Based on 1 Sam 17:32-49, 2 Cor 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41
At one point in Christian history the greatest thing one could do to prove their faith was to become a martyr. The word “martyr” is Greek and means “witness” or “testimony”. While the persecutions of Christians were ongoing, unknown numbers of Christian believers were killed or imprisoned for their witness to Christ. We know of some of them through writings from the second and third centuries. In contradistinction to martyrdom, there were some significant issues when leaders of the church did not have the courage to forfeit their lives and instead gave up sacred books and artifacts. Martyrs were revered as the highest level of dedication to one’s faith, while those who capitulated were reviled as apostates and the worst of sinners.
I used to say that belief in Jesus was life-threatening until Emperor Constantine made it the religion of the realm in the early 300’s. However, that is not true. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity, an academic research center that monitors worldwide demographic trends in Christianity, estimates that between the years 2005 – 2015, 900,000 Christians were martyred — an average of 90,000 Christians each year. A seminary friend of mine from Pakistan detailed for me a harrowing encounter with Muslim soldiers who had him kneeling at gun point asking him to renounce his faith – he did not and for some unknown reason they did not kill him. He had to leave Pakistan because his businesses were shuttered and he was continuously persecuted for his faith. Luckily, he made it to the U.S. and after many years apart, was able to get his wife and children moved here as well. He begins his pastoral ministry in Blackstone next Sunday morning; but he has already been witnessing to his faith for many years.
Attacks on churches and on believers still occur, and so I think that it is good that our scriptures today point us to examples of being courageous enough in our faith to fully trust God. Let’s ask God’s Holy Spirit to be with us all as we explore this topic today…
Is there a better Bible story about faith in God yielding courage in battle other than David and Goliath? It is probably one of the first Bible stories that is told, and it is one that sticks in our memories. The young lad, David, who had recently been anointed by Samuel as the next king of Israel, was still serving his father Jesse and shepherding the family flock. The Philistines and Israelites were drawn up in battle lines on two mountains, and the champion of the former, Goliath, came twice daily to taunt his foes…for forty consecutive days. None of the Israelite soldiers would engage him in battle, including David’s three oldest brothers. It appears that God did indeed look inside these elder brothers and find their hearts wanting. Yet young David, filled with the Holy Spirit, was not intimidated by the outward appearance of his foe. David told King Saul that since he had faced down lions and bears protecting his sheep with the LORD’s help, that this “uncircumcised Philistine” would be no match for the power of the living God.
You all know how the story goes from that point. David, without sword or shield, armed only with his sling and five smooth stones, confronts the giant Philistine and kills him. Trusting that God had seen him through other dangerous situations, David once again had his faith in the living God rewarded. Israel won a great battle that day over her long-time foe from Philistia. David cements his anointing and moves one step closer to becoming King.
Paul continues to exhort the faithful in Corinth to live as fully into their faith as he does. He claims that his experience of faithfully following Jesus led him to experience a number of unique life events. He lists 10 hardships (e.g., imprisonments, beatings, calamities) that have been overcome by his fruitful spirit (e.g., purity, knowledge, genuine love). He has been given the things he has required by God through faith (e.g., weapons of righteousness for both hands) to get through these times. He has discovered the paradoxes of living in the faith (read verses 9 and 10) during this time and he can speak of these things to his faithful because his heart to them is open. He knows that they will experience courageous faith like his if they would but open their hearts in trust to God and to Paul’s teachings.
Jesus and his gang of twelve have been teaching from a boat all day. Jesus asks them at dusk to take him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. While they were in route, a windstorm came up and was swamping the boat. The Disciples, many of whom were experienced watermen, were sure that they were about to die. Jesus, however, was in the stern asleep through it all. The Disciples called to him questioning why he wasn’t concerned if they would die. Jesus spoke and wind and waves returned to their calm state. Jesus asks them why they haven’t the faith in God to trust that all will be well – even in the face of life-threatening events. Showing their lack of insight into who Jesus really is, they ask, “…Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?…” They have yet to come to terms with the divinity of Jesus and are still treating him as a holy man or prophet; they are still flummoxed by the way that he speaks to them in parables – even after he explains those stories to them. They are a long way from developing the courageous faith that comes once Jesus is gone.
Courageous faith trusts God completely – no matter what the human circumstances might be. Courageous faith witnesses to the belief that God is indeed Almighty and that God’s plans cannot be thwarted in the long run. Certainly, in the short-term evil and sin can seem to gain the upper hand, and believers can become martyrs of the faith. However, courageous faith knows without a doubt that God’s great love for creation will win out over evil, sin and death. Thus, like the Apostle Paul, those who have developed a courageous faith will be able to withstand hardships, beatings, imprisonments, hunger, etc, through the Holy Spirit’s power and gifts of forbearance, kindness, truth and love. No matter how that believer is perceived by others, even if they have nothing they possess everything.
I read a story of such faith by believers in China. There is much restriction of Christian practice in China and most believers are underground as was true in the early days of Christianity. Most do not have full Bibles, but once and awhile a Gospel or section of the Epistles will be smuggled in. These are treasured and are fiercely guarded. They are also memorized as quickly as possible by leaders and followers so that the words of God might never be taken away. Bands of believers communicate in wildly intricate manners and meet in very small groups so as to not be found out by the secret police. Leaders of these small bands, when identified, are imprisoned and often tortured to reveal other believers. Imprisonments may last many years, and some do not survive the incarceration. Yet, the Christian faith in China is vibrant and growing – full of faithful people who are convinced of the truth of Jesus Christ, and who have the courageous faith to continue to practice their faith in spite of the life-limiting consequences they face.
What about the state of our faith – how courageous are we? Here where there is no oppression for believing in Christ. Here where I would have to work to get imprisoned for my beliefs (e.g., demonstrations, etc). Here where between Lucinda and I we have 10 full Bibles, access to three churches full of discipleship resources, hymnals and the like, and online resources which at the touch of a key give me any Bible translation and commentary I might like to view. Here where we can not only worship in churches, but not fear that our government will come in and shutter our doors, take away our sacred objects, imprison us or destroy our livelihoods just because we profess belief in Jesus the Christ. Some here have had their faith tested by severe illness, life trauma, missionary work in unsafe parts of the world, etc, and have come out with a belief that is like Paul’s or the Chinese believers – most have not.
Those of us who have yet to be sternly tested must rely on the witness of those who have withstood the trials of faith and have still trusted in God Almighty. Though they might lose their mortal lives, they know that they have another place to go to where they will be welcomed. Martyrs teach us still today that we must do everything in our power to support believers in all places and trust God in all things. We who are fortunate to live in areas that are not persecuted need to speak truth to power to free our fellow believers and to send to them sacred texts that will support their faith and give them the affirmation that they are not alone in their affliction. Paul calls us to open our hearts to all believers and to do what is necessary to strengthen their faith while we seek the same for ourselves. Courageous faith requires courageous trust in God and God’s plans for us. With courageous faith, nothing can stand in our way and nothing is impossible. Thanks be to God that we might develop this deep faith. Amen!