You may be familiar with this story: Dirk Willems, imprisoned on account of his Anabaptist faith, was on the run and being chased by a guard. He crossed an ice-covered pond. His pursuer tried to do the same but fell through the ice. Willems turned back, stretched himself across the ice and saved the guard. The grateful man wanted to let Willems go, but a town official reminded the guard of his duty. This was the sixteenth century. Dirk Willems was jailed again, tried and then burned (MM, 741). Dirk Willems is an Anabaptist hero. He lived Jesus’ call to love his enemies.
You might be familiar too, though it’s less likely, with the story of another sixteenth century figure, a woman named Claudine Le Vettre. She and her family lived in Flanders. One day someone in the know told them that an investigator and several sheriffs were coming to arrest them. Claudine’s husband made a quick getaway, but she stayed behind with their children. Things would have been fine, except that a neighbor pointed her out. She was arrested, and her infant child with her. Claudine was imprisoned with a number of other Anabaptists. They were all threatened with torture and death. Many of the others apostatized. That is to say, they renounced their faith. Claudine did not. She responded to the theological inquisition with a deep knowledge of the scriptures. At one point during her imprisonment a number of others found a way to break free. Claudine, unable to follow with her child, stayed behind. Eventually, she too was condemned to death. We’re told that Claudine was a good singer and on the day of her execution people gathered to hear her sing from the 27th Psalm: ‘The LORD is my strength and my salvation’ (MM, 738).
As we listen to stories like these, stories of good honorable people, stories of brave and faithful people, it’s hard not to get the impression that Christianity is a faith for heroes.
Parts of the scriptures seem to confirm this. It is Paul isn’t it who speaks of self-discipline this way: ‘I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified’? He compares the faith to the training of an elite athlete. The Christian is committed and in control.
And Easter—wonderful, colorful, joyful Easter—seems to corroborate this. In many paintings the empty tomb radiates light like a giant microwave. Our Easter reading (John 20:1-18) tells us that Mary saw angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had lane. A few verses earlier we’re told that Peter saw the linen cloth that had wrapped the rabbi’s face. It was neatly rolled up. Tortured, killed, now resurrected—all-conquering Jesus has even made his bed! Christianity is for heroes. Christ is for the tough. We’re here for the show, we’re here for the glory. No thanks Nietzsche, we don’t need an opiate, we have this radiant, tidy resurrection power.
Sometimes we can see ourselves in the glow of that picture, but not always.
Here is a different vision. It comes from a Japanese Christian novelist named Shusaku Endo. Christianity was introduced to Japan in the middle of the sixteenth century by the co-founder of the Jesuit order, Francis Xavier. Within several decades there were hundreds of thousands of Japanese Christians. However, in the early decades of the seventeenth century political instability within the country and growing competition between Christian denominations precipitated a terrible persecution. Foreigners were expelled. Japanese Christians were tortured and killed in an effort to get them to give up their faith. The fate of the country, the national officials believed, was in the balance.
In 1632, Endo tells us, Jesuit priests learned that the leader of the mission in that part of the world had disavowed the faith. Father Christovão Ferreira had been tortured in the pit and had apostatized. Japanese Officials had asked him to step on an image of Jesus to symbolize his change of heart. Reportedly Ferreira did so. Ferreira had been one of some three dozen priests who avoided exile and continued to minister in secret. Apparently, he had now publically abandoned the faith.
When the news reached the seminary in Portugal where Father Ferreira had once taught, several of his students made up their minds to travel to Macao, sneak into Japan and discover for themselves if this was true. They hoped to atone for their mentor’s weakness. In March of 1638 they set sail.
They arrived in Macao in May of the following year. Entering Japan and finding the Christians there would be difficult. Desperate to find someone with contacts in the country they located one man, a weak and despondent fellow named Kichijiro. Kichijiro was too often drunk; he seemed haunted by something from his past. Yet two of Ferreira’s former students, one of them named Rodrigues decide to trust him with their lives.
Kichijiro is willing to take their money and to join them aboard a Chinese ship. They hope he will help them contact Japanese Christians. He is the only guide they can find, but he is weak, with the disposition of beaten dog. In the dark of night, the three of them are rowed to shore on the edge of a Japanese village. Kichijiro tells the priests they must stay hidden. He heads into the village. Rodrigues and his friend wait, knowing that at this time, in this land rewards are given to anyone who turns in a priest.
However, their guide does not fail them. Christian villagers are overjoyed to see the priests. The villagers are poor but they share their food. They hide the priests in a shack in the hills, and Kichijiro disappears. Months pass. Rodrigues and his companion minister as best they can, even making secret forays to other Christian villages. Despite the hardships, they feel as though they are walking in the glorious footsteps of Christ. The Christians they meet have survived as underground churches for decades. They are strong.
Eventually, somehow, the authorities got wind of the presence of the two priests. They developed a cunning strategy. Instead of seeking the priests directly they arrest some of the villagers. They tie them to cross-shaped stakes pounded into the shoreline and let the tide do its work. The priests, in hiding, watch in horror. They pray for God’s mercy. The villagers die but they never gave up their faith and never inform on the priests. Rodrigues and his companion separate and flee.
Rodrigues makes his way to a neighbouring island. There too the Christian villages have been attacked. Houses have been wrecked the villagers themselves taken captive. For days Rodrigues wanders the backroads of the island. He’s fearful of being caught and nearly starved, until he recognizes a fellow traveler—Kichijiro!
The old acquaintance helps Rodrigues. He gives him fish and water. He tells him that he was once a hunted Christian too. He was captured, but was released when he denied his faith. He asks the priest to understand, saying that not everyone can be a saint or a hero. Kichijiro encourages Rodrigues to rest. Perhaps, Rodrigues thinks, he has judged this man too quickly. He is relieved and falls asleep.
Rodrigues awakes a captive. The old acquaintance has turned him in for a bag of silver coins. As Rodrigues is drug away, Kichijiro says, ‘Father forgive me. I am week. I am not a strong person.’
Rodrigues is imprisoned. He vows to remain faithful to the end. He waits for the devastation of physical torture. Not much of it ever comes—for him. Lay Christians are apprehended, made to step on the image of Christ or they are cruelly punished.
Rodrigues’s captors tell him to deny his faith too. They tell him it would just be a formal act; he wouldn’t have to mean it. And then one day he is told there is someone special to see him. He suspects another city official. But it isn’t. It is his old teacher, Ferreira. The old teacher tells the young priest that, yes, he has renounced his faith. He tells him that their work in Japan is pointless. The country is like a swamp where the Christian faith will never take hold. Rodrigues knows this is not true. His old teacher is a disgrace. He vows to accept suffering like a virtues martyr.
Sometime later Rodrigues, still in prison, awakes to hear groaning. At first he thinks it’s someone snoring. But then, no, he realizes it someone groaning in pain. Who is it, he wonders? What is the meaning of it? Ferreira returns to the door of Rodrigues’s cell. The groaning is coming from lay Christians, he says, and it is they who will be punished, hung upside down in a pit, until you, Rodrigues, repent.
And there it all is, does he hold fast to his honor and his faith? Does he renounce it out of love for these others? Rodrigues is devastated. The honorable martyrdom he had expected is no longer a possibility. He must choose between denying his savior and loving the people he swore to serve. You can pray, Ferreira tells him, but God will do nothing. God has done nothing for all those simple people whom you have seen tortured and killed. Only your self-sacrificial love can save them.
At dawn Rodrigues is brought into room. An image of Christ is placed at his feet. He is encouraged to perform a self-sacrificial act on behalf of the poor Christian villagers. Rodrigues looks down at the image of Christ. It is not like the picture he had in his head. In his head Christ was honorable, beautiful and peaceful. In the image before him Christ is ugly and his features have been worn smooth by many feet. Rodrigues stares at the image. His foot aches, and then the image speaks to him: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know the pain of your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’ The priest looks at his foot. In the distance there is the sound of a rooster crowing. Is this really Christ or is it his own wishful thinking?
Shusaku Endo based his story on genuine history. In the 1950s the young Endo visited a museum that commemorated the lives of Christians like these. He stared at just such an image of Christ, a bronze image from the seventeenth century worn smooth by the trampling of many feet. Endo became obsessed with that image. He concluded that he too would probably have renounced his faith under such pressure. Much of Christian history is written to commemorate the brave and the glorious. But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who might not last? Is there a place in the faith for us?
Endo’s theology is controversial, but he has something important for us to hear. The victory of Easter isn’t for the powerful. It isn’t for those who have it together. It isn’t for those who have a glow or who make their beds. It’s for a woman like Mary who, scripture says, ‘stood weeping outside the tomb.’ It’s for someone like John who abandoned Jesus when the rabbi most needed friends. It’s for Peter who denied he even knew him.
The victory of Easter isn’t just for hero martyrs like Dirk Willems or Claudine Le Vettre. It’s for the many, many others who couldn’t take the pressure or the pain, those who had enough and gave up. It’s for those of us who have trampled on Jesus’ face. The grace of God goes that far.
This faith isn’t just for heroes; it’s for traitors too. It’s for people who have been broken by the pressure of the world. It’s for people who have made mistakes, who carry shame, who aren’t sure, who have hurt and who have been hurt. It is for the weak and the confused.
‘Do quickly, what you are going to do,’ Jesus says to Judas. And later on the cross, ‘Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’
And on Easter morning God blessed this forgiveness by breathing new life into the one who offered it. The faith of Jesus is for traitors like us.