Twentieth Century Martyrs

A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

[Readings: 1 Kings 19:1-6; Psalm 89:5-18; John 12:20-33]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name. [John 12:27-8]

The words of Jesus which were followed by words of the Father:

I have glorified it, I will glorify it again. [v28]

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, and in the very moment when those words were spoken, a transfiguration took place that was witnessed by those present. While this was not the Transfiguration event to which we normally refer in our church calendar – that event was the encounter of Jesus with Moses and Elijah on a mountain, it was nevertheless a moment of transcendence where mortals witnessed Eternity touching our reality. God the Father and the Son, made man in Jesus, communed in the hearing of mere mortals.

Transfiguration is defined as ‘a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.’ When Jesus was on the mountain with Moses and Elijah, it must indeed have been a profoundly beautiful moment, an amazing spiritual sight to behold – indeed it moved Peter so much that he suggested three tabernacles be erected to capture the moment for ever. But in this transfiguration in our reading tonight, there wasn’t any such beauty or spiritual splendour in ways we might hope and expect when Eternity comes to meet us; for here the disciples encountered profound anxiety – ‘Now my soul is troubled’, Jesus had said. That anxiety had then yielded to acceptance but not celebration; the whole event must have troubled those witnessing it – there was no call to erect tabernacles this time. This moment of transfiguration was, we are told, a time when Jesus would:

… indicate the kind of death he was to die. [v33]

The episode brings to mind the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he was imprisoned and awaiting execution:

The transcendent is not infinitely remote, but close at hand.

As he faced death, Bonhoeffer would have been acutely aware that the transcendent was indeed close at hand. But his words were surely more than just a fatalist understanding of the imminent inevitability of his death, rather they were an amazing affirmation of life – life eternal through Christ. By such words, Bonhoeffer was witnessing to that affirmation of life through Christ. As you know, the Greek word for witness is martyrion, which we also use as the source word for the word martyr.

This coming Friday we will be commemorating what are termed the C20 Martyrs, of whom Bonhoeffer was one.  Above the western doors of Westminster Abbey there are ten portals which had remained empty for centuries until July 1998. In that month, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh unveiled ten statues depicting a group of Christians of the C20 who had not only died in the faith but because of it.  Rev Dr Anthony Harvey, then sub-dean of Westminster, told the assembly:

There has never been a time in Christian history when someone, somewhere, has not died rather than compromise with the powers of oppression, tyranny and unbelief. But our century, which has been the most violent in recorded history, has created a roll of Christian martyrs far exceeding that of any previous period.

It is true that many more Christians have died for their faith in the past hundred years than ever before. The press doesn’t cover most of these deaths but I can assure you that the number of those dying for their faith is vast and is not stopping. The UK All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom or Belief announced in 2017 that the organisation Open Doors had reported that there were 3,066 documented cases of Christians dying because of their faith in that year. The parliamentary group acknowledged that there were most likely many more such deaths and quoted another organisation, Centre for the Global Study of Christianity which had used a broader definition of dying for one’s faith and estimated that in that same year some 90,000 Christians were estimated to have been killed ‘for religious motives’. Whatever the case, there are many of our sisters in brother in Christ who find themselves in a dark place where they might well say, ‘Now my soul is troubled’ but who then go on to say ‘it is for this reason that I have come to this hour’.

From this tragic number, Westminster Abbey chose ten martyrs to represent ‘religious persecution and oppression in each continent’. Some of the ten are household names – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jnr, Archbishop Oscar Romero for example. We know them not only by their lives but by their words for which they have become famous such as Martin Luther King Jnr’s last speech before he was assassinated:

I’ve been to the mountaintop … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you … … I’m not fearing any man (for) mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Truly a transfiguring speech. But amongst those ten martyrs are some whose last words we don’t know, or any indeed anything much about what they might ever had said; the voice of these martyrs evoked the spirit of our reading from 1 Kings tonight:

… and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. [v12]

Their silence of words was made eloquent through their lives. On 3 September 2017, I touched on the lives of one of those eloquently silent C20 martyrs, Lucian Tapiedi. That night I mentioned that Lucian’s faithfulness in his dying would lead his murderer years later to build a church in his name. Tonight I want to talk about a couple of others.

The first is Manche Masemola [1913-28] who, to the opposition of her parents, joined a baptism class at a local mission in the Transvaal. Her family were bitterly opposed to her wish to grow in the Christian faith and, as a consequence, they murdered her when she was only 15, burying her under a large granite stone. She had died before she ever underwent the rite of baptism by water, but it was reported that she said that she would be baptised in her own blood. Forty years later her mother would herself be baptised; one can only imagine the effect upon her that came with the cleansing baptismal waters that day as they finally washed away her own daughter’s blood from her hands.

The second is Qamar Zia [1929-1960]; born a muslim, she was inspired by the example of a Christian teacher at her school. In her early teens she began to read the Bible in secret which led her to Isaiah 53 which became the touchstone of her conversion:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. [v5]

The intense opposition of her family and pressure to submit to a forced marriage led to her fleeing her home and region. At this point, Qamar seems to have taken courage from Mordechai’s words to Esther:

Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? [Esther 4:14]

For it was then that she changed her name to Esther John. She went to work in a mission hospital before undertaking theological studies. After completing her studies, she travelled through local villages teaching women to read and helping them in the cotton fields. However, in February 1960, she was found battered to death in her bed. Initially, the authorities presumed she had been murdered by a forsaken lover; but after reading her diaries, a police inspector stated:

Esther did indeed have a lover. It was a man named Jesus. This girl was in love with your Christ.

Another of the ten did have some words recalled after his death. Wang Zhiming  [1907-1973] was a victim of the Cultural Revolution who, after a show trial, was executed in a stadium in front of 10,000 people many of whom were Christians forced to attend in the hopes that they might recant. We do have a report of some words he is said to have uttered; they were from the night before his execution where, in the presence of guards, he had had to speak in coded words to his family. The irony of his words would have been lost on his captors but they clearly left an indelible spiritual mark on believers who heard them:

I haven’t been able to reform my thinking. Since I cannot be changed, I am responsible for and deserved what I receive. But for all of you, don’t follow me. Listen to what ‘the above’ tells you.

At the end of the service of unveiling that day at Westminster Abbey, a choral work, De Profundis, was performed. It was a specially commissioned work by John Hardy, based upon Psalm 130. Here are two verses from that psalm:

Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord: Lord hear my voice. [v1]

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for him: and in his word is my hope. [v5]

Manche Masemola, Esther John, Wang Zhiming, Lucian Tapiedi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jnr and Oscar Romero, all of whom I have mentioned tonight along with the other three, Janani Luwum, Maximilian Kolbe and Duchess Elizabeth – all waited for the Lord and in him found their hope.

Observers of these martyrs at the time of their fateful encounters could have been forgiven for failing to see anything redeeming or hopeful in what was playing out before their eyes – there could surely have been nothing to celebrate with the building of tabernacles; and yet each of them did celebrate the moment and echoed by their faith the words of Jesus that turned out to not just be words of acceptance but paeans of praise:

It is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father glorify your name. [v27-8]

Archbishop Janani Luwum, of Uganda, one of the ten, aptly summed up the experience of all their stories when he told Bishop Festo Kivengere just days before he was murdered:

They are going to kill me. I am not afraid. God’s hand is in this.

Manche, Esther, Zhiming, Lucian, Dietrich, Martin, Oscar, Janani, Maximilian, Elizabeth, from the depths of your circumstances, you called to God and he answered. We thank you for the hope to which you witnessed.