Telling the Stories that Matter: May 27 – Julius the Veteran, Martyr, Soldier

We know far less about the conversion of Julius than we do about his military service. This makes sense in a way because those who were keeping records of the man were infinitely more interested in his service to Rome than his conversion to Jesus. Somewhere during his twenty-seven years of military service in the Roman army he converted to Christianity even though it was an increasingly unpopular faith. During those twenty-seven years of service to Rome he was an active participant in seven different military campaigns. To survive one or two campaigns as a soldier in Rome’s service was notable because it easily signified a special level of battlefield awareness and competency. To survive seven campaigns was astounding for a soldier who risked the fearsome teeth of battle regularly and set Julius up as a notable feature of his legion and as a minor celebrity among the other soldiers. That’s what makes their betrayal so surprising.

They had known he was a Christian shortly following his conversion because his whole outlook and approach to life seemed to change in the blink of an eye. But when he was fighting by their side they had no trouble with his beliefs–perhaps they even thought his new faith might earn them some special luck or protection. It wasn’t until after that seventh campaign that a group of his fellow soldiers accused him of being a Christian before the prefect Maximus. Since the punishment for disloyalty to the Roman faith was death, this was the kind of accusation that was not made lightly. Perhaps the soldiers stood to gain from Julius’ absence or perhaps they simply had grown tired of his changed life. Regardless, he was dragged before the prefect and accused of treason by placing his faith and trust in Jesus–one of the many masters of which the empire did not approve. Maximus stood before one of the best soldiers he knew and a group of accusing soldiers whose mouths could be his own downfall if word got out that Maximus could not tame one Christian. So, he made the threat of death that all prefects knew as their most fierce weapon and openly ridiculed the faith of Julius asking, “Who is this Jesus that you–a soldier who has faced death time and time again–are willing to die quietly for him?”

Julius responded, “It was he who died for our sins to give us eternal life. This same man, Christ, is God and abides for ever and ever. Whoever believes in Him will have eternal life; whoever denies Him will have eternal punishment.” In those brief sentences, Julius made his confession before Rome and professed the Faith he knew and in which he trusted his soul and life. Maximus’ face turned red in embarrassment that his ridicule had been turned to a confession and he looked over quickly at the faces of Julius’ accusers. Maximus knew that these men would tell the story of what happened here with Julius and that Maximus couldn’t afford to look weak before soldiers who valued strength above all things. So, he approached Julius with rage in face but deceit in his heart. It must have looked like a quiet threat but in those whispered words Maximus offered Julius a large sum of money and a position of power if he would deny his faith and sacrifice to the Roman gods. It would look powerful for Maximus to whisper in Julius’ ear and suddenly effect his conversion and would make a great story for Julius’ accusers to tell. When Julius refused the bribe openly, though, Maximus’ plan fell apart in front of him. In a rage he commanded his guards to decapitate not only Julius but also seven other Christians being held in prison for the crime of faith. Having proven that he could not convert the Christians, Maximus proved that he could rob them of their lives. This passed for power in Rome and made for a better story in the opinion of Maximus. Julius died in the year 255 at Dorostorum on the lower Danube River as a martyr and example of what the world thought about those whose faith was in mysteries.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: May 22 – Julia of Corsica, Martyr, Captive, Slave

In 489, something horrific happened in North Africa: Genseric and those he had brought under his leadership crossed the sea from Spain and began wreaking havoc on those who stood in their way. They were Arians and felt that the time for talk had ended. Consequently, they began demanding the orthodox to become Arians or suffer for their faith. Genseric even succeeded in taking Carthage where Julia lived with her noble family and Christian brothers and sisters. When Genseric’s people encountered Julia they found her unwilling to renounce her faith or even listen to their attempts to convert her their particular brand of heterodoxy–Julia knew well that beliefs offered at the tip of a sword were not worthy of consideration without the threat of the blade. Because of he steadfast denial she was sold into slavery and shipped away from Carthage. This was a fairly typical practice for Genseric who reasoned that those who refused to be converted should be exiled from the land he wanted as his own. So, Julia who had been raised as a Christian in a noble family was suddenly a captive and a slave. She was sold to a man name Eusebius from Syria.

Eusebius was a merchant and did much business all around the Mediterranean Sea. He was not a Christian and, in fact, was willing to worship any of the gods of the peoples with whom he traded if it might help him make a little more money or gain a little more influence. Julia made the decision demonstrate the virtue of her faith in daily service to Eusebius. This did not make it likable or easy but it did give it an ultimate purpose and allowed her to connect her own story to that of other slaves who had escaped not only worldly chains but the more insidious mental and spiritual bonds–like Joseph, the son of Jacob. In only a short time, she was considered the greatest of all of Eusebius’ servants. He was astounded at the love she showed even as he demanded service of her and treated her as a possession. When she wasn’t working, she was praying or reading and drawing nearer and nearer to her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This devotion frustrated Eusebius at first but when he realized how much she did for him he learned to overlook this irritation. On Julia’s last trip with him they were sailing to the southern coast of what would be known as France with a ship full of expensive cargo. They landed on the upper peninsula of Corsica and as they were preparing the ship for the night, Eusebius noticed that there was a great sacrifice happening nearby. He gathered all of his people–all except Julia who refused to take part–and went to see the bull slaughtered by the governor of the region (a man named Felix).

At first, Felix was very happy to have unexpected guests who would come and pay homage to the gods he worshiped. However, word got back to Felix that not all of Eusebius’ servants had come to the sacrifice. He inquired after the one that remained on the ship and found out that she was a Christian and refused to have any part in the festivities. Not knowing that Genseric had already failed at the task, Felix resolved to convert Julia to his own evils. He asked Eusebius if he wouldn’t command her to come and he said that he had decided long ago that her service was so excellent that he’d rather not risk any damage to her. Felix volunteered to give Eusebius any four of his female slaves for Julia but Eusebius laughed it off and insisted that he wouldn’t accept everything Felix owned for Julia. Eusebius was a Roman citizen and so he was protected from any direct assaults upon his property from Felix, so Felix pretended as if it was over and offered Eusebius another drink. In only a little while Eusebius was thoroughly intoxicated and he passed out. As Eusebius fell to the ground in a stupor, Felix sent his men to bring Julia to him.

Julia came in chains and was commanded by Felix to make a sacrifice to his gods. She refused and so he made her an offer: perform one sacrifice and I will set you free as governor. Indeed the power to do so rested squarely in his hands but Julia was uninterested and responded, “My liberty is the service of Christ, whom I serve every day with a pure mind.” In other words, she claimed that she was as free as anybody could be and it was Felix who was in need of release from slavery–slavery to that far more deadly master: sin. Because of her refusal, Felix had her beaten severely by some of his strongest men. When that proved unsuccessful at securing her apostasy, he had her hair torn out slowly and painfully. She was asked if she would now renounce her faith to save herself further pain and eventual death. She responded that Jesus had been wounded and killed for her and it was appropriate that she be willing to do the same for him. So, they nailed her to a cross and crucified her. She died a martyr who was a slave that was more free than any.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: May 11 – Christopher, Martyr, Christ Bearer, Seeker of Something Worth Believing

Reprebus was a big man. He was a strong and very capable warrior at the service of the king of Canaan. He had no relation to or even understanding of the Christian faith and it wasn’t expected of him that he would have any interest in it if he was told of it. He was good at what he did–the bidding of those he served–and nearly all of the people must have known he lived a fairly comfortable life. But Reprebus had a strong desire to devote his life to something or someone greater than the ruler he served. He thought on his predicament for some time until he finally decided to seek out the greatest ruler in the world and become a servant to this great ruler. With his great strength and determination he knew that he could become a powerful and influential servant of any ruler and knew that serving the greatest of rulers meant that he would become the greatest of the ruler’s men.So, he left the king of Canaan and sought out the ruler most widely regarded as a king above all other kings and pledged his allegiance to this man.

Reprebus’ life was fairly comfortable in service to this new king–his new master–but it would not remain that way. One day while he was guarding his new king he happened to overhear the king in conversation with another man. The other man spoke of someone he called “the devil” and in response Reprebus’ king made a gesture of crossing in the air as if to ward off the presence of this “devil.” Reprebus knew what this meant that the man he served hoped to ward off another who was spoken of in hushed tones: it meant that there was somebody that even this great king feared. So, Reprebus committed himself to finding this one known as “the devil” so that he might serve him. What he found, though, was a band of marauding bandits led by a man who claimed to be the same devil that Reprebus was pursuing. Reprebus fell in with the bandits and became a man to be feared on the highways and byways of the Roman empire. He hurt many people in service to the devil that even the great king had feared but witnessed another disturbing turn of events when the devil he served balked at trampling upon a cross that had been left beside a road. Instead, the devil veered widely around it and demonstrated his own fear.Again, Reprebus knew that this meant there was another who was greater and so he went looking for someone who could tell him the meaning of this cross.

What Reprebus found out was that the cross was a symbol of the Lord of the Christians: Jesus Christ. He sought out a local teacher who could tell him how to follow Jesus since he had learned from the Christians that Jesus had died, been raised from the dead, and ascended again into the heavens. The teacher was a hermit who, when Reprebus asked him how he might follow Jesus, taught Reprebus to fast and pray and seek the will of God. Reprebus didn’t know how and was unaccustomed to such physical and spiritual disciplines. So, instead, the hermit found another discipline for Reprebus to practice. Noting Reprebus’ great strength and stature he told him to go down to the raging river nearby where people routinely lost their lives trying to cross it. When he got there, his job was to help people cross safely. With a walking stick in hand, Christopher began carrying people across the river to safety. He was thanked profusely but he always insisted that it was his calling to be there and that he would not accept but the most meager and necessary of gifts. He was, after all, serving the King of all Kings and could find no reason to want anything else.

One day, after helping many travelers cross the river a little boy came to the bank of the river and looked across it to the other side. Reprebus had helped children cross before and it was always an easy task because of their small size. When the boy asked to be carried over, Reprebus gladly obliged and picked up the child to put him on his shoulders. As he started to take a step he suddenly felt as if the child was the heaviest burden he had ever carried. He nearly stumbled but instead he took one slow and plodding step. He understood himself to be serving God almighty through helping people across the river and so he was unwilling to refuse assistance to anybody. So, he took another laborious and difficult step across the river with the boy on his shoulders. “Even if the boy was made of pure lead he couldn’t be this heavy,” reasoned Reprebus to himself. When he finally, after quite some time, let the boy down to the ground on the other side he was exhausted. Drinking deeply from the river he exclaimed to the boy: “That was far harder than I ever imagined…it was like carrying the whole world upon my shoulders.”

The boy responded, simply, You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.” Having said this, the boy vanished from before Reprebus’ eyes. From then on he took another name: Christopher. After all, Christopher means “Christ bearer.” Having been confirmed in his faith, Christopher traveled to the city of Lycia to comfort two other Christians who suffered under heavy burdens: two who were being martyred. By showing up and visiting them, though, he was targeted for interrogation himself.Soon, he was arrested and accused of being a Christian. This was a charge he could not and did not deny. The ruler of the city hoped to woo him to his side by offering him money, power, and women if he would deny his faith and become the king’s servant. What the king didn’t know, though, was that Christopher had finally found something worth believing and would not be convinced to accept anything less. He converted the two beautiful women the king sent to seduce him as he had converted many of those whom he had helped to cross the river when they found out why he was exercising such charity at risk to his own life. For the offense of refusing a lesser king’s request and for converting the two women he was put to death and made a martyr.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: May 7 – John of Zedazeni and Disciples, Monastics, Ascetics, Missionaries

John of Zedazeni committed himself to the monastic calling from a young age. In fact, he was still a youth when he received the traditional marks of his monasticism and withdrew to the wilderness to pursue God without distraction. His religious education had been extensive but it was far less important in the wilderness than his own moral commitments and his intentional disciplines and asceticism. John was well known as a man who refused distraction but was often the recipient of visitors in the wilderness because God had gifted him with the power to heal disease and cast out demons. Crowds sought him out seeking healing and exorcism but also seeking the opportunity to follow his words and teachings. After only a little time in the wilderness he had many disciples who were following his every teaching and depending upon him for spiritual guidance and direction. He did not seek this kind of influence but it was given to him by virtue of his grand calling and particular spiritual gifts. John’s desire, however, was to retire even further into the wilderness and take up more ascetic and more isolated disciplines. He was willing to teach and lead but he found that it was becoming increasingly easy to become distracted by the wonders God was working through him.

So, John took some of his disciples–very close ones–and retired deeper into the wilderness. The others were left behind to continue growing in their devotion to Jesus under different leadership and direction. He built a monastery with the help of his disciples deeper in the wilderness and it was built exactly to his specifications. Each of the men present in the monastery had a cell that was barely large enough for their bed roll. They planted a garden and worked while they continued to draw closer to their God in seclusion. All of this changed, though, when God gave John a vision, a message, and a calling. In the vision he was called away to the country we call Georgia. He was told the story of Nino and told to go, serve, and teach the peoples of this foreign land. He was instructed to take with him twelve–and only twelve–of his disciples. Each and every one of John’s disciples were willing to follow John wherever God had called him and so John only had to pick with God’s guidance. He picked Abibus of Nekresi, Anthony of Martqopi, David of Gareji, Zenon of Iqalto, Thaddeus of Stepantsminda, Jesse of Tsilkani, Joseph of Alaverdi, Isidore of Samtavisi, Michael of Ulumbo, Pyrrhus of Breti, Stephen of Khirsa, and Shio of Mgvime. These thirteen men moved to the Zedazeni mountains and established another monastery in the remains of a pagan temple.

John and his disciples continued the labor and prayer that they had started in the Syrian wilderness but now they did it in Georgia. It was only a little while until the Christians of Georgia–those who had a legacy including Nino–began to flock to John’s monastery and receive instruction at his feet and at the feet of his disciples. Having established a monastic foothold in Georgia, they worked together to build each other up in their faith and devotion. The Zedazeni mountains even became a spiritual hot spot to which people would make pilgrimage. One night, John received another vision in which he was instructed to send his twelve disciples in different directions to infiltrate Georgian life and establish yet more monasteries. These twelve disciples who had long been under the tutelage and direction of John had become masters of the monastic path in their own right and now they were ready to have an astounding impact upon the people who were willing and eager to hear what they had to say. They departed soon thereafter and began establishing small monasteries and centers of spiritual formation throughout the Georgian landscape. John remained in the small Zedazeni monastery alone for some time before moving into a nearby cave. The twelve disciples of John changed the way of life in Georgia and converted many to a life of faith and trust in Jesus.

Many years later, John sent out word to his disciples that he was close to death. They returned from their monasteries and churches to attend to their teacher and director in his dying days. They found that for many years he had been living in a cave and subsisting on vegetables and prayer. He broke bread with his disciples and shared one last conversation. He asked them to bury him in the cave that had become such an integral part of his calling and then he died while gazing into the heavens receiving yet another vision. This time it was the open arms of the God he loved and served and had found in Syria and in Georgia. The God who had called him to lead, teach, and pray now welcomed him into eternal rest from his many labors.

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