We have grown used to hearing about Muslim extremists who sacrifice their lives in suicide bombings. They will gladly blow themselves up, along with as many innocent victims as they can take with them, believing that they are serving their god in a Holy War. They die gladly, believing that upon death they are transported into heaven for an eternity of happiness.
That concept, awful as it is, is similar to some of the words of Jesus. In Mark 8:31 Peter declared his belief that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. Jesus responded by saying that he would soon suffer at the hands of the religious leaders and be put to death. Peter objected. Jesus told him to be quiet, going on to say even more about the importance of being willing to die for one’s faith. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he too must deny himself, and be willing to take up his cross, and follow me” Crosses were for killing people, so Jesus was telling them that they all better be ready to accept that same fate. Then Jesus added, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the Gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” That does sound at least a little bit like what motivates suicide bombers.
This meditation is about the importance of religious seriousness and commitment, which is what we do see in the terrorists, and, is what Jesus wants from us. But first we must look at the huge differences between what Jesus said and the Muslim suicide killers. Jesus, like the terrorists, did give his life in a religious cause– but that is where the similarities end. Jesus invited others to the truth, but he did not force anyone to see it his way, and certainly not by violent means. When arrested, he did not fight back; and he told his disciples to put their swords away, even though they were ready to fight to defend him. Not only that, but Jesus died loving and forgiving his enemies; in fact, he was dying for the forgiveness of their sins also.
This is very different from the terrorists who take the offensive, killing whoever they define as the enemy, including innocent women and children. Yes, they are willing to lose their lives for their faith, but it is a complete perversion of what Jesus is talking about. Jesus fearlessly proclaimed the truth, regardless of the dangers to himself. But he harmed no one, not even to defend himself, even though he had at his fingertips the power to do so.
That being said, there is a truth in Jesus’ words that we must not allow the fanatics to distort for us. There are things more important than life itself, and there is a long and rich heritage of Christian martyrs who were called upon to take up their cross and follow Jesus, even to the point of death. It began with the disciples themselves, almost all of whom were killed for proclaiming their faith. This persecution of Christians has continued on through every century since those first martyrs. More Christians died for their faith in the 20th century than in any previous century, and the 21st century is starting out even worse. For all these martyrs, it was more important to hang on to their faith than to hang on to life. They firmly believed, even onto death, that “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it. For what good is it for a man to gain the whole world, but forfeit his own soul.” What Jesus meant was that this whole world and everything in it is temporary, but the soul of each one of us is eternal.
Not everyone is called on to make that choice life and death decision. Most of the first disciples did give their lives proclaiming the Gospel, but John did not, and neither have most Christians in most times and places since then. Chances are, we will not be called on to give our lives either. Things are pretty safe for Christians in Minnesota at this time, but the message for us is that if it ever does become a matter of life or death, we must be willing to give up our lives rather than our faith. (continued…)
Matthew 26:52-53 — “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”
James 1:12 — Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
Revelation 2:10 — Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer… Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
From whom to be turned, is to fall,
To whom to be turned, is to rise,
And with whom to stand, is to abide forever;
Grant us in all our duties, your help,
In all our perplexities, your guidance,
In all our dangers, your protection,
And in all our sorrows, your peace. Amen.
–St. Augustine (354-430)