Are you ready for the New Year? Are you ready to follow Jesus wherever He takes you this year?
Are you read to follow Him into the garden? Are you ready to stay at His side to be arrested, interrogated, tortured, crucified, buried? Are you ready to follow Jesus wherever He leads? Are you ready to follow Him to the grave? Are you ready?
Ignatius was ready. He couldn’t wait to face the beasts in the Roman Coliseum. “I am the wheat of Christ,” he said, “ground by the teeth of beasts to become pure bread,” a grain offering to God. Metras of Alexandria was ready. Roman soldiers beat him, drove sharpened reeds into his eyes, and stoned him to death. The Greek word “martyr” means “witness,” and Metras was a steadfast witness who confessed Jesus to his dying breath. Hundreds of nameless others were ready – men flogged, sprinkled with salt and vinegar, and slowly roasted over a flame; women stripped naked and sent off to the red light district; boys whose throats were sliced open; infants disemboweled. They were ready. Are you?
Alan Yuan was ready when he received a life sentence from the Chinese government because he refused to join the government-controlled Three Self Movement. Oscar Romero was ready when he was assassinated while raising the chalice during Mass in an El Salvador hospital. Josef Tson was ready. A Baptist pastor in Ceausescu’s Romania, Tson neutralized the Communist authorities by defiantly proclaiming, “Your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying.” He was ready. Are you?
I don’t need to be ready, you tell yourself. The cross is a distant threat, over there somewhere. It can’t happen here. Some early Christians thought the same. Rome meant civilization, the empire was a big and tolerant tent. Then the beast rose from the sea, and the edicts came, and churches were pulled down, Scriptures burned, bishops imprisoned, women and men and children tortured and mangled and crucified. If it can happen there, it can happen here. Are you ready?
We’re Americans, we tell ourselves, and Americans are superheroes. We can get out of anything. We’ve even fooled ourselves into thinking we can get out of life alive (Hauerwas). You can’t: Every one of you will leave life as a corpse. What kind of witness will you leave at your death? Are you ready?
We don’t need to be ready, we tell ourselves. Not all Christians end up martyrs, after all. Some die peacefully in their beds. It’s true, martyrs who witness to Jesus with their blood don’t choose but are chosen. But none of us can know ahead of time whom God will choose. He could choose any of us. Are you ready?
The Apostle Peter thought he was ready. “Even if I have to die with You,” he told Jesus, “I will not deny You!” All the disciples said the same. Yet Peter, James, and John couldn’t even stay awake while Jesus prayed in Gethsemane. When the mob came to arrest Jesus, Peter first drew his sword to fight and then he and the rest bolted headlong into the night. All of them were like the young man sprinting through the garden stripped of his martyr robe, clothed only in fear and shame. Peter thought was ready but he wasn’t. Are you?
Be ready, Scripture says. Be ready for witness. Be ready for the grave. How? How do we get ready and stay ready? Jesus tells us: “Watch.” This was the disciples’ great failure in the garden. While Jesus was sweating great drops of blood, the disciples were snoring a few paces away. Jesus says: Stay alert, don’t become sluggish, don’t doze off, don’t coast. Turn off Netflix, power down Facebook, flick off that video game. Don’t let yourself get anaesthetized by the good things of the world.
How do we get and stay ready? Jesus tells us: “Watch, and pray.” Few commands are as frequent in the New Testament as the command to pray: Pray to your Father; pray the Lord of the harvest; this kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting; whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive; continue steadfast in prayer; strive together in prayers to God; pray always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit; in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God; continue earnestly in prayer; pray without ceasing; confess your trespasses and pray for one another; the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man accomplishes much; you have not because you ask not. Watch and ask; watch and seek; watch and knock.
The question, Are you ready? can be translated, Do you pray?
“Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me. Whoever does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” We stay ready by remembering that Jesus calls us to put aside our own plans and desires and stay close to Him all the way to the cross, all the way to the grave. We stay ready by remembering that Jesus calls us not to fight nor to flight, but to follow. That is not a formula for avoiding persecution. We neither fight nor flee because we are at home in a world that belongs to our Father and our Brother, Jesus. No matter what, we are settled in our Father’s world, and we can’t avoid unsettling those who aren’t settled. When we follow the Jesus whom the world hated, we provoke the same fury.
Not all of us will die a martyr’s death, but we all die on the cross because we all became branches of that tree through baptism. Not all of us will die a martyr’s death, but because we are baptized our bodies have become battle grounds where Christ wages war against the powers. Not all of us will die a martyr’s death, but we all die in the line of duty, because we are on duty always and everywhere. Not all of us will die a martyr’s death, but we all come to this feast of witness, this meal of martyrs.
“The Eucharist is a defense and a help for those who partake of it. How shall we be able to die for Christ if we refrain from His blood? How shall we be prepared for drinking the cup of martyrdom, the cup of witness, if we do not drink first from the chalice of the Lord?” (Cyprian). If we drink the blood Jesus shed for us, should we not be ready to shed our blood for Him?
Watch and pray. Watch and eat; watch and drink. Jesus leads, we follow wherever He decides to take us. The destination isn’t ours to determine. For us, the readiness is all.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.