Fleeing persecution, a Christian priest sought sanctuary in a non-Christian’s home. Considering its size and its influence in that place, Christianity was a minor sect.
But this faith movement was growing. And it posed a vexing problem for the government. The followers of Jesus flatly refused to participate in the rituals of the official state religion.
The government used the religion to reinforce its legitimacy. Refusing to worship with your fellow citizens amounted to an act rebellion.
So, under the Emperor Diocletian, the Roman Empire gave Christians an ultimatum in the early years of the fourth century. Conform or die.
We don’t know why this pagan decided to shelter a Christian priest. History records nothing about his social position or his economic means, his marital status or his religious upbringing. We only have his name: Alban.
The priest hid in Alban’s house for several days. Alban was so impressed by the priest’s prayerful devotion to God that he converted to Christianity. Eventually, the authorities learned of the priest’s location and stormed Alban’s home.
With the soldiers at his door, Alban put on the priest’s cloak and surrendered himself as the cleric they were looking for. Alban’s true identity emerged somehow at court. Still, he refused to denounce his new faith and to worship the state’s gods.
An executioner beheaded him near what is now the site of St. Alban’s Cathedral. Alban was Great Britain’s first martyr.
If Alban’s story had been a Hollywood blockbuster, we would have expected him to take out the bad guys in a blaze of gunfire and a flurry of martial arts action. Instead, he lays down his life without so much as drawing a sword or throwing a punch.
Even though he was a very new Christian, Alban seems to have learned the paradoxical truth at the center of our faith. Paul put it this way, “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5)
Alban had already died in the most significant way spiritually. That meant that he was already alive in a way that could never be taken away from him.
Christ’s death is more than a biological demise. We’ll all meet our biological end. No matter what any of us does, one day our hearts will stop and our brain activity will cease.
Christ’s death is a profound letting go. Richard Rohr calls this kind of dying the downward path. It is “ letting go of our small self, letting go of our cultural biases, and letting go of our fear of loss and death…. letting go of wanting more and better things,… letting go of our need to control and manipulate.”
To come at this from a different angle, turn with me back to the very first chapter of Romans. There Paul names idolatry as the root sin.
Even those who do not know the Law, he argues, have a sense of the fundamental distinction between the Creator and the created. The infinite, eternal source of all things and finite, passing things. And before God revealed the Law people opted to build their life around things rather than the Maker of all things.
Many of us cling to what we take to be life. We cling to what Rohr calls the three P’s: power, prestige, and possessions.
These are the world’s top idols. Jesus models a life that involves letting these idols go.
This is no small thing. Letting go brings on a kind of death. The small self that defines itself by power, by wealth, and by social status will be buried.
But by letting go, we fall into God. Our true self as a child of God emerges. Falling into God is eternal life.
What Paul, and I suspect Alban, knew is that this small self is destined for death whether we let go or not. When we die biologically, we don’t take our power, prestige, and possessions with us. Any self defined by such things utterly disappears as soon as we flat line.
By contrast, the true self continues from this life into the next life. The true self is defined by its relationship with God. And our biological death cannot sever that bond. Eternal life is a way of living right now that extends beyond the grave.
Maybe as Alban listened to the priest’s daily prayers, he overheard Jesus’ words to his disciples. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” (Matthew 10:24) I believe that we would do well to hear them again ourselves.
Following Jesus is likely to rub against the grain of the world. For instance, in this world a great deal of wealth, power, and status is accumulated by treating people as disposable things.
Jesus teaches us that every human being is an inherently valuable child of God. So, following Jesus means that we will speak out whenever people are being treated as objects for someone’s gratification or as the means to a fatter bottom line or as pawns in a power game.
This did not make Jesus popular. It must have seemed to many that he was marking himself for death. But in truth, he was modeling for us the way of eternal life.