We are a society that has well defined what it would kill for. A tee shirt reads, "Just hand over the chocolate and nobody gets hurt," another "I'd kill to stop gun control." One of my favorite tee shirts reads, "The Nobel Peace Prize — I'd kill for that." But I remain unimpressed as to what people would kill for. I am more interested in what they would die for.
Consider Paul's words to the church in Philippi:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (Philippians 3:12-14 and 1:21 NIV).
Paul states here what, or rather, Whom, he was ready to die for.
In this day of easy Christianity, we don't hear many people talking about dying for Christ. But even more we don't hear many evangelicals acknowledging those giants among us who have paid the ultimate price of martyrdom.
Catholics celebrate their martyrs. Baptists all too often forget ours.
It is the custom of most of our Baptist universities to display paintings of former presidents. But recently I was visiting on the campus of a southern Christian university and was struck by the large number of portraits that appeared around the foyer of one of the buildings where I was lecturing. When one of the students passed by, I asked him, "are these pictures of your past university presidents and administrators? "No, man," he replied, "these are pictures of our martyrs ... read the tags!" He was pretty "point-blank" so I did read the little brass plates that accompanied each of the pictures. Sure enough, each of the portrait labels told the name of the martyr and where he or she had died.
"I'm amazed," I said to the students. "At the school where I work, we put up pictures of our presidents."
Well, here it is — almost November 1, All Saints Day (a day of worldwide celebration of Christian martyrs) — we Baptists will likely fail to mention our martyrs. I am amazed that we have such an undying interest in our administrators and so little interest in our heroes.
Lottie Moon is all but forgotten in the number-crunching madness that would rather talk about attendance than valor. Bill Wallace, closer to our own time, has all but ceased to exist as a hero. We have modern martyrs by the scores. It's just that nobody knows their names.
Catholics have a three-fold doctrine of Baptism. I do not argue that they are extracted from the Bible — in fact, they betray a false connection between baptism and salvation — but two of them are extracted from and reflect the depths of the human spirit. First, there is their doctrine of water baptism. Next is the Baptism of Desire. According to this doctrine those who are dying and have come to faith at the last moment, but have no one to baptize them, may be baptized by their own overwhelming desire to be. But it is the third mode that most interests me. It is called the Baptism of Fire. This was the martyr's baptism. If any were burned at the stake for their faith in Christ, but had never had the chance to be water baptized, then the fire itself baptized them. They needed no mere baptism of water to witness to their faith. Clearly this is inconsistent with the biblical teachings on the mode and substance of baptism, but it certainly demonstrates a high respect — even a reverence for their martyrs.
I'm not suggesting we deify our martyrs or embrace an unbiblical view of sainthood, but again I ask, why don't we pay more attention to our heroes who died wrapped in the flames of a martyr's death?
All Saints' Day is upon us. By coincidence it comes in November when many Baptists gather in state conventions to do business and elect each other to various positions. But how many of our martyrs will be remembered while the ballots are being cast and the votes are being counted.
November is also a time of remembering and praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world. Many of our own missionaries are highly susceptible to martyrdom. Some will die, likely even this year. Convention elections and business have their value but why not also honor our missionaries at these meetings?
What else can we do?
We might make November 1 our own private day to remember those who have held our very faith and paid the price, while we spent less. It would be a good time to lift their names in prayerful gratitude. Then we must tell our children about those beautiful people we seldom talk about. We must tell them of all those who have been committed to their Lord and faith, yet never had their pictures hung in any of our halls. These are our brothers and sisters, baptized with fire, and snatched from the burning to the bosom of our Father. Then, finally, we might revise and sing the old hymn that some have never taken seriously:
Must I be carried through the skies,
On flowery beds of ease,
While others sought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas.
The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church is November 4, 2001. For more information go to www.persecutedchurch.org or call 949-756-0495.
Calvin Miller is professor of preaching and pastoral ministry at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala.