Today we remember the Martyrs of New Guinea, slain on this day in 1942. Prior to preparing this sermon, I had never heard the story of the Martyrs of New Guinea, but now I know that our prayer for today is true, that while 10 were killed on this day in 1942, hundreds if not thousands of others went on to lay down their lives, in a more figurative way, for their friends, neighbors, and complete strangers.
New Guinea is the second largest non-continental island on the globe. It sits to the north of Australia and has a formidable topography. It is currently a divided island, held in part by Indonesia and in part by Papua New Guinea, but in reality it is the home to a thousand different tribes who speak more than 500 different languages. Christian missionaries were first sent to the island in the 1860s, but because of the difficult terrain, the varied cultures, and a huge language barrier, Christianity has spread very slowly.
In 1942 the Japanese invaded New Guinea and the island saw significant fighting in the south west pacific theater of World War 2. As the threat of war spread throughout the island, it became obvious to the white, European missionaries that they would be in the most danger, and many hoped to leave the island quickly. The talk of leaving became so loud that Bishop Philip Strong was forced to write to his clergy, "we must endeavor to carry on our work. God expects this of us. The church at home, which sent us out, will surely expect this of us. The people whom we serve expect it of us. We could never hold up our faces again if, for our own safety, we all forsook Him and fled, when the shadows of his Passion began to gather around Him in His spiritual and mystical body, the church in Papua."
Thanks in large part to the stirring words of Bishop Strong, the majority of missionaries stayed, and almost immediately their fears came true. Arrests became common place and on September 2, 1942, eight clergymen and two laymen were executed "as an example." Undeterred, in the years that followed many Papuan Christians of all denominiations risked their lives to care for the wounded in the ravages of World War 2.
Last Sunday, we heard James tell us that we should, "be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing."
The martyrs and servant ministers of New Guinea followed the call of James to be doers even in the face of great danger. How much more then can we, who live in the relative comfort of the Foley, Alabama live into the call? As we stand in the midst of the Kingdom of God that has already come and yet is not fully known on this earth, how do we see ourselves? Are we clothed in white, washed clean in the blood of the lamb? Do we, by our words and deeds, stand before the throne of God and worship him day and night? Are we prepared to stand with Christ as a part of his mystical body to share by word and example the good news of redeeming grace?
Most likely, none of us will be called to literally lay down our life for a friend, but there are endless chances for use to lay it down figuratively. In service to others we imitate the martyrs of New Guinea and we imitate Jesus Christ. May we each, by the grace of God, have the power to choose to imitate Christ. Amen.