Do we seek the glory? (Palm Sunday 2004)
I was standing at the corner of the street recently and noticed that footpath at the intersection had been upgraded. The council had laid those special bumpy paving stones which tell someone who is blind that an intersection has been reached. I first saw these paving stones in London in the early 1990's – but hadn't seen them used here in New Zealand until quite recently. When I first saw them (and felt them under my feet) I realised how useful such a simple innovation would be to someone like my father-in-law who was partially sighted.
Just the other week my father -in-law died. He was in his early seventies, so still - by today's standards – considered to be relatively “young”. He grew up in the depression in The Empire State (sorry, New York State). He saw active service in the US Airforce during the Korean war - despite having a glass eye! He was medically retired from service in the early 1960's. He served with many people who gave their freedom, their lives for the defence of their country.
He came to New Zealand on holiday in the early 1970's and gained back his sight. He decided to settle here – he had been given back his sight and it also gave him the opportunity to escape Richard Nixon's America. Richard Nixon was (I think) the president that my father-in-law despised the most.
Nixon you will recall was caught up in scandals of all sorts – not just Watergate. It was Nixon who commenced the campaign in peaceful Cambodia and led the United States during its darkest hours of war in Vietnam. Vietnam was the US's war of shame. The veterans who returned from Vietnam were unsung heroes.
My father-in-law was not a “war hero” in the usual sense – his battles were of the more obscure kind, the harder ones in which few are recognised and even fewer gain a medal. He strove against disability and prejudice in its many forms. He employed black people in his small business at a time before Johnson's reforms. He encountered the sort of bigotry that is common to all of us who do not have the foresight that a reformer has – those of us who are comfortable with where we are at. Reformers are those who dare to be different.
Many of us are reformers of one form or another during our life time. For many of us, it is reforming ourselves, for others it is reforming a small group, for a select few it is reforming an entire society. For those of us with or who observe younger people we see reformers frequently. The young frequently want to reform - some go too far and move to into rebellion. Of course one adult's rebellion is a teenagers idea of a minor change! That is the nature of reform – change, often not wanted and frequently turning to open conflict.
Reformers of all sorts face conflict in a number of ways. Some face small obstacles, others pay with their lives. What obstacles have each of us encountered in our rebellions and reformations? One man objected to the way that the Roman Church was run – no one would listen so he nailed his objections to the Cathedral doors! He started the “Reformation” in the West.
Another man objected to the way that his country men were being ruled, through his perseverance an entire Empire was reformed. Britain lost India and its Empire – and Gandhi will be remembered as one of the greatest pacifists and philosopher politicians of the 20th century.
Unfortunately change is often not peaceful. The Coal Miner's strike in Britain in the 1980's was an ugly industrial conflict about changing work place practices. The industrial revolution brought change and conflict. The French revolution was a bloody revolution and about a hundred and fifty years before that, the English Parliamentary revolution martyred the English King. Revolution seemingly always bring war and death and martyrs.
But what are martyrs? You know, we often hear about them – we often call our workmates and family members martyrs times. Oh – he's just being a martyr! Don't be a martyr for your children! Phrases like these roll off the tongue with ease in the comfort of modern lives. But martyrdom isn't that really is it? Martyrdom – from a Christian Church perspective is somethings quite different.
You'll recall that Stephen was the first martyr – the proto-martyr. He died for his faith in Our Lord – he was stoned to death. That is not a comfortable death. Many of those who we regard as Saints (that's saints with a big 'S' rather than us common or garden saints) gained their Saintly status by taking on the crown of martyrdom.
As I mentioned a moment ago, Stephen was the first martyr of the Church. I'll just remind you a bit about Stephen. Stephen was a Deacon – one of the first chosen (Acts 6:5) to fill that office – a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit”. The Deacons were appointed to help with the administration of the Church, but they also helped to spread the Good News, Stephen in particular: “full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). Stephen was so successful that one group that he had preached to plotted against him. He defended himself admirably in front of the authorities who were so incencsed at his testimony that they summarily executed him by stoning. The Scriptures record that Stephen followed his Saviour to then end and as he died he echoed Christ's words on the Cross, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin”.
The next martyr that comes to my mind is Ignatius of Antioch – the second Bishop of my Church (The Church of Antioch) after Saint Peter. Saint Ignatius is said to be the boy who was held by Our Lord and mentioned in the bible (Mark 9:36). In late age he was sent to Rome and martyred under the persecution of the Emperor Trajan in the Circus by lions.
Many years later, there was a deacon in Rome by the name of Laurence. He loved his people – the poor of Rome and supported them using the wealth of the Church. When asked to deliver up the treasures of the Church he presented the poor. For this and refusing to renounce Christ, Saint Laurence was subjected to many tortures before being barbequed to death.
Many of the martyrs were women. Saint Lucy lived during the final persecutions of the Church under the Roman Empire. She was a young woman whose future husband accused her of being a Christian because she had given her dowry to the poor. She refused to worship idols and the Roman prefect ordered pitch, resin and boiling oil to poured on her. She was unharmed by this and suffered many other cruel tortures before her throat was pierced by a sword.
Stephen, Ignatius, Laurence, Lucy and myriads of others in the early Church died for Christ, bearing witness to Him and bearing the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
We have martyrs to-day - in Africa many people have been martyred for their faith in recent years. More well known due to the popular press, are the people in Palestine who die for their political beliefs in the hope of martyrdom. They blow themselves up and other people. You know, as far as I am aware there are no Christian martyrs (at least those recognised by the Church) who deliberately committed acts of suicide as a means to a political end (though there are certainly Christians who were martyred for political reasons – King Charles as mentioned above, Joan of Arc and the Russian royal family immediately spring to mind).
These recent acts are acts of aggression – they are not acts of love, they are not bearing the fruits of the Spirit. By their fruits they shall be known. No matter how oppressed – and these people are without doubt oppressed - these acts are clearly not the acts of someone who loves God.
Wait a minute you say, these people in Gaza and the West Bank are, or at least were, inspired by a religious leader – Sheik Ahmed Yassin. A man confined to a wheelchair, a champion of the cause for the Palestinian people and who was killed – murdered some may say - by the Israeli occupying power the other day.
You know, it is true that Sheik Yassin was a religious leader – a devout Muslim who had faithfully lead his people for many years. But at the same time this man spread retribution not forgiveness, war not peace, killing not healing, power not humility, despair not hope, hatred not love.
The situation in the Middle East today is one demanding political leadership and solutions to a situation of invasion, oppression and disposession. This sounds terribly familiar.
On Palm Sunday, we remember the entrance of Our Lord into Jerusalem. Jesus is hailed by the masses as a political leader. They want to be rid of the occupying power. They wave branches of palm and olive. Palm the emblem of a warrior – Olive the emblem of peace, this is a victory parade into Jerusalem. But how does Christ enter the city? On a charger with an army? No... on a donkey.
God was born in a stable in a small town in an insignificant province of the Empire, not in Rome, or Athens – the centres of power and culture.
God as Man did not seek political power.
God as Man did not preach hatred but love.
God as Man bore the fruits of His Spirit.
Sheik Yassin preached hatred... died... and is still dead.
Christ preached love,... died... and rose again.
He is coming in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Are you seeking glory? Are you seeking God? Are you ready for Him?