“… for you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard.” (Ananias’ words to St. Paul, Acts 22:15)
The first Christians understood that they were given a task to be witnesses (martyrs) to what they learned from and about Jesus Christ. They went into the world with the message they had been given – the Gospel. They proclaimed the Good News and through their lives witnessed to what they believed to be the truth about Christ, about the world, about all humans, about sin and death, and about God’s plan of salvation. They carried the Gospel into all the world based on their faith in Christ with no way to know what would unfold in history as Christianity spread to new people.
Martyrdom originally meant to bear witness to Christ. As history moved along the opposition to the Gospel and the Christians increased. After several centuries, martyrdom came to mean being put to death for the very things one believed about Christ and for bearing witness to the Good News. Even later in history as the Roman Empire dropped its opposition to Christianity and embraced the Church as bearers of the truth of God, the martyrs became a legendary class of heroes who by the drops of their blood had sown the seeds of Christendom in the world.
William Bixler in an article entitled, “How the Early Church Viewed Martyrs”(CHRISTIAN HISTORY, Issue 27, Vol IX, No 3) writes about the evolving and emerging idea of martyrdom in early Christianity:
“The ideal of martyrdom did not originate with the Christian church; it was inspired by the passive resistance of pious Jews during the Maccabean revolt (173-164 B.C.) . . . .
The Maccabean period also, however, gave stories of avenging rebels such as Judas Maccabeus. What prompted Christians to emulate the passive resisters such as Eleazar, rather than armed revolutionaries like Judas Maccabeus?
To answer this question one need look no further than to Jesus himself. The church understood martyrdom as an imitation of Christ. The Lord was the exemplar of nonviolence at his own trial and execution, declaring that his servants would not fight because his kingdom was not of this world.
Jesus’ words burned themselves deeply into the collective psyche of the Ante-Nicene church: ‘If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other also (Luke 6:29); do not resist an evil person (Matt 5:39); blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness (Matt 5:10); if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (John 15:20).” . . .
The martyr’s nonviolent response to trial and torture was never equated with passivity or resignation. For the early church, the act of martyrdom was a spiritual battle of epic proportion against the powers of hell itself. . . .
For early Christians, such a battle was not waged alone. The church, as G. W. Lampe notes, understood the believer’s suffering and death as a concrete and literal realization of death and burial with Christ, enacted figuratively in every convert’s baptism (Rom 6:3).”
The earliest Christian self-understanding is that the very goal and purpose of the Church is to witness to Christ (martyria), to be His martyrs. Only much later in history does the goal for Christians became to conquer, crusade, and colonize. Orthodoxy is in America not to colonize or to crusade or to conquer. We are here to witness to the fullness of the faith. We have something to which we can witness to the world – Christ. And we do this witness through the liturgy and spiritual life of Orthodoxy. That certainly was the witness of Frs. Schemann and Meyendorff and of the early founders of the OCA. It is what the gift of autocephally means to all Orthodox in America. It is a gift we have received and are to freely offer to our fellow Americans and to the world. We witness to beauty and truth, the mind in the heart, the cosmic dimension of the incarnation and the triumph of Christ over death and sin. We are to return to that earlier church model of being witnesses (martyrs). Witness is what the Orthodox did in Soviet Russia when the Church had no political, legal or military power. Witness is what Orthodox Christians do in the Mideast who live in countries dominated by Islam. Victory for us is found in the death and resurrection of Christ, and in our own overcoming our fears in this world to witness to the Kingdom which is to come.
Jesus rejected all of the power of this world – conquering, crusading and colonizing – when Satan tempted him (Luke 4:1-13). His power is the power of love. We are His witnesses in America – to that power to love, to forgive sins, and to overcome death by resurrection.