Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Early Church

This spring I had the privilege of visiting Rome. Beautiful, gold-trimmed churches with lofty ceilings and amazing art by Raphael and Michael Angelo seem to adorn every corner. You'd never suspect that at one time Christians were persecuted, tortured and put to death in this very place. After visiting so many opulent places of worship, and thanking God for the freedom Christians enjoy today, I came across one church with a very different feel. Deep beneath the Basilica of San Clemente, just steps from the legendary Colosseum, is the aging remnants of the early church. Descending three stories below street level, I see just a dirt floor, burned bricks and broken floor tiles. The sound of rushing water echos through this chamber and a musty smell belies the sweet fragrance of faith that once inhabited this place.

This was the city mansion of Titus Flavius Clemens, Roman Consul and cousin of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D. ). The house was originally a very large mansion, but the great fire of 64 (you know, the one during which Nero "fiddled") destroyed much of it's grandeur and a new, more modest home arose from these ashes. Clemens' wife Flavia Domitilla, a recent convert, turned this home into a clandestine house of prayer, a secret meeting place for Christ followers.

I try to imagine the heart-pounding fear within each of these early believers as they entered the house. Then the overwhelming joy as the Spirit's comfort outweighed that fear. Together they shared a common bond, a blood-bond, purchased first by the blood of Jesus, then reinforced with each fellow believer that fell at the hands of heinous gladiators just down the street. No, this church didn't enjoy beautiful gold-inlaid architecture or breathtaking art while they worshipped. Instead they experienced the humility and uncertainty that embraced the first earthly dwelling place of the Christ.

This courageous band of believers sponsored Clement, Clemens' freed Jewish slave, who worked and preached with Peter and Paul. Later Clemens himself was martyred and Flavia carried on as best she could until even this place was no longer safe. It's easy to forget the high price some paid so that we could hear the gospel. Thank you early church, for facing your fear with faith in a message far more precious than gold-inlaid ceilings or masterpiece works of art.

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