It might surprise us to learn that we live in an age of Christian martyrdom. Some have claimed that more Christians have been martyred in the 20th century than in the first four centuries of the church’s history.
Around the world Christians are persecuted in subtle and not so subtle forms. And when Christians face the possibility of martyrdom, they are threatened with the choice between renouncing their faith in Jesus Christ or violence and death. The threat of martyrdom forces the ultimate test of courage and witness to Christ as they choose to persevere in faith.
“Decide today whom you will serve,” Joshua said to the tribes of Israel at Shechem in today’s first reading. As in various moments of their history, the Israelites were faced with a radical choice -- to live in covenant relationship with God or to fall back into the idolatry of multiple pagan gods.
And as the Israelites considered this fundamental choice of life, they began to recall the good works of God. “For it was the Lord, our God, who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt. ... He performed those great miracles before our very eyes,” said the Israelites.
In today’s Gospel, the disciples of Jesus are faced with a similar decision -- to follow the Lord or to follow a life of their own making in the illusion of self-sufficiency. This was a moment to face life’s most profound and life-changing decision. This decision is ours to make as well.
Jesus reminds his disciples that his way will not be an easy path. But to persevere in friendship with Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life, opens us to the peace, joy and love of God that surpasses understanding.
To choose God is to choose life, love and genuine happiness. For only God, who created us in love, satisfies the deepest desires of our heart and our longing for unconditional love. This knowledge strengthens martyrs as they choose to persevere to the point of death for faith in Jesus. It can strengthen us as we resolve to persevere in faith each day.
St. John recounts that Jesus tells his disciples that the path of faith is a gift of God: “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.” Faith is a human act in response to God, who reveals his loving mercy. But faith is also a gift of God, freely and generously poured out on those who believe that Jesus alone has words of eternal life.
God’s word invites us today to renew our faith in Jesus with the courage of the martyrs. May our faith, like that of Peter, be strengthened in the face of trials and difficulties both within and outside the church, as we pray in faith, “speak to me, Lord.”