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Friday, February 17, 2017

Prester John, Chapter 13 (Part 2)

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Chapter 13 (Part 2)
 
Lucius lay there on his back for what seemed like hours, watching the brilliant blue dome of an unclouded sky spin above him. Elder John was next to him, sitting in silent vigil, his gnarled hand on Lucius’ shoulder. Below, the brigands were watching them with open curiosity, but no one made any move to follow them up the slope.
“Forgive me, Elder John,” he gasped at last.
“Speak your confession, my son,” said John. “There is forgiveness here.”
“I lied to you. And to Elder Justus. And to Polycarp. And to everyone else. I lied to God. I lied to the Lord Jesus. I let you baptize me as Lucius Horatius Tiro—but that’s not even who I am! It’s no surprise, the depths I’ve fallen to, since I myself was never really baptized, but just some fictional disguise I had thrown on.”
John chuckled. “I know all about your lies already.” His voice bore none of the recriminations that Lucius expected. “But you’ve got it wrong about your baptism. Tell me, did you understand the vows I asked you there?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“And how did you answer?”
“I affirmed them.”
“Exactly. And if I’m remembering right, when I baptized you, I did not use your name, false or otherwise—I called you the truest name you have: ‘beloved son.’ It doesn’t matter what men call you, or what you call yourself. That’s what God calls you.”
Lucius couldn’t bear the weight of this mercy. A sob burst out of his chest. After a few moments of struggling to pull back his tears, he shook his head again.
“And you already know why I lied about my name, don’t you?” he gasped.
“Something to do with a murder, Justus told me. You can tell me about it, if you like. But know, while you speak, that our Lord has already set you free from that sin—and not just today; he set you free seventy years ago, before you had even conceived or committed the sin, when he died on the cross.”
“It was Flavius Domitian, the relative of the old emperor.”
“Yes,” mused John. “I knew his father Clemens.”
“Clemens, yes—he was one of you, a Christian, a great martyr of the faith. And I killed his son. It was at a festival, and I was drunk, and he provoked me, and I went to strike him, not remembering that I still had a knife in my hand.”
“And then you had to run away,” said John. “And the good Lord brought you here to us.”
Lucius wiped the tear-trails staining his face. “But is murder so easily brushed aside? You speak as if it’s gone, done with—as if it’s nothing.”
“No,” said John somberly. “It is done with; but it’s not nothing. God forgives you, but he doesn’t forgive you by just brushing aside your sin or pretending that you didn’t really do it. He dealt with it in the most serious way possible: by sending his much-beloved Son to die a cruel and torturous death…” The breath snagged in John’s throat for a moment, and his eyes welled up. “And in that death, our God bore all the murders, all the lies, all the villainies that you and I and everyone else have ever stacked up against the justice that rules the world in love. It is done with, because my Lord Yeshua did away with it.”
The old man paused, cocked his head to the side, and smiled. “It may help you to know that I myself am not faultless on this score. There was a time, while I was walking with the Lord, when my brother and I would have murdered a whole village of people by calling down divine fire to burn them up. Now, my Lord Yeshua didn’t permit us to do it, but the same murderous anger that you felt was once in my heart too—and probably worse!”
“But that’s not all,” said Lucius. “After Ariston tricked me into getting in trouble with the magistrates down in Smyrna, I abandoned the faith. Elder John, I haven’t been able to pray, or even to think about the Lord Jesus for these weeks, because I know how far I’ve fallen from his way! I’ve been party to all the terrible things these brigands do to travelers. Even today, I’ve been planning to murder another man!”
John pursed his lips in thought for a long moment. Then he pointed down to the dusty highway that traced its path between the hills.
“Look down there. You see that road? Imagine that you’re a traveler, but that, at a certain point, you make a poor decision and take a step off the side of the road. You fall, slipping all the way down into the ravine. Now, what would you do next?”
Lucius furrowed his brow. “I suppose I’d climb back up, get back on the road, and keep going.”
John smiled. “Just so. You wouldn’t lie there in the bottom of the ditch in endless grief that the road had rejected you. And you wouldn’t try to complete your journey by walking through the wild tangles at the bottom of the ravine. You’d get back on the road. So, you say that you’ve fallen from the way of Christ. What do you do next?”
“Get back on the way,” said Lucius with a brokenhearted smile.
“And the real wonder of it is that the Lord isn’t merely waiting for you, watching from the roadway with his arms crossed in anger to see if you can climb back up on your own. My son, when you slipped from the way, he saw you and plunged down after you. Right now, he’s carrying you back up.”
Lucius digested this thought for a long moment. “Thank you, Elder John—for the love you’ve breathed back into my heart. But what do I need to do to be restored to the church?”
“You’re taking the first step right now. Confess. Repent of your sins. I’ll have you make a confession before the church, and then you should, as much as you’re able, make things right with anyone you’ve wounded with your sins. But all of those steps are merely the outward signs of the one inward cry that God looks for—the cry of repentance. I can already see that in your eyes and hear it in your words, my son. You are back on the way of Christ, and even when you thought that you had forsaken him, he has never forsaken you.”
Lucius pulled himself up to a seated position. “So where do we go from here?”
“Well, let’s start by going on down to the city and meeting with Elder Justus and brother Polycarp. They’ll want to see you.”
Lucius nodded. “You go down ahead of me, Elder John. I promise that I’ll be there to present myself to the church before noon tomorrow. But I have some unfinished business out here tonight—something that still needs to be made right.”
John looked at him for a long moment, then nodded. He stood up to make his way down the slope again, but then he paused and turned back.
“So what is your real name, then? What shall I call you?”
“My name is Lucius Caelius Pius. But if I’m taking back that name and truly trying to make things right, I’ll have to face the justice of the empire.”
“Well,” said John with a mysterious smile. “Come down to the church in Smyrna first. We may be able to clear some of that up for you.”
Then he turned and made his slow, careful way back down the slope, looking very much now like the frail, ancient man that he was. Lucius watched him, ready to jump up and assist if his foot slipped, but the old apostle managed to get all the way back down to the roadway on his own, where the confused and awestruck brigands turned his horse back over to him.
Lucius took a deep breath, wiped away the last of his tears, and looked off into the distance toward Smyrna.
“Now,” he said softly, “it’s time to deal with you, Ariston.”

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