The Cross & The Coliseum

Last month I had the opportunity to stand in the Coliseum in Rome for the second time in my life.  It's an impressive structure, and in many ways still stands as one of the iconic symbols of what has been known for centuries as "The Eternal City."

As my wife and I walked around the Coliseum I discovered a cross that had been erected and dedicated during the tenure of Pope John Paul II.  I snapped the photo that you see to your left.  It sort of spoke to me.

Let me explain why by way of sharing a brief history of the Coliseum itself.

The Coliseum was completed in 80 A.D. begun by the emperor Vespasian in 72 A.D. and finished by the emperor Titus.  The original name was the Flavian Ampitheater, a name derived from the family name of it's builders--Flavius.  Most historians believe that the name "Coliseum" came from the giant statue of Nero that stood outside of it, a statue modeled after the Colossus of Rhodes.  Nero's successors refashioned the statue to more resemble the sun god Helios, and then began a custom of swapping the heads out each time there was a new emperor.  The statue, and subsequently the building itself, was believed to be possessed with magical powers and stood as a symbol of the permanence of Rome.

Most of us know of the Coliseum as a place of decadence, brutality and bloodshed.  It was used to stage elaborate games with gladiators, wild animals, full scale, real life reenactments of historic battles---and of course for the many innocent people who were thrown into the Coliseum to be butchered in a variety of ways.

It's believed that many Christians met grisly ends as they were martyred in the Coliseum, and some of those stories have been passed down through the centuries.  Historically, however, there isn't a great deal of proof that Christians were singled out more than any other group for death in the Coliseum.

What's important for our purposes, though, is the way that the Coliseum itself stood as a symbol for the might, the power and the permanence of Rome, and a symbol of decadence, terror, violence and death for so many of Rome's subjects.

And now this is what it looks like:

It's cool.  But it's a ruin.  It's not a symbol of the permanence of Rome.  It's a museum.  And instead of a huge statue of Nero or Helios or whoever---there's a cross.  Nero would have never imagined that.  Heck, no one would have ever imagined that.  The cross was a symbol of death---a way for the Romans to inspire fear in the hearts of the people they conquered.  When the Romans sacked Jerusalem, they crucified over 10,000 people outside the city walls.  They ran out of wood to make crosses.

The cross standing there in the Coliseum gave me some inspiration.  It was a sign and a symbol that the God I serve can turn suffering into something beautiful.  It reminded me that even the most powerful, and abominable things in the world don't stand a chance agains the truly good news of the Gospel.

I could stop preaching there, but I won't.

Instead, I will give to you St. Peter's Beautiful & Terrible Message of Hope:

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. - 1 Peter 1:3-9
 I highlighted verse 7 because I wanted to draw attention to what I think is the key to this passage of Scripture.

Peter was writing this letter to a group of Christians who were experiencing persecution from their neighbors and the authorities of their community.  They were being imprisoned, perhaps subjected to torture and some of them may have even been martyred.

This is a beautiful and terrible message of hope.

Let's break this down from the perspective of those who would have been reading this as they gathered together in worship.

First, Peter declares that Hope is not wishful thinking (verse 3) but a firm conviction.  Because of the Resurrection, he says, followers of Christ have a "living hope" that will not fade away despite dire circumstances.

Second, Peter tells his readers that they have an inheritance (verse 4) that is eternal.  He tells them this so that they will have confidence, and courage in the face of persecution and insurmountable odds.

He then tells them that the inheritance that they will receive is through faith (verse 5) and God's power.  Peter wants his readers to rely less on their own strength and their own abilities as these will ultimately fail them if they are tested.

Then Peter directly addresses the suffering that his readers are experiencing.  Suffering happens sometimes, he tells them (verse 7) so that faith may be strengthened and Jesus gets the glory.  We don't always understand why bad things happen to us, Peter seems to acknowledge, but we can trust that if we are steadfast in the midst of it, we will emerge not only stronger, but full of praise for the One who sustained us and strengthened us.

Finally, Peter tells his readers that this Jesus-hope in the middle of suffering (verses 8-9) should bring you inexpressible and glorious joy.  This is an amazing thing to say at the end of it all, isn't it? Yet, Peter just throws it in there in a matter-of-fact sort of way.  "In the middle of suffering, persecution and maybe even the worst things you could face here on earth, you will discover joy unspeakable and full of glory."

Like I said, a beautiful and terrible message of hope.

So, how does this apply to us today?  Here's what I think:

Resurrection hope is forever.  Resurrection hope never runs out.  Resurrection hope always has the last word.  

Let me ask you a question.  What are the "Coliseums" in your life?  What are the places that seem impenetrable?  That stand as permanent monuments to your failures, your shortcomings?

That decision that you made that you have always regretted...
The mistake that you made that one night that you've never been able to forget...
The relationship you're in that is falling apart...
The job that you lost that left you in financial ruin...
The child or grandchild that has disappointed you and caused you grief...
The loved one that died and left you in loneliness...

This is the truth come to life in the words of St. Peter---words that sound nice to most of us, but words that we dismiss as ancient and irrelevant to our own situation:

These coliseums will not last forever.  They cannot withstand the power of your faith.

God can take the worst symbol of your failure, the worst moment in your life, the most traumatic event...

And give birth to something beautiful.

The truth come to life in the words of St. Peter is dramatically illustrated in the cross that I saw at the Coliseum.  The cross stands as a reminder that even the most monumental mistakes, the worst moments, the terrible tragedies that we have experienced will be overcome by the power of the Resurrection.

Resurrection hope is forever.  Resurrection hope never runs out.  Resurrection hope always has the last word.
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  1. You are a very beautiful and true speaker! You gave amazing examples in this piece! I hope you write more about the faith. May god bless you!


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