There is a lot going on today. Today is, as we all know, St. Valentines day; Today is also the first Sunday of Lent, which is a period of several weeks where it is traditional to prepare our hearts and minds for Good Friday and Easter, and for Sunday School we discussed Psalm 79. I read from John 15 both because it goes well with the Psalm, it is appropriate for Valentines day, and this warning came at the last supper, meaning what was said here was one of those things that Jesus thought it was important to say while he still had a chance.
At this last last supper, Jesus talks about several things — two things that stand out are the command to love one another, and the warning that things will not be easy in the world. Just before Jesus was to be crucified, he warned the disciples that they would get the same reception he did. People would persecute them, kill them, and ignore them. Jesus also told them something that is very important — that He was not abandoning them — but that they would receive the Holy Spirit.
It turned out that life was just like Jesus predicted. Only one of the disciples died of natural causes. The church would face persecution for the first three centuries of its existence. Starting with emperor Nero, Christians were killed for the crime of being Christian, and over a period of about 3 centuries, there were 10 emperors who were especially vicious — so it is common to speak of the ten persecutions, or people who died under a specific emperor.
It was customary to remember who was killed, so we know hundreds of stories, and thousands of names. Several of the people who were killed under these persecution were named Valentine; A bishop from Terni, Italy named Valentine who died in 197 AD, A priest of Rome who died by beheading in 269 AD, A Valentine of Africa was killed with several people who’s names are unknown. Traditional Martyrologies seem to mention eleven martyrs named Valentine who died in these early persecutions. We don’t know any of their stories — and, when traditions form about what St. Valentine did, the traditions forget that several Valentines are remembered.
Valentines day has been observed on February 14 since 498 AD. This day was designated to remember St. Valentine, and all other martyrs who’s life stories were forgotten. Today was set aside to remember those who were faithful up to the time that they died, even though they lived in obscurity. Though these martyrs include a priest and a bishop, none of their sermons nor letters have been preserved. There are three known burial places for early martyrs named Valentine — but, all they left behind was their names and their bones. It would be 900 years before Valentines day would be anything other than a memorial for the various Valentines, and all other obscure martyrs — and there would be no such thing as Valentine’s day cards until the 19th century.
When Jesus shared his words with the disciples, he told them what would be the Christian experience for a long time; Christians would be persecuted, and the message of the Gospel would be rejected. Obviously 3 centuries of persecution by Rome, persecution that went after not only the well known leaders, but also against the obscure, and even women did not occur because Christians paid their taxes, were kind to their neighbors, and generally attempted to be good citizens! Justin Martyr actually pointed out that Christians should be considered desirable, because of this.
Plato wrote in the Republic that if there were a truly Just person — that this person would be beaten, tortured, blinded, and finally executed by being impaled. Many people have noticed that this is not far from what happened to Jesus — and for centuries, it is also what happened to the people who followed Jesus. While it seems counter-intuitive that the righteous man, and later the righteous people would be executed for being righteous people — Plato actually gives the answer of why: The righteous person, by showing what justice looks like exposes the injustice of the system he lives in. Christians were a danger to Caesar, because the Lord they followed offered a alternative kingdom — and it shined light onto the unrighteousness and injustice of the earthly kingdom. When things are hidden in darkness, light is a great danger to the system.
Rome stopped persecuting in the 4th Century — Christianity by that time became the majority religion of all Romans, and Roman society was changed to something much more compassionate — however, since that time, there have been many persecutions by many different powers; in recent centuries works have been produced such as Foxe’s book of Martyrs and Martyr’s mirror which tell of those who died under a government that tamed the church — and used Christianity to support government’s power.
Quakers even have their own book of martyrs in the “Book of Sufferings” by Joseph Besse. All of these books have something in common — they are quite thick; and they are by no means exhaustive. The Quaker book is only about 650 pages long; Martyr’s Mirror is the longest at over 1500 pages.
If one were to produce a current martyrology, it would dwarf all of the older ones combined. The first of the 20th century genocides was against the population of Armenian Christians living within the bounds of the Ottoman empire: Estimates vary from 800,000 and 1.5 million. In Turkey, there are currently people in prison for acknowledging that this genocide happened. As we are well aware, there has been, and still is persecution against Christians throughout the region… (including Israel). Even Lebanon, with nearly half of its population Christian, and with a Christian president has had such an unpleasant modern history that there are almost as many Lebanese Christians living in the United States as there are in Lebanon.
I’m sure that all of you have heard horror stories about how the government of the Soviet Union persecuted the church — though, at no time were there more Communists in Russia than Christians. The People’s Republic of China is known for its persecution under Chairman Mao back in the 1950’s — though now the government has become pragmatic and recognizes that active persecution is futile: There are, most likely, more Christians than members of the ruling communist party today — when Christians were first persecuted, they were a tiny minority.
When Jesus called his disciples to follow him, he led them to a very uncomfortable place — Jesus lead them all the way to the cross; and even today, there are hundreds of martyrs every month. If we made a book of martyrs for 2015, it would be as long as Martyr’s mirror — which covered about 17 centuries of Christian history. If I would only read off the names, it would completely fill the hour — except, most of the names are not known, and will not be remembered.
Valentines day was first set apart as a day to remember those who died because of their faith who’s stories were never written down. Some, such as Valentine have a name to remember, but for many others even the name is forgotten. Let us all say a prayer for the persecuted church, and thus honor the very reason this day was set apart, and as this is lent, let us all remember that for many people following Jesus means following Him to the cross — believing that if we follow him to the cross, we also will follow Him in resurrection, and join Him in the Father’s house.