Sunday, February 25, 2018

February 25 - Nestor of Magydos, Martyr, Bishop, Follower of the Lamb

Publius knew he was right--he didn't necessarily like that he was right but he was certain nonetheless. As the governor appointed by Rome to manage and control Pamphylia, he knew that Nestor was going to be a problem. After all, Nestor refused to be quiet no matter how much Publius or Publius' men insisted that silence was better for him since Rome was now ruled by Decius. This led Publius to wonder openly why a man would knowingly flirt with torture and death for the sake of people who could not repay his loyalty. Especially when, by Publius' reasoning, there seemed to be no reason why Nestor couldn't continue as priest and bishop if he submitted himself to Rome and those in power in Pamphylia. Nestor's silence could not be persuaded, though, and Publius was becoming increasingly frustrated with the speed at which the Christian groups were growing. No matter how hard he tried to dissolve and crush them, they continued to grow unabated. In many ways, it seemed that his efforts had only made it worse. The Christians looked to Nestor for leadership and he provided it ably. So, Publius was confident that he was right when he said, "Until we have got the better of the bishop, we shall be powerless against the Christians."

So, Nestor was arrested by the order of the emperor Decius through his servant Publius and held by Roman soldiers against his will. The Christian communities responded in a way that confounded Publius when they praised God for Nestor's faith and prayed that he would not relent under the pressure that Rome would predictably apply. Meanwhile, Nestor had a vision while sleeping in his cell. In the vision, he watched as a lamb was led from its pen to the place appointed for its sacrifice. He watched as it was bound and laid upon an altar. After the lamb was slaughtered, Nestor awoke with confidence and resolve. He eagerly told of his dream to those Christians brave enough to visit him in prison and offered only one interpretation: his Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb that was Slain, had called him to follow after him in martyrdom. His visitors rejoiced with him even while they mourned their own loss as Rome prepared to deprive the Church of a bishop and provide for the Church another martyr. Publius was shocked to see Nestor's apparent lack of fear but he proceeded with his horrible task.

Publius followed through with Decius' wishes and tortured Nestor cruelly. After all, if Publius wished to keep his position and his favor with Rome, then he had no choice but to punish and kill Rome's enemies--loyalty has its benefits but it also has its costs. When Nestor refused to deny his faith and make a sacrifice to the gods of Rome, Publius encouraged him to make the sacrifice even if he didn't mean it. Publius didn't understand why Nestor found this proposal so horrid but then Publius didn't understand that for Nestor to do so would be to place his faith in the saving power of Rome over that of his Lord who also died innocently.So,Nestor was crucified by Roman command and eagerly followed his Lord from this world to the next.The Church that Decius and Publius hoped to crush by murdering one of its bishops grew even more in the gruesome wake of Nestor's martyrdom. Publius had been so confident that he was right--surely, killing their leader should crush their spirits!--but he was magnificently wrong. What Publius and Rome never quite understood, and what they still don't understand today, is that there was another Shepherd who watched over all the little sheep who followed after him, of which Nestor was only one. Publius had known he was right, but--praise God--he was gloriously wrong.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

February 24 - Matthias, Disciple, Apostle, Thirteenth Member of the Twelve

When Jesus' disciples had come together on the mountain, they asked him, "Lord, will you restore the kingdom to Israel now?" Jesus said to them, "Don't worry yourself with the schedule that the Father has set according to his own will. Instead, know that you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When he had finished speaking he was lifted up before their eyes and disappeared behind a cloud. The disciples stood around waiting to see if he'd reappear and thinking that perhaps they should wait just a little longer when suddenly there were two people standing among them in white robes. These two said to them,"Why do you stand looking upwards?This Jesus--your Lord--has been taken up from you into heaven. He will come again in the same way that you just watched him go.

So, when they had been given their mission and a new understanding of their calling they returned to Jerusalem. When they had entered the city, they went to the room where they had been staying. The eleven remaining members of the twelve--for Judas had taken his own life in remorse for his betrayal of their Lord--were all there and they must have felt not only the absence of their Lord but also the absence of their friend Judas. Those of the twelve who remained, Jesus' brothers,and several important women--including Mary the mother of Jesus--devoted themselves to one of the things that Jesus had been devoted to: prayer.

After a little while, Peter--the one who had denied Jesus, had been reconciled with a calling to feed Jesus' sheep, and would eventually become a martyr--stood up among the disciples gathered there (there were approximately 120 there) and said to them, "Brothers and Sisters, we all know what happened to Judas. He went out and took his own life in the field that his blood money had purchased. We all know that nobody owns that field of blood, now. It was terrible but it had to happen because it was part of God's plan and it had been foretold by the Holy Spirit through David. Yes, he was one of us and he shared in our ministry but he became the guide of those who arrested our Lord. Remember that it is written in the psalter: 'Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it' and 'Let another take his position of overseer.' So one of the disciples who have been with us throughout our Lord's time among us must become a witness with us to his resurrection. One of Jesus' disciples must help us fulfill this new calling he has given us. It must be one of the disciples that was with us from the time John the Baptizer baptized Jesus. This person must have been with us until Jesus was taken to be murdered."

So two men were suggested: Joseph called Barsabbas--who was also known as Justus--and Matthias. The disciples prayed, "Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take Judas' place in this ministry. Judas turned aside from your will to work his own will. Show us the one who will become an apostle in his place." And so they cast lots to determine which of the two men would take Judas' place and the lots indicated Matthias. With unanimous agreement, Matthias became the thirteenth member of "the Twelve." He would go on to live a life much like the other apostles even dying a martyr in later years. He would devote himself to his calling--Jesus' calling--even if he wasn't one of the original twelve. He was aware of the need and was willing to play his own role in the grand story of the Faith.

Friday, February 23, 2018

February 23 - Polycarp, Martyr, Apostolic Father, Bishop

Polycarp had only been a child when he had been introduced to the man by the name of John yet he knew that this man was important. He gave him his attention because his parents seemed to be amazed at the man and when he did this he began to hear John speak words that amazed him. Soon, Polycarp had converted to the faith of John the Apostle and had become a follower of John's Lord--Jesus Christ. Further, he began taking teaching and guidance from John in how he might also be a man of God who faithfully pursued God's calling upon his life. He never was a philosopher or an especially educated man but he had the benefit of spending much time with not only John but also Papias and Ignatius of Antioch. Soon, he was a leader within the Church--even without a philosophical education--in one of the most trying and challenging times in the history of the Body of Christ. It seemed that all who wanted it could claim to be the true Church that was established by Jesus. There was no clear distinction what was and wasn't orthodoxy and many were led astray by teachers who, knowingly or unknowingly, taught their opinions as Jesus' opinions. Polycarp relied upon the teaching and guidance he had received from John to discern right teaching from wrong teaching. Then, he used his natural gifts and talents to teach and guide others to avoid heresy. In this way, Polycarp was father to many.

One of the men that Polycarp taught and mentored was Irenaeus who would go on to grow Polycarp's investment of time and attention by guiding the Church through another challenging and nebulous time of his own. Polycarp's love for Irenaeus quite literally changed the world even if Polycarp himself never saw or knew it. Looking back, this kind of love and devotion is what differentiated Polycarp from his opponents. While there was much argument it was not always full of love and compassion. Polycarp on the other hand seemed to be genuinely affected and transformed by the faith that held him. He was not brilliant or well educated but he was sincere and loving and this lent weight to his arguments. The marks of transformation on his life suggested that he had truly consumed and been sustained by the Bread of Life and the life-giving water of Jesus' teaching. When he told the story of what God had done in his life people were inspired to hand their lives over to the same God he followed. He led by example and not simply be beautiful, rhetorical flourishes.

When he was an old man (as old as ninety years by some estimates), he was arrested for being a Christian by a government that was growing increasingly hostile to those who were devoted to another power. On some level he had seen this coming for Ignatius and John had already been murdered for their faith. He was accused of being Christian and, ever sincere and honest, he gladly admitted that he was--he could see no reason to be ashamed for his faith. They gave him an opportunity to deny his faith in public or be executed. He responded: "How am I supposed to blaspheme my King and Savior? Do whatever you will." They did whatever they willed by building a large pyre of sticks and flammable items. They tied him to the top of it and prepared to drive nails through his body so that he might not escape. He smiled at the worker and assured him: "Don't worry about the nails. The God who gives me strength to endure the fire will give me enough to sit still without your help." They didn't nail him down but they must have expected him to cry out once the pyre was lit. Yet, he didn't. Instead, it seemed that he was unscathed by the flames as he prayed and sang hymns. The crowd looked on amazed and many would be converted because of this sight but his executioners were enraged that he didn't have the courtesy to die screaming like they had hoped he would. Finally, they stabbed him in the chest with a dagger and he died as a martyr.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

February 22 - Sophie Scholl and Companions, Martyrs, Opponents of the Nazis, Nonviolent

Hans and Sophie Scholl had allied themselves with a secretive group within Germany. In the early 1940s, this was akin to signing your own death warrant given the subject that the group was concerned with: Nazi atrocities and how they might be stopped. They were university students and they were proponents of nonviolent resistance. Instead of planning assassinations and armed coups, these people--including Sophie's brother Hans--formed a group that became known as "The White Rose." Encouraged by their philosophy professor--Kurt Huber--the White Rose wrote, published, and distributed pamphlets about what the Nazis were doing. In their own words: "We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!" They published statistics about the numbers of Jews and political dissidents arrested and executed in the name of "Nazi progress." Along with these statistics they appealed to the people of Germany to refuse to be a complicit part of genocide and atrocity.They also took to graffiti with a tar based paint on university buildings. Their graffiti proclaimed a great desire for freedom that they felt Hitler and his ilk were slowly strangling in Germany.

Sophie and Hans must have been anxious as they approached the university building where hundreds of students were attending class. They carried suitcases and this would be very conspicuous for two young people during the day. But they had no other easy way to carry the leaflets into the hall without the suitcases and so they did it anyway. Few knew who the members of the White Rose were but loyalists were on the lookout for suspicious behavior. They arrived at the class building and began quickly unloading the leaflets into several piles in the common area to where the classes would be dismissed.Once the classes began to empty, the students would pick up the pamphlets and read yet another stirring argument against passive acceptance of evil. The Nazis had recently lost the battle of Stalingrad and so the White Rose hoped to capitalize on it and convince yet more people that the Nazi campaign was not only evil but doomed to failure. Its writing hearkened back to the first leaflet they had released: "Isn't it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days? Who among us can imagine the degree of shame that will come upon us and our children when the veil falls from our faces and the awful crimes that infinitely exceed any human measure are exposed to the light of day?"

Hans and Sophie had dropped off the pamphlets and were fleeing before classes were dismissed when they noticed a handful of pamphlets still in the suitcase. Sophie grabbed them quickly and ran back to the building. She ascended the stairs and in a poetic--and partially prophetic--gesture she flung them into the air and let them flutter down to the floor. She was witnessed by the custodian who turned in Hans and Sophie. Soon, Sophie and all those who associated with her were arrested and facing trial for treason. They had dared to speak ill of those who would not accept the truth. For this, they were tried and condemned to be beheaded. On February 22, 1943, they were executed in the guillotine. Sophie was strong and confident to the end of her life and was not deterred by those who hoped to whitewash their sins. She died a martyr because she refused to stop seeing and decrying the atrocities that were being perpetrated. Her dying words were: "God, you are my refuge into eternity" while Hans preferred the prophecy of "...your heads will fall as well."