In one of his popular meditations, Fr. Richard Rohr observes, “Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything.” We’ve noted some of Rohr’s problematic false dichotomies before. This one is also worth a bit of reflection because it turns out, whether one is in the 1st century or the 21st century, worship of Jesus might get you killed.
Here are six times (in no particular order) that worshipping Jesus cost Christians their lives:
1) Polycarp murdered while praying (155)
Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, was a 2nd century martyr and the subject of one of the most memorable martyrologies ever written. As described by Catholic Online:
When he was tied up to be burned, Polycarp prayed, “Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, God of angels and powers, of the whole creation and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your sight, I bless you, for having made me worthy of this day and hour, I bless you, because I may have a part, along with the martyrs, in the chalice of your Christ, to resurrection in eternal life, resurrection both of soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, among those who are in you presence, as you have prepared and foretold and fulfilled, God who is faithful and true. For this and for all benefits I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be to you with him and the Holy Spirit glory, now and for all the ages to come. Amen.”
The fire was lit as Polycarp said Amen and then the eyewitnesses who reported said they saw a miracle. The fire burst up in an arch around Polycarp, the flames surrounding him like sails, and instead of being burned he seemed to glow like bread baking, or gold being melted in a furnace. When the captors saw he wasn’t being burned, they stabbed him. The blood that flowed put the fire out.
2) 19 Nigerian worshippers shot dead by Boko Haram (2012)
Christians in Nigeria have been brutally attacked for years. This report came from the Christian News Wire on August 7, 2012:
Gunmen armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles surrounded a church in central Nigeria and opened fire during a Monday night worship service. According to the Associated Press report, the attackers killed 19 of the worshippers at Deeper Life Bible Church in the town of Otite in Kogi state, located 155 miles southwest of Nigeria’s capital Abuja.
The Iraqi Christian population has been decimated in recent years. Just one example of the violence Christian worshippers face came on October 31, 2010. Terrorists entered a church during mass and eventually murdered dozens of Christians and others. As described at Wikipedia,
Six suicide jihadis of a group formerly called Islamic State of Iraq attacked a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad during Sunday evening Mass, on 31 October 2010, and started killing the worshipers, saying they were sending the Christians to hell and themselves to heaven.
Hours later Iraqi commandos stormed the church, inducing the suicide jihadis to detonate their suicide vests. 58 worshipers, priests, policemen and bystanders were killed and 78 were wounded or maimed. World leaders and some Iraqi Sunni and Shi’ite imams condemned the massacre.
4) 21st Coptic martyr beheaded (2015)
In 2015, ISIL publicly martyred 20 Coptic Christians in Libya. A twenty-first martyr was made on the spot when, moved by the faith of the 20, he declared Jesus to be his God:
After the beheadings, the Coptic Orthodox church released their names, but there were only 20 names. It was later learned that the 21st martyr was named Mathew Ayairga and that he was from Chad. He was originally a non-Christian, but he saw the immense faith of the others, and when the terrorists asked him if he rejected Jesus, he reportedly said, “Their God is my God”, knowing that he would be killed.
5) Becket slain while kneeling inside Canterbury (1170)
In one of the most significant events in the history of church-state relationships, the Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered while praying at the altar. You can still visit this site today in the famous cathedral. Accounts vary, but what follows is a basic account of what transpired:
The king’s exact words have been lost to history but his outrage inspired four knights to sail to England to rid the realm of this annoying prelate. They arrived at Canterbury during the afternoon of December 29 and immediately searched for the Archbishop. Becket fled to the Cathedral where a service was in progress. The knights found him at the altar, drew their swords and began hacking at their victim finally splitting his skull.
6) Romero shot at the altar (1980)
Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke out against state violence in San Salvador and paid the ultimate price for it. He was martyred at the altar preparing to celebrate the Eucharist, as described by Wikipedia:
Romero spent the day of 24 March 1980, the last day of his life, in a recollection organized by Opus Dei, a monthly gathering of priest friends led by Msgr. Fernando Sáenz Lacalle. On that day they reflected on the priesthood. That evening, Romero was fatally shot while celebrating Mass at a small chapel located in a hospital called “La Divina Providencia”, one day after a sermon in which he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. As soon as he finished his sermon, Romero proceeded to the middle of the altar and was shot there.
These six examples are just the tip of the iceberg, of course. Tertullian famously noted, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Rohr is in many ways a gifted spiritual guide, but that does not make him infallible. Claiming that worshipping Jesus is “harmless” might have a rhetorical punch, but it does not hold up to scrutiny and, even worse, dishonors the memory of scores of Christians who died simply because they were worshipping their Lord.
There has never been anything safe about worshipping the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Until the Christ’s Kingdom is fully “on earth as it is in heaven,” we should not expect this situation to change. We’ll let Hebrews 11:32-38 (NRSV) have the last word:
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
P.S. Should a rejoinder to Rohr be known as a Rohrjoinder? Let me know what you think.
What are other times people died for worshipping Jesus? Which martyrs especially speak to your journey with Christ? Leave a comment below!