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One Matthias for Another – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith Nelson

The Martyrs of Japan

Galatians 2:19-20
Mark 8:34-38

A large, distinctive, and inviting piece of art hangs in our refectory at Emery House, an image of the Last Supper in which the figures wear kimonos and dine on saké and sushi. It is a Japanese print in the mingei, or folk-art style, by the twentieth century Christian artist Sadao Watanabe. Watanabe used a technique called katazome, utilizing traditional mineral pigments in a medium of soybean milk printed on mulberry paper.  Of his works, Watanabe once remarked, “I would most like to see them hanging where people ordinarily gather, because Jesus brought the gospel for the people.” Having lost his father at the age of ten, he began attending Church when a local Christian woman in his neighborhood took him under her wing. He was baptized at age seventeen.

At the age Watanabe lost his father, I was baptized in a chlorinated tank behind the altar at Hunter Street Baptist Church in Hoover, Alabama. And at the age Watanabe was baptized, I encountered my first major crisis and painful loss of faith. A significant factor in this crisis was learning in school about the history of European imperialism, colonial expansion, and what missiologists today call “mission malpractice.” Like medical malpractice, malpractice in the history of Christian mission is rarely intentional, but has had devastating and tragic consequences for entire cultures. When the Gospel is intertwined with the interests of colonial trade; when racist denigration of traditional wisdom becomes normative; when Western people and institutions are the sole mediators of God’s grace; when conversion becomes a spiritual requirement of colonial acculturation; in all these instances, mission malpractice occurs. At that formative age, the painful truths of such history conflicted so drastically with the plain message of the Gospel that I became profoundly disillusioned with the Church altogether.

Yet without Christian mission to Japan, without Japanese conversion to Christianity, Sadao Watanabe would have lived a very different life, and my own life of faith would not be enriched by the radiant artwork through which Watanabe preaches the Gospel of Christ to me.

On this day in 1597, twenty-six Christians were crucified on a hill near Nagasaki. Their number included six Spanish Franciscans and twenty Japanese Christians. Japanese relations with Spain and Portugal in this period were complex, Catholic religious orders rivaled with one another for converts and influence, and suspicion regarding Western intentions of conquest mounted. Much mission malpractice occurred. In the midst of it all, Japanese men and women chose to take up the cross of Christ, some of them literally, slowly planting the seeds of an indigenous Church in Japan.

Luis Froes, a Jesuit eye-witness, wrote a vivid account of the event, listing names and some details about the twenty-six martyrs. The account is short. The last name to be mentioned is Matthias, and it is his story that most captivates my attention:

The Japanese police arrived at the Franciscan residence in Osaka with a list of twelve Japanese Christians to be arrested. Only one was missing, a Japanese Christian named Matthias, who did the shopping for the friars. The policemen continued to search the house, loudly calling his name. In the neighboring house, another Christian with the name Matthias heard them, and offered himself, saying “I may not be the Matthias you’re looking for, but I am a Christian and a friend of these Fathers.” The police accepted his offer, and he joined the group who were led off to be tortured and marched to Nagasaki. [i]

In the end, it was loving, extraordinary relationships with loving but ordinary Christians that enabled my return to the Church. It was a loving relationship with a Christian neighbor that began Watanabe’s vocation as a Christian and an artist. It was a loving relationship with a complete stranger that caused one Matthias to lay down his life for another. Social, cultural, and political forces in the world are so often beyond our control. It is in our ordinary and loving relationships with others, within the Church and outside it, that we carry the greatest hope of practicing mission as Jesus did: embodying God’s mission one relationship at a time.


[i] Luis Froes, Historia XXVI Crucifixorum in Japon, 14, 109-110. Quoted in For All the Saints: Prayers and Readings for Saints’ Days, p. 437.

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1 Comment

  1. gwedhen nicholas on February 6, 2016 at 11:07

    Br Keith,
    I was so touched by the story of the two Matthias’! What an incredible story. The second Matthias truly lived Christ. Thank you for sharing it.

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