The Witness of the Martyrs

Lent II,  March 1, 2015

Mark 8:31-38

Today’s Gospel reading comes from smack in the middle of the book of Mark. Right in the middle of Jesus’s ministry, travelling with his disciples among the towns and villages of Galilee, teaching, healing, feeding people, welcoming them with the Good News of God’s favour and mercy. And here suddenly he begins to talk about his death. Three times in Mark’s gospel he predicts his passion, death, and resurrection, in chapters 8, 9, and 10. It is the turning point of the book of Mark, putting Jesus, and his disciples, and us, on the long bitter road that leads to Good Friday.

His disciples, of course, don’t want to hear about it. Peter, we are told, took him aside and began to rebuke him: “Don’t talk like that, boss, this is crazy talk, things are going so well.” We don’t really want to hear about it either, if we are honest. We would much rather hear about Jesus’s ministry, about his healing and teaching, about the care he shows to the poor and downtrodden, about the example he sets for us, even about the demands he makes on us to follow him. Just not that dark talk about the cross, we’d rather not go there. The Holy Week services, particularly Good Friday, are not always the most well attended. There may be many reasons for that, but I suspect that one reason is that we are a bit like Peter. We just don’t want to go to that dark place that Jesus takes us.

And yet here he is, in the midst of all that good ministry, warning his disciples, not once but three times, that following him will lead to the cross. “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” The Son of Man must – it is necessary that the Son of Man undergo great suffering. These words, the very core of the gospel as Mark tells it, name the dark mystery that lurks like a black hole at the heart of our faith.

It is necessary. Why is it necessary, we might well ask? I’m sure Peter did. What is the point of all this talk of cross and death, why did Jesus have to suffer and die? Of course, a huge amount of theological ink has been spilled over the centuries explaining exactly this. What is the point of Jesus’s death, what did it accomplish? Theology answers this question with the doctrine of the atonement. There have been different ways of explaining it over the centuries:
• Jesus needed to undergo death in order to overcome death, like a conquering hero;
• or Jesus needed to enter so fully into the human condition that he had to face the worst, so that we might know ourselves nowhere separated from God, even in death;
• or, most popularly, Jesus needed to die in order to pay the price of our sins on our behalf.

Now there is doubtlessly some truth in each of these explanations. But none of them is the whole truth. No one single explanation explains away the dark mystery of the cross. We can meditate on each one of these explanations, learn the truth that they have to teach us, and at the end of the day the dark horror of the cross is still there, bigger than any explanation.

And that, it seems to me, is actually pretty true to life. We experience life in all kinds of different ways: as a joyous gift, as a daily struggle, as confusing, or demanding, or wonderfully beautiful. We struggle to make sense of this world with our faith, with different philosophies, each of which has its own truth; and we try to come to terms with what is not right in this world with our moral codes. And yet, there is this residual core of evil in the world that resists all our attempts to make sense of it. It just is. It is, it seems, necessary.

I am so deeply disturbed and horrified, as I’m sure most of you have been, by the news coming out of Iraq and Syria and Libya and Nigeria about the atrocities committed by so-called Islamist militants. There is a level of gratuitous evil that defies explanation. A terrorist I can understand. I deplore and condemn their methods, the killing of innocent people, but at least one can usually understand what drives them: there is a sense of grievance, and political motive, and striking out in violence is an all too familiar human reaction. But the cruelty and senseless murder practised by ISIS seems to go beyond explanation. The beheading of aid workers, who only came to help the children; the massacre of whole villages – it seems that evil has become an end in itself, above and beyond any rational explanation. Each week, it seems, they try to achieve a new level of atrocity. It is easy to be swept up in that, to feel that we are in the presence of unprecedented evil, evil that threatens not only our lives and safety, but our sense of any kind of moral order at all. Except of course it is not unprecedented at all, this kind of evil. Some of you are old enough to remember a time when most of Europe was swamped with a similar ideology of murderous barbarity.

I have been particularly touched by the story of the 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded in Libya a couple of weeks back, by a fringe group of ISIS wannabes. An act of shocking barbarity one can’t bear to imagine, as they were lined up on a beach, each with a black shrouded militant behind him, and grotesquely murdered. All of it carefully filmed and put up on the internet for anyone to watch. Clearly this is not just an assault on them. They were just the stand-ins for something that is calculated as an attack on us, on you and me, on our sense of moral order, on our capacity to make sense of the world.

What has particularly fascinated me is the reaction of the Coptic church. Now the Coptic church, the church of Egypt, has been around for a long time. According to legend, it was founded by St. Mark – the same Mark we just heard from in the gospel reading – shortly after the ascension of Christ. Egypt was one of the centres of the Christian world in the early centuries, and even after the Muslim conquest, they remained the majority for centuries, before gradually declining to about 10% of Egypt’s population. The point is, they have been around for a long time, they have a long memory, and they have seen their share of suffering and evil. While we in the West are left in shock at the murder of these men, not really knowing what to think or feel except maybe to react with rage and a desire for revenge, the Coptic Church knew exactly what to do. Within a couple of days of the massacre, they had painted an icon, and they had taken up the 21 martyrs of Libya into their catalogue of saints. The point is, they had a moral framework into which they could fit what had happened. The church had 21 new martyrs.

Now we may be a bit taken aback by this. First of all, the very word martyr has perhaps been poisoned for us by its abuse by suicide bombers, and the like. Those are not martyrs, they are murderers – it is their victims we might be able to understand as martyrs. For us it might seem that this is making light of their death, or using them to score political or religious points. I’m not sure that this is fair, or that we have really understood the ancient wisdom of the Coptic church. They are not in denia. Their grief over the deaths of these men is without doubt real, and deep, much deeper than our Western outrage. They were family.

Nor is it a cheap making-sense of senseless evil. It is more like being able to fit what has happened into a framework, because they know that evil is real. These names have been added to the long list of martyrs over the centuries; their names will be remembered in Coptic worship, not only this week and this year, but in the centuries to come. Their names will be remembered with sorrow and grief, not only for them personally, but for the fact of evil in the world, the fact that the innocent suffer again and again. But also there is a sense of hope, that these are just more witnesses to the power of love and compassion, the power of God, to face any atrocity in the sure hope that there is nothing new here, nothing that has not been faced and overcome in the cross and resurrection of Christ.

And finally, the reaction of the Coptic church has nothing to do with downplaying the evil that was committed, of compromising or coming to terms with it. They recognise the absolute evil that this kind of murder represents; but I suspect that their familiarity with the martyrs through the centuries helps them to see this is not the crime of monsters, but just another horrid example of what human beings do to other human beings. And so the murderers appear not as caricatures of evil, but as human beings. That accounts for another aspect of the Coptic church’s response: that they have committed themselves to forgiving the murderers. And that, too, has nothing to do with compromising with evil, with being soft on crime; and everything to do with a commitment to a world where hatred is overcome by love.

And here the reaction of the Coptic church stands in contrast to how we in the West have tended to react, from 9-11 right down to the present: to react with revenge, to try to solve the problem and bring back the moral balance in the world, with violence. It is the same trap we just keep falling into again and again; it is the trap the fanatics are quite consciously setting for us, because they know we are vulnerable, and it will drag us down to their level. And the reason we are so vulnerable is because our moral imagination has no place to deal with this kind of senseless violence. Our thirst for revenge, I believe, has everything to do with our need to restore the moral balance, to bring us back to the world of our own innocence, where no bad deed goes unpunished.

The Coptic church knows that this innocence is a luxury they cannot afford. There have always been martyrs, there are martyrs today, and there will be martyrs until Christ returns. Because their moral vision includes the reality of suffering, the dark heart of our faith, it cannot be thrown off balance, like ours can, by acts of wanton cruelty. They do not believe, as we seem to, in a world that can be set right and perfected if we just do more. They know that the world is in God’s hands; that evil is real, but that it does not have the final word; and that this knowledge can set us free to respond with sorrow and courage and hope and forgiveness.

We prefer a good time faith, a faith that celebrates healing and power and goodness, a faith that wants to stay with the kind and gentle Jesus on the roads of Galilee. And indeed, these are good and holy values, joy, and love, and hope, and kindness. And yet, as Mark reminds us, it is necessary that we also, from time to time, walk the dark road with Jesus to Jerusalem, where he must suffer, and be rejected, and be crucified. We must take up our cross, and follow him in spirit and in prayer, and sometimes, even, we must suffer in the flesh. Not because suffering is good, or because evil somehow doesn’t matter, but because they are real, and we need to face them with him and know that he has overcome them, so that when we encounter them in the world we will not be lost. And it is then, on the far side of confronting suffering and evil, that we can learn to hope in resurrection, and the power of God to put this world to rights.