Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Beatitudes 411:Feet to the Fire"

1 Peter 4:12-19

Matthew 5:10-12

      On this which we call the “3rd Sunday of Easter,” I’d like us to return for a moment to the incident

of Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus; attested in all four gospels.  As he stood near the fire in the court-

yard of the High Priest, Peter was recognized by others as being a follower of the renegade Jesus of

Nazareth, who had stirred up so much unrest, in Jerusalem and elsewhere.  Three times, you’ll re-

member, Peter was questioned about his relationship to Jesus.  And three times, Peter denied even

knowing Him let alone following Him.  We wonder how Peter – the very one whom Jesus called

“Petros,” translated “Rock,” upon which the church would figuratively be built – could do such an

about face. 

Just hours before the courtyard drama, at table, Peter had pledged that he’d die with

Jesus, before denying Him.  It’s easy for us to second-guess Peter; to criticize the shallowness of his

devotion; to pummel him for his lapse in loyalty.  What moved Peter to do that which seemed un-

thinkable as He sat at table with the One he would surely have called his best friend in the whole


      Scholars have debated theories regarding what was behind Simon Peter’s denial.  Some have

claimed that at that time, Peter had never really plumbed the depths of his love for Jesus.  The inci-

dent on the night of Jesus’ arrest was his first real test of love which, one might say, Peter failed

miserably.  Others have suggested that Peter was protecting himself for the sake of the church he

was commissioned by Jesus to build.  But most agree that Peter was simply afraid of the possible

consequences of professing to know Jesus.  He feared persecution.  He feared the cross.  So he de-

feted; abandoned his previous loyalty, even if only for a day.  There’s a word for that: apostasy.

      As I’ve been pondering the final two of Jesus’ beatitudes, I’ve been forced to question myself in

light of Simon Peter’s experience.  What would I have done were I in Peter’s sandals?  Would I have

saved my hide by denying Jesus?  Or would I have gone the possibly bloody distance and declared:

“I know the man!  I follow the man!  I love the man!”  I could stand up here behind the walls of this

pulpit in all my preacherly sanctimony and say, “Oh yeah, I would die for Jesus before I would deny

Him!”  But I’ve not had my feet held to the fire for my faith in Christ.  Few if any of us in this sanct-

uary have been forced into a position of having to go the distance, in a manner of speaking, for our

profession of faith. 

      I suppose we could call ourselves fortunate to live in a nation which still allows us to openly ex-

press and exercise our Christian belief.  We would not have it so good if we were in parts of India

where my friend Pastor Sudheer Mohanty works with orphaned and impoverished children, even as

Hindu Nationalists hunt down Christian enclaves for extermination; or in the Sudan where my old

Sunday School classmate Betsy McCormick Almay taught the Bible in the midst of a firestorm of

fiercely anti-Christian sentiment; or in North Korea where the nation’s policy outlaws any practice of

the Christian faith; where praying, church meetings, or even owning a Bible can land the violator in a

prison camp, or worse.  We can say we’re fortunate because we’re safe as Christians in Massillon,

and most everywhere else in the United States.  We’re free to pray and read the Bible; to sing at

Duncan Plaza on the National Day of Prayer, without being hauled into court.  Maybe we take this

freedom and privilege too much for granted.  To that, I plead guilty.

       But Jesus says, truly “blessed;” blissful; divinely-favored are those whose feet are held to the fire

for the sake of the gospel and its righteousness.  Makarios are those who are unjustly and unfairly

reproached and persecuted for standing on the side of Jesus.  Barclay claims that, “The trial of per-

secution is a refining tool which can burnish the Christian spirit.”  Peter himself in his first letter puts

it this way:  “…do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you……

But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout

for joy when his glory is revealed.  If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed [you

are makarioi], because the spirit of glory which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you” 

      “Blessed” are we, Jesus claims, when we’re reviled, ridiculed, rejected for declaring “I know the

man!  I follow the man!  I love the man!”  For the Christian of the strongest mettle is the one whose

mettle has been proven through what Peter calls the “fiery ordeal.”  Likewise, the Christian who is

most Christ-like is the Christian who has suffered like Christ; the one who has, in effect, taken up

and born the cross of Christ; the one who dares stand for what is right, even when it draws jeers,

criticism, or worse.  And the reward, Jesus continues, is the same as for those who are “poor in

spirit;” who have hit rock bottom…… “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  With Christ, they are

joint heirs; joined through the suffering and persecution of body and spirit; joined in the riches of

the Kingdom.  Jesus promises: to those who are persecuted for my sake, and for the sake of standing

on the side of what is right, “your reward is great in heaven.”  So rejoice and be glad!  Blessed are

you; favored in the sight of Almighty God.

      This morning, rather than delving deeply into the intricacies of the Greek text as we’ve done

throughout this series, we’ll allow a true story to carry the rest of the message.  The story is in the

form of a letter written by Portuguese missionary Christovao Ferreira, giving a detailed description

of the plight of Christians in pre-World War II Japan.  Ferreira was one of thirty-seven missionaries in

Japan who refused to abandon their Christian profession and mission, in spite of mounting opposi-

tion by the government and culture.  Although we’re decades removed from Ferreira’s experience,

the same is going on with alarming regularity this very day – in India; in the Sudan; in North Korea,

and in dozens of other places.  Yet despite the threat and reality of persecution, the church of Jesus

Christ stands, and followers of Jesus Christ are blessed. The correspondence speaks for itself:

“In my former letter, I informed your Reverence of the situation of Christianity in this country.  And

now, I will go on to tell you of what has happened since then.  Everything has ended up in new perse-

cution, new repression, new suffering.  Let me begin my account with the story of five religious who

were apprehended for their faith.  Their names are Bartholomew Gutierrez, Francesco de Jesus,

Vicente de San Antonio of the Order of St.Augustine, Antonio Ashida of our own Society, and a

Franciscan, Gabriel de Santa Magdalena.

     The magistrate of Nagasaki, Takenaka Uneme, tried to make them apostatize and to ridicule our

holy faith and its adherents, for he hoped in this way to destroy the courage of the faithful.  But he

quickly realized that words alone would never shake the resolution of these priests; so he was forced

to adopt a different course of action; namely, immersion in the hell of boiling water at Mt. Unzen. 

He gave orders that the five priests be tortured until such time as they should renounce their faith. 

But on no account were they to be put to death.  In addition to the five priests, Beatrice da Costa,

wife of Antonio de Silva, and her daughter Maria, were to be tortured, since they too, in spite of all

attempts at persuasion, had refused to give up their faith.

     On December 3 the party left Nagasaki for Unzen.  The two women were carried in litters while

the five men were mounted on horses.  And so they bade farewell.  Arriving at the port some distance

away, their arms and hands were bound, their feet were shackled, and they were put on board a ship and

tightly tied to its side.  That evening, they reached the harbor of Obama at the foot of Unzen; and the

next day they climbed the mountain where the seven, one by one, were thrust into a tiny hut.  Day and

night they remained in confinement, their feet shackled and their arms bound, while around them guards

stood watch.  The road to the mountain, too, was lined with guards; and with-out formal permission from

the officials, no one was permitted to pass that way.

     The next day, the torture began in the following way.  One by one the seven were taken apart from

the surrounding people, brought to the edge of the seething lake and shown the boiling water

casting its spray high into the air – and then they were urged to abandon the teaching of Christ or

else they would experience in their very bodies the terrible pain of the boiling water which lay before

them.  The cold weather made the steam rising from the bubbling lake look terrible indeed, and the

very sight of it would make a strong man faint, were it not for the grace of God.  But every one of

them, strengthened by God’s grace, showed remarkable courage and even asked to be tortured,

firmly declaring that they would never abandon their holy faith.  Hearing this dauntless reply, the

officials tore off the prisoners’ clothes, bound them hand and foot to posts, and scooping up the

boiling water in ladles, poured it over their naked bodies.  These ladles were perforated and full of

holes so that this process took a considerable time and the suffering was prolonged.

    The heroes of Christ bore this terrible torment without flinching.  Only the young Maria, overcome

with the excess of suffering, fell to the ground in agony. “She has apostatized!  She has apostatized!”

they cried with delight; and carrying her to the hut they promptly sent her back to Nagasaki.  Maria

denied that she had wished to apostatize.  Indeed, she even pleaded to be tortured with her mother

and the rest.  But they paid no attention to her prayers.  The other six remained on the mountain for

thirty-three days.  During that time the priests Antonio and Francesco, as well as Beatrice, were each

tortured six times in the boiling water.  Father Vicente was tortured four times; Fathers Bartholomew

and Gabriel twice.  Yet in all this not one of them so much as breathed a groan or a sigh.

    Fathers Antonio and Francesco as well as Beatrice da Costa, in particular, undaunted by tortures,

threats and pleadings of all kind, displayed a courage worthy of any man.  In addition to the torture

of the boiling water, she was subjected to further humiliation of being obliged to stand for hours

upon a small rock, exposed to the jeering and insults of the crowd.  But even when the frenzy of her

persecutors reached its zenith, she did not flinch.  The others, being weak in health, could not be

punished too severely since the wish of the magistrate was to not have them put to death but to

make them apostatize.  Indeed, for this reason, he went so far as to bring a doctor to the mountain

to tend their wounds so they could be tortured further. 

     At last, however, Uneme realized that he would never win.  On the contrary, his followers, seeing

the courage of the priests and believers, told him that all the springs of Unzen would run dry before

men of such power could be persuaded to change their minds.  So he decided to bring them back to

Nagasaki.  On January 5, he confined Beatrice to a house of ill fame, while the priests lodged in the

local prison.  And there they still are.  This whole struggle has had the effect of spreading our

doctrine among the multitude and of strengthening the faith of our Christians.  All has turned out

contrary to the intentions of the tyrant.” [Silence, Shusaku Endo, Taplinger Publishing, NY, 1980, pp.

9-13] “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of

heaven.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”  Amen.