The Martyrs of Japan

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The Martyrs of Japan: a sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at Christ Church Seikokai, San Francisco, on  February 9, 2014.

They say one picture is worth a thousand words so this is probably the longest sermon I have ever preached. You may have heard the story before of the martyrs of Japan but some stories need to be told and retold, again and again, so that they become part of our story and their story continues to live in us. There are many stories from Christian history that deserve retelling like that but none more compelling than the story of the martyrs of Japan.  I’ve known that story for many years and I’ve told it a number of times but I learned more about it just this last week.   I’m sure there’s still much more to learn. But here’s what I know now.

I know that the story begins in 1549 with the arrival of the first Christian missionaries.  I know that they were led by Francis Xavier and at first the mission went well and thousands of Japanese became Christians.  I know also that things went well for a number of years but then Franciscans showed up and Dutch traders, and the Japanese authorities realized that these Christians and Europeans were divided, that the Dutch and the Spanish and the Portugese and the Jesuits and Franciscans were competitors and taught different kinds of Christianity – and the authorities began to worry.  They began to worry that these foreigners might be a divisive influence in Japan. At that point persecution began.

It was almost fifty years from the arrival of Christianity to the time when 26 Christians were arrested in Kyoto and marched 600 miles south and west through the cold and snow of winter, being tortured as they went, to the southern port of Nagasaki, which was the center of Christian influence, and there they were crucified, tied to crosses and speared, as a warning to others.

Now, there are several aspects of this story that always seems surprising. One is the early success of the Christian mission: hundreds of thousands had been converted and 20 Japanese Christians were willing to die for their faith. One of them, Luis Ibaraki, was only twelve years old and was given an opportunity to abandon his faith but he declined. Three of the martyrs had become Jesuits which involved long and intensive training. Christianity, in other words, in less than fifty years, had put down deep roots.

I’m impressed also by the diversity of the group of twenty-six: twenty of the them were Japanese but four were Spanish, one was Mexican, and one was Indian.  Just 105 years after Columbus discovered America the Spanish were traveling around the world so easily and had made converts in so many different cultures that a Mexican could be traveling westward across the Pacific to work with Spaniards in Japan and an Indian convert could be traveling eastward to help convert others.  Already the roots were deep and the crucifixions didn’t stop the spread of Christianity, if anything they accelerated it.

It was still over thirty years before the worst persecution began and by that time there may have been 300,000 to 500,000 Japanese Christians, probably more in relation to the total population than there are today.  But when the Japanese authorities put their minds to the subject they carried out the most intensive persecution in the history of the Christian church.  For well over two hundred years any known Christian was arrested and killed. For two hundred years, if Christians were found, they were crucified, or they were burned alive or they were tied to stakes at low tide and left to be drowned when the tide came in, or they were hung upside down with a hole drilled in the forehead so they would slowly bleed to death, or they were buried up to the neck while samurai on horseback rode back and forth over them until the horse’s hooves crushed their heads.

After about 1630 every village where there had ever been Christians was visited every year by the authorities and every villager was required to tread on an image of the Virgin Mary or a crucifix to prove they were not Christians. If they refused, they were tortured and killed.  For over two hundred years the persecution continued but here and there, especially around Nagasaki and on the islands of the inland sea, little communities of hidden Christians somehow maintained their faith. They had no Bibles and no priests but in every community there was a teacher and a baptizer and they passed on the faith by word of mouth generation after generation.

Japan not only made Christianity illegal, it closed all doors to the west for over two centuries but when Japan was reopened to the west in the middle of the 19th century and permission was given to build a church in Nagasaki to serve the foreign community a little group of Japanese came into the church and looked around and approached one of the priests and said “We too are Christians.” Unknown to the authorities and in the face of the most thorough persecution ever visited on Christians they had kept the faith for over two centuries. It’s one of the great stories in the history of the church and evidence, if any were needed, that Christianity cannot be extinguished. The Russians later tried and failed.  The Chinese tried and failed.  It can’t be done. The church will survive. Of course, that’s a kind of negative bottom line.  The church to be the church needs to do more than survive. I wish I knew more about that hidden church and the difference it made in those communities: but that’s the basic story.

Now, last week I asked whether any of you had seen the memorial to the martyrs in Nagasaki and I think none of you had. It’s a marvelous memorial because it draws you in and changes you as the Lincoln Memorial does in Washington. So many memorials, you know, show a man on horseback or someone staring off into space but in the Lincoln Memorial, Lincoln is seated and looking down at the viewer and so too in Nagasaki, while most of the martyrs are shown looking up in prayer one or two are shown looking down at the visitor, looking down at you, looking, perhaps, into your mind and heart and questioning you, asking you to respond, to make a decision as they did about your ultimate commitment. What about you?  Does it matter to you? Where is your life going? Are you with us on our journey?

It can be a frightening thing to look into someone else’s eyes and to see someone looking at you and looking into you. There’s the story in the Gospel of Jesus and Peter.  Do you remember? Peter had told Jesus he would never betray him; others might betray him, but not Peter.  But then Jesus was arrested and someone looked at Peter and said, “He also was with him,” and Peter denied it and then Jesus turned and looked at Peter, not just looked at him, but looked into him. Not a word was said but Jesus saw who Peter was and Peter knew that Jesus knew him, knew who Peter was better than Peter did.  And Peter wept.  The sculptor who designed the Nagasaki Memorial has the martyrs look into us and question us.  Who are you?  What is your ultimate commitment? I wonder whether we know. I wonder whether we can answer that question.  I wonder whether we can meet the gaze of the martyr, or Jesus.  I wonder what they would see as they look at us.

I wonder whether it would be useful to reverse the situation. Suppose we were to look up at the martyrs and say, “You know, I admire you, but I live in a different world and it’s not that easy.  I don’t envy you and I have no desire to join you but you had only one simple question with a yes or no answer. Are you a Christian? Are you a follower of Jesus? Is that your ultimate commitment? Yes or No?  That was your challenge; mine is different. The questions I face are not that clear.  And the answers are not “Yes” or “No.”

You and I, whether we are aware of it or not, are making choices constantly and most times we barely think about it as even a question at all. You and I are part of a society facing ultimate questions.  And they don’t get any easier. When I was growing up there was a war on and the choices were clearer and after the hot war there was the cold war, there was communism on the one side and democracy on the other and atomic weapons on both sides threatening the end of civilization. There were books written portraying atomic warfare and its aftermath and the questions had to do with the survival of free societies, indeed of any society.

Today, it seems to many that we find ourselves facing forces more powerful still.  Now it’s not just atomic bombs, not just weapons controlled by a few national leaders but now it’s each of us making daily decisions that seem tiny and almost irrelevant but they have to do with the survival of civilization.  Today there are record-breaking blizzards in the east, devastating drought in the west, hurricanes and tornadoes more savage than ever, rising sea levels, air pollution such that in major cities of China and India the whole population is being slowly poisoned.  We have to ask ourselves whether life as we know it can long survive.

I suppose we can tell ourselves that it’s all a matter of decisions made in corporate offices and you and I have no impact on them but when California is threatened with the worst drought in a century we hear requests that we not leave the water running when we brush our teeth because a million people can use a million gallons of water in no time and the decisions I make or forget to make make an enormous difference.  Call it global warming, call it climate change, It’s a result of the life-style we’ve created that’s changing the air we breathe and the water we depend on every time we start the engine of our car or turn on a light bulb or visit Starbucks or McDonalds.  And the trouble is that no one is standing over me and asking me to tread on a crucifix or not. I will not be impaled on a samurai’s sword if I leave the water running. But the daily decisions I make impact my brothers and sisters in San Francisco and the central valley and Nagasaki and Africa and my children and grandchildren and yours too and it’s hard even to remember that the decisions I make matter that much, but they do.

In the beginning of creation God took the man and the woman and placed them in the garden and told them to have dominion, lordship, over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and everything that moves on the face of the earth and to take every plant bearing seed and every tree bearing fruit and to have them for food.  And for thousands of years that lordship was easy because the decisions made very little difference, seedtime and harvest continued and human beings were born and lived and died and the earth continued.  Not any more. Now the questions have to do with the survival of human life on this planet but still they aren’t put at the point of a sword. We’re free to deny, as many do, that there even is a question.

So, too, in matters more directly of faith.  No one usually will ask you for yes and no answers about your beliefs but you have choices to make, for example, about your use of time: do you pray daily, read the Bible daily? Or do you choose to use your time to watch a basketball game or read the paper? We hardly think of these as choices but they affect our relationship with God as surely as the choices made by the martyrs of Japan in their very different world. We can ignore them, evade them, never think of them and, as I said, no one will require our life of us — not now at any rate, not right away.

So in one sense at least, we can look back at the martyrs and say, your choices were easier, you had no way to evade them.  We do. I’m tempted to go on and make some comments about stewardship, the choices we make about our money and our time but that’s too big a subject for now.  So let me just make one final point.

The sculptor had a choice. The martyrs obviously arrived at Nagasaki in terrible condition. They had been marched, as I said, 600 miles in the dead of winter, maltreated all that time. Bruised and beaten, their clothes reduced to rags, they looked nothing like the neatly garbed people carved into the monument. There are smaller pictures on the sheet of paper you were given that are probably more accurate. But there’s historical accuracy on the one hand and there’s spiritual accuracy on the other and the artist chose the latter. How did they look to God?  How do they look to us when we think about their witness? The artist has shown them as shining witnesses, as role models, as garbed for heaven. And we have choices in that respect as well.

It always amuses me to look at pictures of major league baseball games in the 1930s and 1940s with their rows and rows of gentlemen in jackets and ties and fedoras sitting there “dressed for church” to go to a ball game. We don’t necessarily dress that well today even for church. And if we dress better for Sunday morning, we go home afterwards – I do anyway – and dress down.  We’re a lot less particular these days about attire.  Stores may still insist on shoes and shirts but the standards are about as low as they can be.  Many places have a “dress down Friday” but often you wouldn’t notice a difference.   I’m not sure of the sociological reasons for this change but we don’t see a need apparently to impress anyone with our attire. We are who we are, and except on very special occasions we don’t try to fool you with the way we dress. Nor can we fool God.  God knows who we are and if God sees the martyrs garbed for heaven I wonder whether God sees us that way or in rags and tatters.  It’s something to think about as we remember the martyrs of Japan and give thanks to God for their witness.

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