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Feast of the Martyrs of Japan – Br. James Koester

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We remember today, in this commemoration of the Martyrs of Japan, what for me at least, is one of the more fascinating chapters in the history of Christian missionary activity. It is not that I am so interested in the why’s and how’s of the actual martyrdom, as I am interested in what happened afterward.

My hunch is that few of us here know much about Japan (it’s a good things Brother David Allen isn’t here because he could refute that statement in an instant). What we do know is that historically, Japan has been a closed nation. It has been difficult for, and remains difficult, for outsiders to become accepted in Japan. And that was part of, and continues to be, part of the challenge for the Christian Church in Japan. It is seen to be very much an outsider. Yet, in the Sixteenth Century, the Church, through the missionary activity of one of the great Jesuit saints, Francis Xavier as well as some Franciscans, a tiny foothold was made in Japan for the Church. Unfortunately that came to an end on this day in 1597 when six Franciscan friars and 20 of their converts were crucified outside Nagasaki. By 1630 what was left of the church in Japan had been driven underground. And that is what fascinates me.

As a people primarily of European heritage we have a long Christian memory. We live in a culture that has been shaped and formed by the Christian faith and the church. Our social, political and economic institutions have all been shaped by the church and the faith which it professes. The same is not true in Japan. Our art, literature and architecture are profoundly Christian, or are a reaction against that faith. The same is not true in Japan. In many ways the faith which you and I share is supported and undergirded by, at least the remnants, of a Christian culture. The same is not true in Japan.

The fascinating thing about the Japanese church is that 250 years after the death of those martyrs in Nagasaki, when Japan was again opened up to trade and commerce with the West, there were discovered families who carried on vestiges of the Christian faith. Without the support of an institution called ‘church’; without contact with Christians outside of Japan; without the structure of authority or hierarchy; without the support of buildings or literature or art there were Japanese families who had continued to baptise their children and to pass on the rudiments of the faith. That’s what fascinates me about the Japanese Church.

And it all raises for me a question. Without the support of all this: institutions and buildings and vestment and liturgies, and even the culture of a “Christian” nation do you and I have a living faith that is so convincing that we could pass it on to our children and grandchildren for two and a half centuries? Or would our faith and theirs simply fade away and become an interesting footnote in the pages of history?

Today we give thanks for the Martyrs of Japan, giving thanks not so much for their deaths, but for their faith and for the faith which they passed on to future generations. May we all have such a faith.

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8 Comments

  1. anders on February 5, 2015 at 10:14

    Thank you. The Christ which emerged from relative silence in Nagasaki is likely one we could learn from. Your thoughts remind me of the Dominican Brother Joseph Kilikevice’s view: „Don’t confuse Jesus Christ with Christianity. They’re not necessarily the same.” Perhaps our take on Christianity is as much a reflection of the Roman-Greco world from which it emerged as the teachings of Jesus. He was after all a Jewish rabbi who went by Yeshua and would have answered to Jesus just as likely as any other variation of his name including Joshua or Isa. I ask how much of my faith is a product of cultural instruction, and how much something I can pass on from my heart to my children.

  2. ros on February 5, 2015 at 06:29

    Well, during 1500 years of persecution by Christians, Jews managed to pass on a religion.

  3. jane goldring on February 14, 2012 at 07:25

    thanks james for that message. maybe we can learn from it and try and live our lives closer to God and help by our actions and words to spread the gospel. jane

  4. Jon rinnander on February 12, 2012 at 07:50

    As one who has lived among and worshipped with brave christians in malaysia and turkey, I found this sermon particularly relevant.
    People I know have been blown up, decapitated, and in less frightening cases subjected to abuse from work colleagues and their own families
    . Please keep these and other endangered believers in your prayers. Small wonder that they often find us self indulgent and parochial in our passions and causes.

  5. Brenda Donahue on February 12, 2012 at 07:13

    Thank you for these thoughts on “Faith.” I have left institutionalixed church (ie the Episcopal Church) because I was dismayed with the corporate nature of my particular parish and some of the anonymity that accompanied it. You have reminded me of the importance of a core or physical center to sustenance of faith. I feel close to God and pray, but alone.

    • Ruth West on February 5, 2015 at 09:48

      Even if it is not TEC, we need to find a good faith community where we can worship and enjoy the fellowship of other Christians. May God bless you on your journey.

    • Sally Anne on February 5, 2015 at 16:39

      I too have been discouraged with church institutions and parishes. It is really the people and their frailties that discourage.
      However, despite that we need each other.
      Jesus did not give up on his apostles because they betrayed him. Perhaps increasing prayer and being open to help spiritually beyond your denomination or making just one or two friends you can find your way to the edge of a faith community. I am glad I returned.
      I also have reached out to others to make friends and a couple have appreciated it.
      The idea is give to others what you desire.
      Best wishes on your faith journey.

  6. Lily on February 12, 2012 at 05:24

    Yes. And without the buildings, institutions, vestments & etc. what would that faith be.
    Thank you for this meditation.

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