Thursday, August 8, 2013

threads of Christian history

At Bethany Bible School last weekend, I used pictures to teach on the history of Christianity.  By comparing and contrasting the images in the pictures, a portrait emerged of God's will for Christian living.

The first story, represented here by the Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, was of Perpetua, a young North African mother who was killed for her faith around the year 200.  In the painting, we see a group of Christians gathered in a Roman stadium, awaiting death from the terrible beasts emerging from below.  Perpetua was a member of such a group of Christian friends who had been apprehended by the authorities and refused to recant their faith.  While in prison, she was strengthened for her suffering by visions of heaven.  Before being ripped apart by the beasts, Perpetua and her fellow Christians exchanged the "kiss of peace", the sign of their unity in Christ and their last witness before the bloodthirsty crowd.

The second story was of Constantine I, who in the year 312 defeated his rival Maxentius for supremacy of the Roman Empire.  On the eve of battle, the young military commander saw a fiery cross in the sky, accompanied by the command, "by this sign, conquer."  Constantine attributed his victory to the sign and, in 313, issued the Edict of Milan which declared Christianity a legal religion.

The third vignette from Christian history was of the Crusades, the series of "holy wars" fought across the first three centuries of the second Christian millenium that European Christians waged against Muslims in order to win back the city of Jerusalem.
The fourth story was of the sixteenth-century Anabaptist martyr Dirk Willems, who was rewarded with a gruesome death for an act of astonishing Christ-like mercy: rescuing his drowning enemy from a frigid lake.  Detained for his faith, Dirk escaped from prison and ran across a frozen moat to apparent freedom.  His pursuer was not so fortunate; the same ice that upheld Dirk broke under the weight of his enemy.  Dirk turned back to rescue the man, who promptly returned him to prison.  Dirk was burned at the stake days later.
Having heard all these stories and studied their images, we discerned as a group two primary actions of Christians down through the ages.  Christians have been killed, and they have killed their enemies.  In killing, Christians merely mimic the actions of their enemies.  In the picture of the Crusades, for example, I was able to clearly show that the only difference between the Christians and their enemies was in the sign of the cross adorning the Christians' armor.  Otherwise, the behavior of Christians bears no difference from the behavior of their enemies; each group seeks to kill the other with the sword.  So too Constantine, the first "Christian" king, lines up against his enemies much as they line up against him.  By contrast, the Christians in the Roman stadium, and Dirk Willems, accepted death rather than do their enemies harm.  Their witness was one with Jesus, who offered peace to his enemies even unto death on a cross.

So I asked the students, "Who are the real Christians?"  They did not hesitate to point out Perpetua and Dirk.