v. 35) Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (v. 36) As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” (v. 37) No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (v. 38) For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, (v. 39) nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)
Today is the celebration of All Saints Day. All Saints Day was begun by the Roman Catholic Church to combat the pagan holiday All Hallowed Eve which was a wiccan celebration. The Church wanted to phase out all pagan rituals so that the barbarians in Europe could more easily practice Christianity. It also gave the Church an opportunity to remember those saints who chose death over life rather than compromise their faith in Jesus Christ. Then and now they were known as “martyrs”.
The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word martyrs, meaning witness. While Jesus is the greatest model of the faithful martyr in the New Testament, the word also is used in Acts to describe people who were witnesses of Jesus’ life and resurrection (Acts 1:8). In Christian usage, “martyr” soon acquired the meaning “blood-witness,” that is, the person who was put to death because of her testimony on behalf of Jesus.1
Under pressure, martyrs freely chose death over life as a witness to the truth of Jesus’ claims and to their faith in Jesus. In the early church, Christians would celebrate the anniversary of a martyr’s death by keeping an all-night vigil and then celebrating the Lord’s Supper over the tomb or the shrine at the place of martyrdom. The cloud of witnesses whom we honor on this day consists of saints of God who led exemplary lives and who died believing that Christian faith and black liberation mattered more than life itself.
The book of Hebrews Chapter 11 is known as the Faith Hall of Fame. It lists those saints, those servants of God who by faith lived a victorious life albeit not inheriting the prize of eternal life without the rest of us. Hebrews talks of the struggles, battles fought, and dangers endured of the people of God who were witnesses of Jesus Christ. We know the legacy of Enoch, Noah, Sarah, Abraham, David, Rahab, and Solomon but what about those unsung heroes and heroines who did not get their names recorded.
Listen to the record in Hebrews 11:30-40. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were encircled for seven days. 31 By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace.
32 And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: 33 who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. 35 Women received their dead raised to life again.
Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. 36 Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted,[f] were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.
39 And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, 40 God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.
Likewise, we know about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Emmet Till, and Medgar Evers. We know about the four little girls murdered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama – Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair.
African Americans are intimately acquainted with “trials and tribulations.” For nearly four hundred years, we have been persecuted, martyred, and frequently made the cultural and political scapegoat by persons in power. We have been kidnapped and beaten, crammed into stinking ships, enslaved by cruel slavers, and disinherited by broken promises during the Reconstruction Era. We have suffered segregation and disenfranchisement in a country we helped build.
Many black Christian leaders, who have agitated for the liberation and freedom of our people, have been beaten, tortured, and assassinated. As a people, we have endured hunger, starvation, homelessness, separation, segregation, lynching, and disappearances. Our people have been killed “all day long” and “accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” (v. 36) But what about the lives of the countless men and women who were lynched, imprisoned, and ostracized whose names remain unknown.
One such man is Rev. George W. Lee (1904-1955). Very early in his life, George Lee felt the call to become a preacher, but he evaded it for several years. It was as a preacher that he came to Belzoni, Mississippi. From the beginning, he felt a lingering discontent with pastoral ministry in the fashion of most Negro preachers of the day. For Lee, it was not enough to orate about heaven and eat free chicken dinners on Sunday. He dreamed of long lines of muscular Negro cotton farmers lining up at the county courthouses demanding to vote. He protested against a system that he knew could crush him, and he was well aware that if he were killed, some Negroes at his funeral would say in hushed tones: “Maybe it’s just as well the Rev. Lee is gone. He riled the white man too much.” Mrs. Rose Lee said of her husband: “He had a thinking ability better than most of the others, so they came to him.”
Many black people were too beaten down by a racist system to care about freedom, but the few, the tough few, could be the beginning of a freedom movement. One of the hardy few was Mr. Gus Courts who, along with Rev. Lee and 62 other blacks, organized a Belzoni branch of the NAACP early in 1954. The backlash came from the White Citizens Council (WCC). Lee and Courts were part of a group of 95 Negroes who managed to achieve voter status. Lee and Courts believed that they were numbers one and two on a widely circulated WCC “hit list.”
Rev. Lee had a typesetting business; so, he was financially independent. He received several threatening phone calls that sounded like this: “Nigger, you’re number one on a list of people we don’t need around here anymore.” Frequently followed in his car by violent whites, he said to his wife, “Rose, somebody’s got to stand up.” “A religious powerhouse, Lee served three churches, operated a grocery store and a printing shop. As one of the VPs of the Mississippi Council of Negro Leadership and a member of the NAACP, he sermonized about voting and eventually electing a Negro congressman – an idea that caused whites to fear such a political triumph because of the predominant Negro population.”
On May 7, 1955, Rev. Lee went to pick up his preaching suit from the dry cleaners. A convertible roared up from behind and pulled up alongside. One shot rang out – then another. Lee’s car plunged into an old shack tearing it from its foundations. The lower left side of Lee’s face and his jawbone were torn away by the gun blasts, yet he somehow managed to pull himself from the wreckage. Cabdrivers found him and drove him toward the hospital. He died on the way without being able to speak.
Rev. Lee’s funeral service was held at the First Baptist Church. More than 1,000 mourners gathered. He was one of the earliest martyrs of the modern civil rights movement and inspired Medgar Evers and others.3
Even today, we still suffer hardship and distress, as well as persecution and peril in the form of broken political promises, evaporating jobs and the dominant culture’s arrogant mockery and misunderstanding of the black church tradition. Yet, through Jesus’ life-changing love, we are more than conquerors. Jesus’ love for us makes us a loving and compassionate people. Jesus’ love for us has prompted us to build a spiritual tradition that offers a testimony of life and liberation, hope and healing, to hounded and harassed people the world over. Our pilgrimage as a people can serve as a living testimony of the triumph of right over might; and we can work as part of God’s ongoing purpose to save a suffering and lost world.
Our slain martyrs believed unto death that God’s word was true and that each person, regardless of race, gender, creed, or color, was fearfully and wonderfully made. Because God loves us and makes all of us equal, prejudiced thinking and bigoted actions are attempts to negate God’s goodness and to place human values before God’s supreme equity and justice.
Their voice signaled to the saints beyond the river, that justice will run down like water and righteousness as a mighty stream. It signals to our women that they are just as capable of bringing a righteous man success as any woman from another race. It signals to our children that in America there are no limits – that anything and God is enough! You need to make sure you vote on Tuesday morning because those who suffered bled and dyed as martyrs for the sake of freedom for black Americans demand you vote. Never let it be said that on this historic occasion you failed to stand up and do your duty – vote on Tuesday because it matters. Hallelujah!
As Paul says in another letter, our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, authorities, and powers of this fallen world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm [Eph. 6:12]. Satan would have us believe that hatred and prejudice extinguish the good, discourage the just, and silence truth-tellers. But the devil is a liar, and the truth is not in him. Those who are faithful to the point of death will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God and will receive the crown of life [Rev. 2:10].
I stand today to recognize that those who fought, of all races and colors, are saints within the black community. They embodied the words of Dr. King, “If a person hasn’t found something he/she are willing to die for, he/she is not fit to live.” They died for the freedom’s cause; they embodied the words of the slaves, “Before I be a slave I’ll be resting in my grave and go home with my Lord and be free.” They stood in the face of a corrupt, racist, government system and declared, “I Am Somebody!” They stood at before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and dared to Dream of a time when black people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. We celebrate today because if it had not been for our ancestors, we would not enjoy the freedoms we have today.
Romans 8:35-39 exhorts Christians to trust that God will care for and deliver them even in the most desperate situations. While the persecution of Christians in the ancient world was local and sporadic, the threat was ever present. Whether people were persecuted depended on political, social, and economic circumstances in the Roman Empire. Persecution is worst during periods of economic or political turmoil when a scapegoat is needed on whom to place blame for bad times.
With the poetic cadence of a preacher, Paul passionately reminds these believers that Christ’s love will accompany them as they face difficult dilemmas and even death. Dishonest leaders, brutal dictators, wars and rumors of wars might heap suffering and injustice upon believers, but there is no person or peril on this planet strong enough to separate believers from the empowering love of Jesus Christ. Paul’s proclamation in this passage is clear: persevere through it all—persecution, famine, poverty, incarceration, violent intimidation—because God has promised to be with us! God has generously poured out His love upon us. No trial or tribulation can destroy that divine love.
Jesus is our example. He fought the system, both religious and political – God was with him. He broke barriers that sought to keep a people enslaved to the dictates of the Roman Empire – God was with him. He broke barriers that sought to keep a people enslaved to sin and degradation. He broke the barriers for us all; it costs him his life; but God raised him up in the third day – God was with him. He got up with all power in his hand – God was with him. He got up to watch over you and me as we too fight the good fight of faith. Do not be deterred; stand and having done all keep on standing. The Lord Jesus Christ is with you! His blood is powerful and efficacious. He will stand with you. Hallelujah!
This is the reason we do not fear. God through Christ is with us! When we stand and exercise our citizen rights, we do not fear. When we report to vote and the power structure challenges our qualifications, we do not fear. When police stand outside the voting polls with weapons in plain sight, we do not fear. We do not fear because nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We do not fear because death is not the final response to an oppressor’s aggression. We do not fear because we have been called by God to stand up and do what is right in the earth.