Martyrs for Christ
70 Million Christian Martyrs! 70 Million people, since the birth of Christ, have been killed because they were followers of this newborn baby we celebrated this past week. That’s quite an incredible number of people who have suffered and died for their Christian faith!
This may seem like an unusual topic to preach on only two days after we celebrate Christmas, and yet, in reality, it’s a very concrete reminder of what it means to truly follow the One whose birthday we just celebrated.
Celebrating our faith, and being prepared to suffer for our faith, have always gone hand-in-hand. Think about it. Shortly after the miraculous birth of Christ at Christmas, and the wonder that accompanied God’s Incarnation and entrance into the world, we have the tragedy of King Herod slaughtering the innocent children in Bethlehem. A crazy king killing innocent children because of Jesus. And then we have the other great feasts of our Church, and you see something similar. Only a brief period of time following Christ’s Resurrection from the dead, and the empowering of the disciples by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, we read about the persecution of the first Christians and the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the first deacon and the first follower of Jesus to die for his faith. We always remember St. Stephen the protomartyr to days after Christmas.
Imagine, after the three greatest events in history – the Incarnation of God at Christmas, the
Resurrection of Christ from the dead at Pascha, and the Holy Spirit coming upon the first Christians and transforming them from scared, illiterate fishermen to bold preachers and witnesses of the faith to the world at large – after these great events when God decisively acted in history, we have satan and his powers of darkness striking out, and trying to extinguish the divine light of God.
God becomes human in the person of Jesus Christ, born as a defenseless child in Bethlehem, and evil king Herod tries to kill the Christ child, and willingly kills countless other innocent children in the process.
Jesus Christ resurrects from the dead, and confirms His divine mission and calling to His followers by His miraculous conquering of death. He then sends His Holy Spirit upon His apostles, and commissions them into the world to share His Good News with all people. Yet shortly after these miraculous events, St. Stephen becomes the first person to die because of his faith in Jesus Christ and his identity as a follower of Christ.
And over the past 2000 years of Christianity, more than 70 million people have been martyred for their Christian faith. 70 MILLION CHRISTIAN MARTYRS, of which 43 million were Orthodox Christians. Of course, we can search the internet today and read about thousands and thousands of contemporary Christian martyrs each year. This is not something of the past. It is estimated that 67% of worldwide Christians live in dangerous places where their lives can be at risk.
To be a true follower of Jesus Christ has always been risky, because authentic followers of Christ will be counter-cultural. They will be radicals of love and truth, and our approach of love and truth will always threaten the ways of the powerful, wealthy and comfortable.
This is why St. Paul reminds the Christians in Philippi that “For to you, it has been granted on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Phil 1:29). Yet when someone lives united to Jesus Christ, living the abundant life that Christ promised, then whatever suffering one experiences is incomparable to the treasure of faith that we possess. The Apostle Paul would go on to say “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom 8:28).
Today we remember St. Stephen, a first century follower of Christ with a “good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom… full of faith and power, who did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:3,8) When he was proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ in the temple of Jerusalem, he threatened the religious leaders and people of his day with his words, and a radical crowd grabbed him and began to stone him to death. Saul, who would later become St. Paul after his conversion, was among those killing Stephen. But St. Stephen, full of God’s grace in life and even as he was being killed, didn’t end his life in fear or anger or hatred towards those killing him. Instead, his final words were, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit… Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” (Acts 7:59-60)
Imagine, forgiving those who were throwing stones at you to kill you. St. Stephen truly imitated his role model and his Lord Jesus Christ by uttering those words. Just as Jesus forgave his murderers while dying on the Cross, saying “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” St. Stephen could also do the same.
To believe in Christ means that we must be prepared to suffer for Christ. And yet, this is not a defeat, to suffer for the One we love. It is just a reminder that we live in a fallen world where we will never see the reign of God rule over this world. Instead, we can experience the kingdom of God within each of our hearts, and live under that kingdom of love, mercy and grace. We can experience the greatest treasure of life in our relationship with God, and living under this reign is what helps us to experience the rich and abundant life God meant for each of us to have.
Let us remember today the witness of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian Church. And let us strive to discover that faith that he had, and be filled so much with the Holy Spirit that we also can say with him, to whoever may seek to persecute us for our faith, “Do not charge them with this sin… Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
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