Acts 6:8-15, 7:54-60, Psalm 31

May 5, 1996 by Tad Mitsui

Stephen was the first Christian martyr recorded in the Bible. He was killed because he did not lie about his belief. He was killed by those who valued institutions more than human lives. Often Stephen”s martyrdom is celebrated as the supreme sacrifice of one who is faithful. But this morning, I want to take a different tack and warn us about the danger of a culture of death, rather than emphasizing the heroic nature of martyrdom. And to answer the question I posed in my sermon title, I declare categorically that no one must die for one”s belief. The vision of the Kingdom of God is where all beliefs are respected. If anyone is forced to sacrifice one”s life because of what one believes in, our task should be to reject whatever forced death on such a person and to vow to change such conditions.

It is important for us to recognize today that our Christian faith is definitely against culture of death. There is today a culture of death that praises suicide for one”s beliefs, or justifies killing for the sake of a cause. Suicides by some cults, such as the Solar Temple recently or the followers of Jim Jones some years ago, and killings of any kind for the sake of beliefs, such as the assassination of Prime Minister Rabine or the bombings in Oklahoma City and in Palestine: They are all part of the culture of death and must be rejected by us. This is not the message of the martyrdom of Stephen. We believe in life.

Neither Jesus nor Stephen sought death. They believed in life. In other words, they were committed to more abundant life but their efforts were interfered with by those who believed that life could be expendable. There have been many people whose lives were sacrificed because of love, just like Jesus or Stephen. In those cases, we must distinguish an act of love from a death wish. They had to die not because they wanted it, but because forces of death wanted to destroy the power of love. When you hear about those mothers in Hiroshima and Rwanda, where many babies were found under the bodies of mothers who died protecting them, you can see the point very clearly. Those mothers wanted to live, but even more than that, they wanted their children to live. They fought back with the naked force of love. It was not suicide. It was the stubbornness of love. Love was the true life force, that made death redundant. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the proof of that.

Some people conclude quite wrongly that because we believe in resurrection and eternal life, this life here and now does not matter all that much. They believe that we should all give up the comfort and joy of this life and look forward to the life hereafter. They often believe that there are two kinds of life; spiritual life and physical life, one is superior and everlasting but the other is lower a form of life. This type of belief is called "dualism", and must be rejected. We do not believe in the dualistic view of life. The life God gave us is one and the same. When God created the world and all that lived therein, God looked at them and said, "This is good." Jesus turned water into wine, so a wedding reception could continue. Thus Jesus affirmed the pleasure of life.

Eating, sleeping, and all other physical pleasures are good in the eyes of God, because they enhance quality of life. Of course, you can turn those pleasures into a curse, by compulsive and destructive over-indulgence, which often comes from a lack of self-respect. Then the quality of life diminishes. In principle, we must reject the idea that somehow pain and suffering are good for spiritual life. We don”t condone masochism, and we reject suicide as a way to enter into a better life. Stephen did not wish to die. He wanted to tell people about a better way of life, by speaking about the life of Jesus as a completion of all prophets and teachings of God.

The tradition to admire martyrs for not compromising and dying for the beliefs has been very strong in Christianity. This was often misunderstood as the worship of pain, suffering, and death. Many people wrongly believed that pain and death themselves are virtuous and thus we all should look for them. We must reject this. This is not what Jesus preached. Ours is a life affirming religion.

A Catholic Japanese writer by the name of Shusaku Endo struggled with this question about martyrdom and wrote a novel, "Silence" which is about a priest who rejected senseless death. The story goes like this: during the sixteenth century, a Jesuit by the name of Francisco Xavier went to Japan and planted the seeds for the Catholic Church in Japan. He was very successful and gained many converts very quickly: about 200,000 in a few years. But the ruler of Japan – the Shogun – thought that it was a dangerous invasion of a foreign idea which could eventually erode his authority. He began a brutal persecution against the Christians. Many were forced to convert back to Buddhism, and many more were crucified or thrown into the craters of active volcanoes. The Shogun eventually closed the whole country to outsiders for four centuries just to keep the foreign ideas out.

The method adopted by authorities to track down Christians was a forced desecration of the image of Mary and the Holy Child. An inspector and his party would arrive at a village, and every villager was ordered to step onto the carved wooden image. Anyone who hesitated was taken in and was tortured until they renounced the Christian faith. Those who refused were executed. Endo”s novel was about one Portuguese priest by the name of Rodrigues, who stepped on the wooden image to save other Japanese Christians from death. He had watched many faithful people die. He was tortured by his own conscience and he asked God a question. "Is it your will that they suffer so much, because of a man-made image?" Even though it was the official teaching of the church at the time not to desecrate the image, this priest decided that it was against the will of God for people to die for it. And to set an example, he stepped on it, so that many would follow his examples and save their lives. This priest became known as an infamous figure of a traitor in the history of Japanese Church like Judas of Iscariot in the Bible. But Endo”s novel disputes this idea and poses a question to us.

The question is whether martyrdom is for life or for an institution. When an institution imposes sacrifices on people, we must always ask a question; "Is it for the love of human life or for the protection of the institution itself?" Slave owners always encouraged slaves to go to church, because the church emphasized the blessing of the afterlife rather than rewards in the present. The church also encouraged the belief that suffering in this life helped to accumulate virtues in heaven so that the slaves would not complain about the terrible conditions of their lives. We today must firmly renounce such life-negating beliefs.

Jesus was executed by institutions; because those organizations like the temples and the Roman authorities felt threatened by the idea of the supremacy of love which Jesus preached. In their mind, spiritual qualities like the love of life were dangerous, because they made people feel free and not fearful of customs and traditions. Some of them were obsolete and oppressive. They needed to rule people by fear. This was why the joyous messages of love and life had to be snuffed out. Thanks be to God, they were not successful. The martyrdom of Stephen proved that they were not.

I still have a letter from a widow of an old friend. This friend was found dead twenty years ago in a prison in South Africa. He was an accountant for an organization the United Church supported. I was in a job where I sent the money and received accounts from him. We still don”t know why Mapetla Mohapi had to die. The organization he worked for was doing things like giving small loans to small businesses, like the organization in Montreal that our church gave money to last year. Probably the idea that black people could help each other was dangerous to the South African Government at the time. It could undermine the banks. His wife, Nohle, with whom I corresponded for a while after Mapetla died, was the first witness to appear in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which held its first hearing a few weeks ago in the city where Mapetla died. I am so happy that she at last had a chance to tell her story. This proves that the life that Mapetla loved so much finally won out in that country. Life goes on despite death. That is the message of the life of a martyr like Stephen.

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