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Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for the Martyrs of New Guinea

Readings: Zephaniah 3:14–20; Romans 8:33–39 & John 12:20–32

September 2nd has been set aside by the Anglican Church of Australia to commemorate the “Martyrs of New Guinea”, twelve Anglican men and women who died in Papua New Guinea in 1942–43 during the Japanese invasion and occupation of the country. They were:

John Barge, priest

Margery Brenchley, nurse

John Duffill, builder

Leslie Gariardi, evangelist and teacher

May Hayman, nurse

Henry Holland, priest

Lilla Lashmar, teacher

Henry Matthews, priest

Bernard Moore, priest

Mavis Parkinson, teacher

Vivian Redlich, priest

Lucian Tapiedi, evangelist and teacher

Two of the twelve, Lucian Tapiedi and Leslie Gariardi, were PNG nationals.

Each of these twelve men and women died because they chose to stay behind in the face of the Japanese invasion, and continue their ministry to the people in their local missionary community, rather than travel to safety when they had the chance to do so. 

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is quoted as saying, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. It was of course something that Jesus himself would do, and something that most of the apostles would also do, as they suffered martyrdom on account of their faith in Jesus. In the same way, the Martyrs of New Guinea laid down their lives, both for the people they ministered to, and for Jesus. 

I personally find it difficult to imagine the courage and conviction of faith required to make a decision such as the one made by these people to remain in New Guinea in the face of the Japanese invasion, knowing that it could well result in their own death. And I wonder where they drew the strength and courage from to face that very real possibility. I assume that for several of them at least, it may have come from the Bible, from passages that offered both comfort and hope. Perhaps these passages may have included our readings for today from the Book of Zephaniah, the Letter to the Romans and the Gospel of John.

Zephaniah prophesied in the days of Josiah king of Judah (640–609 B.C.). Josiah faithfully followed God, and during his reign the Book of the Law was discovered in the Temple. After reading it, Josiah began a great religious revival in Judah. Zephaniah helped fan the revival by warning the people that judgment would come if they did not turn from their sins. Although this great revival turned the nation back to God, it didn’t fully eliminate idolatry and it lasted only a short time. Just four years after Josiah’s death, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon swept into Palestine and took the first wave of Israelite captives into exile.

As God’s prophet, Zephaniah was obligated to speak the truth. This he did clearly, pronouncing certain judgment and punishment for all who would defy the Lord. He proclaimed that God’s awful wrath would sweep away everything in the land and destroy it.

But in the midst of Zephaniah’s terrible pronouncement, there is also hope. The first chapter of his prophecy is filled with terror. In chapter two, however, a whispered promise appears. “Seek the LORD, all who are humble, and follow his commands. Seek to do what is right and to live humbly. Perhaps even yet the LORD will protect you—protect you from his anger” (2:3).

Finally in chapter three, this whispered promise grows to a loud roar as God’s salvation for those who are faithful to him is declared. “Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! For the LORD will remove his hand of judgment and will disperse the armies of your enemy. And the LORD himself, the King of Israel, will live among you! At last your troubles will be over, and you will never again fear disaster” (3:14, 15). This is true hope, grounded in the knowledge of God’s justice and in his love for his people.

Today’s passage from the Letter to the Romans is often read at funerals. It was the main reading that I chose for my father’s funeral. Dad had been baptised as a baby and raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, but was a self-proclaimed “non–believer”. Shortly before his death, which was to occur the week before my ordination as a Deacon, he initiated a conversation with me about God and death. At the end of our discussion I asked him if he wanted me to read him a passage from the Bible. Knowing that he was feeling troubled and scared, I chose to read him this passage from Romans. I’m not exactly sure what he thought about the passage in the days that followed until his passing, but I do know for certain that at that moment in the hospital, he felt comforted by the passage.

And of course in today’s passage from the Gospel of John, we have the well known saying of Jesus, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus lays down the fundamental principle that life comes through death. In the agricultural world it is obvious that unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains what it is—a single kernel. But if it dies, it produces “many seeds,” i.e., many other kernels of wheat. It is only through the death of one that the life of many can be achieved. Jesus applies this principle to those who follow him. If someone loves his life, he will lose it, but if in this world he hates his life, he will keep it for eternal life.

What Jesus is saying is that the person who “loves his life” is guilty of placing his or her own welfare above that of the kingdom of God. Such a person has failed to make God’s kingdom their highest priority, and also failed to seek the quality of moral life necessary to attain it. That person will lose the very life they are trying to save. Thus, Jesus is saying that self-love leads to self-destruction.

On the other hand, the person who “hates his life” will preserve it “so as to live eternally”. Life comes through death not only in horticulture but also in human experience. It is those who lose themselves for the sake of Jesus and for the kingdom of God that will find both here in this life and in eternity the fulfilment they so deeply desire. It is by giving that one receives. Those who live solely for themselves are caught in a vicious cycle of self-destruction.

The Martyrs of New Guinea serve as examples of those who gave of themselves for the sake of Jesus and the kingdom of God. The love they had for Jesus and for those whom they ministered to, was greater than any self-love they may have felt. Perhaps in their self-sacrifice, they achieved the sense of fulfilment they desired?

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