What else could explain the heroic acts of service and sacrifice that characterize Christians? What else can explain the myriad of martyrs for Christ down through history? In our flesh, how could we face the excruciating pain and degradation that this world's hatred piles upon us? We can't. We're too weak and sinful. But Christ can through us. Christ can empower us through His Holy spirit living within us so that we can do "all things through Christ who strengthens me"(Philippians 4:13).
Listen to the story of Perpetua. She was a noble woman, wealthy, well born, and a young mother in North Africa; but her Christian faith was outlawed in the third century Roman Empire. Emperor Septimus Severus had forbidden conversion to Christianity and required all citizens to offer sacrifices to him as a god. But she refused. Perpetua's father argued with her to abandon her Christian faith. He begged her not to throw away her life.
"Was it really such a bid deal," he asked, "to make such a small ceremonial sacrifice to the emperor?"
Perpetua pointed to a ceramic pitcher and asked, "Father, do you see this pitcher?"
"Yes, of course I see it," he replied.
"Can it really be called by any other name than what it is?" she asked.
"No," he answered.
"So I also cannot be called anything else than what I am, which is a Christian."
In her own diary, she wrote, "Enraged by my words, my father came at me as though to tear my eyes out."
On March 7, 203 AD, Perpetua and her servant were stripped naked and led into the amphitheater to face gruesome death. But even the bloodthirsty crowds couldn't stomach the sight. A medieval source book records the crowd's reaction:
"The people shuddered seeing one a tender girl, the other her breasts yet dropping from her late childbearing. So they were called back and clothed with loose robes."The officials chose a bull for the execution. A bear kills too quickly, but a bull would gore repeatedly. Yet after a bloody mauling, the young women were torn, but not dead. The crowds cried, "Enough!"
The officials then sent the gladiators in to behead the women. But as they approached, these hard-hearted killers began to tremble. The first strike again did not kill, and it again sickened the crowds. Perpetua showed all of them mercy by clutching the gladiator's hand and guiding the sword to her neck for a killing blow.
What could give her and so many others such courage? What would allow them to make such a costly stand? It certainly isn't our own strength. But we can show that kind of courage if Christ lives through us. Those who simply play at their faith would never do that. For those Christian's who are content to simply go through some rituals.....they would never take a stand. For those who are content with tame religion, this kind of faith and sacrifice seem beyond imagining. For them almost any sacrifice is too much.
Way too many people see Christianity as no more than having to give up listening to certain music they like or having to wear ugly clothes. And they rebel at those sacrifices. But that isn't the Christianity that fired the heart of a Francis of Assisi or a Perpetua. A Christianity that worries about giving up a few sins isn't the Christianity that will sacrifice their lives for Christ. Only Christians who are transformed by Christ's indwelling presence do.