Katharine Jefferts Schori

The 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

Sermon – Western Kansas Diocesan Convention

October 21, 2014
Katharine Jefferts Schori

Ignatius was a martyr.  He didn’t just die for his faith, he agitated for martyrdom.  When he heard the Roman emperor Trajan was nearby, he went and stood in front of him and publicly proclaimed himself a Christian. Since being a Christian was a crime against the state – essentially treason – the emperor did what he was supposed to do.  He had him arrested and taken to Rome to be executed.  His sentence was to be thrown to the beasts in the Coliseum,[1] and he was likely the first Christian to die in that way – in 115 CE.

A martyr is a witness, someone who gives evidence (as in a trial) or testifies to the truth he or she knows.  Ignatius gave public testimony to his allegiance to Jesus Christ, rather than the emperor or the traditional gods of the state – which is why Christianity was counted as treason.  Ignatius made the ultimate witness with his very life.

Most of what we know about Ignatius is the result of seven letters he wrote to other Christian communities while he was being hauled in chains to Rome.  He was escorted across the Middle East by ten Roman soldiers, whom he referred to, perhaps with some affection, as “my savage leopards.”[2]

Ignatius was probably born in Syria about the time Jesus was crucified.  There is a sweet legend told that he was the child Jesus was talking about when he said, “whoever humbles himself and becomes like this child will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”[3]  In any case, Ignatius was evidently a follower of Jesus by the time he was an adult and called into service as the second Bishop of Antioch – after St. Peter.  He continued as bishop for more than 40 years, and his whole life as a Christian was a witness and a testimony, not just the last few months.

His letters tell us a lot about the debates in early Christianity – he insists that Jesus was fully human, rather than only appearing to be, and that he really died and rose from the dead.  He offers a developed understanding of the Trinity; firm teaching about the order of the Church – including bishops, priests, and deacons; encouragement to see baptism as what unites the church across the world; and the Eucharist as what most sustains the Christian community.  Here’s a sample:  “Try to gather more frequently to celebrate God’s Eucharist and to praise him… At these meetings you should heed the bishop and presbytery attentively and break one loaf, which is the medicine of immortality…”[4]

He is an old man by the time he’s arrested.  At the age of at least 80, he knows he is at the end of his life, and he yearns to give the ultimate witness, “let me be a meal for the beasts, I am God’s wheat, to be ground fine by the teeth of lions to become purest bread for Christ.”[5]

Most of us never have to worry about savage wild beasts or being executed by the state for what we believe.  What connects us with those first century realities?  The Episcopal bishops who met in Asia in September learned a lot about the challenge of being a Christian in non-Christian societies.  It may not be illegal to be Christian in Taiwan, Japan, or mainland China, but it’s definitely not normative.  Only 5% of the population in Taiwan and China is Christian; 2% in Japan; less than that in Pakistan; 10% in Syria[6] – at least before the recent violence.  People who leave their ancestral religious traditions are often shunned and disowned and disinherited by their families.  In parts of India, every baptism requires a license from the local government.  We read about Muslim women arrested for the crime of apostasy for marrying Christian men.  The Christians who are being driven out of Syria today date their presence from the time of Ignatius.

Yet the more immediate connection is about the foundation of baptismal witness, which Ignatius insists is most characteristic of the body of Christ.  Aren’t those responding to the Ebola crisis offering their lives as witnesses to the love of God?  Liberia is one of the epicenters of Ebola, and the Diocese of Liberia has turned the campus and resources of Cuttington University over to the work of caring for the sick, burying the dead, and seeking healing for a nation – and ultimately, the world.  That is a very particular kind of martyrdom.

During the 19th century yellow fever outbreaks in the eastern and southern United States, Episcopalians and other people of faith stayed to care for the sick, rather than fleeing to disease-free territory.  A number of them made the ultimate witness, and the Martyrs of Memphis are remembered on our calendar of saints. 

There have been plenty of unsung heroes and saints and martyrs here on the plains as well – those who tended the sick and buried the dead, who sought peace with Native Americans, the Kansans who stood up for integrated and equal schools for all our children,[7] and those who continue to fight for justice everywhere.

Hisanori Kano was a Japanese martyr who lived a couple of hours north of here.[8]  He became a Christian as a teenager in Japan, and then came here in the early 20th century to teach farmers and serve Japanese immigrants.  He was a bold and public advocate for their inclusion in American society – and the only Nebraskan interned during WWII.  He became a priest and continued to serve for decades – much like the clergy and people here.

There’s an old saying that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.[9]  Today, we might say that the witness of Jesus’ friends keeps the blood of Christ circulating in the world around us.  You’ve lived with that awareness about baptismal ministry for a century.  Your local Ignatius, Sheldon Griswold, the first missionary bishop, put it this way in 1916, “Lay-people… must be our most active missionaries unless we are to remain a small religious body in Kansas regarded as peculiar in habit and narrow in thoug ht and sympathy.” 

The Episcopal Church today is anything but ‘peculiar in habit and narrow in its understandings.’  When we’re being faithful, we continue to offer our life for the healing of the world.  It can be painful, particularly when some people decide to leave because we’re not narrow enough.  A piece of our common life departs with them.  Maybe we do seem peculiar to some when we say, ‘you’re welcome here, whoever you are, and we’ll hear your opinions, tell you ours, and together find ways to expand the conversation.’  As a body, we’re trying to live out what Jesus said to his disciples, “lose your life in service and witness, and you will find it.”  Until Jesus comes back again, we will never end our wrestling and witnessing.  For we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God – not life or death, not struggle or being called vile heretics, not wild beasts or epidemic viruses.  We know that when grains of wheat die to themselves, they become part of the wild and creative possibility God continues to unfold, even if we have to push up through the dirt to find it.

What sort of martyrs do we have here?  Witnesses to the love of God through 60 years of marriage.  Two women, bound by baptism, who started Camp Runamok for kids from the inner city.  Faithful priests who stay and serve and serve and stay some more.  Friends who go to each other’s churches and learn and grow and testify to the love of God in Christ wherever they go.  The nearly 60 years of witness of what is now St. Francis Community Services, transforming lives, families, communities, and the world.[10]  Your current Ignatius is walking a new journey of witness to the love of God that is teaching the wider Church about the possibilities of new models amid the goodness of old ones.[11]  Martyrs abound around here, and even though they may seem quiet, they’re offering persistent witness to the power of God to do a new thing when we’re willing to offer what we have and who we are.

So pray for good counsel together here in this Convention, make a witness of God’s love in Jesus Christ, die a little or a lot, and trust that together we can help to create a healed and reconciled world of peace for all.

[1] Damnatio ad bestia

[2] Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans

[3] Matt 18:2-4

[4] Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 20:2

[5] Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans 4

[9] Tertullian, Apologetics

[10] http://www.st-francis.org/

[11] Bishop Michael Milliken announced a shift from serving both as rector of a congregation and as bishop of Western Kansas at this Convention.  He will resign as rector at the end of 2014 and serve about two more years as bishop, with the aim of leading the diocese into a pattern of episcopacy that will serve the future.



Bishop Jefferts Schori


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