by Daniel Harrell
For those who barely endured a year’s worth of sermons from Revelation, this morning’s Scripture reading no doubt seems a sign of the apocalypse. I recently got news of some folks who after a few Sundays of Revelation couldn’t take it anymore and started attending a church with cheerier sermons. As we all now know, Revelation serves up some gruesome fare—gory depictions of the end of the world, repeated over and over again, enough to make any conscientious Christian cringe. Unfortunately the same might be said regarding my Church Father Starting with the Letter Q sermon this morning. For eighteen summers I’ve been preaching alphabetically about famous personalities of church history, the fathers and mothers of our faith, a letter at a time. The pickings at Q are both slim and grim.
If you came to church hoping for a happy end of summer homily, you may soon be wishing you’d gone to the lake or to that church with the cheerier sermons. On the other hand, I didn’t write the Bible nor dictate church history. Martyrs for the faith show up constantly in the early church, people who like their Lord unjustly died for their faith. For these early Christians—persecuted Christians doomed under Roman rule—Revelation’s promise of ultimate triumph and the hope for new creation was what they needed to hear. Convinced they could not die in vain, these early believers withstood all the Roman Empire threw at them, until finally the Empire itself was converted, its Emperor’s throne made into a papal chair. As the Bible predicted, every knee bowed and tongue confessed Christ, not Caesar, as Lord.
Christianity moved and morphed throughout the Mediterranean, and in an area stretching from Egypt around the Middle East into Greece, developed a decidedly Eastern character, what we now generally label Eastern Orthodoxy. Christianity didn’t dominate like it did in the west once Islam arrived in the seventh century. Under Islamic rule, Christians were allowed to practice their faith, however, though there was plenty of conflict and bloodshed along the way. Still, for the most part, a passably peaceful status quo eventually settled in for several centuries until the fall of the Ottoman Empire and World War I ignited a ferocious period of violence against Christians in the Middle East. A genocide waged by the Young Turks in the name of nationalism left at least two million Armenians, Assyrians and Greek Christians dead. Survivors fled to the west or settled into Iraq and Syria where they were protected by military dictators—most recently by the likes of Mubarak in Egypt, Assad in Syria, Hussein in Iraq, Qaddafi in Libya—all who in exchange exploited Christians for political support.
This has all since blown apart, literally, as western military invasions and the Arab Spring has become the Christian winter. The ferocious storm that is ISIS has so decimated Christian communities in the Iraq and Syria that a recent New York Times report asks whether this marks the end of Christianity in the Middle East. ISIS’ intends to eradicate Christians and other minorities in its own deranged display of apocalyptic fervor. Recently, ISIS posted videos emphasizing the second-class status of Christians in the caliphate. Those unwilling to pay an extortion tax or convert are to be destroyed, the narrator warned, the videos rolling with the now-infamous scenes of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians in Libya being marched onto the beach and beheaded.
In Revelation 6, Christians martyred for their faithfulness huddled under the altar in heaven and wondered how long God was going to let this go on. Saved by grace; they craved justice. They cry out in a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge and avenge our blood?” Their cry echoes that of the Psalmist who likewise wailed in Psalm 94, “How long will the wicked be jubilant, O LORD? They pour out arrogant words; all evildoers are full of boasting. They crush your people, they oppress your inheritance. They slay the widow and the alien; they murder the fatherless. They taunt you, saying, ‘The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed.’ … “God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve! … Pay them back for their evil, destroy them because of their wickedness; may the LORD our God will wipe them out.”
Admittedly, such vindictiveness sounds discordant for a religion committed to peacemaking and cheek turning. At the same time, mercy surely has its limits. When I last I preached from Revelation 6, I told of a church member recently back from northern Iraq whose colleague had been on a bus with 50-60 other Christians fleeing the town of Mosul. Mosul traces its roots back to Nineveh and the ancient evangelism of Jonah. A Christian church emerged in the second century, and became a key center for churches that spoke Syriac, a language close to that of the apostles and still spoken in Mosul. The Mosul church survived onslaught and persecution over the centuries, and a little more than a decade ago, was home to 60,000 Christians, but no more. ISIS has virtually wiped them out. Fleeing Mosul, this man held his 2-year-old grandson in his arms. Their bus was stopped by ISIS fighters and a verbal confrontation ensued. In his rage, one of the fighters pulled the 2-year-old from his grandfather’s arms and slew him. This week we were were haunted again by the death of the young migrant 3-year-old fleeing Syria who drowned along with his mother and brother. Reportedly 12,000 children have been victims to the atrocities in Syria and Iraq. According to Unicef, another 2 million are now refugees, according to UNICEF.
“Suffer the little children to come unto me” Jesus said, “for of such belongs the kingdom of God.” As much as we pray happiness for all children, and strive to provide it for our own, the world for so many is truly a terrible place. Why some suffer so abusively and other not defies understanding and fairness, confounding governments’ obligation and their policy and military interventions. One of the most evil aspects of evil is its irrationality—it makes no sense. Jesus’ loving embrace of the least of these offers for many children the only true hope they can have. To them belongs the very Kingdom of God. So much so that Jesus goes on to say that without childlike faith, we adults have no chance at the kingdom ourselves. We are called to be children of God for a reason.
This season’s last sermon in my annual alphabetical Church Fathers series is about a child. He is a three-year-old called Quiricos in some traditions, Quriaqos in Aramaic, a boy who lived with his widowed mother, Julietta, in Tarsus, among the earliest Christian cities in what is now Turkey. According to legend, around the year 305, Emperor Diocletian had commenced his savage persecution of Christians, forcing Julietta to flee with her son. Julietta, a woman of royal blood and great wealth, had abandoned all she had to follow Christ. Arriving in Tarsus, she was soon recognized and apprehended along with her son and taken before the Roman prefect. The governor commanded Julietta be beaten into submission to the Emperor, but she kept repeating “I am a Christian, and will not offer sacrifice to demons.” Enraged, the governor snatched her son from her arms, which upset Quriaqos greatly. The governor then tried to kiss the little boy to calm him down, but the kid would have none of it. He reached out and scratched the governor’s face and shouted that he was a Christian too. Further enraged, the governor cast the child to the ground, down a set of stone steps, eliciting a sorrowful gratitude from his mother for his faith and his now merciful rest in the arms of Jesus. The governor then ordered Julietta heartlessly executed. Two housemaids of Julietta’s, emboldened by what they had witnessed, took the bodies and buried them in a nearby field. When Christianity finally became the religion of the Empire a few years later, these graves were rediscovered and honored due to the bravery and conviction of this mother and young son. They are venerated still on their June feast days in both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church.
For the earliest Christians, as with John’s congregation in Revelation, believing in Jesus was a grave proposition. Likewise for so many congregations holding on in Syria and Iraq today. For more than a decade, since the US war in Iraq, extremists have targeted Christians and other minorities who they regard as stand-ins for Western power. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled and continue to flee. The Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, reports having lost priests, bishops and more than 60 churches to bombing and other atrocities. As many as 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq in 2003. Today there are less than 500,000.
Revelation speaks of a symbolic 144,000 who endure. The Lamb of God slain stands triumphant atop Mount Zion, these faithful alongside, each marked with the name of God and set to enjoy their eternal reward. “Blessed are those who die in the Lord,” we read in chapter 14. “Yes, says the Spirit, they will rest from their labors. Nothing they have done has been wasted.” These assurances provide post-mortem comfort but also pre-mortem conviction. Similarly with the Lord’s Supper itself. While it previews our communion with Christ and each other in eternity, its menu of flesh and blood stresses the sacrifice required to get there.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his own sacrifice fueled by his burning Christian conviction, famously preached about how being beaten for your beliefs is not something anybody enjoys. “It’s the strong man who can stand up amid opposition, who can stand up amid violence being inflicted upon him and not retaliate with violence. This method disarms the opponent and exposes his moral defenses. It weakens his morale, and at the same time it works on his conscience, and he just doesn’t know what to do. If he doesn’t beat you, wonderful. If he beats you, you develop the quiet courage of accepting blows without retaliating. If he doesn’t put you in jail, wonderful. Nobody with any sense likes to go to jail. But if he puts you in jail, you go in that jail and transform it from a dungeon of shame into a haven of freedom and human dignity. And even if he tries to kill you, you’ll develop the inner conviction that there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for.”
I am troubled by these words. I wonder at the strength of my own convictions. How firm is my faith? How deep my love? How sure and precious my hope? So much that I would refuse to renounce it? Or worse, reduce it to something solely for the sake of my own private salvation or personal happiness? Am I childish enough to trust Jesus enough to do what he demands of me, not only in matters of love and forgiveness but when it comes to confronting injustice or speaking truth or even losing my life?
As for mothers and children, there is a bond there that lends considerable force to the Quriaqos and Julietta story. The young boy could only do what his mother had taught. And the mother could only delight that her son had learned so well. It is a hard story to ponder because it ends so tragically. Then again, it is mostly tragic only if you believe this life is all that there is.
Spending time not so long ago at the Benedictine monastery in Collegeville, around the feast day of Quriaqos and Julietta, I asked a monk what was so good about monastic life. Of all the things he could have mentioned, he answered by observing how well Benedictines die. “It’s what we all look forward to,” he said, without a hint of despair. “Each day in our service and in our prayers we step closer to our final joy in the full presence of Jesus. Why would we want to spend eternity here?”
And yet even from heaven there remains a prayer for justice. “How long, O Lord, before you avenge evil?” Jesus warned that those who harmed his little ones would be better off having a great millstone fastened around their necks and cast into the depths of the sea. Here in Revelation 6, where the storied Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wreak their havoc, the martyrs are each given white robes and told to hold their own horses. The tardiness of God is not an abdication of justice, but a determination to save. As St. Peter put it, “The Lord is not slow, as some think of slowness, but is patient, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” How is this possible? How to ever imagine a killer of Christians finding forgiveness? Inquire no further than the apostle Paul himself, who as the Pharisee Saul was on his way to Syria to kill a few more when Jesus knocked him to the ground, saved his soul and then used him to change the world. This is outrageous grace.
In this same spirit, the martyrs are told to wait “until the number of their fellow servants should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been killed.” Jesus and Paul both stressed that the gospel must be preached to all nations before all is said and done—with the attendant suffering for witnesses involved in such proclamation. Losing your life for Jesus’ sake is first the loss of your old, sinful self. In time, to faithfully live out the implications of the gospel—going last, loving the least, seeking the lost, forgiving the enemy, rejecting the lies and withstanding hostility—this gets you singled out and set aside, and in some places crucified, dead and buried. Grace that saves you necessarily kills you first for the sake of resurrection, as it did the Savior who saves with it. So determined is the Lord that he does whatever it takes—even to the extent of his own body and blood shed for you.