What do we really know about “St. Nicholas”? He was born to wealthy parents in the town of Patara, Turkey about A.D 270. He was still young when his mother and father died and left him a fortune. His humility was immediately evident. As a teen ager he heard about a family destitute and starving. The father had no money for food to feed his three daughters. Under the cover of night Nicholas threw a bag of gold coins through the window of their humble dwelling, saving them from starvation.
Eventually, he became a bishop, and was destined to lead his congregation through the worst tribulation in history. In A.D. 303, the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered a brutal persecution of all Christians. Ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods, Nicholas and thousands of others refused. They were then dragged to prison. Believers were fed to wild animals, forced to fight gladiators for their lives, beaten and set aflame in Roman arenas. Yet the persecution could not stamp out Christianity. Instead, it spread like a wildfire. Third Century leader Tertullian observed, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Finally, after years of imprisonment, Bishop Nicholas walked out, freed by a decree of the new Emperor Constantine. Those who survived Diocletian’s torture chambers were called “saints” or “confessors” by the people. Nicholas was one of these. The bishop was beaten but not broken. He served Christ’s people for another thirty years. Through the prayers of this tried and tested soldier of faith, many found salvation and healing. Nicholas participated in the famous Council of Nicea in A.D. 324. He died on December 6, about A.D. 343, a living legend.
St. Nick of yuletide fame still carries faint reminders of this ancient man of God. The color of his outfit recollects the red of bishops’ robes. “Making a list, checking it twice,” probably recalls the old saint’s lectures to children about good behavior. Gifts secretly brought on Christmas eve bring to mind his humble generosity to the three daughters.
Yet, if he were alive today, this saint would humbly deflect attention from himself. No fur-trimmed hat and coat, no reindeer and sleigh or North Pole workshop. As he did in life centuries ago, Bishop Nicholas would point people to his Master. “I am Nicholas, a sinner,” the old saint would say. “Nicholas, a servant of Jesus Christ
I don’t mean that in a name-dropping way. Oh, I met him once at a private gathering in Phoenix several years ago, but I doubt he would have remembered it. What I mean is that I consider him a dear friend of the Church, a dear friend of the Kingdom of God, and therefore a dear friend of mine. I knew that in many cultural circles to profess friendship with Mr. Falwell would have been the “kiss of death.” That would also have been true in some religious circles. Certainly there were some issues I might have had with him and also some political areas of disagreement. And of course there were several Falwell statements made over the years which made me cringe. But that would have been true of any public figure I knew.
Jerry went to be with the Lord just ten years ago. In my estimation, I believe the Church of Jesus Christ has lost one of its greatest warriors. The one opportunity I had to talk with him I thanked him personally for taking the heat for all of us. He simply smiled and said, “Well, someone has to do that.” He was very anti-abortion. So am I. But he went public with his opposition in places where it cost him. I have never had that experience. Not only was he against abortion, but he organized a network of alternative homes and workers to care for those children whose mothers—and there were many of them—had second thoughts and decided against taking their unborn babies to the death chambers. I never thought of doing something like that.
Even in his death many in the media had a hard time speaking kindly of him or even giving him the benefit of the doubt of having possessed a life well-lived. So polarizing was his influence in this life that many will never give him anything but the hatred they think is due him. But even Jerry Falwelll would laugh and shrug it off while reminding us of one of Jesus’ statements: “Beware when all men speak well of you.”
There is another one of Jesus’ statements I feel should be associated with this bold and courageous Christian warrior. It is from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12). Jerry Falwell is no longer fighting by our side, because he has long since claimed the reward Jesus promised him and all of us who dare to fight the good fight of faith.
Many of us say to ourselves, “Oh, if only I could have walked with the Master 2,000 years ago. If I could have heard Him speak, seen His miracles, been there when he raised the dead, then the life of faith would be so much easier.” You might be surprised. The teachings of Jesus are the most beautiful and important teachings that humanity has ever received. We are still trying to understand the full import of them, but they are not enough. Jesus’ death on the cross of Calvary was a turning point in the relationship between God and man. But even the cross is not enough. Peter was still a reed, not a rock after the crucifixion. Judas had walked with Jesus and witnessed all His miracles, but still he betrayed him. The others fled and deserted Jesus in the face of impending danger. There are those who want to see Jesus only as a great teacher, but it is not enough. Others want us to see how Jesus died on the cross and say that is the kind of courage and sacrificial love we need in the world today. It is, but it is not enough. If the story of Jesus had ended with his life, teachings, miracles and death on the cross, it is clear that His disciples would have gone back to their previous occupations and Jesus would have been forgotten long ago. It was the experience of the risen Christ that transformed that little community of followers into a dynamic force that sought to turn the world upside down. And it was the availability of the risen Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit that sustained that dedicated company through every kind of persecution and peril imaginable.
What we should ask of the church of today is this: Are we an organization or an organism? Are we just a club for nice people, a society to teach helpful traditions and a pressure group to force goodness on a bad world? Or, do we live, move, multiply and exert influence through a force outside of our own? There are so many doubters, nay-sayers and unexpectant people within the church today that one would think that the Lord’s last words on earth were “Do the best you can, fellas!” Instead, his last words were “I am with you always!” There isn’t one obstacle in front of us now, or any that will come up against us in the future, that can stand against the resurrection power God has given His church. The times may be bad and darkness may be increasing around us but what a great backdrop for demonstrating that the Light of the world is still shining brightly within His church.
Senior Pastor of Cactus Christian Fellowship