When we hear of the martyrdom of Christians, like the 21 Coptic Christians killed in Libya recently, we identify with them immediately as disciples of Jesus and as our brothers and sisters in Christ. However little we might know about the history of the Coptic Christians, in their suffering witness we recognize them as family, servants of Christ. Martyrdom purges the ephemera of human life to reveal its cruciform meaning.
We recognize in their suffering the witness and model of Jesus. It is through sharing in our human suffering that Jesus is able to sympathize with us. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “when Christ Jesus was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death,” desirous, as are we all, to avoid suffering if possible.
Yet the Gospel of John explains that when Jesus acknowledged “my soul is troubled” as he waited on the cusp of suffering, he also asked, “and what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’?” For our sake, Jesus remained a servant to the will of the Father and offered a yes to his destiny because “it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”
What was this reason? “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” What Jesus’ death offers, unlike any other death, is the possibility of salvation for humanity. Through his death, Jesus offers to us the model of the faithful witness, but more than that the model witness is the source of salvation. The path of Jesus, Hebrews says, was the process through which “he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
This is why Jesus warns that “whoever loves his life loses it,” for the gains and power of this world can entrap and distract us from the weight of discipleship. Instead, “whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be.” Discipleship might indeed entail suffering and loss now, but whoever follows Jesus is tracking the path he has cleared to eternal life. For all who face suffering, as Jesus did, the desire to be saved from suffering is profoundly human. Nevertheless, the humanity of Jesus is real and the choice he made on our behalf was freely chosen.
And yet a most profound difference exists between us and our model, Jesus: sin. We have it; Jesus did not. This is why our prayers and supplications are offered to God in the key of repentance. Repentance emerges when we recognize the suffering we create when we sin and the broken relationship with God sin produces. When we cry out to God our sincere desire that we might turn from sin, we echo the plea in today’s psalm: “A clean heart create for me, O God,/ renew within me a steadfast spirit.” We have constant need to renew ourselves along the path of discipleship.
We have a means of salvation and through Jesus the means also to repent when we fall away from it. Through confession, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and all the other spiritual and corporal works of mercy, we can seek to have God’s law before us at all times, inscribed on our hearts. We can seek to have our hearts most crooked straightened again by the love and mercy of God.
And even more, by shaping our lives in the model of Jesus, even when it entails the possibility of suffering which might lead even to death, we can become models for others. As the psalmist calls out, “Restore to me the gladness of your salvation;/ uphold me with a willing spirit./ I will teach the wicked your ways,/ that sinners may return to you.” A constant willingness to repent and to turn back to God’s mercy is a model of steadfast faith seen in martyrs ancient and current. They teach us that discipleship offers us a sure hope that death, suffering and violence are not the last words, but instead a sign of the fading powers of this world, conquered through the service of the Son, who leads us to eternal life.