The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.” Bonhoeffer, citing the words of Jesus, bid Christians to count the cost of discipleship. For Bonhoeffer, this death was literal; for most other Christians we are called to die to our former selves.
This is the time of year the worldwide church remembers those whose faith has been an example for us all. We have all known those we considered “saints,” and history also gives us wonderful accounts of others whose lives reflect the faith and grace Christians strive for. Here is one such true account.
At the beginning of the third century, a Christian noblewoman named Perpetua lived with her husband, her son and slave, Felicitas, in Carthage. During this time, North Africa was the hub of a vibrant and growing Christian community. So, when then Roman emperor Septimius Severus decided that he needed to put a lid on Christianity, he chose to begin in North Africa.
The first people he arrested were five new Christians taking classes to prepare for baptism, one of which was the 22-year old Perpetua. Her father immediately visited her in prison, and begged her to deny that she was a Christian so she could live.
Perpetua replied, “Father, do you see this vase? Could it be called by any other name than what it is?” “No,” he replied. “Well, neither can I be called by any other name than what I am, a Christian.”
When Perpetua was moved to another prison so she could breastfeed her son, her father was able to visit her again. He continued his pleading, “Have pity on my gray head. Have pity on me, your father, if I have raised you to reach this prime of your life.” He threw himself at her feet and kissed her hands. “Think of your brothers, your mother and your aunt. Think of your child! Give up your pride!”
Perpetua remained unshaken. In fact, she tried to comfort her father. “It will all happen as God wills, for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power.” Her father left dejected.
On the day of the hearing, Perpetua and her friends were brought before the governor and asked one final time to make a sacrifice to the Unconquered Sun, thereby denying their Christian faith. They all refused.
The governor then turned to Perpetua and added to her father’s pleading, “Have pity on your father and your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperor.” Perpetua replied simply: “I will not.” “Are you a Christian then?” asked the governor. “Yes, I am,” Perpetua replied. Her father interrupted again, but the emperor — having heard enough — had her father beaten into silence.
Perpetua, her friends and slave were condemned to die in the arena at the hands of wild animals. As soon as they entered, a wild heifer charged the group. Perpetua was tossed into the air and onto her back. She sat up, adjusted her ripped tunic, and went to help her slave.
The other animals — a boar, a bear, and a leopard, attacked the group, and soon all the tunics were stained with blood. But, when death did not come as quickly as the crowd wanted, the group was lined up, one by one, and slain with the sword. It is the blood of the martyrs that fertilizes the soil of our discipleship.
While we may never be called to deny our faith or face death because of it, we are called to remember that our faith has been handed down to us at great cost.
The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, installed member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.