Lent Midweek 2
Perpetua and Felicitas
March 8, 2017
When you think of the early Christian martyrs, you likely have a picture in your head of faithful believers in Christ being thrown to the lions before a jeering crowd in a Roman arena. Perhaps you've seen movies like “Gladiator” or read books like, “The Flames of Rome”, which imagine and detail these atrocities further. To a large degree, these kinds of stories are informed by the martyrdom of a Christian noblewoman named Perpetua. While imprisoned, she and one of her companions, Felicitas, who was her slave, both kept diaries. And a later editor put them together with eyewitness accounts of their martyrdom.
The year was 202 AD. The Roman Emperor Septimus Severus had just issued a decree against Christianity, which he thought subversive to Roman rule. We should note that such persecution was not constant in the early church, but intensified at certain times and places under various Roman emperors.
22 year old Perpetua and her family lived in Northern Africa, in the Roman city of Carthage. There was a thriving young Christian community there. We don't know exactly how she came to faith in Christ, but it is clear that she did, and her slave Felicitas along with her. Yet even in the face of this new decree, she would not turn away from her Lord. She was among a group of five new Christians who were arrested in response to the emperor's decree. She had been baptized shortly before her arrest.
While imprisoned, she kept a diary, marking the events. One of the first was a visit from her father, who begged her to turn away from Christianity and become a pagan once again, paying homage to the emperor.
"Father do you see this vase here?" she replied. "Could it be called by any other name than what it is?"
"No," he replied.
"Well, neither can I be called anything other than what I am, a Christian."
It would not be the last time her father visited and begged her to recant. But Perpetua stood firm.
During her time in prison, Perpetua and the other Christians frequently prayed, sang and worshipped. Perpetua remarked about her time there, “the dungeon became to me a palace.”
What makes the story all the more moving is that Perpetua was pregnant at the time of her arrest, and gave birth after at months in prison. She was moved to a better part of the prison in order to breast-feed the child, but this would not delay her fate for long.
The day came for the 5 to be tried before Hilarianus, the Roman governor. He again urged them to turn aside from Christianity and make a pagan sacrifice to the emperor. One by one, they refused. Perpetua's father attended the trial, and cried out, “Make the sacrifice! Have pity on your baby!” But when she refused, the governor had him beaten into silence, and he sentenced the Christians to death in the arena.
The Christians sang psalms as they were lead to their death in the arena. The men were scourged before a line of gladiators. The men were subjected to attack by a wild boar, a bear and a leopard, while the women were attacked by a wild heifer. Finally to satisfy the bloodthirsty crowd, the Christians were put to death by the sword, while the crowd chanted mockery of their baptism, “saved and washed, saved and washed!”
St. Augustine was so moved by the account of this martyrdom that he preached four sermons about it.
It was transmitted widely in both Latin and Greek, transmitted far and wide, and passed down through the ages. So it seems their story inspired many of the early Christians, who no doubt also faced threats of similar persecutions.
Tertullian, one of the church fathers, famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. Indeed, their example of faith must have served to inspire many, to seed the church. The student of church history sees the church often grows most exponentially during those times when it was persecuted most fiercely. But perhaps Tertullian would also concede that the blood of the martyrs also waters and strengthens the church that has been established – that is to say, that they encourage us by their faithful example, even today.
While this story doesn't rise to the level of Scripture, and its details may not be as reliable, it does stand as an example of what the early Christians faced, and of the fulfillment of Jesus' predictions that his people would stand before governors and kings and confess his name. That they would be persecuted like the prophets who were before them. That they would be hated by all nations for his names' sake.
That Jesus saw this coming, and so much more persecution and trouble for his people might not seem good news to the hearer. It may seem more like doom and gloom, which then came to pass. And indeed, many seek a Christianity that looks nothing like what we see from Jesus, or in the deaths of the martyrs, or even in the persecuted church of today.
Some would go after a version of Christianity that looks just the opposite. A gospel of prosperity. Where the well-dressed and well-heeled preacher (who lives in a mansion and drives fancy cars) tells you that God wants YOU to be happy and healthy and wealthy, too. You just have to ask the right way, believe hard enough, oh, and don't forget to make your checks payable to....
But that's only a most egregious false Christianity. Other more subtle expectations of Christ can be just as misleading. Do we want a Christianity that is comfortable, or one that challenges us to bear the cross? I'll go to church on Sundays, and maybe on Wednesdays during Lent, Lord, but don't expect much more from me. Don't ask me to do more, or give more, or pray more, or anything more, Lord. I'm at my whit's end. My life is stressful. I've got too much on my plate.
And then we see the martyrs being lead to their death for a simple confession of Christ, and they put us to shame. We, who moan and complain over so little. The spiritual equivalent of a hangnail. Their example of faith in the face of persecution functions much as a call to repentance. For us to remember what's important in life. To re-order our priorities. To cling to Christ, even in the face of death.
I don't pray for persecution. I don't long for the days that Christians are thrown to the lions, or beheaded by Muslims. But let no one be surprised if it should happen, even to us. For Jesus has told us. And we've seen it happen to others. And we know that in other places, it happens even in these dark and latter days.
Every Christian will face death sooner or later, unless Christ comes first. And that death that waits for you on some future horizon may not be at the hands of a pagan or enemy of Christ. It may be a disease. It may be an accident. It may just be old age. But let not the fear of death turn us away from Christ at our last hour.
Every Christian will suffer in this broken down ramshackle world infested with the chaos that sin brings to bear. Even if it doesn't kill you, the world hates you, and death's shadow is also a sorrow we will inevitably bear. Its tendrils grip every part of our life, and it would sap all joy from us. This vale of tears, however, is not our final destination.
Rather, Jesus promises, amidst a bunch of talk about suffering, persecution, betrayal and lovelessness, he says, “the one who endures to the end will be saved”. With Jesus, there is always hope, no matter how hopeless your situation seems. With Jesus, there is always a future, no matter how final the end seems. It reminds me of the clever quip, “Everything will be ok in the end. If everything's not ok, then it's not the end yet.” Without Christ this is sentimental drivel. But in Christ, it's a sure and certain reality.
Jesus knows martyrdom and cross. He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. He knows about dying unjustly. He felt the scourge, bore the rod, the spitting, the thorns, the nails, the mockery. “He saved others, but he can't save himself”, they jeered. His death, too, was a display for wicked men. It was utter humiliation. It was maximum suffering. It was, humanly speaking, the depths of despair.
But you know how the story ends. There is hope. There is life. There is a resurrection to follow, and death and grave and all of our sins are left in the dust. For Jesus there is life, glory, ascension and enthronement. For Jesus there is a victory that can never be taken away. He turned the tables on all the darkness, and brought life and immortality to light.
So too for his people. So too for the blessed martyrs, Perpetua, Felicitas, and so many others, some named, many anonymous. Their deaths were not in vain. Their good confession will see its reward. Their example of faith is set before the church even today.
And Jesus' victory is yours, too, dear Christian. Whether your death is a spectacle before a jeering crowd, or a quiet passing in a hospital bed, whether you are beset by fanatical enemies of the Christian faith, or simply by the ancient serpent who despises all Christians, whether your death goes down in history or whether you don't even rise to one of its footnotes – nonetheless – Christ has won the victory, and so the victory is yours. For you are in him.
Let our Lenten sorrow be over our sins, but not over our demise. Let our repentance bring us to hope once again, and even joy. For while death may take us, the grave has no sting for those who are in Christ. And nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, not nakedness or shame, nor danger nor sword. Not even death itself. Therefore endure to the end, in Christ, and be saved. Take the example of so many who have gone before you, and now have received the crown of victory. And know that yours also awaits. In Jesus Christ, Amen.