I know exactly where I was when the seed of this sermon was planted. I was running through the so-called Eternal City of Rome in the early morning, before dawn. I passed various famous buildings of ancient Rome, enduring emblems of the empire’s astounding wealth, power, knowledge and ambition. As I came upon the vast Coliseum, that great architectural wonder, I suddenly stopped, brought to a halt by a single piercing question: “How in God’s name could a ragtag bunch of Christians bring this mighty empire to its knees? How could a group of lowly Christians conquer such a government of wealth and expertise? How could they have done it?” In that darkness that thrilling phrase of Paul’s came to me: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of salvation for all who believe, for the Jew and the Greek.” As I thought about the behavior of those early Christians, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for the patterns of faith they established for us. We are in their debt, and do well this morning to remember them.
How did Christianity conquer the Roman Empire? They did so first and foremost because they possessed extraordinary confidence in their assurance that God would ultimately give them the victory, regardless of the odds against them. Those lowly Christians knew that the contest between Rome and their faith was an unequal tilt from the start, because the Christians enjoyed a sense of God’s power and presence that convinced them that, no matter how long it took, they would ultimately emerge victorious. They knew they were engaged in a building project, not some grand earthly Coliseum, but the spiritual realm of the Kingdom of God. The combined influence of three hundred years of Roman emperors could not match the power provided by the crucified Christ. Christianity’s victory might be slow in coming, the circumstances might seem stacked against it, but in the end it would conquer. The Christians drew from Paul’s bold words, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of salvation,” and they lived with great confidence in God’s ultimate victory. Do we live with that same kind of confidence amidst our own adversity? Do we truly live with the assurance that God will ultimately give us the victory?
How did Christianity conquer the Roman Empire? It conquered it in part because Christianity created an extraordinary sense of community among the believers. The early Christians fostered an amazing sense of family. Paul spoke the plain truth when he said of the early church, ”Not many of you were wise, not many of you were powerful, not many of you were of noble birth; but God has chosen the foolish in the eyes of the world to shame the wise.” The early Christians were mostly from the lower classes and didn’t possess much wealth or power as the world measures such things, but they shared a profound sense of family. These Christians did not have many worldly possessions, but they pooled what resources they had to ensure their group’s survival, and they raised enough capital to feed the poor, take care of the widows, and adopt the orphaned. To the outcasts and dispossessed of their society, Christians gave them something which the empire refused to grant – a sense of dignity, a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of a community that was empowered by God to be engaged in a great spiritual mission. Though they were subject to all manner of adversity, they developed family bonds that proved as strong as steel.
How did Christians conquer the Roman Empire? They did so through their display of raw courage amidst suffering. Fake news has been around a long time. Because the first Christian communities were small and secretive, much of the Roman world initially feared Christianity and imputed to it the most heinous of actions. Christians were thought to kill babies and drink their blood and practice cannibalism, a popular misinterpretation of the Eucharist. Initially, the Christians were so small in number as to be a handy scapegoat; eventually their leaders became so popular as to be become handy targets. We know Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome under Nero. Their shed blood was followed by that of Justin the Martyr, Polycarp, Ignatius, and Origin – and these are just a few of the famous names. Countless Christians died in starvation and squalor as slaves in the Roman imperial mines, imprisoned because of their faith. Others were frequent fodder for the sadistic entertainment of the masses. In that very Coliseum I stood before in awe, Christians were fed to wild animals or cruelly tortured and executed in public spectacles. But the fortitude and calm, indeed, the celebratory spirit with which Christians often endured their torments, began to create an impression contrary to what the government intended. The Roman government sought to discourage the general public from embracing these foolish followers of a crucified Messiah. But the courage and joy that the Christians displayed in the face of extreme cruelty began to convince common people that these Christians enjoyed a power and a promise that no earthly government could quench, not even that of Rome. When Nero falsely blamed the Christians as arsonists for the burning of Rome, his charges initially won a sympathetic hearing from his countrymen. But ultimately the general public came to despise Nero and admire the Christians. Indeed, shortly after Nero’s death, the Roman Senate voted to wipe all memory of the man from the public record; but the memory of the Christians’ courage amidst the most horrific persecutions lingered in the minds of many for generations. We stand in their debt and should give thanks for their extraordinary fortitude.
How did Christians conquer the Roman Empire? They did so partially because of their willingness to embrace compromise and graciousness. Not every Christian was courageous; not every believer was staunch enough to stand strong in the face of trial. Under the duress of torture some recanted their faith; others made public sacrifice acknowledging the Roman emperor as divine. But when the persecution waned, these lapsed Christians wanted to return to the fellowship. Could they be accepted? How could worshippers who had lost family members to extreme cruelty and horrible deaths worship next to people who had capitulated under pressure? Some Christians wouldn’t do it. But the majority of Christians agreed that the church was a fellowship constituted not only of the strong, but also the weak. With a spirit of amazing grace and tolerance, they embraced those who had broken under the pressure of persecution and incorporated into the family. Christianity’s ability to engender compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness allowed it the ability to knit together weak and strong into a single entity whose unity the Roman Empire could not break.
Christians conquered the Roman Empire in large part because of the quality of their moral character. Roman society in general was sexually promiscuous, grossly sensual, preoccupied with personal leisure, titillated by bloodlust, and satisfied with bread and circuses. St. Augustine told the story of a friend who regretted his fixation with gladiatorial contests, but couldn’t bring himself to break this habit. Finally, he told his friends that he would go with them to the Coliseum to watch the gladiatorial fights, but he promised that he would keep his eyes closed. But as the crowd roared in the heat of the action, he decided to just watch with one eye! As you can imagine, it wasn’t long before he watched with the other eye, too, and was soon just as fixated on these bloody events as before. Christians, however, struck people as different. Their language was different, lacking the profanity and oaths that so dominated the speech of others. They practiced fidelity in their sexual relationships. Their domestic households were marked by a kindly familial spirit. They were scrupulously upright in their business dealings, generous in their charity to the poor, pristine in their morals. One amazed Roman official wrote to another that though it was obvious to everyone that these Christians were mostly from the lower classes, they lived with a seriousness, with a high morality and probity, that equaled the conduct of the empire’s most esteemed philosophers. It seems that when Christians were not impressing others with their courage in times of persecution, they were attracting admirers to their movement through their pristine character in times of calm.
Christians confounded their enemies by the power of their certitude as to their ultimate destiny in God’s eternal fellowship. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of Rome’s most brilliant minds, and no friend of Christianity, paid the Christians a backhanded compliment when he praised a dying friend for the way he was facing his death with equanimity, knowing that immortality might await him, or that there might be nothing. Marcus Aurelius said that what he couldn’t understand were Christians, who suffered the most agonizing deaths with an amazing sense of trustworthiness in their God. How can they be so sure of the promises of their Deity? Marcus Aurelius was a man of great learning. But he was not a man who could humble himself to the living God and thereby open his being to a vibrant relationship with the Father of Jesus Christ. Thus, the poorest, most ignorant, yet faithful Christian had access to a powerful confidence that the brilliant emperor did not. The lowly Christian depended in humility upon the gracious power of God, while Marcus Aurelius depended on the power of Marcus Aurelius. Marcus couldn’t understand the certitude of the Christians. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to ignore their certitude either.
After he became a Christian, one of the world’s great novelists, Leo Tolstoy, wrote a short story called “Walk in the Light.” He set the story during the Roman Empire, and told the tale of two friends, one a young man who embraced the Christian faith early in his life and lived an existence of simplicity, purity and joy; the other, a highly-placed Roman official who enjoyed a societal prestige, material and professional success, but who considered his life a vain dissatisfaction, much as Tolstoy regarded his own celebrated life prior to his Christian conversion. Periodically, the two men’s paths would cross, and the Christian would issue an invitation to his friend to come join the Christian community, to come know the joy of life in Christ, an invitation the Roman official resisted for much of his life, before finally yielding to Christ’s call and finding fulfillment. I realized that Tolstoy had put his finger on a key factor why the Christian faith came to conquer their world: Christians lived with a desire to exert a transformative influence. Christians lived with a desire to exert a sacred touch upon other lives. They were committed to transforming individuals and the society in which they lived. They desired to live with a magnetic faith that sought to exert sacred influence upon others, and that attitude gave them a power which no political empire could wield.
How did Christians conquer an empire? Well, fidelity to a vision helped play an important role. In A.D. 311, the latest in a long line of anti-Christian Roman emperors died, leaving four contestants vying for leadership of Rome. Two of them hated the Christian faith. One was neutral toward Christianity. The fourth was openly sympathetic to it. In fact, this young man’s father had won favor among the Christians by the way he implemented an anti-Christian governmental measure, aggressively enforcing a policy of destroying the Christians’ buildings, but not destroying Christians. Thus, when young Constantine came to head his father’s army upon the occasion of his father’s death, the sympathies and support of the Christians lay with him. By a series of brilliant military moves, young Constantine brought his army to the Mulvian Bridge, just north of Rome. On the other side of the Tiber lay the numerically-superior forces of Maxentius, the leading anti-Christian general. But the night before the battle young Constantine had a dream in which he vividly saw the initial letters of the name of Christ and heard a voice declare: “By this sign you will conquer.” When morning came, Constantine hastily painted on the shields of his men the Chi-Rho monogram, publicly identifying himself as a Christian. On October 28, 312, in one of the most crucial battles in world history, Constantine prevailed; Maxentius lost the battle and his life. Shortly thereafter, Christianity was granted full equality with all the other faiths in the Roman world. Ten years later, Constantine solidified his claim to the emperor’s throne, so that in AD 323, capping one of the most improbable stories in human history, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire that had spent nearly three hundred years trying to kill it. But the military victory would not have been possible, had Christians not 1) lived with supreme confidence in God’s ability to eventually grant them victory; 2) created an amazingly strong and supple sense of family; 3) exhibited great courage amidst horrific persecution; 4) exercised tolerance, compassion and compromise within their fellowship, 5) demonstrated exemplary moral character; 6) embodied a hopeful faith that astounded others with their certitude; and 7) exerted a transforming influence upon the individuals and the society in which they lived. By these virtues they ultimately prevailed.
Jesus said, “With what can I compare the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of God is like a little mustard seed that is buried and it grows in the ground secretly, until it bursts forth and sprouts a trunk and branches that can support a great living host.” That little fellowship in Rome to whom Paul wrote was a mustard seed community. The seed of faith they planted grew, often secretly amidst great adversity – but it grew, ceaselessly, slowly, inexorably, nurtured by an undaunted community, until it germinated. At times the seed of Christ’s Gospel seemed buried, dormant, and dead, defeated by forces of hatred. Yet the people of God persevered in cultivating that secret seed of God until it burst into glorious triumph. There may be times in our own age when we think the adversity against us is too formidable. But the vision is true: “By the sign of Christ you will conquer.” That was true of Constantine. It is also true of us. By the sign of Christ we will conquer.