Sunday, May 02, 2004

The Experience of Daily Martyrdom

(Fourth Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on May 2, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Acts 13: 14, 43-52; Revelation 7: 9, 14-17.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Easter 2004]

Tradition has it that St. Paul was martyred in Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero, sometime around 65 A.D. In the fourth century they built a basilica over his tomb on the Ostian Way—a basilica which some of you have probably visited, known as St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls.

But it would be a mistake to think of this saint’s martyrdom as a once-only event, because it wasn’t! Yes, he was killed for his faith at one specific moment in time in the mid-60’s, A.D., but the fact of the matter is St. Paul experienced many little “martyrdoms” throughout his life as a Christian. None of these resulted in his physical death, obviously, but all of them caused him great suffering. Today’s first reading provides a case in point. In that text from Acts 13 we were told that Paul, on his very first missionary journey, went with Barnabas to the city of Antioch. When they arrived, they were invited to speak at the local synagogue on the Sabbath. This was a great opportunity to share the Gospel and lead the Jews of that region to faith in Jesus, so the two gladly accepted the invitation. But, sadly, when they delivered their message, not everyone said “Amen” to it. In fact, some members of the congregation went so far as to verbally attack the two apostles right in the middle of the service!

Now, as one who preaches the Gospel on a regular basis, I thank God that’s never happened to me—at least not yet! I’m sure there have been some unspoken bad thoughts about me from time to time among those in attendance at a given Mass. But at least those unkind thoughts have remained in people’s heads during the Liturgy!

Paul and Barnabas were not so fortunate.

And then, to make matters worse, the two men became victims of an organized persecution (probably started by some of those who had been at the synagogue service), and they were eventually booted out of town.

Here, in just a few verses from Acts 13, we have recorded for us two of Paul’s mini-martyrdoms. If you’re interested, you can read about many others in his epistles and in the remainder of the Book of Acts.

The point I’m trying to make in sharing this with you today is that martyrdom comes in many forms. The word martyr literally means “witness.” As Christians, we normally use the term to describe those men and women who gave the ultimate witness to Christ by shedding their blood for him; but there’s a broader sense of the term that should apply to all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus.

By the very fact that we are baptized and confirmed, we are called to be martyrs for Christ; in other words, we are called to be living witnesses of his truth and love. No one—and I mean no one—is exempt from this summons.

Now at this point, let me make a very important distinction: the distinction between being a martyr and having a “martyr complex.” If you have a martyr complex (and I sincerely hope you don’t), you are either wallowing in self-pity, or you mistakenly think that everyone’s out to get you. In either case, you have an emotional problem for which you may need professional help. To be a Christian martyr, on the other hand, means to willingly and lovingly embrace difficulties because of your personal commitment to Jesus Christ and your deep love for him. That’s different! That’s very different!

For St. Paul, the difficult experiences of his life and ministry provided lots of opportunities for daily martyrdom. And he took advantage of almost all of them, which is why he’s a saint today!

Are we taking advantage of the opportunities the Lord is giving us to be martyrs of this type?

To help you answer that question for yourself, let me share with you now some of the more common forms of “daily martyrdom.” Do they apply to you?

First of all, there’s what I would call the martyrdom of doing the right thing when everyone around you is doing the wrong thing. Face it, we all like to “fit in”; we all want other people to like us. But there are times when we will only fit in and be liked if we violate the truths and moral norms of our Catholic faith: if, for example, we get drunk, or speak in a vulgar manner, or behave promiscuously. When these temptations come our way, do we resist, and accept the martyrdom that goes along with saying No? Or do we give in?

Then there’s this one: the martyrdom of losing friends because you’re trying to take your faith seriously. If you radically change your life and make a personal decision to be faithful Jesus and his Church, some of your old “friends” (put friends there in quotes) will probably not want to be around you anymore. Are you willing to accept that type of martyrdom if and when it comes your way?

There’s also the martyrdom of loneliness, which is the result of doing the right thing and losing old friends because of your commitment to Jesus. As Jeremiah and many of the prophets found out, walking in faithfulness to God can sometimes be a lonely road to travel, especially when most of the people around you are living by their own rules.

There’s also what might be called the martyrdom of hurting your career for the sake of doing God’s will, for the sake of doing what’s right. Most of us have heard people say, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world! You’ve got to get them before they get you.” That line is often used as an excuse to justify cheating, cutting corners, and stabbing others in the back at work in order to get ahead. The bottom line is this: For the sake of career advancement, certain men and women are more than willing to do what they know is wrong. Are we? Or are we prepared to conduct ourselves as martyrs by sacrificing a certain amount of advancement for the sake of doing God’s will?

By the way, do you know who, I would say, understands all these forms of martyrdom very well, based on his own recent experience?

Mel Gibson. Think about it: Since he decided to make this incredible movie on the passion of Jesus, many of his old Hollywood “friends” have turned against him. They’ve called him everything from “a religious fanatic” to “an anti-Semite.” Those ongoing attacks must hurt him on the inside and cause some deep feelings of loneliness. And, as far as his acting is concerned, he was told early on that making a movie like this would be a “career killer.” People in the business warned him that he’d probably never star in another mainstream Hollywood film again!

But, to his great credit, Mel has accepted his daily martyrdom in all these forms: the martyrdom of doing what’s right; the martyrdom of losing friends; the martyrdom of loneliness; the martyrdom of hurting a career for the sake of doing what you believe to be God’s will.

Some of our politicians could definitely take a lesson in this regard. On that note, here’s one specifically for them: the martyrdom of losing some votes because you take a moral stand against abortion or some other social evil. Now don’t worry: Senators Reed, Kerry and Kennedy are in no danger of experiencing this type of martyrdom. But thank God some others are!

And a final one which hopefully applies in some way to all of us: the martyrdom of service—especially difficult service. This type of martyrdom is sometimes experienced by parents who sacrifice themselves in order to have large families. It’s also experienced by those who give up their leisure time to help the sick or the elderly or the poor—because they know that’s what Jesus wants them to do!

These are just a few of the many forms of daily martyrdom. Yes, they all have a cost; in fact, in some cases, they carry a very hefty price tag. But the good news is they also have their reward! And the reward comes not only after death; it also comes here on earth! Our readings today remind us of this important truth.

Notice, at the end of this text from Acts 13, it says “The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.”

Say what? These men had just been called every name in the book by their enemies and thrown out of the city of Antioch! And yet, they were filled with joy! That was the joy which came from serving God faithfully and doing the right thing. It was a joy which was rooted in their experience of daily martyrdom!

But, of course, the ultimate reward of being a martyr for Christ is not found here on this earth. That’s clear from today’s second reading, from Revelation 7. There St. John has a vision of heaven, and in this vision he sees before him a huge crowd of people dressed in white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.

One of the elders then identifies these men and women for John. He says, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

In other words, “These are the men and women who lived as martyrs on earth. Now they reign forever in heaven.”

We know for a fact that St. Paul and St. Barnabas are both in that crowd right now.

May all of us someday join them!