Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In May, as a part of my continuing education, my wife Janna and I visited the city of Rome. My summer sermon series in the Footsteps of Saints Peter and Paul is based on that visit. This morning we turn to the place of St. Paul’s final imprisonment and burial..
At the end of the ancient Roman race track known as the Circus Maximus stands a tall, thin bell tower and a church named Santa Maria in Cosmedin. To the left of the entrance is a 6 foot, 2800 pound marble mask of a bearded man with eyes, nostrils and mouth wide open. It is known as Bocca della Verità, The Mouth of Truth. Historians aren’t quite certain what the original purpose of the disc was. It was possibly used as a drain cover in the nearby Temple of Hercules Victor which had round open space in the middle of the roof, similar to that of the Pantheon. Others have suggested that it was used by cattle merchants to drain the blood of cattle sacrificed to the god Hercules. In the thirteenth century the disc was probably removed from the temple and placed against the wall of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin. According to enduring medieval legend, if you place your hand in the mouth while telling a lie, it will cut of your hand. And if a liar even places their hand in the mouth, it will be cut off. This is a serious disincentive to telling lies, so Italian mothers love to tell the story to their children as a lesson in honesty.
The mask is now known mostly from its appearance in the 1953 film Roman Holiday staring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. The movie was Audrey Hepburn’s breakout role, playing a princess who escapes her royal duties. She meets a reporter, Gregory Peck, who shows her around Rome on a Vespa. At some point, they visit the Mouth of Truth and Peck’s character tells the legend of the Bocca della Verità, Neither character has been truthful of their true motives and identity. When facing the mask, the princess is afraid to place her hand in the gaping hole, while the newspaper man pretends that his hand has been cut off. Yet, nearly 70 years later, this Roman landmark remains heavily associated with the film, with tourists re-enacting the scene. I guess we’re all searching for an easy answer to what is right and wrong, and true and false. Unfortunately, with the Bocca della Verità, the price of lying may be a little too steep.
Based on that two minutes of fame in Roman Holiday, more visitors today visit the Mouth of Truth that than the final sites of the apostle Paul’s amazing and tragic life. Most of us have seen images of St. Peter’s Basilica, the final resting place for the Apostle Peter, but few have seen the site of the Apostle Paul’s burial, the of St. Paul Outside the Wall. According to tradition, Paul was beheaded and his body buried two miles away from the site of his execution in a sepulcher just outside the walls of Rome which was owned by a woman who was follower of the Way named Lucina. A monument was soon erected over it and quickly became a place of worship and veneration. Three centuries later Emperor Constantine erected a basilica on the monument site which then became known as St. Paul Outside the Walls.
The Basilica itself is simple and elegant, though it is still the second largest church in Rome. Like St. Peter’s it has been rebuilt on its original site. The interior is decorated with paintings of the stories of St. Paul, but the most distinctive feature are the portraits of all 260 popes, from Peter to the present-day Francis. The second pope, in case you are curious is Linus. His name is mentioned in St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy. The sarcophagus of St. Paul rests in a crypt just beneath main altar, with the Latin inscription, PAULO APOSTOLO MART –“to Paul the apostle and martyr.” Above the tomb in a glass reliquary are the chains of St. Paul from the time he was bound to the Roman centurion.
Well, I imagine, if only a few people have seen St. Paul’s final resting place, then there are even fewer who have visited his final prison cell in the Mamertine Prison. Paul was actually imprisoned twice in Rome. You may recall that Paul had been charged in Jerusalem for causing a riot. In 60 AD, after two years of imprisonment in Caesarea, he was transferred to Rome, where he spent another two years in chains under house arrest preparing for his trial before Emperor Nero. We don’t know whether he ever presented his case to Emperor or whether his accusers from Jerusalem ever travelled to Rome. According to the Book of Acts, we know that he welcomed all who came to him and proclaimed the kingdom of God with boldness and without hindrance. He was released in 62 AD and then for a brief period of two years, the apostle enjoyed the right to travel unhindered across the Empire.
There is no passage in Scripture that tells us what Paul did the day after his chains were removed. He was already a white haired man in his 60’s who was encouraging younger men like Timothy and Titus to take on greater pastor leadership in the church. Some traditions state that in those intervening years after his first imprisonment Paul returned to Greece and Asia Minor to visit the churches he established there. In the Book of Romans it is hinted that he travelled on to Spain to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, to a region where no other apostle had travelled. That had been his dream prior to his arrest and his four-year imprisonment in Caesarea and Rome. Still, another tradition states that Paul stayed in Rome, where together with the apostle Peter, he worked to establish the ministry of the church. While Peter focused on the Jewish community, Paul focused on the Gentiles. The 4th century church historian, Eusebius, citing the 2nd century Bishop of Corinth Dionysius says “They (Peter and Paul) taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time.”
Rome was important to Paul and his understanding of God’s mission in the world. There were over 50,000 Jews living in Rome at that time and there five different synagogues. It was a larger community than was living in Jerusalem. Peter and Paul had complementary gifts for ministry to the capital city. And with all roads leading to Rome, Paul knew that a gospel proclamation firmly established there could go forth to the ends of the earth. It was for that reason that Paul found himself back in Rome in 64 AD, when the Christians became Nero’s scapegoat for the great fire. Which in turn leads us to Paul’s last imprisonment in the Carcera Mamertino or the Mamertine Prison.
The Mamertine, or Tullianum prison was built in the 7th century BC. Surprisingly, it is still standing right in the heart of the city on the Roman Forum just beneath the Capitoline Hill. Today a church has been built over it. Prisoners in the ancient world were rarely sent to prison as punishment. Rather, prisons typically served as holding cells for those awaiting trial or execution. The Mamertine was a two-story underground prison reserved for the enemies of the Republic. It could have been called the House of Darkness. The upper chambers had light and air and was drier, while the lower level where prisoners were let down through a hole was damp. Historians say it may have been built as a cistern. Below the well or cistern ran the city’s main sewer line known as the Cloaca Maxima. Seepage from the sewer into the cells just above was common.
Once the door was shut on the prison there was little air, and no light. The name alone brought fear to listeners, as in the account of the 1st century BC Roman historian Sallust, who wrote, “There is a part of the prison which is called the Tullianum, where you ascend a short way on the left. The Tullianum is sunk into the earth about 12 feet and is constructed of stone walls on all sides; above this is a room with a ceiling of vaulted stone. Foul from neglect, darkness, and stench, it is an altogether terrifying sight. Its appearance is disgusting and vile by reason of the filth, the darkness and the stench.” When Paul wrote to Timothy in his second epistle, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” he had already endured at least one hard winter in the Mamertine Prison.
We do not know what the charges were that were brought against Paul after the great fire. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty [of being Christians]; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much for the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.” This accusation that Roman Christians hated humanity likely took root in their refusal to participate in Rome’s social and civic life, which was intertwined with pagan worship. If there had been a simple test like placing your hand in the Mouth of Truth, Paul might have been able to prove his innocence and the false hood of such a charge that he was filled with hate. Instead, the apostle discovered it was a crime to be a Christian in Rome, and that it was dangerous to be seen visiting him. He suddenly felt the abandoned and deserted, and that no one would consider listening to his word of truth.
Frankly, that is the life of all men and women who call themselves Christian. We may not be facing the darkness of Paul’s Mamertine Prison, but we do recognize that there are easier choices in life than following the life of Christ. It is easier to follow the crowds that the past of truth. Just a little lie could make life so much easier. Of if not the who telling the whole truth, just the convenient parts. I know that personally as well.
Every summer or so, when I am overwhelmed with work, I imagine myself buying a nice cabin on the North Shore where I will live out the rest of my days. I begin looking at properties, and then in the middle of the night, I have a reoccurring dream. It is a little voice whispering to me, saying, “Oh Pastor Haug, this is a beautiful place and such a lovely view. And now Pastor what are you going to do here?” It is that clergy reality check. And it is not just for preachers. God sends everyone of us to the places where we need to be- to tell the truth of God’s love. It is why God sent Paul back to Rome. It is the same for you. You and I have been called to share the good news of Jesus Christ where ever we are sent. The late theologian Frederick Buechner perhaps said it best, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”
My friends, Paul was not afraid of task he had been called to. He knew that he would die. Yet time and again, he had been buoyed personally by Jesus, supported by family, and enjoyed life and faith within his circle of beloved friends. Paul also trusted in Jesus’ promise. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness.” That is true for you and me as well. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.