Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:11-12).
Among privileged, educated, churchgoing folks like me, the term, “martyr,” does not come to mind much.
When it does, it conjures up images of people like the aunt with 27 cats who cannot address you without commenting on how you never come to see her. But more often it does not come up at all because we have religious freedom. Powers that be will not likely persecute us for our beliefs. So while we revere martyrs from afar when they come to mind, martyrdom does not seem relevant to us.
Yet in reality, martyrdom does issue a healthy challenge if we live our faith even half-consciously. Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Then he did it. And we are his friends.
That presents a conundrum. Frederick Buechner lays it out by considering the heroic soldier who throws himself on a live hand grenade. Granting that we cannot fully comprehend such a heroic act, Buechner assesses the survivors:
Given the choice, we would not let him do it, not for his sake but for our own sakes. Because we have our pride, after all. We make our way in the world, we fight our own battles, we are not looking for any handouts, we do not want something for nothing. It threatens our self-esteem, our self-reliance. And because to accept such a gift from another would be to bind us closer to him than we like to be bound to anybody. And maybe most of all because if another man dies so that I can live, it imposes a terrible burden on my life…. I cannot live any longer just for myself. I have got to live also somehow for him…. If what he would have done with his life is going to be done, then I have got to do it. My debt to him is so great that the only way I can approach paying it is by living a life as brave and beautiful as his death.
Nevertheless, while Jesus blessed the persecuted and Paul extolled sharing in Christ’s sufferings, neither required persecution unto death. When Peter avoided persecution by denying him, Jesus did not rescind Peter’s standing as the rock of the church. He forgave him and bid him, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).
Granted, Jesus implied that Peter would suffer someday for his faith (John 21:18-20). But the Greek word for martyr does not mean literal persecution and death. It means, “witness.” And we bear witness to Jesus Christ by our love.
Whoever you are, whomever you accompany on life’s journey, you bear witness by loving. Make it known that your love originates with one whose brave and beautiful death inspired it. Those who love will suffer, some in subtle, inconspicuous ways, others with the ultimate sacrifice. But even in death, loving will prove more than worth it. For love spells the only life worth living, and the resurrected one promises it will continue forever in his friendship.