On Thanking Vets & Martyrs

This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, when the church celebrates Christ’s universal lordship and anticipates the coming reign of the Prince of Peace. I share the following reflection as a gentle reminder of where our ultimate citizenship lies. -JB

The tread on my tires had run low, so I was sitting at a Discount Tires waiting for new tires. Sitting across from me was a gruff looking man who looked like the tread was running low on his entire life. Disheveled hair, unshaved face and missing teeth — I suspect life has not been easy on him. Yet, a crowning characteristic of his life he wore with great pride on his head. His hat said, “Vietnam Vet.”

After paying the cashier for my four new and freshly aligned tires, I approached the gentlemen on my way out and extended my hand to say, “Thank you for your service, sir.” His tired eyes met mine and I saw a small glint of pride in the corner of his lip as he attempted a smile. His calloused hand gripped my comparatively smooth clergy hand, we shook and went our separate ways.

I was there that day by my own volition, getting new tires that I could afford and getting them at my scheduled time. This poor man was there because he struck a nail, blew a tire and found himself on the side of the road by another stroke of bad luck. Life isn’t fair and some people seem to have more bad luck than others.

I remembered this Discount Tires encounter from a couple years ago when someone in my church kindly challenged me to thank a vet for their service and sacrifice on Veteran’s Day this year. I share this story to show that I have no problem thanking vets for their military service. Yet, I also want to place this “thank a vet” challenge in a new light, and offer my own challenge to Christians.

I had never noticed that Veteran’s Day (November 11) fell so close to All Saints Day (November 1) each year. Most protestant Christians do not even observe this central holiday and feast on the Christian calendar. This sacred day remembers, celebrates and honors those who have “fought the good fight of faith” (1 Tim 6:12) and served as “soldiers of Christ” in advancing his peaceable Kingdom on earth. This day we also remember all those believers who paid the ultimate price for their faith and gave the greatest sacrifice one can give: martyrdom.

For the first three centuries early Christians took Jesus at his word and believed that love could conquer hate, and followers of Jesus were to “put away the sword” (Matt 26:52) and “not return evil with evil” (1 Pet 3:9; Rom 12:17) but to “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:39), “pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44), and “overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). Out of obedience to Jesus’ non-violent ethic, many early Christians refused to serve in the Roman military because by doing so they might have to kill another person made in God’s image. Non-participation like this were viewed as unpatriotic and persecution resulted for Christians who pledged allegiance to King Jesus over and against allegiance to Caesar and his imperial power. “The blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church” as people were drawn out of the violence of the Roman Imperial way and toward this radically new kind of society made up of these Christians. Christians who have given up their life in sacrificial service to King Jesus and his Kingdom are the “vets” Christians should be most adamant to celebrate and honor each year.

I find it striking how many Christians go out of their way to honor military vets, but I have never once had a Christian urge me to honor All Saints Day. Christians tell me to be sure to “thank a vet”, but not one has ever urged me to pay my respects to the martyrs who fought to preserve the ideals of the Jesus’s teachings when under attack.

One time, a pastor friend was nearly crucified when he removed the American flag from the sanctuary at the beginning of Lent (observing an ancient practice in the church of clearing the altar for Lent). Pastors are expected to offer prayers on Memorial Weekend and Veteran’s Day for those who have served this country, but I have never once been challenged to offer prayers for Church Fathers and martyrs like Justin Martyr or Athanasius or St. Clement. (That sounds a bit too “Catholic” for many Protestants.)

In America you will find cemeteries decorated with the red, white and blue flags on Veteran’s and Memorial Day. People will come to pay their respects for loved ones who spilled their blood in this or that earthly war. Tragically, you will find many cemeteries dark and forgotten on All Saints Day. Few Christians today (in America) go to visit great aunt Ethel’s grave to pay tribute to this hero in Christ’s army who spent her life humbly serving her heavenly Kingdom in her obscure country church by knitting booties for baptized babies. No one is bringing flowers to Great Grandpa Gerald who waged holy war on his knees in prayer morning and night for nine decades, “extinguishing all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph. 6:16) and raising up seven children to fear the Lord and “shine like bright lights in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (Phil 2:15).

Where are all the accolades for missionaries who sacrificed a comfortable American existence in order to bring an insurgence of love and mercy to unreached places in the world? How about thanking a church planter, who (in my biased opinion) are the “marine corps” of pastors, stepping boldly out onto the front lines of a new strategic Kingdom offensive to a community in need of a new colony of King Jesus?

On October 31st this year, Keri and I found ourselves in Banska Stiavnica, a little village in the hills of Slovakia in Eastern Europe. Instead of trick-or-treating with our kids, we were walking the cobble stone streets of this quaint little town as midnight approached. Coming upon an old Catholic Church, we could see a yellow glow like a halo surrounding it. When we got to it shivers ran up our spines at the magnificent sight we beheld.

All Saints Cemetery

The cemetery was all aglow with candles on every grave stone! It was All Saints Eve and family members and faithful church members had spent all day preparing to honor these ordinary veterans and heroes in Christ’s army. The lights on each grave pay tribute to all the members of the “church triumphant”, the name the early church gave to those whose earthly battle has ended and who are now face to face with their commanding officer.

Those of us still alive and engaged in the spiritual battle for our souls are dubbed “the church militant.” “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12). 

Paul warned Pastor Timothy as he attempted to train up soldiers in Christ’s peace-making, gospel-announcing, and soul-liberating army to make sure his congregation didn’t get side-tracked by so-called “civilian affairs” that pull people’s focus away from advancing Christ’s Kingdom. He said, “No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer” (2 Timothy 2:4). 

In our day, especially in the United States, the danger is for soldiers in Christ’s transnational, multiethnic Kingdom to get entangled in the affairs of a particular national, earthly kingdom whose politics can easily distract us from and overshadow our marching orders of our commanding officer, King Jesus, and furthering His Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”

So, I am happy to continue thanking veterans for their service to this country and being grateful for the earthly blessings and freedoms I enjoy. But I’m challenging my fellow Christians to remember and pay tribute to those brothers and sisters from every part of the globe and from every epoch of history who have fought and died, not for flag and country, but for “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Until the final Day when Christ “delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (1 Cor 15:24), “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Matt 24:7). But we are to live as “temporary residents and foreigners” on earth (1 Pet 2:11) and “our citizenship is in heaven” and “we eagerly await a Savior from there, King Jesus” (Phil 3:20).

So, have you honored a Christian martyr or thanked a missionary or full time Kingdom servant for their service and sacrifice lately? Will you pay a visit to the cemetery next All Saints Day and commemorate those undecorated heroes in Christ’s army who gave their life to advancing Christ’s Kingdom on earth in small but powerful ways?

“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” (2 Cor 10:4).

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev 11:15).

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)

 

 

 

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