As I see Benjamin Geeding graduate from Yale Divinity School in May, I recall graduating there 40 years ago nearly to the day. I was filled with ideals and ready to make sacrifice, even my own life if need be. I could summon scenarios where I would be called upon and, yes, even die for the Gospel and the church of Christ.
The reality of ministery in safe, secure, and prosperous America was less about intense martyrdom and more about being nibbled to distraction by niggling ducks. Thomas Schmidt distinguishes between living and dying for the cause of Christ:
“I do not know from experience, of course, but my best guess is that it is a lot easier to die for a cause than to live for one. The martyr experiences a moment or maybe an hour of terrible pain, and then it’s all over but the heavenly reward and, for those left-behind, the legend making. The near martyr—or in Paul the Apostle’s case, the multiple near-martyr—must reflect on the implications of life.”
Schmidt claims that even if we’re not called on to die heroically, we still must come to grips with death if we expect to make a real difference in life. All of this is instructive for us as we approach Good Friday and Easter. He cites Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s example in a first-hand account of life in the Soviet prison system. He quotes the most difficult part of his suffering, which was intense interrogation.
“How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared? What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap? From the moment you go to prison, you must put your own cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself: “My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die—now or a little later…I no longer have any property whatsoever. For me those I love have died, and for them I have died. From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and conscience remain precious and important to me. Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogator will tremble.”
It’s safe to say all of us feel interrogated by an alien world where what we cherish most is scorned and dismissed. It’s safe to say prisons like greed, anger, pride, and apathy are tough interrogating adversaries of relentless, unsparing scrutiny.
How long can we outlast such inexorable powers, such untiring adversaries? Solzhenitsyn clearly makes his point: even if we don’t die for what we believe in, and very few do, empowered living requires no less than the sacrifice of that life.
Jesus knew that very few of us as his servants and witnesses would be called on to give up our lives for the Gospel. But he still said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Mk 8.35.
It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. But where do we find such power? God gives us spiritual gifts like strength, if we ask. Good Friday and Easter are the time to ask.
-Rev. Dale Rosenberger