Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 1st Sunday after Christmas/St. Stephen's Day: Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60; John 1:1-18
St. Thomas’ Day, December 21, has been moved by many to July 3, about as far from Christmas as you can get. The story of “Doubting Thomas” was just a bit too close to Christmas for comfort for some.
St. Stephen’s Day, today, has been moved to August 3, or in some places August 20, to get the death of the first Christian martyr away from the joy of Christmas.
St. John’s Day, tomorrow, moved to May 6 because if you move the rest of them you’ve got to move this one too.
And finally, the Holy Innocents’ of Bethlehem, December 28, moved to February 16, again to get death out of the twelve days of Christmas.
A brief word about Thomas. No one really knows how his feast ended up near Christmas and it may, in fact, not have started out there. The earliest list of martyrs that we have says his feast day is July 3, where the Roman Catholic Church moved it in 1969. I’ll give you that one. Move Thomas, that’s fine with me.
But these other three, the three days after Christmas Day we know were put where they are quite deliberately. Over the centuries they have been referred to as the Comites Christi, the “Friends of Christ.” Each gave important and unique testimony to Christ and each displayed the potential consequence of that testimony, which would have been an especially important statement in the life of the early church.
When you’re reading the New Testament if you come across the words “testimony,” “testify” or “witness” you will undoubtedly be reading the translation of the Greek word martys. In the Greek of Jesus’ day, martys was a legal term. A martys spoke from their personal experience about what had happened to them or to someone else, usually at a trial. Christians at first appropriated this word to mean anyone who had been a witness to Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, then anyone who experienced the presence of Jesus after his resurrection, then, eventually, anyone who was maltreated or killed because of their testimony to Jesus. Eventually “martyr” meant what it does today.
The Comites Christi came into place on the three days after Christmas by the end of the fourth century because they bore witness to the three types of martyrdom the church recognized and experienced. The “red martyrdom” of Stephen, simply killed for his faith in Christ. The “white martyrdom” of John, sent into exile on the island of Patmos. The “innocent martyrdom” of the male children of Bethlehem.
But why the need to make this statement immediately following Christmas? I think mostly because this was the church’s experience. Being a friend of Christ was a dangerous thing. Witness to Christ—the simple public knowledge that one was a Christian—could get one persecuted or, indeed, killed. People needed the comfort of the juxtaposition of these feasts to Christmas. The baby was born for you. The baby was born in his own difficult situation and following him would itself be difficult. The wood of the manger would become the wood of the cross. The early Church was very aware of this. They were not so good at compartmentalizing parts of Jesus’ story as we are.
What does this have to do with us? Several things, I think:
- · Persecution and murder of Christians because they are Christians is not a fact of life for us, but it is a fact of life for some of our brothers and sisters in Christ, some of them also Anglicans. It is dangerous to be a Christian in Iraq these days. Iraqi Christians are largely Roman Catholic. It is also dangerous to be a Christian in Pakistan. A goodly number of Christians in Pakistan are Anglicans.
- · We need to understand the dynamics that the reality of martyrdom brings to a church. This is a significant factor in our troubles with many of our fellow Anglicans in Africa these days. The Church of Uganda, of which I am the most familiar, traces its founding to martyrs in the 19th century, at a time when this parish was already 50 years old, and Idi Amin’s massacre of Christians in the 1980’s, including the Anglican Archbishop, is still as fresh as the day it happened.
- · We experience different kinds of martyrdom in our own context. I have known no one killed for their faith, but I have baptized someone knowing that the consequence was complete separation from his devoutly Mormon family. Because I oftentimes am dressed so that people can recognize me as a Christian and a priest, I know the hostility that is out there—much of it deserved—to the church and the priesthood. It is not true that I get special respect everywhere I go because I am a priest. That has not been true for a long time now. And we are all called to make significant decisions as followers of Christ that will not make us popular with our friends and neighbors, and even our families, some of them active Christians. Our witness may lead to the death of important relationships.
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
But he goes on,
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
Let us not be afraid to tell the world of this friendship that changes everything. And let us be ready to support one another in the cost we will bear.