Preached at Evensong on the Feast of St Justin Martyr at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Winnipeg.
Martyrs are those Christians who were killed because of their beliefs. The word martyr comes from Greek, meaning "witness". In the case of Christian martyrs, they are those who have offered a witness to the world of what it means to live and die as Christ did: Murdered by those who are threatened by the promises of the Gospel. Today, looking back on 2,000 years of history, we recognize martyrs as the first of that collection of people the Church calls saints. The logic is simple enough: If the goal of being a Christian is to live as much like Christ as possible, then dying like Christ is the best possible way to go. Even if it is a messy, humiliating, painful public execution.
In the early days of Christian belief, Christians were killed in public executions by Roman officials throughout the empire. Sometimes the charge was participating in an illegal religion. Other times, and more frequently, it was failing to participate in the mandated Roman religion. Specifically, praying and offering sacrifice to the emperor as a divine figure. Christians believe in only one god and that god is not the emperor of Rome.
Roman officials hoped to make examples of Christians and reduce the appeal of this new religion, so the executions were usually public and humiliating. The records of these events frequently show public conversations between the official pronouncing the sentence and the Christians about to be martyred. In most cases, the official tries to persuade the Christians that their beliefs are silly or could be compromised. Just one little sacrifice to the emperor and all of this goes away. Why are you so committed to this man that we executed on a cross so long ago? This is foolishness.
Of course, Christian beliefs were a very queer thing in the Roman Empire. Incomprehensible foolishness to think a dead man on a cross was God.
Of course, the foolishness of the Cross is the sure and certain hope, the divine promise, that martyrs stake their lives on.
Today is the Feast of St Justin Martyr. He was executed by Roman authorities for his faith in Jesus around 165 AD. He was a prime target for anti-Christian sentiment, having written prolifically to try and persuade non-Christians that Christianity really wasn't so bad. Not only was it not so bad, but held a moral, ethical, and philosophical framework that meant the Roman emperor should want Christians alive and well in his empire. Justin's lifetime of work trying to persuade officials to tolerate Christians put him in the spotlight and earned him a martyrdom.
There is a record of the conversation between Rusticus, the governor who would order Justin's death, and Justin himself just before the execution. In it, Rusticus repeatedly tries to persuade Justin to abandon his stance about one true God and acknowledge the emperor's divinity. Of course, for Christians, the reality of one god most fully revealed in Christ is not a proposal to be negotiated and modified. It is a truth that we have encountered, a relationship that we live in, and a reality that we know. Rusticus might as well have been trying to persuade Justin that water is not wet.
Rusticus again and again engages Justin with statements that start with "So you think that..." or "Do you believe that..." and each time Justin replies with "I know for certain that..." Finally the governor warns him that he will suffer without mercy and die. Justin's final response is translated in one source as "We hope to suffer for our Lord Jesus Christ and to be saved, such suffering offers us the hope of salvation before the much more terrible judgement seat of the Lord and Saviour who jduges all. Do as you wish; we are Christians and do not sacrifice to idols."
The idea that the Christian god's judgement could be more important and more consequential than that of the Roman emperor would have been the sort of thing that, in a camp film, would cause gasps in the crowd, teacups to rattle against saucers, ladies to pop open fans, and at least one matriarch to faint. So, St Justin and his companions lived for Christ and died as Christ. Ever since, the Church has remembered their witness. The day on which they stood against the powers of oppression, greed, and human self-importance and demanded, even for an instant, that those powers recognize another way of being in the world. They suffered and died for what they knew to be true.
This week is Pride in Winnipeg. In recent years Pride in many places around the world has become an occasion for much celebration. Huge corporate sponsorships, politicians and celebrities participating in the parades and other events, and widespread promotion as another holiday and festival season on the calendar. And this is a lovely development, that people of many sexualities can live and walk openly in their communities, at least for a day or two of the year.
Pride has its roots in much harder soil, of course. Pride started as a protest movement, born in the Stonewall riots of 1969. This season has, historically, been a time of advocacy protest for basic human rights to be shared with sexual and gender minorities. I know that many of us in attendance tonight count ourselves among these minority groups. I also know that, in recent years, our sense of celebration and security regarding our rights has been diminished. We have returned so quickly to a world where, in many places, bigotry and hatred are socially acceptable.
Anyone who is a member of a marginalized group knows what it is to suffer for an undeniable truth. There are realities about the way each of us is made that we cannot change. And when those realities push up against the expected norms in society, we suffer for it. The way we look, the way we speak, the way we express ourselves, the people we love, all of these cease to be moments of celebration of the genius of God's creativity, the beauty of God's diversity in creation when they make those in power uncomfortable. They are not gifts we share with the world, but points of vulnerability. Our very natures are suddenly no longer revelations to be celebrated, but scarlet letters to be hidden for fear of persecution or worse.
I don't know why most of you are here, at this time of evening worship on a martyr's feast. Perhaps you are a Christian and you like Evensong. Perhaps you saw an ad for a 2sLGBTQ+ affirming liturgy in Pride week and were intrigued. Perhaps you've always wanted to see the interior of this church and took up the opportunity. Perhaps you were walking down Donald Street and saw the open door and were simply curious.
I do know that many of you count yourselves among those marginalized groups I mentioned a moment ago. And while tonight may be your first acquaintance with St Justin or even with martyrs in general, it is not your first encounter with suffering because of an undeniable truth. Justin suffered and died because he could not deny what he knew to be true about God. You and I suffer in this world, and some of us may even die, because we cannot deny what we know to be true about ourselves. About the way that God made us.
Even with the help of all of the apostles, prophets, saints, and martyrs, I cannot promise that you will not suffer again. Or that your current suffering will miraculously end. With the help of St Justin and all of his companions in that heavenly host, what I can promise is that in your suffering, God sees you. God knows you. God suffers with you. God grieves your suffering. God cares for your hurt. God defends and celebrates the truth of how you were wonderfully and fearfully made. God calls you together into a chosen family who honour you. God sanctifies your life and, just as for St Justin, God holds a place of love and safety for you. God loves you. God is proud of you.
In our sharing of joy and suffering, this week and always, with the help of St Justin and all the martyrs, may we be queer little Christs for each other and for the life of the world.