Wednesday night’s service in Cambridge got me thinking. (I’m sure that was one of the hoped-for outcomes!) At some stage I must have known about Ignatius of Antioch. Well, I think I must have. I have read Eusebius’ ‘The History of the Church’. Eusebius is generally regarded as the ‘father of ecclesiastical history’ which means that if you want to know what went on in the early church in its first 300 years (apart from the New Testament material), you have to read him. (Maybe I skipped those pages on Ignatius.) So when I heard about Ignatius of Antioch in the service – our Lenten ‘theme’ is ‘martyrs’ – it felt as if I was learning something new. So I went and read Eusebius again – no, just the pages on Ignatius – and also dipped into his letters.
He wanted to encourage the churches as he was travelling to Rome to remain faithful. He’s writing in the first decade of the 2nd century. That message hasn’t changed! Pastors want it for and from their congregations. Congregations want it from their pastors! Parents for their children. Spouses for the other (especially if there is a religious difference). And so on. We value loyalty and faithfulness in principle and they can be relatively easy to maintain as long as they meet our ‘needs’. A conflict or ‘test’ emerges when we ourselves want the alternative – that’s when faithfulness and loyalty are tested. It might be easy to blame externals, the context, the situation but the truth is that faithfulness reflects us and what’s going on inside of us. That reflection of ourselves is ‘witnessed’ by whomever sees us. (One reason why unfaithfulness so often tries to hide.) The Greek word for witness is μάρτυς (martus). The word has its origins in the legal world of witness and testimony. For us the word ‘martyr’ has come to mean ‘witness unto death’.
Such witnesses are noticeable precisely because we all default into believing and understanding and living that our life is the most important thing we have. And we all want what is best for us! So a martyrdom makes anyone who sees it pause and take notice. What could be ‘worth’ more than our lives? So we then look for an explanation – we listen to the words the witness might say – and give our ‘judgement’ – unsure, deluded, crazy, sick, noble, inspiring, and so on. Actions generally do speak louder than words but you still need the words to be sure.
Christian martyrdom is actually a lifestyle – dying to self each day and living with Christ – begun in baptism. That’s the witness … in our marriages (which we can’t ‘control’), in our families (try making everyone behave as you decree!), in our work (you get the picture), at school, when we’re with friends, when we’re among enemies, in our congregations, when happy, sick, rich, poor and just maybe (hopefully not) should we face some sort of choice – my life or my living with Jesus. The lifestyle doesn’t change even when the circumstances come along where death is literally staring us in the face.
Of course our witness is never ‘perfect’ that is why in Lent we want the world to see two things about us as Christians. We are sinners. (I sin. Sin is my fault. No excuses.) That’s pretty easy if they watch us over any length of time. But also that we are repentant. (Each day. Genuinely. Not just talk. Seeking to follow Jesus. And that’s much harder.) And we want the world to know why.
And then we point to the cross. — GS