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A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, May 8, 2011
Remember Blandina? No, she wasn’t a Mom. But she has a special saints day. She was one of the famous “Marytrs of Lyons,” along with Santus, a deacon, and Maturus, a recent convert to Christianity. Eusebius writes about their terrible punishments – which included being beaten, torn and burned, then thrown to the wild beasts for the amusement of the crowds and concludes:
“It was fitting that the noble athletes should endure a varied conflict, and win a great victory, that they might be entitled in the end to receive the crown supreme of life everlasting.”
Needless to say, a whole culture of Christian memory arose from the sporadic persecutions of Christians in the first two centuries. We grew up with iconic pictures of suffering Christians – thrown to the lions, dying horrible deaths, and all for their faith. We remember Victor Mature and Jean Simmons, walking beatifically towards their deaths at the end of the movie, “The Robe.”
But back in the first century it wasn’t nearly so neatly packaged. From persecution came not only amazing acts of forgiveness and reconciliation, but also a good measure of mean-spiritedness. The author of First Peter is writing to Gentile Christians who are resident aliens and household slaves in rural Asia Minor.
They are being called names and discriminated against because they have spoken out against the pagan culture around them. This culture was bitter about this new cult called Christianity and you all know how mean bitter people can be. So the writer of First Peter is counseling his readers to remain patient in the face of persecution. That’s why he can say things like, “be filled with sincere love, so that you may love one another with pure and perfect hearts.”
But faith that comes under pressure acquires some rather curious elements. It is faith that starts out as calm assurance, but ends up coming apart at the seams. It becomes…well…bitter. And that’s why the author of Peter can also say, “But there were false prophets also among you…who shall bring damnable heresies, and thus bring upon themselves swift destruction.” Here’s the drill:
* Under pressure, we become angry. We haven’t done anything to deserve being treated this way! Then we become defenders of the faith. We look around for the nearest club – be it reason, tradition or scripture – and we start fighting back.
* We start to divide people up into the saved and the lost, the sheep and the goats, the saints and the sinners. Then we withdraw into our own parochial little communities, fearing contamination from the world.
* We begin to see the world as evil – as beyond redemption – and we begin to long for a future, better world as we huddle in that dark cave, waiting to die.
* And, in the end, we step over the line – we jettison love. We don’t simply yearn for justice anymore. We begin to look forward to the wicked getting their just desserts.
It’s a slippery slope. And neither the victors nor the vanquished are immune. Now, picture this: for generations Christians are steeped in the persecution and martyrdom lore of their early years. But then it’s February 27, 380. The emperor, Theodosius I, has just made us the official religion of the Roman Empire. Yet, even after becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, we still identify being a Christian with suffering and martyrdom.
It’s been pretty grim ever since. One of the facts of human life is this: when you are in the minority, all you want is freedom to practice your religion; when you become the majority, however, all you want is to impose your religion on everyone else, through any means possible or respectable – usually through laws, customs, and economics. Our prime directive has become maintaining power. Because, after all, only by maintaining power can we make sure the wicked get their just desserts….
But now the situation has changed again. We have become a pluralistic nation, filled with lots of religious diversity. Christianity is faced with an increasing disestablishment from the halls of power and influence in America. The church is being attacked from many quarters, not the least of whom are folks like Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens.
Under bitter attack, these enemies tempt us to forget about Jesus’ insistence that we forgive and accept. So we fight back against our perceived persecution.
We can do better than this!
Fred Craddock tells the story of a family that is out for a leisurely drive on a Sunday afternoon. Suddenly, from the back seat comes the loud, excited, and pleading voices of the two children. “Mommy, Mommy, stop the car! There’s a kitten back there on the side of the road.”
The mother says, “So there’s a kitten on the side of the road. So what?”
“We have to stop and pick it up. If we don’t stop and pick it up, it will die.”
“Well then, it will just have to die. We don’t have any more room for any more animals. We practically have a zoo at the house already.”
Finally, the father intervenes. “Dear, you’ll have to stop.”
So the mother turns the car around, returns to the spot, and pulls off to the side of the road. “You kids stay in the car. I’ll see about it.”
She goes out to pick up the little kitten, just skin and bones and full of fleas. When she reaches down to pick it up, with its last bit of energy the kitten bristles, hisses, and bares its teeth and claws. Her hand receives a few minor scratches, but she finally manages to pick up the kitten and bring it over to the car. She gives the children fair warning: “Don’t touch it. It’s probably got leprosy.”
Back home they go. When they get to the house the children give the kitten several baths, about a gallon of warm milk, and continue to offer the equivalent of prayers of intercession on the kitten’s behalf: “Can we let it stay in the house – just tonight? Tomorrow we’ll fix it a place in the garage.”
They fix a comfortable bed, fit for a Pharaoh. Several weeks pass. Then one day the mother walks in, feels something rub against her leg. She looks down, and there is the cat. She reaches down, carefully checking to see that no one is watching.
When the cat sees her hand, it does not bare its claws and hiss; instead it arches its back to receive a caress. Is that the same cat? It is hard to believe that it could be the same as that frightened , hurt, hissing kitten on the side of the road – but you know as well as I do what made the difference.
For eons Mother God has reached out a hand to bless us. Take a close look at that hand. It’s covered with scratches.
Such is the hand of love, extended to those who are bitter….