Civil Disobedience and Early Christian Martyrs

Transcribed from the sermon preached March 6, 2016

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

 Scripture Readings: Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 5:38-48


This Lent we are focusing, studying, and praying on non-violence. If you are a Christian, a follower of Christ, this should be nothing new. “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” is an old song. This is just another Sunday in a long line of Sundays in which we worship and learn of Jesus of Nazareth, the one for whom honoring the One God of Love was more important than avoiding suffering and death. It has always been a central tenant of the Gospel that the Spirit of Christ is available and present for us today, in all its power, to grant us the ability to speak the truth and live love, no matter what. When we acknowledge the fact that we have failed and sinned, and ask forgiveness, we are filled with a power and meaning which can move mountains. The beautiful vision of God’s love for us, grants us the power to love God and others in return. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus, Paul and the early Christians lived at a time when Rome was the undisputed imperial power of the world. Revolt was met with torture and execution.

Out of love for his nation and for all humanity, Jesus walked straight to the seat of power of his people to call them and us to a better way, a way of peace, honesty and equality before God our Creator. You could call it civil disobedience, but it is clear that Jesus had something more positive in mind – obedience to God, obedience to love. He loved humanity so much he went to where his message and way of life would have an impact. The love of Jesus for God, for you and me was more important than his own life.

Early Christians, by the power of the Holy Spirit, followed his lead. By sharing in communion, the feast of love, eating the body and blood of Christ, Christians ingest his grace and power and faithfulness to stand against the violence of this worldly authority. Both the nation of Rome and the Roman emperor, along with a host of other gods, were to be worshipped. They had the power of armies and the threat of death on their side. Those who refused stuck out as social rebels. The Christian manner of living, their faithfulness and honesty, their kindness and non-violence stuck out. When fear gripped the community, it was often the apostasy of the Christians that was to blame.

Martyrdom has gotten a bad name in recent times. In our postmodern world where everything is relative and conditional, and meaning is a mere social construct, it is silly to care enough about something to die for it. And of course, there are the radical Muslim suicide bombers who kill themselves to kill others. But Christian martyrs of the early church allowed themselves to be killed because through Christ, they would not endorse or participate in the violence of this world. They would not worship the gods of Roman violence.

As punishment for refusing to pledge allegiance to the gods and the state, Christians were put in the arena with gladiators and beasts.

The intent of the circus was to instill fear, terror, humiliation and shame upon those who would resist Rome. Like today’s cage fighting, YouTube fights and reality TV, the shock and awe or our wars on TV, it also satisfied the mobs lust for violence. But the public torture and execution of Christians backfired, as the faithfulness and strength of Christians who would die willingly but not fight demonstrated the power of the Gospel. People converted big time.

In the year 202 or 203 in Carthage Northern Africa, there was a severe persecution under the emperor Severus. Of enormous significance was the martyrdom of two women, Perpetua and Felicity. In what may be the first known writing of Christian women, Perpetua kept a diary, known today as The Passion of Holy Women.

When they were taken prisoner, Perpetua was still breastfeeding her baby and Felicity was pregnant. For sure not all Christians were this brave, but their testimony is lifted up to those then and now who hope to be so brave and faithful. I am reading significant excerpts. It could use some commentary but I will refrain today so you can hear a good portion of the story.

Perpetua recounts the tortured love of her father, who grieves her impending death and begs her to sacrifice on behalf of the emperor. But she says, “I am a Christian. I can be no other.” And she writes: A few days later we were lodged in the prison; and I was terrified, as I had never before been in such a dark hole. What a difficult time it was! With the crowd the heat was stifling; then there was the extortion of the soldiers; and to crown all, I was tortured with worry for my baby there.” Then two deacons bribe the guards to get them a break in another area of the prison, and her mother was able to bring her baby to her. “I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger. “Then I got permission for my baby to stay with me in prison. At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and anxiety over the child. My prison had suddenly become a palace, so that I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else.”

In her diary she recounts several wild dreams, where she fights with the devil and beasts, but is able to resist and climb the ladder to heaven and be with Jesus. So she knows she will be martyred.

Perpetua continues:

“One day while we were eating breakfast we were suddenly hurried off for a hearing. We arrived at the forum, and straight away the story went about the neighborhood near the forum and a huge crowd gathered. We walked up to the prisoner’s dock. All the others when questioned admitted their guilt. Then, when it came my turn, my father appeared with my son, dragged me from the step, and said: ‘Perform the sacrifice–have pity on your baby!’

“Hilarianus the governor, who had received his judicial powers as the successor of the late proconsul Minucius Timinianus, said to me: ‘Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.’

‘I will not’, I retorted.

‘Are you a Christian?’ said Hilarianus.

And I said: ‘Yes, I am.’

When my father persisted in trying to dissuade me, Hilarianus ordered him to be thrown to the ground and beaten with a rod. I felt sorry for father, just as if I myself had been beaten.”

So she is condemned to the beasts.

It is about this point where another finishes the story

A lady of some standing, Perpetua winds up advocating for herself and fellow prisoners, especially the women. She gets permission for them to freshen up before they go into the arena to die. Then the day before the circus, they are permitted what was called a free banquet, but which the Christians called a “love feast.” And they spoke to the gawking mob looking on about the Gospel, about God’s judgment and eternal salvation, and many began to believe.

“The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheatre joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze. With them also was Felicitas, glad that she had safely given birth so that now she could fight the beasts, going from one blood bath to another, from the midwife to the gladiator, ready to wash after childbirth in a second baptism.”

“They were then led up to the gates and the men were forced to put on the robes of priests of Saturn, the women the dress of the priestesses of Ceres. But the noble Perpetua strenuously resisted this to the end.

“’We came to this of our own free will, that our freedom should not be violated. We agreed to pledge our lives provided that we would do no such thing. You agreed with us to do this.’

“Even injustice recognized justice. The military tribune agreed. They were to be brought into the arena just as they were. Perpetua then began to sing a psalm: she was already treading on the head of the Egyptian.

“Revocatus, Saturninus, and Saturus began to warn the on looking mob. Then when they came within sight of Hilarianus, they suggested by their motions and gestures: ‘You have condemned us, but God will condemn you’ was what they were saying.

“At this the crowds became enraged and demanded that they be scourged before a line of gladiators. And they rejoiced at this that they had obtained a share in the Lord’s sufferings.

“For the young women, however, the Devil had prepared a mad heifer. This was an unusual animal, but it was chosen that their sex might be matched with that of the beast. So they were stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought out into the arena. Even the crowd was horrified when they saw that one was a delicate young girl and the other was a woman fresh from childbirth with the milk still dripping from her breasts. And so they were brought back again and dressed in unbelted tunics.

“First the heifer tossed Perpetua and she fell on her back. Then sitting up she pulled down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair: for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.

“Then she got up. And seeing that Felicitas had been crushed to the ground, she went over to her, gave her hand, and lifted her up. Then the two stood side by side. But the cruelty of the mob was by now appeased, and so they were called back through the Gate of Life.

“There Perpetua was held up by a man named Rusticus who was at the time a catechumen and kept close to her. She awoke from a kind of sleep (so absorbed had she been in ecstasy in the Spirit) and she began to look about her. Then to the amazement of all she said: ‘When are we going to be thrown to that heifer or whatever it is?’

“When told that this had already happened, she refused to believe it until she noticed the marks of her rough experience on her person and her dress. Then she called for her brother and spoke to him together with the catechumens and said: ‘you must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.’”

Then all those still alive were to have their throats cut. “But the mob asked that their bodies be brought out into the open that their eyes might be the guilty witnesses of the sword that pierced their flesh. And so the martyrs got up and went to the spot of their own accord as the people wanted them to, and kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace. The others took the sword in silence and without moving… Perpetual Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing.

In listening to the stories of the early martyrs, we do not intend to seek out suffering for sufferings sake. The virtue is not in suffering, but in our strength of faith in the God of love despite suffering. Nor do we need oppose any and every state or state action just to be rebellious. We oppose the state and the mob, when their fear, greed, idolatry and lust for violence are in opposition to the God of love, and the way of Jesus The martyrs are a reminder that God is our father and mother, our King and Queen, and no physical need or desire, no state or powerful authority can supersede our allegiance.

May God grant us such faith as we partake in this bread of heaven, the feast of love.