Last Sunday, after I left worship in Florence, I went to the opera in Tucson, where Arizona Opera, of which I am the immediate past Chairman of the Board, was presenting its commissioned work based on a Zane Grey novel, “Riders of the Purple Sage.” Following the Opera, I dashed home, where I caught the last 1.6 seconds, literally, there was a time-out with 1.6 seconds remainin — and then rewatched the entire recorded game, as my University of Illinois defeated the University of Iowa (ha ha ha) to earn a double bye in the Big Ten basketball tournament, and to enhance its seeding in the upcoming NCAA basketball tournament.
. . . or so it seemed until Thursday, when, with most of this sermon’s having already been written, I spent part of the morning in consultation with several other leaders of Arizona Opera that led to the cancelation of a fund-raising gala that had been planned for yesterday, and both the Big Ten and NCAA announced cancelation of their respective basketball tournaments. To add insult to injury, Major League Baseball cancelled spring training games and postponed the start of its regular season.
Ouch! but not a complete surprise; the previous night, the National Basketball Association announced a “suspension” of its season, and it was joined by the National Hockey League’s announcement of much the same thing.
Wow, even ice hockey, which at least those of you from “the Great White North” know is a big deal.
But ice hockey had been in the news, at least on the Internet, beyond having its scores reported, when, on February 22, to be exact, we read reminders of an anniversary in ice hockey: the fortieth anniversary of “The Miracle on Ice,” that incredible 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic ice hockey medal round match between the four-time gold medal-winning USSR — it was still “USSR” forty years ago; it was another nine years before the Berlin Wall fell — between the four-time gold medal-winning USSR ice hockey team and the largely college player dominated US Olympic ice hockey team.
If one spent any time on the Internet, one indeed read of that anniversary.
And I do spend probably too much time on the Internet, in no small measure, because of the well-over one-hundred, or so it seems, emails I receive every day.
But while the Internet enables me frequently to divert from what I should be doing at my computer, it has also helped broaden my education, partly through daily emails to which I subscribe, and one of these emails is truly fascinating, and, indeed, brings before me anniversaries that have nothing to do with ice hockey or any other sport, a daily email entitled, “Today in Christian History.” It ties into a magazine on Christian History, and I receive the “Today in Christian History” email, because I subscribe to the parent publication, “Christianity Today.” But I admit to being more mesmerized by what I read in these daily Christian history emails as opposed to what is in the more widely read “Christianity Today.”
The “Today in Christian History” email is exactly what it says, reporting one, two or three events that happened on the same date of the year in history. For instance, eight days ago, it mentioned this about Perpetua, and her name jumped out at me because I had read a book about her some years ago.
March 7, 203: Perpetua, a Christian about 22 years old, her slave, Felicitas, and several others are martyred at the arena in Carthage. They were flogged, attacked by hungry leopards, and finally beheaded. Perpetua remains one of early Christianity's most famous martyrs.
Carthage was in what would now be Libya, the place from which both Hannibal and Saint Augustine came, though centuries apart.But, as I said, I knew about Perpetua, and perhaps you did, also, and certainly not to minimize nor ignore her incredible faith and courage, but two days later, that is, this past Monday, I encountered an incident of which I was previously unaware:
March 9, 320 (traditional date): Roman soldiers leave Christian soldiers naked on the ice of a frozen pond in Sebaste, Armenia.They placed baths of hot water around them to tempt them to renounce their faith. When one did so, a pagan guard—inspired by the fortitude of the remaining Christians—converted and joined the freezing Christians. They were all killed and made famous by Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa.
Holy mackerel! To put it mildly, I had not heard of this latter incident: thirty-nine of forty Roman soldiers, that is the number apparently involved, one “garrison,” who refused to worship the emperor, forty Christian Roman soldiers who were then joined by one of those guarding them because of his wonder at the courage and faith of those those other thirty-nine Christians!
Wow. Talk about being put to shame. No one should feel the least embarrassed who stayed home today or will stay home over the next few weeks out of concern over COVID 19; taking precautions, especially since, to put it kindly, few are younger than fifty — or seventy — or eighty — such that avoiding the possibility of contracting the Coronavirus is sensible and most definitely not a sign of one’s Christian faith not being important to him or her — or you! Not a sign of one’s Christian faith not being important, and beyond that, I think we are being wise if we take precautions against the spread of the flu or the corona virus; after all, physical contact with one another is not really an important part of our worshipping together. I do not want anyone to die as a result of this virus!
But I shake my head to think that I am pastor of two churches twenty minutes apart that will die over time because it is “too long a drive” or “they are different from us” or whatever, but a likely end result is that they both could die in five years or so because. . . because. . .
Well, shoot, it is not courage that is in question: no one seriously risks injury by driving from Coolidge to Florence or Florence to Coolidge or from either to Florence Anthem; those roads are not that dangerous. It is not courage that is in question nor is it lack of Christian faith; the churches could well die because, because . .
Well, because neither church historically really has seen its role as carrying Jesus to those who did not or do not know Him. Well, it would not have been easy, anyway, I know, because I was a parent of young boys when youth soccer decided that having games on Sunday mornings was the thing to do. The world around us simply was neither conducive to nor supportive of our spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ; it mocked at least some Christians, and the NFL ignored us in moving kick-offs to noon central time to accommodate television, and, lets face it, didn’t all those things conspire to make it difficult for churches?
I mean, as a practical matter, how many of us “Christians,” when faced with a choice of Terry Bradshaw or an early tee time or Sunday church, did not choose the Steelers or avoiding the slow pace of Sunday afternoon golf?
Obviously, all of you chose being here this morning over alternatives, for which I both thank and applaud you, but I cannot help but think of our priorities, of where our faith stands in our hierarchies, compared to those of Perpetua and those forty who died on the ice at Sebaste in what is now Armenia. Think whether any of us would know of Christianity if people such as Perpetua and those soldiers had said, “On second thought, the emperor makes a really fine god!”
I am fond of saying that a church to be a church must stand on three legs, three legs, a tripod, the most stable of structures. If a church lacks one of those legs, it falls over, ultimately. Those three things are: worshipping together — the thing my friend and professor Don Wardlaw used to say was “the thing the most people do the most often, together”; — sharing fellowship and support, together; and being the church in the world together, engaging in mission, and, to me even more importantly, together carrying the Good News of Jesus and why He came to a world and to people that do not know him, what we call evangelism.
Without mission and evangelism, a church can be a social club or similar, but it is not a church.
And while I am fairly sure that it was to please their God, our God, and not to evangelize anyone that those thirty-nine soldiers accepted death on that frozen lake rather than to renounce their faith, they did carry the Good News, and it was heard by at least one, but probably more, of those guards. Those fatal forty were evangelists, sharing the Word, not with words, but with the way they lived — and ended — their lives.
We are not called upon to end our lives in taking Jesus to an often hostile but seldom murderous-toward-Christians world, but it is our call to, and I often quote these words which come from this year’s Lectionary Gospel, that of Matthew, in which Jesus calls us to “make disciples of all nations.”
But what does any of this have to do with ice hockey, with “The Miracle on Ice”? though I suspect at least some of you now realize why I began with that item, for we have discussed an even earlier and more dramatic “Miracle on Ice.”
In ice hockey, there is something called a “line change,” — any of you Canadians can correct me — in which three players, the center and two wings, skate onto the ice to replace three that have been playing for a few minutes — ice hockey is a very tiring game, and beside, since many ice hockey players are Canadian, they probably need a Molson’s — just kidding.
But what would be a really great “Miracle on the Ice” would be for us twenty-first century Christians, not to die as did they, but, figuratively, to do a “line change” with those who died on the ice at Sebaste, or to reprise the role of Perpetua, not giving our lives, but by winning converts to the cause of Jesus Christ, and therefore saving others’ lives, not losing ours.
Doing this together is that to which we as Christ’s Church are called. And in his name. Amen.