Sermon Notes by Dr. Julius D. Twongyeirwe – October 21st 2018 – St. Kakumba Chapel, Kyambogo University
Christian history is our story and their story, those who have gone before us. It is a story of conflict, of war, of crusade, of blood, of sweat, of flesh and of faith. It is the history of the people of Jesus Christ in the crucible of life.
This history of Christianity liberates us from the tyranny of the present – and of the recent past. This history helps root out prejudice and foster sympathy and humility. Knowing more about the past, we gain insight into the practices and problems of Christianity in the present. Life is too short to have to learn it all by experience.
This story helps us become less critical of others. It helps us become more aware of our own shortcomings and limited perspectives, because it shows us how we got where we are today. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it. The questions that we struggle with today are not altogether new.
Getting to grips with this story gives us a sense of the communion of saints – the “cloud of witnesses” from the past which urges us to go on. The heroism, tears, toil, and triumphs of “dead Christians” get to inspire us who are living.
As of 2015, each month 322 Christians were killed for their faith. 772 forms of violence were committed against Christians (such as beatings, abductions, rapes, arrests and forced marriages). 214 churches and properties of Christians were destroyed that year.
The Reformation gave us the Bible. The Reformers fought for the principles that Scripture alone is our final authority, Christ alone is the head of the Church and justification is by God’s grace alone, on the basis of the finished work of Christ, received by faith alone.
Few people today realize that the first Bibles printed into English had to be smuggled into England, and that the Bible translator, William Tyndale, was burnt at the stake for the crime of translating the Bible into English.
Seven fathers and mothers were burned alive at Coventry for teaching the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed to their children – in English.
The sacrifices made by the Reformers, and the far-reaching impact of their courageous application of the Word of God to every area of life, needs to be rediscovered.
Tyndale was a priest, a scholar, and suffered as a Christian martyr. Tyndale was born about 1495 at Slymbridge near the Welsh border. He received his degrees from Magdalen College, Oxford, and also studied at Cambridge.
He was ordained to the priesthood in 1521, and soon began to speak of his desire, which eventually became his life’s obsession, to translate the Scriptures into English.
It is reported that, in the course of a dispute with a prominent clergyman who disparaged this proposal, he said, “If God spare my life, in years to come I will cause a boy that drives the plow to know more of the Scriptures than you do.” The remainder of his life was devoted to keeping that vow, or boast.
He found that the King, Henry VIII, was firmly set against any English version of the Scriptures, so he fled to Germany (visiting Martin Luther in 1525), and there he travelled from city to city, in exile, in poverty, in persecution, and constant danger. Tyndale understood the commonly received doctrine — the popular theology — of his time to imply that men earn their salvation by good behavior and by penance.
He wrote eloquently in favor of the view that salvation is a gift of God, freely bestowed, and not a response to any good act on the part of the receiver. His views are expressed in numerous pamphlets, and in the introductions to commentaries on various books of the Bible that accompanied his translations. He completed his translation of the New Testament in 1525, and it was printed at Worms and smuggled into England.
Of 18,000 copies, only two survive. In 1534, he produced a revised version, and began work on the Old Testament. In the next two years he completed and published the Pentateuch and Jonah, and translated the books from Joshua through Second Chronicles.
But then he was captured (having been betrayed by one of his friends). He was put to trial for heresy, and put to death by burning him at stake on 6 October 1536. But as was often done, the officer strangled him before lighting the fire. His last words were, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”
Miles Coverdale continued Tyndale’s work by translating those portions of the Bible (including the Apocrypha) which Tyndale had not lived to translate himself, and publishing the complete work.
In 1537, the “Matthew Bible” (essentially the Tyndale-Coverdale Bible under another man’s name to spare the government embarrassment) was published in England with the Royal Permission.
Six copies were set up for public reading in Old St. Paul’s Church, and throughout the daylight hours the church was crowded with those who had come to hear it. One man would stand at the lectern and read until his voice gave out, and then he would stand down and another would take his place. All English translations of the Bible from that time to the present century are essentially revisions of the Tyndale-Coverdale work.
The phenomenon of martyrdom in suffering for Christ
This is fundamental to the early Christian experience and mindset. Martyr is a Greek word that means “witness.” The martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7 is an influential model on the idea that, at the moment of death, the martyr is given grace.
The first martyr was executed by the Jews of Jerusalem. Early Christianity was too small to be noticed by the Romans; it primarily caused tensions within Judaism.
Over time, Christianity grew and the Romans came to despise this religion of slaves and women that refused to submit to Roman public religion. The Roman gods blessed the empire and grew crops. Who was to blame when natural disasters occurred? Tertullian, an early church father, writes that Christians are blamed instantly at every natural disaster.
Christians were blamed when the Roman gods punished society, because the Christians were disrupting the peace of the gods. We hear of one episode of persecution in 177 AD when some churches in Gaul were attacked because an outbreak of plague.
Tertullian said that the call to throw Christians to lions arises at every disaster. Execution was part of the culture of public spectacle.
The Romans loved public spectacles, especially violent games. They loved to watch as people were killed in entertaining ways – including by animals. It is impossible to understand the early Christian mindset without knowledge of this experience.
Christians were willing to die in front of great crowds as witnesses for Christ. Tertullian wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” When Christians were publicly executed, the audience did not always react with applause. Martyr means “witness.”
Many saw these Christians as courageous. And if they were willing to die in horrible ways for their faith, what did that say about their faith? What better way could there be to spread the religion? Romans tried to humiliate and kill Christians, but it only made Christianity stronger.
The martyrs were the heroes of the early church. They were the ones who kept alive the tradition of Jesus and the Apostles who had died before them.
Martyrdom had a lot of staying power within Christianity. In many respects, it is due to the glory of the martyrs that later Christians increasingly turned to asceticism as a method of “self-persecution” – so that they could live as their heroes had.
How did the early Church view martyrs?
Christians held a theology of martyrdom that gave them courage to endure. The early church’s theology of martyrdom was born not in synods or councils, but in blood-drenched coliseums and catacombs, as dark and still as death itself.
The word martyr meaning witness is used as such throughout the New Testament. But as the Roman Empire became increasingly hostile toward Christianity, the distinctions between witnessing and suffering became blurred and finally nonexistent.
In the second century, then, martyr became a technical term for a person who had died for Christ, while “confessor” was defined as one who proclaimed Christ’s lordship at trial but did not suffer the death penalty. A passage from Eusebius describes the survivors of the persecution in Lyons (in 177 in what is today France):
“They were also so zealous in their imitation of Christ … that, though they had attained honor, and had borne witness, not once or twice, but many times—having been brought back to prison from the wild beasts, covered with burns and scars and wounds—yet they did not proclaim themselves martyrs, nor did they suffer us to address them by this name.
If any one of us, in letter or conversation, spoke of them as martyrs, they rebuked him sharply.… And they reminded us of the martyrs who had already departed, and said, ‘They are already martyrs whom Christ has deemed worthy to be taken up in their confession, having sealed their testimony by their departure; but we are lowly and humble confessors.'”
Why not armed resistance?
One wonders what prompted Christians to emulate the passive resisters, rather than armed revolutionaries.
To answer this question one does not need to look further than Jesus himself. The church understood martyrdom as an imitation of Christ. The Lord was the exemplar of nonviolence at his own trial and execution, declaring that his servants would not fight because his kingdom was not of this world.
Jesus’ words burned themselves deeply into the collective psyche of the early church: “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also (Luke 6:29); do not resist an evil person (Matt. 5:39); blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness (Matt. 5:10); if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (John 15:20).”
Paul and the other New Testament authors sustained and developed the theme that followers of Christ were to suffer, not fight, for their Lord. A believer’s weapons were not composed of iron or bronze but were made of sterner and firmer stuff (Eph. 6:13ff).
Stephen, the first Christian martyr, died a Christ-like death, praying earnestly for his tormentors. Eusebius, the church historian, called Stephen “the perfect martyr”; thus he became a prototype for all martyrs to follow.
The Ultimate Contest in Martyrdom
The martyr’s nonviolent response to trial and torture was never equated with passivity or resignation. For the early church, the act of martyrdom was a spiritual battle of epic proportion against the powers of hell itself.
Despite their moral opposition to gladiatorial (sword fighters) and athletic contests, Christians freely appropriated the language of the games to describe their spiritual stints with evil. Eusebius wrote effusively of “the discipline and much-tried fortitude (resilience, courage or grit) of the athletes of religion, the trophies won from demons, the victories placed upon all their heads.”
These vivid athletic metaphors echo the thoughts of 1 Cor. 9:24—25 which says, “Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever”. So, the ultimate contest in the act of martyrdom was a spiritual battle of epic proportion against the powers of hell itself.
The Ultimate Companion in Martyrdom
For early Christians, such a battle was not waged alone. The church understood the believer’s suffering and death as a concrete and literal realization of death and burial with Christ, enacted figuratively in every convert’s baptism (Rom. 6:3).
Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to martyrdom at Rome, wrote to the church there to take no action to prevent his death, for he wished to “attain to Christ” and to be an “imitator of the passion of Christ, his God.”
To persecute Christians is to persecute Jesus himself (Acts 9:5); Christ’s disciples would suffer as he did (John 15:20); believers are to be crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20); Christians are to “rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings that you may rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13).
Martyrs not only represented Christ, but also found Christ actually present with them, in a mystical way, during their torment, torture and death.
The church understood the source of the martyr’s strength and testimony to be the Holy Spirit. Only by his inspiration could such powerful proclamation be given before hostile authorities. The martyrs relied on Jesus’ promise: “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit” (Mk. 13:11).
Those who confessed their faith in the face of persecution were seen as receiving a word of revelation and proclamation much like the Old Testament prophets. So, the ultimate companion in martyrdom was the Holy Spirit Himself.
The Ultimate Crown in Martyrdom
The negative side to the assurance of inspiration during trial and torture was the danger of apostasy under the same conditions. The Shepard of Hermas[i] declared that a servant who denies the Lord is evil.
The early church also believed in martyrs as master intercessors. The First Epistle of John alludes to the power of intercession: “If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life” (1 Jn 5:16).
Numerous stories were circulated of almost legendary feats of prayer performed by martyrs during their lifetimes. Thus it was not difficult for Christians at that time to imagine these same prayer warriors interceding at the heavenly court after death.
From the love of martyrs to the veneration of martyrs
The imagination that these prayer warriors were interceding at the heavenly court after death became a sentiment of the early church toward its martyrs. It moved the living from love and remembrance of the dead saints to reverence of them and eventually to veneration. How far should we go as biblical Christians?
The author of the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp wrote: “For him (Jesus) as Son of God we adore; the martyrs, as disciples and imitators of the Lord, we reverence as they deserve on account of their unsurpassable loyalty to their King and Teacher.”
Martyrs were honored by having their “heavenly birthdays” (i.e., the anniversaries of their deaths) celebrated annually. The celebration service was held at the grave of the deceased with prayer, oblations (as presented or offered to God), communion, and a reading of the martyr’s history of suffering and death.
By their faithfulness to Christ in spite of torture and death, these men, women, and children proclaimed to the world that Jesus, and not Caesar, is Lord. It is in the same manner that the Uganda martyrs chose to follow the conviction of their new-found faith, than give in to the lordship of Kabaka Mwanga.
In the words of the Book of Revelation, “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death (12:11).”
The Christian view of suffering for Christ in “martyrdom” developed in the context of actual deaths in the first and second centuries after Christ. Martyrdom was as result of persecution and death that was in itself a witness for Christ.
In the early church, the idea developed that it was not enough to be called a Christian, one had to show some proof. That proof was normally some kind of verbal acknowledgement of identification with Christ, starting with the confession ‘Jesus is Lord.’
‘Dying because one is a Christian is the action par excellence in which the disciple who is called to this confirms his or her faith by following the example of Jesus’ suffering and through action is able once again to become a word with power to speak to others’. Eventually confessors were distinguished from martyrs.
Paul gives the deepest foundation for this confidence that he has. He says in 14:7-9, “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. This is a clear harmonization of death and life in Christ, so that we may not fear either.
Christ died and rose again from the dead to destroy the power of death and make the living and the dead his own possession. Therefore, the living now live to his glory, and the dead shall live to his glory.
The living display his worth by how they use his creation for his glory, and the dead display his worth by how they rejoice in the superior worth of Christ over all his gifts of creation.
In the opinion of most people, life and death are antagonistic. Life is something to be desired and cherished, while death is to be dreaded and shunned. Life is the sphere of activities, while death is regarded as their cessation. But Paul teaches a larger view: Christ by His own life and death lifts death out of its darkness and gives a new meaning to life.
The Christian in living consecration, obtains truest riches and secures extensive productiveness in life. For this reason, life is regarded by many as the only sphere for production. However, there is no annihilation because both the life and death of the Christian have a special place and use in the divine purposes.
Death is the shadow feared by man; its very approach casts darkness over the frame. But death loses much of its darkness and its terror when we view it in the light of Christ’s claim. Death introduces us to new and wider spheres. Death and life belong unto Him who by death conquered death, and they are crowned and glorified by love.
We “live unto the Lord” when we live for the good of His people, for the honor of His cause, for the extension of His Kingdom, for the glory of His name. Christians can neither live useless lives nor die useless deaths. God has a purpose in both and a property in both, so that, whether they live or die, they are the Lord’s. Blessed is the man whose sins are forgiven, who tastes the sweets of pardon. He can see the Lord coming in dreadful majesty, and feel no alarm. He can perceive the earth quaking, and experience no terror. In the soul of the true believer is a light that shines through all glooms, is a gladness which overtops all sorrows, is a confidence which overmasters all fears.
May the God, who planted in the heart of his servant William Tyndale a consuming passion to bring the Scriptures to the people in their native tongue, and endowed him with the gift of powerful and graceful expression and with strength to persevere against all obstacles, reveal to us His saving Word, as we read and study the Scriptures, and hear them calling us to repentance and life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
[i] “The Shepherd of Hermas” was a religious literary work of the second and third centuries and was considered a valuable book by many early Christians. “The Shepherd of Hermas” was even considered canonical Scripture by some of the early church fathers such as Irenaeus during the period in which the New Testament was being canonized. Basically, it was written as a call to repentance and adherence to a strict moralistic life.
The author of “The Shepherd of Hermas” is not known. However, a number of ancient sources attribute the work to a Hermas who was a brother of Pius I, the Bishop of Rome from 140 to 155. In the story, Hermas speaks of his life and the development of Christian virtues as he tells of his story as a freed Christian slave.