This Lent, Jesus says, ‘Follow me’: A Lenten Reflection
These two words pick up on the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry when he says to those would be disciples, ‘come and follow me’. But they also echo the poignant words of Jesus: If one comes after me, let them deny themselves take up their cross and follow me. What does it mean for us today to follow Jesus. I want to reflect on that by considering the path of martyrdom that some disciples have experienced in their journey of following Jesus and what that says about the challenge we face in following Jesus today.
If I said to you that I wanted to die for my faith in Jesus Christ, you would probably think me a bit odd; and certainly a bit fanatical about my religion. Yet, the history of the Christian church is built in part on the martyrs for the faith, on those men and women in every age who have died because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ.
On this Ash Wednesday, we begin a journey, a journey with Jesus. During Lent we make the time to examine our own faith and to survey the depth of our devotion to God. It is a journey of death, of dying to self and becoming alive to God. Jesus said, 'If anyone comes after me, let them deny themselves, take-up their cross and follow me'.
What does it mean to follow Jesus, to respond to the call, ‘follow me’? For many it will mean the ultimate giving of one’s life.
The first martyr for the faith was, of course, Jesus. We do not know when exactly he began to understand that his life would end in death. But we know that some months before he went to Jerusalem for his last Passover that he told his disciples that he would suffer and die. Do you remember that Peter was simply aghast at this thought? In fact, Peter demanded that this not happen. What Peter did not understand was that through Jesus' death, life would come to many. The single grain of wheat dies and produces many seeds. Martyrdom for Jesus meant by laying down his life, others would be saved. For Jesus devotion to God's purpose meant the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of his very life.
The first Christian martyr was Stephen. He was one of the first deacons appointed by the apostles in Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem had Stephen arrested for blasphemy because his preaching about Jesus was so effective. During his trial, Stephen unfolded his understanding of God's saving work in a lengthy sermon, even accusing the religious leaders of not comprehending the work of God. As he finished his message he saw heaven open and saw a vision of the risen Christ. Having heard his words and now this vision, the leaders were indignant. They dragged Stephen outside the city and stoned him. Stephen following Jesus' example, prayed for his enemies, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them'.
Stephen's death was not in vain. It did fill the Christians in Jerusalem with fear. From this fear they fled Jerusalem into all parts of the Mediterranean world. As a result, as Luke tells us in the Book of Acts, 'those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went'. From Stephen's death came new life for many. As a result of Stephen's martyrdom, many heard and believed the saving message about Jesus Christ. A single seed falls in the ground and produces many seed. From the offering of a life, comes new life.
But Stephen's martyrdom produced a new understanding about following Jesus. It suddenly became clear that witnessing about Jesus could be a dangerous business. Jesus said, 'Whoever serves me, must follow me'. Stephen's martyrdom clearly showed that to follow Jesus meant possibly even following Jesus to one's death. But such sacrifice, such devotion would be rewarded: Jesus said, 'the one who loves his life will lose it; while the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life'.
St Ignatius was one of the early Christians who articulated a desire to be martyred that he might be counted worthy of such devotion. Such a blatant longing for martyrdom seems somehow wrong to our thinking. But it reveals a passion for God that cannot but stir us, even shame us in our comfortable complacency. Hear what St. Ignatius said about devotion, 'He who dies for us is all that I seek; he who rose again for us is my whole desire'. We may not share St. Ignatius' longing for martyrdom, but do we share his longing for God? This question deserves our consideration as we begin this Lenten season.
Now, not all martyrs were such willing victims as St. Ignatius. But the history of the church is filled with men and women who in following Christ found themselves in the jaws of death. One of the foundations of the church is the spilt blood of men and women who have sacrificed their very life for the glory of Christ.
Martyrdom brings into stark relief the issue that following Christ goes against the normal instinct. As humans we fight to preserve our life. As humans we strive hard to achieve something substantive, something lasting. But martyrdom brings home the reality that following Christ often means the laying down of that which is precious to us, following Christ demands, following Christ entails sacrifice. Who is worthy of it? Who is capable of it? I know I am not. I actually do not want to die for my faith. But I share with so many of you a desire to walk with God, a desire to know God in a deeper and richer way. Martyrdom reminds us that such devotion requires sacrifice.
Jesus says, if you want to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it in the end. But if you offer your life to God, you will find eternal life. Few if any of us will be actual martyrs for the faith, but from the example of the martyrs we learn that devotion to God is rewarded, from the example of the martyrs we are challenged to offer our life to God. Jesus says, ‘if anyone come after me, let them deny themselves, take-up their cross and follow me'. What does that mean for you and who you are and your life now? May this Lent be a time that you reflect on what it means to you when Jesus says, ‘follow me’.