Lent 3 2019
As I’ve said to you many times, I don’t believe in coincidence. The world is filled with random events and naturally occurring wonders but coincidence is more than that. Coincidence is God’s hand at work orchestrating events to gain our attention, often through a stunning or amusing way. For example, I told someone once that I thought the most beautiful dog I’d ever seen was a long-haired dachshund. Immediately following that discussion, I left the rectory to walk over to Jane’s house for something. I remember it well because as I was walking by the old YMCA someone came walking by me with two long-haired dachshunds! I had only seen a long-haired dachshund once before that and I’ve never seen one since. What? Tell me the Lord doesn’t have a sense of humor. I think that was God’s way of reminding me that he is listening to every word we speak.
Through a similar but more solemn coincidence this week, God got my attention. I was up late one night watching an old movie called Quo Vadis. Made in 1951, it was one of those Biblical epics, like The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur or The Robe that were popular with audiences in the ‘50s. By modern standards the movie Quo Vadis is kind of corny and stiff. Many of those old shows have dialogue like a cartoon. Nevertheless, it’s a good movie about a great subject. It tells a true story about the sad plight of Christians living in first century Rome. It shows Paul coming to Rome. It shows Peter preaching to a congregation meeting in the catacombs. And it shows the decadence of the Roman aristocrats, especially the young emperor Nero who wanted to be worshipped. Nero had big plans for Rome. He was going to fill it with temples built to himself. But to do that he had to get many people out of their homes; today we call it eminent domain. So the tyrant set fire to the city, causing massive destruction of property and the deaths of many innocent people. In order to excuse himself, he made scapegoats of the Christians, publicly blaming them for his own crimes. He then began to hunt down and kill the Christians. Many Christians died as a result of the persecution that followed Nero’s fire in the year AD 66. The movie shows them being fed to lions in the Coliseum while the citizens cheered. As hard as it is to imagine such cruelty, ordinary Christians in early Rome suffered extreme torture. The movie doesn’t show this, but there are reports that Nero used some Christians as human torches to light up the patio where he had a dinner party. The Roman pagan elite really did think that Christians, who met in secret and refused to worship the emperor, were deplorable. It became a hate crime in Rome to be a Christian. Christians, in that first generation, suffered prolonged persecution.
The title of the movie Quo Vadis comes from a legend about Saint Peter. When the persecution began, the Christians in Rome urged Peter flee the city in order to save himself and survive to preach the gospel and establish churches elsewhere. So Peter fled the city. But as he did, the Lord appeared to him in a bright light. Peter recognized Jesus in the light and falling down in adoration asked him in Latin, “Quo Vadis?” Meaning “Where are you going, Lord?” Christ replied to him, “I am coming to Rome to be again crucified.” And Peter asked him, “Lord, will you be crucified again?” And the Lord said to him, “Even so, I again will be crucified.” Peter said to him, “I will return and I will follow you.” And with these words, the Lord vanished from Peter’s sight. Then Peter, coming to himself, understood that it was of his own passion that Christ had spoken. Peter then returned to meet the death that the Lord had assigned him. Peter was crucified in Rome upside down, insisting that he did not deserve to be crucified head up as was the Lord. The place where Peter died is now the site of the high altar in St Peter’s Basilica. The Church of Domine Quo Vadis southeast of Rome was built on the spot where Peter encountered Christ in the divine light.
Quo Vadis is a good movie based on a beautiful legend about Saint Peter and Christ. But I would never have thought to make a sermon of it except that early the very next morning, after seeing that movie late the night before, I turned on “Life is Worth Living,” repeats of Bishop’s Sheen’s TV show from the 1950s. I like his old shows because he was an excellent teacher. His lesson that day was called, can you guess? Quo Vadis. He told Peter’s story and talked about Christians having courage in the face of persecution and keeping the faith in an age that is becoming increasingly pagan and hostile to Christianity. The coincidence of this stunned me. Clearly the Lord was telling me something. I mean, what are the chances that you’d see the movie Quo Vadis one night at midnight and then follow it up with a lecture first thing the next morning? I had never heard the story of Quo Vadis before seeing the movie that night. The coincidence took my breath away.
So, the question for me then became, “Lord, what do you want me to say about this?” My first thought was to talk about the persecution of Christians in our world today. The mainstream media, intent on portraying Islam as the religion of peace, buries many persecution stories. But religious news services on the internet report every day horrible atrocities committed against Christians around the world. Islamic armies in Nigeria have butchered 100s of Christians in recent months and destroyed entire villages. Several churches n France have recently been desecrated and one French priest was murdered by Moslem fanatics during a mass in 2016 at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, in Normandy. Hindu fanatics in India have killed dozens of Christians there. The Chinese Communists are persecuting the churches and driving them underground and torturing leaders. In Libya they found bodies in a mass grave recently of Christians killed by ISIS. On and on it goes.
If this sort of thing happened to us in America, I wonder how many Christians in this country would have the courage to accept death rather than deny Jesus Christ. We don’t know. You can’t know whether you’d keep the faith in the worst circumstances until you’re faced with it. But one thing is sure, Jesus promised his church that the world powers would constantly be against it and that as they rejected and hated Him, so the world would hate and reject His church. When Jesus instituted the church, he also promised Peter that “The gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Nevertheless, Peter and all the 12 faced violent death. “Deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me,” Jesus said. Those are hard, hard words. It means that to be a Christian, we must value Jesus Christ even more than our own lives. Anyone can be baptized as an infant and celebrate Christmas and call themselves a Christian. But the message of the New Testament is that you are a Christian in name only unless or until Jesus Christ becomes the most important person in your life. He needs to be more important than your wife or husband; more important than your kids; more important than your job. He died on a cross for us. He expects us to live for Him. He expects us to stand up for Him and for the truth of his gospel even in the face of violent opposition; even if it costs you your career, your fortune, or your life.
So my first thought was to write a sermon on the persecution of Christians. But as the week went on, I realized that the Lord wanted me to talk about something else. He wanted me to talk about the bright light. Many people, when they hear the “Quo Vadis'“ story about Peter, simply don’t believe the part about Christ revealing himself to Peter in a bright light. We live in a very skeptical age. Most people doubt that things like this really happen. So, they say that the story about Peter seeing the Lord in a bright light must be a fiction, a fable, a myth. Even though Jesus said “I am the light of the world” and the Bible tells us that “God dwells in unapproachable light”(1 Tim. 6.16), even though the Bible tells us that Jesus revealed his divine nature to Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor by transfiguring into bright light and even though we have the story told in the Book of Acts of how, after the Resurrection, the Lord appeared to Saint Paul on the Damascus road in a bright light, still people find such stories hard, if not impossible, to believe.
I was thinking about the “Quo Vadis” story and what I would say about it when I went to visit Josephine (a member of our church from Liberia, and a good friend of Bishop Hart). Her mother is dying and I went to take her communion and to pray with them. As we sat around the kitchen table, Josephine reminded me of a wonderful miracle that happened to her son Jonathan—a miracle much like what happened to Peter as he was fleeing Rome or Paul on his way to Damascus. Some of you may remember when Jonathan was 12; he suffered a life threatening attack of tachycardia. His heart began racing and nothing would slow it down. Josephine called me and I raced downtown to Johns Hopkins to join them. The doctors wanted to operate. But John would not allow it. He kept saying that “God will heal me.” So, we prayed. Then Josephine and I went out in the hall to talk in private. Jonathan later said that while we were in the hall, the Lord came to him in a bright light. He said he was afraid but then the Lord handed him a glass of milk to drink. He drank it and then the light vanished. After that, John’s heart rate was normal. They sent him home and told him never to play sports again. He said, “The Lord healed me. I’m fine” and he went on to play football on the varsity team in high school. John is grown up now. He’s in LA on a business trip. But the next time he’s in church, would anyone here wish to tell that boy that he didn’t meet the Lord that day and see the light of Christ? Little boys make up stories all the time, but they seldom get cured of cardiac issues while they tell them. To this day John attributes prayer to saving his life. His faith is a rock.
So through a series of coincidences the Lord gave me a message this week to deliver to you. Don’t ever doubt the real presence of the Lord in our lives. Only a few people will ever be blessed to receive a personal revelation of God as Peter, Paul, and Jonathan—our favorite acolyte—did. You and I will probably never see that bright light. But all of us are blessed by God every day. The Lord is with each one of us each step of the way. “I am with you always even to the end of the age,” Jesus promised his church. Everything the Bible tells us about Jesus Christ is true. Pray to him, he said. “Ask anything in my name and I will do it,” he said. “If you have faith so much as a mustard seed you can say to a mountain move and it will move”. Keep the faith and learn to pray and learn to love to pray. The more you pray, really pray from the heart, the more you’ll see what the saints have always known, that no matter what happens we have nothing to fear. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” is not just a line of sweet poetry. It’s the truth. Blessings abound for those who dare to believe the gospel and live that truth.