Friday, March 03, 2017

Prester John, Chapter 14 (Part 2)

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Chapter 14 (Part 2)
Lucius didn’t know what to expect as he trudged into town. He had given up on expectations. Too many wild turns in the course of his life had finally beaten him into a calm submission to the will of God. It was time, he knew, to face whatever was coming for him. Maybe Ariston still had the magistrates on the lookout for him—if so, he would be arrested, tried, and executed in short order. Or maybe Flavia, whom he had seen coming into town, was there to see him deported back to Rome, to face a similar fate before the watching eyes of his family and peers. He didn’t know what would happen, but he did know that he had to face it. So he walked on.
Smyrna looked the same as it always did—busy, dusty, full of life. He shouldered his way through the market-day crowds, keeping an eye out for the magistrate’s soldiers. But he never saw one. Eventually he came to the house that served as the meeting-place for the Christian assembly. He cast an eye over the whitewashed walls, thinking about the reception he might find. Elder John had been gracious with him—gracious beyond belief—but not all men were of the same nature as Elder John. And if Flavia were still there, he would have to face up to the whole shameful story of his sins.
Taking a deep breath, he ducked his head under the archway and stepped inside, then down the little passageway to where the bright atrium opened before his eyes. There were a few people gathered there—not the whole church, for it wasn’t a Sunday—but it was clear they were expecting him.
John sat at the front of the hall, and a few others were gathered around him, seated on the floor or reclining on cushions. When Lucius entered, John’s eyes lit up, and he motioned him inside. Every head turned to look at him. There was Elder Justus and his wife, and Polycarp, and the other leaders of the church. And there was Flavia, too, with her two servants, but he couldn’t read the thought behind her gaze.
Polycarp stood up and strode over to him. Taking Lucius by the shoulders, he looked hard into his eyes.
“I came every week to speak to you, brother,” he said. “Your friends up there never permitted me access to you. Did you know?”
Lucius shook his head. “I didn’t know. I saw you walking up the road one day, but I avoided you. I’m sorry, Polycarp.”
Polycarp shook his head. “You’re back with us now, brother. There will be time for your confessions, but here and now, this is a time for welcome and celebration. We’re glad to have you back.”
Lucius nodded and walked up to the group at the front of the atrium. John rose to embrace him, as did Justus and a few others. Lucius thanked them for their kindness, tears filling his eyes. John told the story of his chase up the mountain, and they all laughed and smiled and wept. Except for Flavia—she watched him with open eyes, silent but attentive, as if she were weighing the moment in her heart.
The Christians of the Smyrna church would have continued their celebration of welcome even further, but Lucius felt the crushing weight of unspoken confession bearing down on his soul. So, choosing his words cautiously, and through a veil of tears, he told them the whole story—the drunken accident that had made him a murderer, a fugitive without a home. Flavia dropped her gaze and looked at the floor.
He told of how he had sailed away from home and family under an assumed name, how he had met Ariston and Polycarp on the ship. He told them of the wonder and joy he found when he had met Christ in their midst, but also of the fear that kept him from speaking his true identity. Then he told them of the trap that Ariston had snared him with, and of his life as a brigand. One by one, the litany of sins came spilling out, and the people he respected most in all the world were there to hear every shameful word.
When at last the story was done, he leaned back, his lungs clawing for breath against the emotion that tightened his chest like a vise. There was an immediate freedom he felt, a surge of liberated peace, just for having said the things that he had kept hidden so long. But there was also the looming expectation of judgment. He didn’t dare meet the gazes of the other Christians, knowing their eyes would be filled with shock, discomfort, and revulsion.
Then he felt the hand of Elder John on his shoulder. “God has heard your confession,” said the old man. “He has seen your tears. And he has atoned for all these sins of yours at the altar of Yeshua’s cross.”
Lucius wiped away the tears from his cheeks. John’s words were life-giving and true, but they didn’t speak to his deepest fear. He had already felt assured of God’s pardon, lavished on him through unmerited grace, ever since John’s talk with him on the mountain the day before. What he truly feared was the condemnation of his friends, which he knew full well he justly deserved.
John may have read the cause of Lucius’ hesitation in that moment, because he began speaking again.
“There’s a story that comes to my mind,” he began slowly, “from my days of walking with my Lord Yeshua. It occurs to me now that I may have failed to include it in my written account of Yeshua’s life—if so, Polycarp, would you see that it gets added? Thank you. Yes, there was a time when we were all in Jerusalem, and the teachers of the Law wanted to force Yeshua to take a position that would either get him in trouble with the Romans or make him unpopular with the people. So as a test, they brought out to him a woman who had been caught in adultery. Now, according to the Law of Moses, such a woman ought to be stoned to death. And the crowd asked Yeshua what he thought they should do with her. And for the first few moments, my old friend didn’t speak at all. He bent down and started writing in the sand. And then he stood up again and said, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’ He was telling us that, yes—sin deserved judgment—but it was God’s place, not ours, to dispense the judgment. Brother Lucius, you have sinned and you have confessed. None of us are without sin, either—you return to this body in the same state as every single one of us—entirely purified by the blood of the Lamb.”
Justus nodded. “I was a drunkard and an adulterer before I found the grace of Christ.”
“I,” said John, “through anger that I’ve struggled to control, have been a murderer in my heart many times over.”
“I’ve many times sinned from pridefulness,” said Polycarp. “And pride was the sin of Satan himself.”
“I used to beat my servants to the point of death,” said another.
“Before I knew Christ, I had a baby I wouldn’t have been able to feed, and I left it to die out on the cliffs,” said a woman.
“I reviled and cursed my masters,” said a servant.
John smiled again and patted Lucius’ shoulder. “We’re a sorry bunch, aren’t we?” he laughed. “And yet our sins, as true as they may be, do not tell the full story of who we are. That story is told, more fully than anywhere else, in the cross of Christ, who loved us and gave himself up for us.”
Then Flavia stood up. She looked straight at Lucius with her wide, dark eyes brimming with tears.
“I too have a confession to make,” she said softly. “I came here to Smyrna because word reached Rome that Lucius Caelius Pius, the murderer of my brother, had been found. It must have been after you were nearly captured at Ariston’s house—the magistrates sent word back to us about it, so I came here to find you. I…I came here to tell you that for a very long time—” her voice broke, and she closed her eyes to gather her emotions. “For a very long time, I hated you for what you had done. My brother Domitian wasn’t a good man…but he was my brother, and I loved him. And I confess that my heart became a sea of bitterness.”
Lucius wanted to tear his gaze away from her, but he knew he couldn’t do that. He had to look at her, had to take all the hatred and judgment and condemnation that she had, even though it was tearing his heart in two.
“But I began praying about these feelings, these feelings of unforgiveness and hate, and I spoke about them with Clement, our elder. And little by little, the grace of Christ began to calm my heart. When I heard that you had been found, I knew that I had to come here. Not really for your sake, but for mine—to say what I’m saying now. Even though the sorrow and the pain of what you did has never gone away—and I think it probably never will—even despite all that, God has breathed a spirit of forgiveness into my heart for you. I needed you to know, Lucius Pius, that I forgive you for what you did.”
Lucius couldn’t see; the room was shrouded in a teary curtain that had fallen over his eyes. He wanted to say “I’m sorry,” and he wanted to say “Thank you,” but he didn’t know which one to start with. He buried his face in his hands.
Flavia sat back down, and the room was silent for a long moment.
Finally, Lucius drew a deep breath. “Thank you for your forgiveness,” he said. “But I still feel like I need to face justice for my act. I took a man’s life, and so I have to take my penalty from the courts of earthly justice. I’ll have to go turn myself in to the magistrates.”
Justus shook his head. “Normally, I would agree with you, Lucius, but it turns out that for that, too, you’ve been pardoned. Flavia told us that shortly after you fled Rome, one of your friends petitioned to Emperor Trajan, and he gave you an official pardon for the crime. That might be due to the fact that your act did away with a rival claimant to the imperial throne, but the end of the matter is that the crime no longer stands against you in the courts of Roman law.”
Lucius shook his head in disbelief. “I’ve been pardoned of that this whole time? But I shouldn’t have been! It was a murder, and justice demands I pay the penalty!”
John smiled. “Let me finish my story about Yeshua and the accused woman. After all the crowd had dropped their stones and walked away, he asked her who remained to accuse her. ‘No one,’ she replied. And Yeshua simply said, ‘Then go and sin no more.’ Brother Lucius, my son, your accusers are all gone. Go and sin no more.”
“There is one more small difficulty,” said Polycarp. “You still stand accused of the murder of Ariston the Elder. Now, we know that you didn’t do it, but the magistrates still think you did.”
Flavia stood up again. “I’ll take care of that. I can speak to the magistrates on your behalf. My family may not be held in high esteem by the new ruler in Rome, but the blood of Emperor Vespasian still runs in my veins, and I think they will listen when I speak.”
Lucius looked at her again. “Thank you,” he said.
He took a moment to gaze around the little crowd of faces, these brothers and sisters who had welcomed him back home. And all of the sudden, a laugh escaped his lungs, a laugh half-broken by a sob. And they kept coming, in quick succession, laughter and tears, and he didn’t know how to stop.

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