The crowds were tired. It had been a long day, extraordinary even for one of the major imperial game days. The spectacle had begun in the Circus Maximus, ancient Rome’s horseracing track. In the morning there were the usual beast fights, where professional hunters dispatched ferocious lions and bears for the amusement of the crowd. The afternoon had featured gladiators, both in single combat to the death and in larger groups reenacting famous battles from the Roman past. During the lunch hour in between it was customary to stage the public execution of condemned criminals. And today the body count of Roman “justice” had been enormous.
This was Rome in 64 A.D., and the day’s events had been orchestrated by the Emperor Nero. But Nero had a public relations problem. Large sections of the city had recently burned, and the public had come to believe—perhaps correctly—that the emperor had ordered the setting of the fatal blaze himself in order to clear the ground for his grand, new royal palace—the Golden House. The ancient historian Tacitus tells us that in order to deflect this suspicion the emperor had selected a scapegoat to take the blame for the burning of Rome. Or rather, Nero had selected an entire community of scapegoats—the fledging Christian Church of the capital.
Hundreds of Christians had been rounded up in a sweep of the city during the preceding weeks, and now they were being executed for arson. At today’s noontime public executions large numbers of these Christians, sheepskins draped over their shoulders, had been marched into the middle of the Circus Maximus. The Roman mob howled its approval as wild lions were loosed upon the convicts—a fitting punishment for the flock of Christos, a dead Jewish rebel against the empire whom the Christians knew as “the Good Shepherd.” But even though hundreds of the members of the Jesus cult had died in the arena that day, a sizeable number had been held in reserve for an even more impressive display of Roman vengeance that night.
Around dusk these surviving Christians were driven from their prison and each victim was forced to take up a wooden beam, very much like the one their Lord and Master had carried to Golgotha thirty years earlier. They carried their burdens through the streets of the city into the imperial gardens, where Nero awaited them along with the still blood-thirsty mob. They were then nailed to their crosses and raised up alongside the road that ran through the emperor’s gardens. In an ironic twist highlighting their alleged arson, the emperor ordered these crucified Christians to be set on fire while they were still alive. The light of those burning crosses illuminated Nero’s path as he drove a chariot through his pleasure garden that night. We will never know the number of these steadfast martyrs, but their courage still shines as beacon in our own times.
God alone knows what was in the hearts and minds of those early Christians as their captors lead them to crucifixion in 64 A.D. But their minds likely turned to the words of our Lord Jesus in the Gospel lesson this morning: “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” You and I must spiritualize these words in order to apply them in our lives. But the first generations of Christians lived them—literally taking up their own crosses and dying for Christ. But as they lost one life to the jaws of lions, the iron and wood of Roman crosses, and the searing pain of sacrificial fire, they found a new life of far greater value than the one ripped from them by Nero’s henchmen.
That new life—eternal life in the presence of their God and Savior--they received in its fullness when Roman executioners dispatched them from this earth. But it is a new life they had already begun to live through grace while still in the body--through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, born anew through the Spirit in the waters of Holy Baptism. Their old lives--lives tied to this fallen world, subservient to the corrupt desires and passions that draw us from the love of God--were already a thing of the past for these martyrs even before their physical deaths. For as St. Paul reminds us today, “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Those early Christians took up their crosses in the sure and certain hope that, as they were being “united with [Christ] in a death like his,” they would “certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
The Apostle Paul, of course, knew what he was talking about. He had once led a very different life, a life infused with sinful rage and dedicated to the destruction of the Body of Christ. But God had grabbed him by the scruff of the neck on the road to Damascus and brought his old, sin-shackled life to an end. Paul was utterly changed in an instant. His old self became extinct, for all practical purposes. Virtually everyone he had ever known among the Jews would have turned their backs on him, a stark example of the contentious personal relationships our Lord Jesus speaks of in the Gospel today.
But for St. Paul the gracious gift of faith in Christ was nothing less than new life from the dead. “We know that our old self was crucified with [Christ],” he tells us today, “so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.” This was the Good News that Paul dedicated the remainder of his earthly life to spreading: forgiveness of sins through the cross of Christ and resurrection to eternal life through faith in the holy Name of Jesus. Of course, in the end the blessed Apostle would himself also perish in the persecution of the Church in Rome by the tyrant Nero, enjoying the “privilege” accorded to Roman citizens of being beheaded by a swordsman rather than enduring the “humiliation” of crucifixion. But Paul certainly knew it would come to this one day, and he did not flinch. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth;” the Lord Jesus had once said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Every baptized believer here this morning, the blessed Apostle tells us, is now dead to sin. “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies,” Paul exhorts us, “to make you obey their passions.” That is a very tall order, indeed. But Paul knows that this seemingly super-human degree of self-control cannot be rooted in the present order of a fallen world. The death of our “old self” and our subsequent faithfulness to the will of God is only possible because, as Paul reminds us in his second letter to the Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
Thus, my brothers and sisters, you and I are the vanguard of the new heaven and the new earth, despite the fact that we also still live very much within the confines of the old world. For to those of us who have repented of our sins, turned to Christ Jesus in faith, and been baptized into His saving death, a new world order has already dawned. It is a transcendent reality founded upon the mystical Body of Christ. And it is only through union with Christ’s Body the Church, when we submit ourselves to the authority of Holy Scripture and avail ourselves of the means of grace God offers us in the sacraments, that death to sin and life in the Spirit become a reality in our daily lives.
The new life of self-giving love and steadfast faithfulness that our Lord Jesus and St. Paul call us to today is possible. Those early martyrs of Rome--and countless saints in centuries since--demonstrate that this is true. Let us never forget that you and I—like those great saints--are called to be holy, even as our Father in Heaven is holy. And God our Savior would not summon us to such a lofty vocation if He did not also give us the ability to live it out. We are already citizens of a heavenly Kingdom, having died to sin and been born anew in the New Jerusalem that is breaking into this world. Let us strive every day to live more and more as men and women from above., subjects of the Holy One of Israel, our King.
May the unbounded grace of the Holy Spirit enliven our hearts as a new creation and make us walk in newness of life to the glory of God the Father, through the power of Christ’s resurrection life. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.