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The Vindication of the Martyrs

A sermon on Revelation 7.9-17; Psalm 23 & John 10.22-30 by Garry Deverell

A moment ago we heard from the Book of Revelation. In the scene presented to us, the writer imagines that heaven is like a vast temple or throne-room. The one on the throne is never named or described in any detail, but we are left in no doubt that it is the God of Israel, Moses and Elijah, the God and Father of our Lord Christ. Immediately before the throne is one who looks like a Lamb who has been slain. It is Christ, the paschal lamb who was slain to atone for the sins of the world. Interestingly, in the Book of Revelation, the one on the throne can never be seen or addressed apart from a seeing and addressing of the Lamb. One can never see the deity on the throne directly; every view is obscured by the Lamb. Now, obviously, this is very clever theology. God may only be known by what he reveals of himself in the face, form and voice of the Lamb. The Lamb is God, that is, he is all we may know of God. There is a resonance here with that phrase from Jesus in the Gospel of John: “The Father and I are one.” But that is not what I want to dwell on this evening.

Shift your gaze to the scene before the Lamb. A great multitude is gathered, so large that not even a Channel 7 film crew would feel confident in proposing a figure. The multitude is composed of people from every nation, ethnicity and language under heaven. They are robed in white and they have palm branches in their hands. And what are they there for? What is their intention and purpose? Simply this: to offer a sacrifice of praise to the one on the throne and to the Lamb. In this they are joined by angels, elders, and four living creatures. The angels represent the hosts of heaven, the elders the people of Israel, and the creatures the whole creation of birds, animals and reptiles. What we witness here, then, is the worship our own gathering aims to imitate, albeit dimly, as in a glass darkly: the worship, honour and praise that shall one day be offered to God by humans, beasts, and the whole creation:

Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving
and honour and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen!

But let us return our gaze, once more, to the multitude arrayed in white. Who are they, and how did they come to be there? Well, conveniently enough for us, one of the Elders in the scene addresses exactly that question to the writer of Scripture: “who are they, and where did they come from?” It is, of course, a rhetorical question, and the writer barely has time to open his mouth before the Elder replies: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal, the time of trial; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason, they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night.” He says are few more things as well, but I’ll come to that later.

There’s just one things I’d like you to note from these words. This multitude, those chosen by God for salvation, are in fact a group of martyrs. The phrase “they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb” is not there simply for decoration. It means, quite literally, that these people have lived their lives in imitation of Christ. By dying with Christ, by following his way even unto death, they succeeded in casting aside the evils of the world, the flesh, and the devil. So now they are washed clean, raised to resurrection life with Jesus. The Lamb was slain to atone for their sins, and these are they who left those sins behind by dying a death like his own.

Now, of course, there are martyrs and there are martyrs. We happen to live in a world in which it is still very, very likely that you will be murdered because of your faith in Christ. According to the American-based organisation, International Christian Concern, it is currently very dangerous to actually practise Christian faith (as opposed to having some private opinions about God) in the following parts of the world: Ambon & Aceh in Indonesia, Mindanao in the Philippines, China, Palestine, Nigeria, Pakistan, some parts of India, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt and Morocco. And I’m sure that’s not the whole story. In places like this, faith is indeed costly. You can lose your job or your home because you attend a church. And you can lose your very life if you decide to oppose the social or economic policies of the government or the military in the name of Christ. For Christians from these parts of the world, martyrdom is a daily possibility. You could really be put to death after the manner of the saviour.

But then there is the martyrdom to which I believe WE are called, ‘we’, that is, who live in the so-called democratic West. According to the Book of Revelation, it is ONLY the martyrs who make is to heaven to be with God. All of us are called to martyrdom in one way or another. So how do we, here in the West, die after the manner of Christ, how do we forfeit our lives for the sake God? Well, this is not a trick question. The answer is pretty straight-forward really. Being a martyr in the West is exactly the same as being a martyr in those countries where Christians are openly persecuted. For the Christian is one who, by definition, has ‘unplugged’ from the Matrix, the basic principles and powers of the world, in order to live life by a different code and agenda—the code and agenda of Christ. Every Christian who is literally martyred in Mindanao or Pakistan does so because they are already, in a sense, dead. Baptism is the Christian’s funeral. In baptism we die to all the powers and influences that colonise us—from the ‘terror’ rhetoric of governments to the consumer religion of television—and rise to share in the freedom of God’s radically new society. Christ died because he believed the world should be different than it is, because he was motivated by a vision of God’s coming justice. In baptism, the Christian renounces what Christ renounced and embraces what Christ embraced. Anyone who does this, whether the consequence be a literal death or not, is a martyr to Christ’s cause. The root meaning of the word ‘martyr’ is witness. Anyone who dies with Christ in baptism witnesses to Christ’s way. Whether one literally lives or dies thereafter is very much up to the community in which one happens to live.

Now, in that perspective, the resurrection we celebrate in this season of Pascha takes on a very specific meaning. For the persecuted Christians of the late first century, the Christians for whom the books of John and Revelation were written, resurrection was primarily about vindication, the vindication of what we might call the “lost cause” of peace with justice. To their eyes, the resurrection of Jesus was not simply a miracle, a display of divine magic to wow anyone who might be watching on television. It was God’s vindication of Jesus’ cause, God’s stamp of approval on the life he lived for the sake of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised and the wretched. When Jesus was crucified it appeared, of course, that Jesus had been abandoned, that God was on the side of the Romans and their aristocratic Jewish collaborators. But his resurrection burst forth like a neon-sign in the fog, a sign which declared that Jesus’ cause was God’s cause, that Jesus’ values were God’s values, that Jesus’ people were God’s people.

It is on that basis, and that basis only, that any of us could dare to die with Christ, to live and die with him in the service of the forgotten and forsaken. For if Christ is risen, then his cause in just. It is God’s cause, and so we can count on God to vindicate all that we do in imitation of Christ, even if the powers that be make life very difficult (even impossible) for us. Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow, we need not despair. For the Lamb that was slain is risen to be our shepherd, the one who knows what we feel and seeks to befriend and protect us in the night-time our fears. Because he is risen, we are assured that God will never loose us from his grip. He will hold us tight to Christ, so that even if we die with him, we shall also live with him.

All of us, then, are called to be martyrs. To worship Christ and his ways even unto the ridicule of our friends, even unto the loosing of jobs and homes and reputations, even unto death. But God promises that if we do so, that if we will only let go of such things, we shall experience a freedom and a joy we never imagined was possible. The joy of the redeemed who, even though they die, yet they live—and far more abundantly than even the Murdochs or the Packers.

Glory be to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—Amen.


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