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Martrydom today? Staying the course!

New Guinea Martyrs: 3rd September, 2017
Greg Davies, Priest Assisting at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Zephaniah 3.14-20; Romans 8.33-39; John 12.20-32

Charles Sherlock — in his book 'Australians Remember' writes — Who were the Martyrs of New Guinea?

11 Anglican, 15 Lutheran, 24 Methodist, 188 Roman Catholic and several other Christians were martyred in Papua New Guinea during the Second World War.

... The Japanese entered Rabaul, New Britain on 23 January 1942, and Europeans were evacuated to Australia, but both the Roman Catholic bishop, Alain De Boismeau, and the Anglican bishop, Philip Strong, encouraged their staffs to remain. Today, we Anglicans remember the ministry, the witness and the sacrifice of the New Guinea martyrs, we remember with thanksgiving and we remember that this happened just seventy-five years ago.

I am challenged in many ways as we remember and give thanks for the New Guinea Martyrs in our Eucharist this morning. I confess that martyrdom is not something that I have really focused on all that much — indeed this festival I suspect is not really highly observed in most of our parishes — and yet as I have prepared to preach today, I have come to realize that it should be remembered and that this remembrance is not only a challenge but also a gift as we reflect upon 'martyrdom' and what it has meant in our faith history but also what it might mean for us now and in our own context.

There are a couple of definitions for 'martyr or martyrdom': a person who is killed because of their religious or other beliefs; a person who willingly suffers death rather than renounce his or her religion; a person who is put to death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle or cause.

However, the words of Bishop Strong to his staff in 1942 I think go to the heart of what 'martyrdom' is really about when he says — I have, from the first, felt that we must endeavor to carry on our work in all circumstances, no matter what the cost may ultimately be to any of us individually.

As those words of Bishop Strong highlight — martyrdom at its heart is about absolute faithfulness in mission and ministry — it is staying put — hanging in there when everything around us shouts 'get out'. It is doing what we can best discern God is calling us to do at the time — which may be very costly as indeed it was those for faithful servants in New Guinea in 1942.

As I have read some of the individual stories of laity and clergy who stayed and lost their lives, I cannot help but be challenged by the question. Would I have stayed? Would I have been able to carry on and overcome the fear of suffering and/or death? When we ask that question of ourselves, it is pretty uncomfortable or unsettling to say the least. I hope I would have the faith, strength and courage to rise to the challenge — but I really don't know.

However, asking that question here in Australia at this time might seem somewhat artificial or remote given that we, as Christians do not face that kind of threat — where we are free to practice and proclaim our faith — where unlike many other places around the world we do not face persecution or discrimination. Nonetheless, this remembering of and thanksgiving for the New Guinea martyrs today, I hope forces us to ask that question about what 'martyrdom' might mean for us today? In other words, to wrestle, probe and reflect upon the challenge of martyrdom as we strive to be faithful to God's call in an increasingly post-Christian and secular world.

Now, at this point I am going to take the opportunity for a little plug for the Education for Ministry program [that you will hear more about in the Parish Hall later]. One of EFM's distinctive features is 'theological reflection' where for example in responding to an issue or challenge, like 'martyrdom and what that might mean for us today', the EFM program invites us to draw on scripture, history or tradition, culture and personal experience, and then to bring all these resources into a kind of conversation — not just as individuals but importantly as a community of faith — and through this conversation new insights or understanding can emerge that enable us to respond to such issues like 'martyrdom' as well as the many everyday challenges that we all face in integrating or making sense of our Christian faith with everyday life.

So drawing on my EFM methodology in reflecting upon this challenge of martyrdom, I need to take to heart those words of Bishop Strong to his staff that I quoted earlier [... that we must endeavor to carry on our work in all circumstances]. And while clearly we do not face anything like that situation of the New Guinea Martyrs — in our context when faith and our church are anything but popular or successful, where numbers are declining, where our relevance may be questioned by a skeptical society, where our church is viewed with suspicion [and perhaps at times understandably so], where we are treated with hostility or at best indifference, and where faith and our church may feel a bit like a lost cause — well then, those words that Bishop Strong spoke to his staff can now speak to us: we must endeavor to carry on our work in all circumstances, no matter what the cost may ultimately be to any of us individually.

And then, as hard as it may seem, you know we can carry on our work and are empowered to do so as we also hear or bring into the conversation some of the most uplifting words that I think St Paul ever wrote and that we heard in our second reading:

... in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

As I bring all these words from their different sources together and reflect upon them prayerfully and in light of my experience and that of others, I conclude that 'martyrdom' in the end is not so much about dying for the faith [although that is indeed a part of it] but again at its heart it is about 'staying the course', being both faithful and confident that Christ is with us no matter what and carrying on in mission and service to those around us, no matter the cost or risk to ourselves, no matter whether that service is received or not — no matter the success or failure. Really when you think about it, this is nothing less than following in the steps and example of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And so as we give thanks today for the New Guinea Martyrs and their 'carrying on, their faithfulness', may be we encouraged and renewed in our faithfulness, our commitment to stay the course — indeed in what could well and truly be understood as a call by our Lord Jesus for each and everyone of us to be a 'martyr' in our time and place.


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