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Faith and Action, Truth and Goodness

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch

March 17, 2019

Luke 13:31-35

“In AD 203, a young Roman matron, Perpetua, was arrested with four companions.”[1] Perpetua’s crime was being a Christian in the Roman cosmopolitan city of Carthage in North Africa. At the time, she was still nursing her baby. The year before, the Roman emperor Septimius issued a decree declaring both Judaism and Christianity illegal, probably because of their total adherence to one God who was not the emperor, but also because of their increasing economic prestige. Thus, this young Roman mother, who had only recently become a Christian, was arrested. What makes her story unique in the annals of Christian martyrdom is that she kept a journal of her arrest and imprisonment before she was sent to the coliseum to be ripped apart by wild animals.

Perpetua had multiple reasons, and multiple opportunities, to avoid her execution. She was newly married, and she literally had a baby at her breast, which tugged at the heartstrings even of her accusers. Her father, who was probably the only other member of her family who was a Christian, appeared at her trial carrying her baby, and begged her “Perform the sacrifice! Have pity on your baby!” Likewise the judge at her hearing, a humorless man ironically named Hilarianus, was moved to cry out to her, “Have pity on your father’s gray head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.” Her response was simple: “I will not.” “Hilarianus then asked the one question that was pertinent at the hearing, ‘Are you a Christian?’ Perpetua answered, ‘Yes, I am a Christian.’” These words condemned her to death in the coliseum. In her journal she wrote: “We were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits.”[2]

It is hard to imagine that any of us sitting in this room would do such a thing. Her willingness to go to the coliseum seems crazy, over the top. As a wife, as a young woman with her whole life ahead of her, as a mother with a new baby, as a daughter, as a person of wealth and prestige, she seems to have multiple reasons to live. You want to shout out with her father, “Just perform the sacrifice! You can be a Christian in secret. If you have to renounce your faith to live, ask for forgiveness and Jesus will forgive you! Just make the sacrifice!” Indeed, practicing your faith in secrecy has been one of the ways both Judaism and Christianity, as well as other religious traditions, have survived the worst forms of oppression. For whatever reason, Perpetua chose a different path.

Let’s put ourselves in her shoes for a moment and think about what might have been her reason to make the choice she made. The main reason was because she really, truly, to the depths of her heart, had faith. It was wrong, plain wrong, for her society to make that faith illegal. So one could view this as a justice issue, that she and her friends were being persecuted for what they believed and they felt the need to make a stand.

Another reason she might choose martyrdom is the example of Jesus, who didn’t let the fear of arrest deter him from preaching the gospel and ended up going to the cross for boldly proclaiming his faith. So she was striving to be Christlike.

Note that neither she nor her friends chose armed resistance. This is a trait that marked many of the early martyrs. Again, they were following the example of their Lord, who ordered his disciples not to defend him because “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” This in itself is a statement about world view. Rome has the power of the sword. The earthly realm uses violence to achieve its ends. Christians, representing the Kingdom of God, renounce the worldly way of doing things, so they renounce violent power.

The word “martyr” itself is a clue to why Perpetua behaves as she does. “Martyr” is the Greek word for “Witness.” Christians are called to bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. To bear witness would mean in the first place to renounce any human Lordship. And for Christians, “witnessing” has always ultimately meant speaking—saying, proclaiming, that “Jesus is Lord.” And so, when specifically asked to renounce her faith, to say she was NOT a Christian, that was the one thing Perpetua could not do.

And finally, Perpetua believed with all her heart that mortal death was not the end, but the beginning—that when she died she would live eternally in the joy of her Savior Jesus Christ. So her faith in the promise of eternal life helped her overcome her fears about dying and the grief she had in leaving behind all the things that gave her life value. Instead, her joy was in meeting Jesus at last.

Perpetua had faith and it resulted in action.

Our Hebrew Bible reading today is the very scripture that caused renegade priest Martin Luther to nail the Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church. “And Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord[b] reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). The Apostle Paul famously used this verse of Scripture to say that human beings are saved by their faith in Jesus Christ without the need for works. Faith itself counts as righteousness in God’s eyes, says Paul. And equally famously, James the brother of Jesus, the first head of the Christian church, used this very same verse to say exactly the opposite thing—that faith without works is dead. There is evidence in the New Testament of a bitter debate in the early church between these two points of view: the one, that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works; and the other point of view, that faith without works is dead.

At one level, the problem seems easy to solve. If we have faith, then works will follow. That seems logical, right? If we really believe that Jesus is Lord, then we’ll do what he tells us to do. There was an old Presbyterian motto that I always liked: “As we believe, so we do.” If you believe it, you live it.

The Presbyterian Book of Order maintains exactly this in our Historic Principles of Church Order. “Truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth [is] its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’” In other words, you know that a person believes the Truth by how good a person he or she is. Like the song says, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

The reason the ancient church so venerated its martyrs was because their sacrifice showed in real, concrete ways just how a strong a faith they really had. Perpetua was willing to go to the lions for Jesus! That’s faith, a faith that resulted in drastic action.

But the Presbyterian Historic Principle I just quoted has more to say. It says, “No opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level and represents it as of no consequence what a person’s opinion is. On the contrary, we are convinced that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.”[3]

This historic principle makes faith a lot deeper topic than simply, do you believe in Jesus. Faith has to do with truth. And that truth has to influence everything you do. Truth is not simply about your religious belief. Truth is about your entire world view, it’s about everything you believe to be true about how the universe operates. And that belief about how the world operates has consequences. It affects your behavior. It shapes the decisions you make and the values you hold dear. It affects your public life and your private life. It shapes how you see yourself and others.

I had a conversation recently with a friend of mine who briefly was executive director of an organization with a worldwide influence. He has worked with that organization for decades; he has served on its board; he believes in the ethical principles of this organization and trains other people to follow those principles. But when he became executive director, he was stunned to discover that in its business practices, this organization did not live into the values it espoused. When he pointed this out to staff and to other board members, he was shocked by their response: “Those values are nice and important, and we believe in them, but this is business.” My friend’s response was, “If we don’t apply these values in our own business, how can we teach them to others?” Furthermore, it needs to be pointed out, the organization had fallen into financial and structural disarray BECAUSE they hadn’t abided by those principles. Even in business, when our beliefs and our practices are not aligned with one another, disaster follows.

Earlier, when I told you the story of Perpetua, I spent some time breaking down the reasons she made the decisions that she made. I pointed out how believing in Jesus Christ wasn’t simply a matter of affirming a set of beliefs. It affected her perception of Roman power and how to respond to it; it shaped her values, what she considered important, and what ditches were worth dying in; it affected her self-image; it affected not only her view of what will happen in the world to come but of what was happening in the world in which she lived right that moment. Her entire world view was shaped by her faith. Her faith had become her truth, the entire foundation of her life. And that truth affected her behavior and the most important decisions she would ever make.

It is worth our while to examine our own lives to discern whether how we live reflects the truths we believe as Christians. This isn’t easy to do. For one thing, there are so many forces tugging on us, so many supposed “truths” we’ve picked up along the way, that it is easy for us to believe and live by completely contradictory things and not realize they are contradictory. What we believe as Christians is often jumbled with what we believe as Americans or as Texans or as republicans or democrats or independents or liberal or conservative or as people who are in a certain line of work and so on.

The Presbyterian historic principle I quoted suggests the best place to start is by looking at our actions and working backwards to what belief we have that led us to behave that way. Let’s take a simple example. I’m in a hurry, and as a result driving recklessly. A car, at least in my opinion, cuts in front of me, and out of anger, I blow my horn and fire off an obscene gesture. Maybe I even ride that person’s fender for awhile to make my point.

Now, I’m a Christian. (I’m a minister, too, so I hope to goodness I’m not wearing my collar when I do that stuff!) The first question is, why am I so anxious about getting somewhere in time that I am driving carelessly? Have I forgotten that my destiny lies in the hands of God who loves me and that all things work for good for those who love the Lord? Why have I forgotten or chosen to disregard the rules of safe driving? Is it because I am so focused on getting whatever it is I want that I’ve disregarded the mandate to love my neighbor as myself? Why am I angry when I’m cut off? Is it because I’ve put getting my way ahead of the attitude of humility and service I should have? And why am I so anxious? Is it because in this particular matter I simply don’t trust God?

Our faith should shape every aspect of our lives. By its very nature, it should challenge conventional truths and beliefs we take for granted. Our faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ should be, as one theologian put it, our “ground of being.”[4] Or as another theologian has stated, “To be Christian means that the Jesus story becomes our story.”[5] We believe in the God who is love, who practices grace in dealing with mortals, who took human form in order to be a servant and died to save us, and then rose again to assure new life for us and for all creation. This is a radical reframing of the world and of our place in it. I hope none of us will ever face the choice that Perpetua made, but the example of her life challenges our tendency to be complacent about what our faith actually means. Our faith as Christians reveals to us the truth that underlies the entire cosmos; it reveals the meaning and purpose of our lives. It is a living, hopeful truth; it is the greatest good news. But it contradicts the values that often we take for granted. We will spend our lives reframing our lives to live by that truth, as Paul says in our reading today: “pressing on to the prize that is our heavenly calling in Christ Jesus.”  

[1] Salisbury, Joyce. Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Woman. New York: Routledge, 1997. P. 2.

[2] Salisbury, pp. 90-91.

[3] Book of Order, F-3.0104, “Truth and Goodness.”

[4] Paul Tillich.

[5] Stanley Hauerwas.