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Friday, March 10, 2017

Prester John, Chapter 15 (Final Chapter)

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A note to my readers: This is the final chapter of Prester John and the Brigand King. The full resolution of the story came at the end of the previous chapter; this chapter serves more as an epilogue and as a means to set up the idea behind a possible further series of books tracing a path through church history--the office of "Prester John," passed down by a sort of secret apostolic succession, beginning with John. Depending on how my efforts to publish this volume go, I may or may not continue the series. If I do, the next installment will likely be set in the third or fourth century AD.

Chapter 15
 
            Two years had passed since the day of Lucius’ homecoming to the church. He had remained in Smyrna at first, making his full confession and being received back into the full communion of the assembly of Christians there. Flavia stayed there for awhile too, and, as she predicted, her influence was weighty enough to convince the magistrates of Smyrna to reconsider the events surrounding the death of Ariston the Elder. Most of them being well acquainted with Ariston the Younger, it did not take too much convincing to bring them over to Lucius’ version of that night. But there was no question of gathering enough reputable witnesses to put the younger Ariston on trial, so they simply let the matter be. Once his name was cleared, Lucius set sail for Rome, there to reconnect with his father and his old friend Gaius.
            But now, two years later, he was back in Asia Minor, this time in Ephesus. Word had rippled throughout the whole Christian community over the previous weeks: John the Apostle was dying. He was the last remaining member of Christ’s twelve apostles, and had already lived far beyond everyone else from his generation. Of course, everyone had heard the whispered rumors that perhaps Christ intended John to live until his return—the immortal “Prester John,” as he was affectionately known throughout the area of Ephesus. But now it was becoming clear that that was not to be. His health was failing rapidly, and Christian leaders from all over the world began flocking to John’s sickroom in the home of Onesimus, a leading elder in Ephesus, there to bid their farewells to the last of the first generation of Christians. The final foundation-stone of the house of God was ready to be set in earth.
            Lucius found that John’s sickroom was already nearly full when he arrived. Many of those gathered there he already knew—there were Justus and Polycarp from Smyrna, Onesimus from Ephesus, Ignatius from Antioch, and Papias, a longtime friend and scribe of John’s. The smell of sweat was thick in the room, diminished only slightly by a small lamp of fragrant oil.
            When Polycarp saw Lucius enter, he leaned down toward the bed and whispered something.
            At first, Lucius thought the bed looked empty. But then the stained sheets began to move, and Lucius saw a form that was barely recognizable as human, tangled up amongst them. John’s frame was so thin now that it seemed to bury itself away amid the folds of the bed.
            Lucius came over and knelt beside the bed. John struggled to raise his head from the pillow, but had to give up. He opened a single eye toward Lucius, a slight smile playing at the corner of his mouth. It was immediately clear that though his body was giving out on him, this was the same old John, with all his characteristic fire, intelligence, and joy dancing in his gaze.
            “Lucius, my son,” he rasped.
            Lucius smiled and folded John’s bony hand in his own. “Hello, father. So you finally decided to go home, I see.”
            John smiled more fully now. “Yes,” he said. “Oh, yes. I expect it’s taken me this long because my Lord Yeshua needed a good deal more time to work on me.”
            “Or perhaps it’s because he knew that I would need you,” said Lucius, his eyes bright with tears.
            “Yes, perhaps,” John said softly. Then he seemed to gather his strength and turned his body toward Lucius. He looked at him with both eyes open, but the lines on his face betrayed his pain.
            “My son, I’m glad you’ve come. I have more to say to you.”
            “Oh?”
            “I’ve been praying these last few weeks,”—here John paused as a series of raspy coughs shook his frame—“asking the Lord to show me whom I should appoint as a successor.”
            Lucius cast a quick glance at the others in the room, but none were standing close enough to hear of John’s faintly-spoken words.
            “Successor?” whispered Lucius, leaning in. “I don’t understand. You’re an apostle of the Lord, one of the twelve. There can be no successors to that.”
            “No…but in the case of each of us twelve, our Lord Yeshua gave us a mission to fulfill. For most, it was the call to take his Good News to the ends of the earth. And so, many of my friends and brothers have chosen successors to carry on their work in the places where the Lord has brought them—Peter in Rome, Andrew in Byzantium, James in Jerusalem, Thomas in India… But I? I planted no churches; my Lord gave me a different mission,”—he paused to cough again, and when he returned to speaking his voice was strained with weakness—“I was the caretaker for his mother. And after his mother’s passing, I became a caretaker of his bride, the church, the one he loves. Yeshua made some to be leaders, but me he made the humble steward of his household. The mantle of successors for the other apostles fell to men in offices of leadership in the churches—to elders and overseers. But just as my mission was distinct from theirs, so my office must also be—I have prayed that God would raise up for me a good and faithful Christian, one who is not an overseer, elder, or deacon—who can take up the mantle of my legacy—to love and care for the church, in every corner of the world where the Holy Spirit has made it take root. Lucius, my son, you are that man.”
            Lucius struggled to find words to respond to this. He bowed his head, shocked and humbled.
            While thus bowed, he felt John’s hand rest on the crown of his head.
            “Great God of endless love,” rasped the dying man, “equip and endow your servant Lucius to watch over your bride, to care for her, protect her, and love her until her bridegroom comes again. Just as you looked down on me from the cross, O Lord, and called me to care for your family, so now likewise call him. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to whom is all glory, unto ages of ages. Amen.”
            “Amen,” whispered Lucius, still not entirely sure what to make of all this.
            “And Lucius,” John said, holding the younger man’s gaze again, “when your time on earth is done, you too must find a successor, so that the mission Yeshua gave to me will never come to an end.”
            Lucius smiled. “So maybe they were right,” he joked, “and Prester John will never die.”
            John smiled and lay all the way back on his pillow with a sigh. “Prester John,” he chuckled.
            Then a thought occurred to Lucius. “But what do I do with this office? And what should I call it?”
            “God will show you what to do. And as for the name…that will come in time. Yeshua gave no names to elders or deacons; that all came as the Holy Spirit showed us how to walk. So too for this—simply be a caretaker of the bride of Christ.” Then he opened one eye again and grinned at Lucius. “But if you want to call yourself Prester John, that’s all right with me.”
            Lucius laughed softly and bowed his head again, overcome by the honor and responsibility lavished on him. He felt so undeserving of such a high calling—but he knew that John too felt exactly the same way about his own calling to be a disciple of the Lord.
            Lucius knelt there at the bedside and watched until John’s breath leveled out into the slow rasp of labored slumber. Then he looked up at the others gathered there—overseers, elders, and deacons, the greatest leaders of the church. He wasn’t sure how much they had heard of the conversation, but they all regarded Lucius with the knowing respect of brotherly love.
            Three days later, the old apostle breathed his last. And when the celebrations of his passing were all complete, the new Prester John left Ephesus and embarked for Rome.

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