Early in the third century, the reigning Roman emperor – whose name was Septimius Severus – was able to quell a series of civil wars that were, quite unfortunately, destabilizing the Empire.
The Empire – as Empires are wont to do – was seeking to expand. But it was a time of upheaval. Priorities of expansion and demonstrations of power played against threats from barbarian incursions and leaders abroad. At the same time, something had to be done to keep some semblance of order within the empire’s borders.
There were a variety of religious groups within the bounds of the ever-expanding Empire. But since we’re here, in a Church – lo these centuries later – it only seems right to mention that for Christians, the same principle existed in the early 3rd Century as it had since Trajan that “Christians were to be punished if they refused to worship the emperor and the gods, but that they ought not to be sought out.”
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That’s the way it was for nearly 150 years, before Severus stepped in.
Throughout the Empire there were dissident groups in operation, some more openly hostile than others. Some had more access to arms and influence. But there was another that was becoming a growing concern.
Though they were dispersed throughout the territory, there was a small, but resilient group who called one another “Brother,” or “Sister.” They were biologically unrelated, but they referred to one another as siblings.
This relationship seemingly transcended all social, cultural, economic, national and geographic boundaries. In a stratified society where such things seemed impossible. In a time and place where there were clear divisions of who was in, and who was out, these people claimed all to be related.
Not because they were residents of an all-encompassing empire. The Empire wouldn’t actually stand for such nonsense. But rather, in and through the long-dead Jesus, the one they dangerously called the Christ, and the one they claimed (despite a death still shrounded in mystery) was still present with them, knitting them together in self-sacrificing love.
Such a group, with such deep ties not only had the possibility of being a minor threat, but also functioned as a quality scapegoat for an Emperor and an Empire with certain – trust issues.
And so, Severus decided that the way forward was to enforce religious harmony. Rather than build a wall, he would subsume each religion under his own imperial brand. NBD. To do so, he started to promote a policy of syncretism, that is, an amalgamation of the different religions, all brought together under the worship of the great orange orb. Sol invictus – the unconquered sun.
In this brave new world, all worship was to be subsumed under a Global Standard Deity. You could hold onto yours, so long as you and your co-religionists didn’t get uppity, and start claiming that your local god was bigger than the Beatles (or, in this case, the sun).
Of course, this planned religious re-org, consolidation and harmonization didn’t work so well when it came to the Jews and the Christians. Perhaps the Emperor had flunked out of change management classes. Maybe he’d never seen a bankruptcy before. Or perhaps he’d forgotten the human equation. Whatever the case, the Jewish people, and the people of the Jesus movement became the human wall standing in the way of this religious restructuring, calling the whole enterprise a failure.
It was almost as though they believed there was a rule written in stone requiring that they put no god before the one they claimed to be Creator of all, the God of the ancestors, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
If you’re the emperor, in this moment, you’ve got to be thinking, “who knew this religion thing was so complicated?” You’re probably longing for how easy it would be to influence religious folks in 21st Century America.
So the emperor regroups, and outlaws, under penalty of death, all conversions to Christianity and Judaism. Add this law to the last, and you’ve got some pretty robust legal cover for persecution.
And so, in year 202 CE, when Severus issues this edict, persecutions rise to an all time high. Not just those carried out by legal authorities, but also by those who see it as permission to take the law into their own hands. Illegals. Less than human. They’re Not like us. Send them back to where they’re from. Or worse.
It plays out in various ways in various corners of the empire, but you’ve got to believe that this is where nervous old-stock Romans set up their very own Barbaric Cultural Practices tip line to get their Jewish and Christian neighbours carted away.
Turn back the clock a century and a half, and the early Christian church was already feeling the pinch. It’s into this diaspora community that Peter writes to a persecuted people he will call “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” It’s into this scattered community that Peter preaches deep value and worth to a people who had every reason to doubt this truth.
In our passage from 1 Peter today, we hear him continuing on in this same train of thought:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.
But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.
If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. (1 Peter 4:12-14)
You can imagine how hard it might be to believe that you are beloved when everything around you, including your suspicious neighbours point the other way.
That’s why Peter reminds them earlier that they are a nation, a priesthood, God’s own people. In light of these things, he offers, you are not on your own.
We are not on our own.
You can imagine how hard it might be to stay focused on the glory, on the Kingdom of God Jesus consistently proclaimed, when that Kingdom has not yet fully come for those who the dominant society makes poor and pushes to the margins. When Good News has not yet been received by those experiencing any form of captivity – personal, social, systemic, or institutional– for those who have been made blind, and those who we have made to suffer any form of oppression.
You can imagine how hard it might be to stay focused on this Kingdom of God that Jesus consistently proclaimed when that kingdom had not yet come – though you and your community prayed for it every day.
We are not on our own.
That’s why Peter reminds us that we are a nation, a priesthood, God’s own people. He wants you to remember, wants all of us to remember that we are not on our own.
You can imagine how hard it might be consider yourself blessed when you are being reviled for extending the wanton hospitality God offered in and through Jesus. You can imagine how hard it would be for a dispersed, marginal, persecuted community to believe that they are blessed, because the spirit of God is with them.
Like the disciples at the Ascension who haven’t yet experienced the full coming of God’s promised kingdom, I need that reminder. And I need it all the time. Today I feel as though I’m in good company as I hear the disciples demand to know, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’” I sense their doubt. Is this going to happen any time soon?
And Jesus replies with a bit of a non-answer. It is not for you to know the time, but I will give you the power of the Holy Spirit. And you, all of you, will work together to be my witnesses.
In the face of exploitative global markets, corporate greed, the sacred cow of rugged individualism fuelling rabid consumption and an all-pervading sense of scarcity, we are bearers of Good News. There is abundance. But it requires that we work on this together.
Faced with the seductions of status, prestige, wealth, security, and the next big thing, Jesus proclaims that there is still Good News to be heard. You are enough. You are not better, you are not worse, you are enough. We will learn these things as we stumble towards Jesus’ example of self-giving love and interdependence.
At its core, this is a call to faith. But not just faith as belief. Faith as fidelity. Faith in action. As those who are beloved of God, we are called to respond, to embrace and bear witness to God’s kingdom – that kingdom of healing, mutuality, and reconciliation throughout the world.
The story of the Church in the 3rd Century, like the stories of Stephen the first deacon, and the story of Jesus before it, doesn’t end beautifully for everyone.
Two of the most famous martyrs of the period were Felicitas and Perpetua. After giving birth in prison, her daughter adopted by another Christian woman, the jailers wanted to know how Felicitas expected to face the beasts in the arena. She responded:
“Now my sufferings are only mine. But when I face the beasts there will be another who will live in me, and will suffer for me since I shall be suffering for him.”
Peter also reminds of the predators, referring to the forces of evil, the devil, as a roaring lion, looking for people to devour. Whatever we face, we do not face it alone.
We are not on our own.
If we are a community gathered in and through, and for, and because of Christ, we face them together – with each other, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
May it be so.
 Justo L. Gonzalez, The History of Christianity Volume 1. (San Francisco: Harper, 1984), 82