The Martyrs of Uganda – Br. David Vryhof
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Christianity is costly. “When Christ calls (us),” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a martyr of the 20th century, “he bids (us) come and die.”
Some Christians pay the ultimate cost for their allegiance to Christ. Among them are the martyrs of Uganda, whom we remember today. One source describes their witness in this way:
“On June 3, 1886, thirty-two young men, pages of the court of King Mwanga of Buganda, were burned to death at Namugongo for their refusal to renounce Christianity. In the following months many other Christians throughout the country died by fire or spear for their faith…
“The Namugongo martyrdoms produced a result entirely opposite to Mwanga’s intentions. The example of these martyrs, who walked to their death singing hymns and praying for their enemies, so inspired many of the bystanders that they began to seek instruction from the remaining Christians. Within a few years the original handful of converts had multiplied many times and spread far beyond the court. The martyrs had left the indelible impression that Christianity was truly African, not simply a white man’s religion. Most of the missionary work was carried out by Africans rather than by white missionaries, and Christianity spread steadily. Uganda is now the most Christian nation in Africa.
“Renewed persecution of Christians by a Muslim dictatorship in the 1970’s proved the vitality of the example of the Namugongo martyrs. Among the thousands of new martyrs, both Anglican and Roman Catholic, was Janani Luwum, Archbishop of the (Anglican) Church of Uganda, whose courageous ministry and death inspired not only his countrymen but also Christians throughout the world.”
In the presence of these saints, we pause today in silence, giving thanks to Almighty God for their witness, and praying that if we were ever to find ourselves in a similar situation, we would have the grace and courage to act as they did.
Christianity is costly. Whether we are called on to make this ultimate sacrifice or not, all of us will experience, in one way or another, the costliness of Christian faith.
At some time, our faith will require us to speak the truth or to resist evil when it would be safer or more convenient to remain silent.
At some time, our faith may require us to deal honestly and fairly with others when we know we are in a position to take advantage of them.
At some time, our faith will require us to practice compassion or forgiveness when we have every reason to be angry or bitter.
At some time, our faith will require us to forego something we would very much like to have or do because we know that it is not right or good for us to have or to do this thing.
At some time, our faith will require us to challenge or reject the values and priorities of our own culture, and will set us in opposition to powerful forces.
Christianity is costly. If we have never experienced our faith as costly, as something which requires real sacrifice of us, as something that “bids us come and die” to our own desires or preferences or to our own self-preservation and happiness, we should wonder if the faith that we have is authentic. “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus said, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). This costly way of dying to ourselves is at the very heart of our understanding of what it means to follow Christ. For us, this is the path of salvation; this is the way to new and everlasting life.
We should make no mistake about the costliness of Christian faith. Let this feast be a reminder to us of the sacrifices that await us on this path to greater life.
If we are to take to heart the teachings of Christ about this mysterious and costly path, we can also take to heart his promises:
- that we belong to him, and are deeply and unconditionally loved.
- that nothing – no hardship, persecution or trouble – will ever separate us from this love.
- that he will never forsake us, but will be with us always, even to the end.
- that he will provide the strength and courage we need in this world to resist temptation and to be faithful witnesses to the truth.
- that those who preserve their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for his sake will save them.
- that we need not fear any evil, for God has promised to be our “refuge and our strength” and “a very present help in trouble” (Ps 46:1-2).
These promises console us, as they consoled the early Christians who heard and recorded them, and as they must have consoled the martyrs of Uganda. God assures us that, even when our faith leads to suffering, even when remaining true to our baptismal vows proves costly, we are not forgotten. God sees and cares. God sees our pain and anguish as we face these choices, sees what we are taking on or what we have given up in response to God’s call, and speaks words of comfort and assurance to us. “I will be with you. I will help you. This too will be woven into the texture of your life and will become part of its beauty. All my intentions for you are good. Do not be afraid.”
Today, at this moment, we stand in the presence of those who have gone before, many of whom have sacrificed their very lives for the sake of the gospel. They are shining lights for us, companions and supporters on the way, who encourage us to face into our own trials with the courage and freedom that come from knowing that God is all and in all. Rise up, then, and follow them, doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with your God.
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Brother David, thank you for reminding me of what my being a Christian really means. I think of martyrs as from long ago but slaughter of Christians is modern phenomenon. I can honestly say that I don’t know if I would have the courage now to do what the Ugandan martyrs did. You have given me much to contemplate in this sermon. I’ll be reading it again and again.