Antonius was a good soldier. No. Antonius was a great soldier. At the battle of Septuaginta Trium Orientem he had distinguished himself with valor and been honored with the position of Aquilifer for his legion. That means Antonius carried the legion Aquila or Roman Eagle into battle alongside the first Centurion; a Centurion he had grown to know as friend. Antonius and his Centurion shared hundreds of miles of dust and blood over the years. Standing side by side, they fought the wars of Caesar and they had brought the Pax Romana; the blessed peace of Rome.
Well, except for one place.
That hot and dry land of the Hebrews refused to be peaceful. The Zealots insured that; they would kill a Roman soldier any chance they got. They seemed to fight the Emperor’s peace and protection with every breath that they prayed to their God. It meant that Antonius’ heart knew no peace the entire time they were garrisoned in Caesarea. Well, until that one day.
The Centurion had a servant whom he valued very highly. Servant probably isn’t the right word here, but it’s the word we’ll go with for now. This servant was very dear to the Centurion, but he had fallen so very ill … so ill that he was paralyzed & near to death. The whole household was afraid & desperate. They had prayed to all the gods, and sought all the old remedies, but nothing was working. In reaching out to the Hebrew synagogue leaders (Antonius never understood how the Centurion could be so kind & generous toward them), well, when he heard about a rabbi named Jesus who had been teaching and healing in that very area. He listened with great anticipation and was strongly convinced of who this man Jesus really was. So he sent the synagogue leaders to plead for this Jesus’ aid. The Centurion didn’t really expect him to come in person!
But come in person he did. And so the Centurion dispatched his trusted Antonius. Tell him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.”He knew that for a rabbi to enter a Roman gentile’s home would be to make him ritually unclean. The Hebrews were very serious about their purity and righteousness – it had been part of what made them so difficult to bring into the Roman faith. They just wouldn’t give up their one God and their laws that required such piety and purity. And yet, this rabbi was different. He had not flinched at the idea of entering a Roman home. And the kindness that Antonius had seen in those eyes as he placed his hand gently on Antonius’ shoulder, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”Antonius had felt such peace in that moment; peace that didn’t even seem possible; not here.
And yet, there it was, a peace that was undeniable … unexplainable. And the power that came with it.
When Antonius returned to the Centurion’s home, he found that the Centurion’s beloved had been fully healed. It was a miracle! By the very words of that Hebrew rabbi and the faith of his Centurion, the servant had been healed from the very brink death! “Who was this, that even life & death obey him?”
Antonius went on courageously carrying the Aquila for his Centurion, but things had changed for them both. This faith that filled them … This sense of peace … They had to know more, and know more they did. Antonius and the Centurion found out everything they could about this Jesus and his followers; The Way, they called themselves. The Centurion was convinced that this Jesus was divine and he convinced Antonius of it too. And though they continued to carry the Aquila & the Emperor’s image at the legion’s front, declaring the divinity of the Emperor & the Pax peacehe offered, they knew this Jesus’ peace was different; powerful. And yet this Jesus compelled their full allegiance, not by banners and pledges, but by love and mercy.
Years later Antonius had heard letters read aloud; letters that had been written to followers of The Way in Galatia and Colossae. They had said things like, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And“there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” This Gospel, as they called it,was for everyone and everyone was equal in it. Even under the grand Pax Romana, the peace of Rome under one great empire there were divisions; great divisions. There were senators and prefects and there were slaves and conquered people, and they definitely were not equals. But this Jesus … they said he was a king you know. And they killed him for that. This Jesus offered life without divisions and borders, without classes and ranks. This Jesus offered a citizenship that was even greater than Roman citizenship. Antonius struggled to understand. He had always been a champion of Rome. He had always carried the banner of Rome. And Rome had always spanned the world. Everyone was under its power and control. It promised peace to everyone; but that peace could be withheld. It often was. Today it was.
Nero is the new emperor, and it’s his image carried before the legions of Rome. For years now, Antonius has been a follower of The Way; a Christian or “Little Christ” as they began to be called. He heard that name started in Antioch. But that’s not important. What is important is what’s happening today. The Emperor is condemning all the Christians. He’s blaming them for that horrible fire in Rome, but Antonius knows better. Even still, all the Christians are fleeing the city, and the Emperor Nero is purging them all from the ranks of the legions. He has declared that Rome must come first and that these Christians are vermin who have infested our beautiful city. Antonius knows that’s not who they are … not who he is … but the Emperor has declared that they must be captured and sent away. There are rumors of unspeakable things being done to those who refuse to leave.
It has been several years since retiring from service in the legions. Antonius is grateful for that. It had been hard for him to continue carrying his sword and banner into battle after his baptism. But he is a simple cobbler now. Funny that. How many sandals had he worn out over thousands of miles of marching? And now his life was dedicate to making sandals. If Antonius still believed in the gods, he would have said they have an odd sense of humor. Humor though it may be, he now had a comfortable little villa and a family on the edge of Rome itself. And today was the day. Today Antonius had to decide.
Emperor Nero had insisted on strictly enforcing the law. The local head of the market had been kind to Antonius. He had turn away whenever it was time to burn incense to the gods of the market. He had generously looked past this atheist who refused to burn incense to the gods. After all, Antonius made good sandals. But today that wouldn’t happen anymore. Word had come that soldiers were stationed at the market and the forum. They were enforcing the burning of incense to the gods. And now Antonius had to choose. Would he hide his faith today and drop the incense on the pyre? Or would he flee Rome? Would he pack up his family and leave his little villa and his beautiful city?
Some Roman Christians had decided to burn the incense and make the prayers. They had decided they couldn’t leave their home and they would declare the Emperor to be god. They prayed that Jesus would understand & forgive them. To be honest, many of them had pretty good reasons to stay & besides, what power could those false gods have anyway?
Who was he kidding? Antonius knew the power they all feared was the Emperor’s power. And he knew it better than most because he had served in the Legions. He had wielded that might and power. He had promised peace to the enemies of Rome. And now he had to decide. Would he suppress his faith in the Gospel of Christ? Would he submit to the Empire? Maybe even find a way to blend his faith in Jesus with the traditions of the Empire? Maybe the Emperor was appointed by God. Hadn’t the Apostle Peter said something about that in one of his letters?
Antonius was confused … conflicted … he loved Rome. He really didn’t want to leave. Rome had been good to him. He had sacrificed the better years of his life in service to Rome. He was promised peace, and he had earned his retirement. He had carried the banner of Rome halfway across the world. What harm would a little incense do? What harm would a little Empire worship do?
But Jesus had set him free. Jesus had forgiven him & given him liberty from his sins; even died for him. Jesus had healed the Centurion’s beloved servant. That Jesus is his king; the king of all people; every color & tribe. He alone is the king of liberty.
He alone is LORD, and savior.
He alone sacrificed his life to win life for all of us.
How could Antonius betray allegiance to his Lord?
How could Antonius betray by worshipping another?
How, when Antonius knew that it wasn’t the first time Jesus had been betrayed … There was another night night when our LORD Jesus had been betrayed, When He had taken the bread and when He had given thanks,
He had broken it, and said, Take, eat; this is my body
which is given for you: do this in remembrance of me.
In the same way, after supper He took the cup,
gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, Drink from it,
all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.