A Sermon for Proper 16
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” At least that is how the early Christian writer Tertullian saw it at the end of the second century A.D. And the history of the early Church bears out his observation. It is impossible to know the exact figures today, of course, but we can been sure that the number of Christians increased dramatically in the first three centuries, from a few dozen believers that first Easter to several million by the time the Roman emperor Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion in the year 313.
This exponential growth took place under the most adverse possible conditions. Christianity was illegal for the first two hundred and eighty years of its existence. Believers were constantly subject to harassment by their non-Christian neighbors, arrest by the Roman authorities, and forfeiture of property in the courts. If one of your pagan neighbors took a dislike to you and informed the officials of your unusual religious beliefs, public execution might follow if you refused to recant and return to the worship of the traditional gods. Cursing the name of Christ and offering incense to the genius of the emperor could be your only hope to escape the wild beasts, the headsman’s sword, or burning at the stake. Even though things could be relatively quiet for a few years at a time, there were repeated periods of intense persecution by the Roman state in which thousands perished and many more were maimed, imprisoned or impoverished.
And yet the early Church flourished and grew under these terrible conditions. Indeed, the most rapid growth in membership frequently came immediately following the harshest periods of persecution. It is clear that many of the pagans who watched the horrific public execution of Christians were positively impressed by the conduct of the condemned, much to the chagrin of Roman officials! They asked themselves what these Christians could possibly know that made them willing to suffer torture and death rather than give up their belief in a crucified Jewish carpenter?
What those early Christians knew, of course, is what our Scripture lessons remind us of this morning. In the first place, those early martyrs knew that God is the Judge of human hearts and that our actions on earth have eternal consequences. For as Isaiah prophesied, the day is coming when God will “make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet; and [His] hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter"” of those who scoff at His decrees. The nations who rage in defense of this present world will be shaken, the Psalmist tells us, when “He utters his voice, [and] the earth melts away.” Therefore “See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking;” Hebrews warns us, “ for … how will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!” We can be certain the early martyrs had the judgment of God in mind as they faced theirs executioners because they spoke to their persecutors about it repeatedly. The aged bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, for example, admonished his Roman killers even as they tied him to the stake: “You threaten that fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched, for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly.” What we do in this life truly does echo in eternity. Christians lived as if this life was merely a prelude to what was to come, and the death of every martyr graphically reminded their pagan neighbors that the things of this present world were passing away. Prepare for the next.
But as we read the stories of the early martyrs we find it was not primarily the fear of Hell that kept them faithful to Christ even in the face of an agonizing death. Rather, it was the hope of a new and vastly superior world awaiting them. These early Christians longed to be part of “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,” to join “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” in “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” Those early witnesses, who gave the last full measure of devotion for their Lord, knew they could remain faithful and “enter by the narrow door” only by reliance on the power of the Lord God of hosts, standing firmly on “ a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation” the Father has laid in Zion—our Savior Jesus Christ.
And what a comfort it must have been to those who suffered and died for the sake of righteousness to have such a precious cornerstone supporting them. For Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, stands implacably opposed to those who covenant with this world of death and decay. He is a bulwark against those who take shelter in falsehood. The power of Christ made manifest in the martyrs’ courage exposed the lie of the Roman power, which was to take their lives. While unjust Roman authority would shed the blood of the innocent faithful in defense of the false gods of imperial corruption and exploitation, Jesus had shed His own blood, “the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel,” to bring a new world into being, a world where wars cease, spears are shattered, and chariots are burned in God’s holy fire. Abel’s blood had called out condemnation from the earth into which it had soaked. But the blood of Christ, poured out on the rocky ground of Calvary, has become “a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High,” a river of Life welling up in those who put their trust in Christ unto eternal life. That sacred Blood, and the precious Body from which it flowed, have become the heavenly food and drink of those “come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God.”
The power of God in which the blessed martyrs took refuge was made perfect in the powerless Victim of Golgotha, a Sacrifice wholly consumed in the fire of God’s love for the forgiveness of our sins. Nevertheless Christ abides with His Church, even in her suffering, through the power of His Holy Spirit. And because “God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved.” The steadfastness that so impressed the ancient pagans and contributed to the Church’s growth--even in the midst of persecution--was grounded on that precious cornerstone laid in Zion. And Christ’s Body remains anchored to that same foundation to this day. Our hope to join “the innumerable company of angels” in singing God’s praises forever in the new Jerusalem rests upon exactly the same truth that did the early martyrs’: the sure and certain knowledge that Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen One, has opened “the narrow way” to new and unending life in God’s kingdom through the incomparable power of His cross and empty tomb. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.