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October 5, 2008                         


                    REFLECTIONS ON ROME



Some places are just more special than others.  Places, like people can be made holy.  In its ancient history, parts of Rome were consecrated and sanctified.


The Roman Catholic Church has been the whipping post for Protestants since Martin Luther (and he was not without just cause in his charges); but if believers overlook Rome it is their own loss.  For our “Way” began here.  Our roots are in Rome almost as much as in Jerusalem. 


Earlier, the body of Christ was set in motion when one Man, who was also 100% God got up in a synagogue and said, “Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).  He chose twelve to follow Him, then He sent out seventy.  On Pentecost, after He rose from the dead, over three thousand more were added.  Later, Paul preached Christ Jesus crucified to nearly all lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.  Finally, he preached to the emperor in Rome.  He didn’t convert him, but he planted a seed.


And, before he arrived there what did Paul have to say about Rome?  He said, “…your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world” (Romans 1:8).  So the Holy Bible, indeed, teaches us that from the very beginning this was a place of very special faith.


Like the sand floor of the Coliseum, this place is soaked in the blood of the martyrs.  It is spiritually charged with the Holy Spirit.  When you go to and pray in the churches here it is special.  When you see some of the relics here you become incredibly moved.  I know, many will say, “You really don’t believe that those are real…”  Every relic in every church is not special.  But I say, come here and see what the Holy Spirit tells you.


There is so much that I admire about Rome and the Roman Catholic Church.  Think of it.  Every significant town on the continent of Europe has a magnificent cathedral or basilica, at least one.  Some of them are truly incredible and took decades if not generations to complete.  That means entire towns practically spent their whole lives working on these buildings.  They were, in a sense, working for and to glorify God.  This comes through when you visit any of the major basilicas here, especially Saint Peter’s; although I usually prefer the more humble churches.


The line from Jesus through Rome to our own faith is unbroken.


Jesus chose Peter.  Years after His resurrection He converted Paul.  Paul took the gospel all over the Mediterranean.  Both Peter and Paul were killed in Rome because of their faith.  Three centuries later, a Roman Emperor had a vision and everything changed.  The faith and the body of Christ spread throughout Europe.  First people were spoon fed and showed pictures.  Just when the thing got big enough to achieve a critical mass the printing press revolutionized everything so that everyone could read the word of God.  Then, when the technology allowed for it, sailing ships manned by the great explorers and their “progeny” spread knowledge of Him throughout the entire world.  Martin Luther brought reforms to the church and it ended up in many places also, including what became America.


The sown seed has grown and reaped.


I love Rome, warts and all.  I don’t think much of all of the statues of popes and the inscriptions on buildings that bear their names.  But something special is always around the corner here.


My most memorable day in Rome began with me leaving the monastery bright and early.  On my way to a church called San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains), I stumbled upon a mere speck of ruins that still had visible murals.  The sign said it had been the site of a church in the first millennium.  You can miss so much here.  I had walked by that place twice before but was clueless.


I was going to see the famous statue of Moses by Michelangelo.  Moses is my favorite person in the bible after Jesus.  I enjoyed the statue, but was surprised to see an enclosed case of glass that is said to contain the chains that actually held Peter in prison.  The reliquary below the alter was the site of much attention and prayer.


All the way in the US it’s easy to dismiss these claims.  But after several weeks in Italy it no longer seems far fetched.  Early Christians, including Church Fathers and people that Paul wrote about in the bible would have been with Peter in Rome.  They would have visited him while he was “in chains,” and just like Joseph of Arimathea at Calvary, someone would have retrieved his broken body after the dirty deed had been done.


It doesn’t seem speculative at all to assume that there would have been talk within the banned brotherhood about exactly where Peter was buried.  Later, when the heat was off, a small monument with columns was built on the spot—a pagan cemetery.  The early Christians could have easily blended in with other families visiting graves of their relatives.


Just like I’ve heard is the case in Israel near John’s house, there is graffiti in the wall near Peter’s grave that confirms for later pilgrims that this is the spot.  So when you hear all of the traditions, and you realize that these wouldn’t have just been rumors but precious knowledge shared throughout the body of Christ, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to hear that three centuries later Emperor Constantine said: “You know what; we probably oughta build a church here.”  And when you are actually under the alter at Saint Peter’s and can catch a glimpse of the series of several alters that have been built on the spot over the centuries, it all makes senses.  The truth is clear.


Given that; why would it be so hard to believe that Peter’s chains were passed around to the most holy and trustworthy brothers for generation after generation after generation?  This isn’t like bones which I admit are a little ghoulish.  These would have been priceless reminders of the faith and sacrifice of the one that Jesus first called to be a fisher of men.  Invigorated, I pressed on with my day.


The plan was to see the Coliseum and the Palatine Hill, home of the palaces of the emperors of Rome.  I felt guilty at first.  Why would I visit the scene of all that bloodshed.  The Roman emperors were pagans who probably sacrificed people and had wild orgies on some of the spost where I was planning to visit.  This was one of the reasons I didn’t visit the catacombs.  These places didn’t seem likely to increase my faith like the necropolis underneath Saint Peter’s.  But, I pressed on.


When you see the cross at the Colisseum standing on the spot where the emperors used to sit; it’s another proof, if you needed one, that a tremendous conversion took place here.  Then, when you see the ruins of Augustus’ palace you also see those who are awestruck and wonder what it all looked like over two thousand years ago. 


You know what I saw?


I saw a place that had been inhabited by men who thought they were God.  And the Lord had reduced their plans to rubble, essentially.  I was feeling better about coming to this place.  As I walked back down the hill toward the Piazza Venezia something pulled at me.  I exited to the right instead of straight ahead. 


To my surprise and awe I saw a place that I didn’t expect to see nor had ever heard of.  In front of what appeared to be a small church, one of the few signs in Italian that I could easily makeout, subtly announced that this was the prison of Peter and Paul.  What?


I immediately went in.  I don’t know what was upstairs, you could only go down below.  I headed to the basement and in a dark room there was nothing but a humble alter.  Something told me to go further.  The stairs were rough, black and old—perhaps they had been chipped out of the rock.  The dungeon was dark and dank.  There was nothing but a small marble alter, a plaque in Latin and a stone post.  The floor was uneven, the ceiling hovered just above my head.


I knew that this must be the place.  Hollywood couldn’t have done this justice.  This was literally a dark hole in the ground.  I immediately fell to my knees and for the second time that day offered myself totally to the Lord.  I prayed that he would use me like Paul and Peter and I promised Him that I would embrace an end like theirs, like this.


So as I headed back to the monastery on my last full day in Rome it was clear why my day had progressed the way it did.  Jesus Christ had used two men in jail to help Him humble some of the most arrogant, greedy sinners who ever lived.  A critical part of the story that brought salvation and hope to the masses worldwide.


This was the last of countless divine appointments I experienced in Italy.  Out of everything I saw and encountered it won’t be the outsized churches that I remember the most.  It won’t be the grand artwork or splendid architecture.


By far my most cherished memory on the best trip that I have ever taken will be the unadorned, humble dark hole that was once inhabited by the two Apostles I admire the most and seek to imitate.  My faith was refreshed, and as I move forward on the Lord’s path this scripture reminds me of them, Rome and why I love Jesus:


“We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.  So then death is working in us, but life in you…knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you.  For all things are for your sakes, that grace having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:8-15).


Moses in facade created by Michelangelo

Peter's Chains

This cross signifies the transformation that occurred in Rome

The site of the dungeon

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