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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : LESSON XXIV. THE PRIMITIVE CHURCH.

The Chosen People by Charlotte Mary Yonge

LESSON XXIV. THE PRIMITIVE CHURCH.

|I will also take of the highest branch of the high cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the top of his young twigs a tender one, and will plant it on a high mountain and eminent.| -- Ezekiel, xvii.22.

In the year 70, the same in which Jerusalem was destroyed, happened the first great eruption of the volcano, Mount Vesuvius, in which was killed Drusilla, the wife of Felix. Her brother, Agrippa, ruled by favour of the Romans for many years in the little domain of Chalcis. Titus was emperor after his father. He was a very kind-hearted man, and used to say he had lost a day whenever he had spent one without doing a good action; but he was soon poisoned by his wicked brother, Domitian, who succeeded to his throne in 81. Domitian was a savage tyrant, cruel to all, because he was afraid of all. He hated the Jews; and hearing that some persons of royal blood still existed among them, he caused search to be made for them, and two sons of St. Jude were brought before him. They owned that they came of the line of David; but they told him they were poor simple men, and showed him their hands hardened with toil; and he thought they could do him so little harm, that he let them go. He also laid hands on the aged St. John, and caused him to be put into a caldron of boiling oil; but the martyr in will, though not in deed, felt no hurt, and was thereupon banished to the little Greek Isle of Patmos. Here was vouchsafed to him a wonderful vision, answering to those of Daniel, his likeness among the prophets. He saw the true heavenly courts, such as Moses had shadowed in the Tabernacle, and which Ezekiel had described so minutely; he saw the same fourfold Cherubim, and listened to the same threefold chant of praise, as Isaiah had heard; he saw the seven lamps of fire, and the rainbow of mercy round about the Throne; and in the midst, in the eternal glory of His priestly robes, he beheld Him on Whose bosom be had lain, and Who had called him beloved. From His lips he wrote messages of counsel and warning to the angels, or Bishops, of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor; and then came a succession of wonderful visions, each opening with the Church in Heaven and in earth constantly glorifying Him that sitteth on the Throne, and the Lamb, for ever and ever; but going on to show the crimes in the world beneath, and the judgments one after another poured out by the Angels; the true remnant of the Church persecuted; and the world partly curbed by, partly corrupting, the visible Church; then the destruction of the wicked world, under the type of Babylon; the last judgment; the eternal punishment of the sinful; the final union of Christ and His Church; and the eternal blessedness of the faithful in the heavenly Jerusalem, with the Tree of Life restored.

When Domitian was killed, in 86, St. John went back to Ephesus, and there wrote his Gospel, to fill up what had been left out by the other three Evangelists, and especially dwelling on the discourses of the Lord of Life and Love. That same sweet sound of love rings through his three Epistles; and yet that heart-whole love of his Master made him severe, for he started away from a house he had entered, and would not go near it while it contained a former believer who had blasphemed Christ. A young man whom he had once converted fell into evil courses in his absence, and even became a tobber. St. John, like the Good Shepherd, himself went out into the wilderness to find him, and was taken by the thieves When his convert saw him, he would have fled in shame and terror; but St. John held out his arms, called him back, and rested not till he had won him to repentance. So gentle was he to all living things, that he was seen nursing a partridge in his hands, and when he became too old to preach to the people, he used to hold out his hands in blessing, and say, |Little children, love one another.| He died in the year 100, just before the first great storm which was to try the Church.

The Emperor Trajan had found out that the iron of the Roman temper had become mixed with miry clay, and that the men of his time were very different from their fathers, and much less brave and public spirited. He fancied this was the fault of new ways, and that Christianity was one of these. There were Christians everywhere, in every town of every province, nobles, soldiers, women, slaves, rich and poor; all feeling themselves members of one body, all with the same faith, the same prayers and Sacraments. All day they did their daily tasks, only refusing to show any honour to idols, such as pouring out wine to the gods before partaking of food, or paying adoration to the figures of the Caesars, which were carried with the eagle standards of the army; and so close was the brotherhood between them, that the heathen used to say, |See how these Christians love one another!| At night they endeavoured to meet in some secret chamber, or underground cave. At Rome, the usual place was the Catacombs, great vaults, whence the soft stone for building the city had been dug out, and where the quarry-men alone knew the way through the long winding passages. Here, in the very early morning of Lord's Day, the Christians made every effort to assemble, for they were sure of meeting their Bishop, and of receiving the Holy Communion to strengthen them for the trials of the week. The Christian men and women stood on opposite sides; a little further off were the learners, as yet unbaptized, who might only hear the prayers and instructions; and beyond them was any person who had been forbidden to receive the Holy Eucharist on account of some sin, and who was waiting to be taken back again. The heathen knew nothing of what happened in these meetings, and fancied that a great deal that was shocking was done there; and Trajan ordered that Christians should be put to the torture, if they would not confess what were their ceremonies. Very few would betray anything, and what they said, the heathen could not understand; but the emperor imagining that these rites would destroy the old Roman spirit, forbade them, and persecuted the Christians, because they obeyed God rather than man. The Bishop of Antioch was an old man named Ignatius, who is believed to have been the little child whom our blessed Lord had set in the midst of His disciples as an example of lowliness. He had been St. John's pupil, and always walked in his steps, and he is the first Father of the Church, that is, the first of the great wise men in those early days, whose writings have come down to us. As Trajan was going through Antioch, he saw this holy man, and sentenced him to be carried to Rome, there to be thrown to the lions for the amusement of the bloody-minded Romans. As has been said, from early days the favourite sport of this nation had been to sit round on galleries, built up within a round building called an amphitheatre, to watch the gladiators fight with each other, or with savage beasts. Many of these buildings are still to be found ruined in different parts of the empire, and one in especial at Rome, named the Coliseum, where it is most likely that the death of St. Ignatius took place, when, as he said, he was the wheat of Christ, ground by the teeth of the lions. He is reckoned as one of the Fathers of the Church. His great friend was Polycarp, Bishop or Angel of Smyrna, the same, as it is believed, to whom St. John had written in the Revelation, |Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.|

The Emperor Antoninus began a persecution, which was carried on by his successor, Marcus Aurelius; and in 167, St. Polycarp, who was a very aged man, and had ruled the Church of Smyrna towards seventy years, was led before the tribunal. The governor had pity on his grey hairs, and entreated him to save his life by swearing by the fortunes of Caesar, and denying Christ. |Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has never done me a wrong; how could I then blaspheme my King, who hath saved me?| said Polycarp; and all the threats of the governor did but make him glad to be so near glorifying God by his death. He was taken out to be burnt alive, and as he stood bound to the stake, he cried aloud, |Lord God Almighty, Father of the blessed and well-beloved Son, Jesus Christ, by Whom we have received the grace to know Thee; God of angels and of powers, God of all creatures, and of the just who live in Thy Presence, I thank Thee that Thou hast brought me to this day and hour, when I may take part in the number of the martyrs in the Cup of Thy Christ, to rise to the eternal life of soul and body in the incorruption of the Holy Spirit. May I be received into Thy Presence with them as an acceptable offering, as Thou hast prepared and foretold, Thou the true God Who canst not lie. Therefore I praise Thee, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee by the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, to Whom, with Thee and the Holy Ghost, be glory now and for ever and ever. Amen.| The fire was kindled, and to the wonder of the beholders, it rose into a bright vault of flame, like a glory around the martyr, without touching him; whereupon the governor became impatient, and caused him to be slain with the sword. He was the last of the companions of the Apostles; but there was no lessening of the grace bestowed on the Church. Even when Aurelius's army was suffering from a terrible drought in an expedition to Germany, a legion who were nearly all Christians, prayed aloud for rain, a shower descended in floods of refreshment. The emperor said that his god Jupiter sent it, and caused his triumphal arch to be carved with figures of soldiers, some praying, others catching rain in their helmets and shields; but the band was ever afterwards called the Thundering Legion. This unbelieving emperor persecuted frightfully, and great numbers suffered at Vienne in Gaul, many dying of the damp of their prison, and many more tortured to death. Of these was the Bishop Pothinus of Lyons, ninety years old, who died of the torments; and those who lived through them were thrown to wild beasts, till the animals were so glutted as to turn from the prey; but no pain was so great as not to be counted joy by the Christians; and the more they were slain, the more persons were convinced that the hope must be precious for which they endured so much; and the more the Word of God prevailed. Aurelius Caesar died in 180, and the Church was left at rest for a little while,

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