to adhere to the expectations of Rome, they must have an admirable conviction. And the moral life of the Christians, typified in their willingness to die, was a life that Justin desired. He became a Christian philosopher and spent the rest of his life using his philosophical background to teach new disciples about Jesus. And the whole time he sought a faith so real that he would die for it.

In addition to his work in Christian philosophy and moral theology, Justin gives us several important doctrinal developments. He wrote about the Word of God and how the second person of the Trinity was active in the world before the Incarnation. For example, Justin was quite happy to call Plato and Socrates "Christians" even though they predated Christianity by centuries because they showed signs of divine inspiration--signs of the Word coming upon them. Similarly, his commitment to divine revelation through the Word helped solidify Christianity's use of the Hebrew scriptures as an integral part of its own story both in the foretelling of Jesus Christ and in its own Word-inspired testament. Most importantly, however, Justin furthered our understanding of the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through his exploration of the theology of the Word, sowing the seeds of Trinitarianism that would not be clarified until Nicaea in 325 and, later, in Chalcedon in 451.

And the whole time he sought a faith so real that he would die for it. Justin had been public in his adherence to the Way. He had even written letters to the Roman authorities, attempting to explain that a faith grounded upon a willingness to die was of such moral character as to be an asset to the Empire, but his arguments were unsuccessful. Eventually, Justin and six of his disciples were tried for following the illegal sect of Christianity. When he and his companions were given the opportunity to recant and offer sacrifices to idols as the Emperor had commanded, they, of course, denied. Reportedly, Justin said to his accusers, "That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Savior" (New Advent). They were scourged and beheaded. And, as Tertullian wrote, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."

What does it mean to believe that death in this life leads to life after death? What does it mean to believe so resolutely that Jesus' death is the key to true and everlasting life that one is willing--even eager--to die to underscore that belief? What does it mean to trust that no accomplishment--no teaching, no preaching, no act of love/charity or service--in this life amounts to anything when compared with the saving power of the death of Jesus Christ? Jesus doesn't ask us to throw everything away; he demands it. If the cross of Christ is worth anything at all, it requires us to abandon all claims to our own accomplishments. In the eternal sense, only Jesus matters. Justin saw that Christians were willing to die because they believed that Jesus was the only thing that mattered. Faith like that engenders faith.

No one is going to hold a sword to your throat because you believe in Jesus. That would be too easy. Instead, our martyrdom is so much more difficult. We must have the same faith as Justin--a willingness to give up this life for the sake of Jesus--without ever dying for the gospel. We must claim our own martyrdom. We must seek a faith so real that everything else fades away. We must commit to the cross of Christ and the Way of Jesus with such fervor that we cling to death as the only source of life. "The gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God." That makes no sense unless it does.

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