Easter, A.D. 260.
I sit at my favorite place along the rocky shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea and watch the Easter sun rise over the city of Carthage. I’m a regular visitor here. I like this spot so much, not only because of the view but because of the privacy. It’s a long, rough walk to get here, and once I sit down behind the stone ruin of a port long abandoned since the Punic wars, I am unlikely to see another living soul.
That’s pretty important these days, since anyone who intends to welcome this morning by worshiping the risen King finds himself in direct disobedience to the edict of an earthly king. This worship time with my wife will be as close to public worship as I will get on this Easter Sunday. Since Emperor Valerian issued his edict against Christians two years ago, we have had to learn to worship Jesus in isolation like this.
It still sounds strange to call myself by that name. It has only been a year since everything changed for me.
My name is Lucas. Well, until a year ago, I was known as Lucius. Not a big difference in pronunciation, but for me—a new name for a new life. I am a physician. And to take the name of the first physician to follow Jesus seemed right.
It all began for me a few years ago when the plague first swept through the city with its horrifying delivery of death. No one had ever seen anything like it, nor heard of anything like it in the world before now.
I myself was one of the early victims. I can’t remember much of it, and that is a blessing. It began with the fever, burning so intensely that I was in and out of delirium. When I would briefly awake, I could hardly see for the blood seeping from my eyes. That kept me from seeing the blood seeping from every other opening in my body, and the infections in my hands and feet.
I don’t know why I survived. I certainly would have died but for my precious wife, Helena, who never left my side—as I would not leave hers when she endured her own bout with this plague a few months after I recovered.
It seems this curse does not afflict one twice, so since then, I have been able to care for many of the sick and dying in Carthage. And there are so, so many.
After I recovered from this terrible illness, I made my required sacrifice to the gods and to Emperor Valerian, according to the edict. I received my certificate that placed me in good standing with the emperor and the gods. I was widely respected in Carthage because of my work as a doctor caring for the sick.
But I found myself constantly exhausted, and desperately alone in my labors. No one wanted to be near the sick and dying. Everyone who could fled the city. Many left their own dying children in the sewage trough that runs through the middle of the street. How could one man like me do anything that mattered?
And then, suddenly … I was not alone.
Men and women known as Christians came out of hiding and into the streets. I watched in astonishment as they picked up dying children, and washed blood and vomit off of the abandoned sick who were crying out for help from their homes.
They seemed to come from everywhere, these Christians. I heard their whispers of hope into the ears of the dying, saw their tears of compassion, and listened in astonishment as they sang. Yes, sang praises to their Jesus as they served the sick.
Day after day, they came. Some fell ill and died themselves. Their friends grieved. But not like others. They had a hope none of us found in our gods and idols.
They were led by a man named Cyprian. No one ever saw him, because he was in hiding and then in prison. But one of these strange Christians, a nurse who helped me every day, shared with me from one of his sermons. It was extraordinary! He seemed to view this plague as some sort of opportunity—a chance for Christians to demonstrate that their lives were supernatural—that their God was alive!
Since then, I have written down that sermon from Cyprian. Hear a little of it for yourself:
What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! what sublimity, to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion; that in thus bravely showing forth our faith, and by suffering endured, going forward to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod, we may receive the reward of His life.
I was strangely drawn to this man I had never met. And then, on September 14 of 258, just a year and a half ago, I “met” him in the strangest of ways.
Cyprian was brought to public trial for his refusal to sacrifice to the emperor in the same way that I had freely done. His trial was quite the spectacle. I watched every moment. I heard every word. The exchange between Cyprian and the Proconsul Galerius Maximus is public record.
After Cyprian was brought in, the governor asked him: “Are you Thascius Cyprian?” And the bishop replied: “Yes, I am.” The governor Galerius Maximus said: “Our most venerable emperors have commanded you to perform the religious rites.” Bishop Cyprian replied: “I will not do so.” Galerius Maximus said: “Consider your position.” Cyprian replied: “Follow your orders. In such a just cause, there is no need for deliberation.”
Then Galerius Maximus, after consulting with his council, reluctantly issued the following judgment: “You have long lived with your sacrilegious convictions, and you have gathered about yourself many others in a vicious conspiracy. You have set yourself up as an enemy of the gods of Rome and our religious practices. The pious and venerable emperors: the Augusti, Valerian and Gallienus, and Valerian, the most noble of Caesars, have been unable to draw you back to the observance of their holy ceremonies. Since you have been discovered as the author and leader of these heinous crimes, you will consequently be held forth as an example for all those who have followed you in your crime. By your blood the law shall be confirmed.”
Next he read the sentence from a tablet: “It is decided that Thascius Cyprian should die by the sword.” Cyprian responded: “Thanks be to God!”
I could not believe my ears! A “vicious conspiracy”?! But these people he leads love like no one else! They live and die for others. How can this be a crime?
I stood in horror as they immediately led Cyprian to a grassy area in view of the sea. As he passed by me, he seemed more excited than afraid. And did he smile at me, or was that my imagination?
Then, with complete calmness, he knelt down, blindfolded himself, and was beheaded.
For many months after, I could think of little else. These Christians—they were either crazy … or they were right.
So a year ago, sitting here at this same spot, watching my first Easter sunrise, I made my decision. I became one of them. I believed! I tore up my certificate from the emperor and watched the pieces float away in the waves of the sea. I was baptized. My wife too.
We joined the conspiracy!
A year later, I sit here with my wife. We pray. We sing. We weep. And we stand.
We have a festival to attend now! This would have sounded crazy to me a few years ago. But just days ago, I saw a letter from another Christian leader named Dionysius. In the midst of a plague, he declared a festival!
Other people would not think this a time for festival: even if, so far from being a time of distress, it is a time of unimaginable joy. Now, alas! all is lamentation, everyone in mourning, and the city resounds with weeping because of the numbers that have died and are dying every day …
Many terrible things had happened to us even before this. First we were set on and surrounded by persecutors and murderers, yet we were the only ones to keep festival even then. Every spot where we were attacked became for us a place for celebrations, whether field, desert, ship, inn, or prison … so yet again we found joy in the peace which Christ has given to us alone.
So my love, Helena, and I walk hand in hand together away from our Easter worship to follow our resurrected King to the festival—to love like Him, to serve like Him, to one day rise like Him. And we will do it all in a community of love like no other.
It’s Easter! Our Jesus lives. Come join us in festival! The conspiracy continues.
The story you have read is both fictional and true. Lucas and his wife are not real people from history, but the third century of the Roman empire was filled with very real people just like them. All of the other facts of the story are completely true—the terrible plague of Cyprian’s day, the persecution under the emperor Valerian, the transcript of the trial of Cyprian. (Recently, I stood in that very field where he was martyred.)
The letter from Dionysius is real. Even the place where Lucas and Helena worshiped is real. I worshiped there myself not long ago, with my friend Gary Witherall, whose first wife, Bonnie, was a modern-day martyr. I named the character Helena after Gary’s present wife; they are our dear friends, who today help continue the “conspiracy” of Cyprian, as they reach people for Christ in the Muslim world.
It’s Easter week in the midst of our own pandemic. How can you continue the “conspiracy”?
Rejoice! Jesus is just as alive this Easter as any other.
Love Jesus more! Spend more time in His Word than in worry. Make sure that, when this is over, your children and grandchildren remember your family worship times as joyful and faith-filled. It could shape them forever.
Love and serve others! Don’t allow social distancing to become passivity. Use your phone and other technology to encourage others and to share the gospel. As God leads, if you are less vulnerable, serve those who are more vulnerable.
Finally, pray for, prepare for, and expect a different kind of pandemic—a spiritual pandemic we call revival. A pandemic that gives life instead of taking it, that offers healing instead of sickness, that brings joy instead of sorrow.
It’s Easter. Anything is possible! This pandemic will end. The power of the resurrection will not. Jesus is coming again! It may be soon. Until then—let’s live with pandemic purpose.