It was just before sunrise. The old man walked along the rocky beach. He absent-mindedly picked up a small, smooth rock, one that filled his hand, sat down on a larger boulder and stared to the east.
As the sun was breaking through the ocean fog, a younger man came and sat beside him.
“Brother John, are you up early for your prayers?” the young man asked.
John looked across the ocean, as though he could see the 50 miles across the sea from the island, and said, “Flavius, I am always praying for my friends back on the mainland.”
“I know you miss them, Brother. I miss my family, though I now have a larger one, thanks to you,” Flavius replied.
“Do not thank me,” John said. “It’s just the good news that we are all part of God’s family now.”
Flavius thought about the past few months. He had been exiled to this island of Patmos by the Emperor Domitian. Domitian was very jealous of anyone who might be a threat to his leadership and to Rome, so when Flavius began to become popular, not only among the Romans but among the Greeks and other people in this area, Domitian had him accused of treason and exiled to the island.
John, his older friend, had been exiled because he was the leader of a growing group of religious people called Followers of The Way. They were spreading like locusts throughout the empire and were intent on saying that the emperor was not god, but that a Jew who had been killed by the Romans about 60 years earlier was. More than that, they had said that this Jew, named Jesus, had come back from the dead and was somehow living among the Followers.
So here they were, the oddest of friends. A Roman Centurion and a leader of a small religious cult, both exiled for insurrection.
John had been telling Flavius his stories of Jesus, and Flavius had begun to believe, not because of some miraculous insight but because he saw it so intently in this old man. There was a peace about him, a confidence even in hard times, that defied all explanation. John had been telling the story of Jesus to all who were on this prison island of Patmos, and many were beginning to become Followers. Including Flavius.
“Holding that rock for a reason?” Flavius asked.
“I was thinking about my old friend Simon,” John said. “Jesus gave him the nickname Peter, which means rock. He’s been gone a while now. I heard he was killed in Rome. Nero, that madman, accused Simon and other Followers of burning Rome. Everyone knew that Nero and his friends started the fire, but no one dared contradict him. So, Simon was killed like Jesus, on a cross, but upside down. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.”
“Why did Jesus give him the nickname rock?” Flavius asked.
“Well, Jesus said it was because Simon said that he, Jesus, was the messiah. Jesus said that on that confession he would build his church, and called him Peter, the rock. But I used to kid Simon and told him he was called the rock because that’s how he swam, like a rock, when he tried to walk on water,” John said, laughing as he remembered the story.
“I remember that story. You told it a few weeks ago. Quite remarkable. I remember you said that all of you first Followers used to kid Simon about it, and he would look at you and say, ‘Well, nobody else got out of the boat!’” They both laughed at this. “I would have loved to have met him.”
“You will one day,” John said.
Flavius looked at the rising sun. It was just coming up over the ocean, burning off the fog.
“Tell me again about that day,” he asked.
John knew which day he was talking about.
“It was a couple of days after they. …” John almost said “you” rather than “they,” since Flavius was a Roman. But he was trying not to blame everyone for what happened. He now believed it had to happen the way it did. He didn’t quite understand it, how the Almighty would use Jewish high priests, Judas, Roman governors and scared Followers to bring salvation to the world, but he believed it somehow.
“… after they killed Jesus on a cross. I was there. Out of all the thousands of people he fed, the hundreds he healed, the people he cast demons out of, the ones he raised from the dead, those of us closest to him who walked with him for three years, only four of us stood at that horrible cross to be with him as he died. Me, his mother, Mary of Magdala, and Mary, Clopas’ wife. All the rest were hiding. But we couldn’t leave him. I couldn’t leave him. I … I loved him too much to let him die alone.
“So, I stood there and watched the blood come out of his wounds, his breathing get harder and harder. I prayed for it to end quickly, but it seemed to last forever. One of the last things he did was look at his mother and me, then told his mother I would take care of her and told me to do it. And I did until the day she died. We watched him die on that terrible thing. Some friends got permission to take him down, so we did, and quickly buried him in a cave.”
Flavius nodded. He had heard this part of the story many times already but could always hear it again.
“We just huddled together for the next couple of days. Then early on the morning after the Sabbath, Mary of Magdala decided to go to the tomb. It was right about this time, when the sun was just beginning to rise. We didn’t know what she was going to do. Sit outside the tomb, by the giant boulder that now covered the entrance? Try to talk to the Romans who were guarding the cave? That giant rock was going to keep her away from the one she loved. She might as well stay with us.
“But she took off. She was a headstrong woman, and she thought that not even a boulder was going to keep her from the one she loved. About an hour later, she came running back into the house, out of breath, telling us that the stone had been rolled away and that Jesus’ body was not there. She muttered something about he might have been raised from the dead, but Simon and I did not hear. We bolted out the door and ran to the tomb to see what had happened.
“Could someone have stolen his body? Did somebody desecrate the tomb? Was this just a sick trick of the Romans?”
Every time John said “Romans,” he felt a twinge in his heart. Flavius, a Roman, had become his brother. And he knew it was like throwing darts at him when he said this.
John picked up the story.
“I outran Simon. He was a good bit older than me. I got to the tomb, and there were no guards to be found. The stone was rolled away. I wasn’t about to go in; that cave was a place of death. But Simon came up a minute later and just ran into the tomb. He wasn’t thinking. Just like when he jumped out of the boat.
“This time I followed him. And I saw the burial cloths. But the body was gone. I didn’t know what to think. Who would take the body but unwrap it first? We went back to the house. We passed Mary on the way. She was heading back to the tomb. We told her not to go, but she did anyway. A little while later she came back into the house, out of breath and all excited. She said she had run into Jesus in the garden outside the tomb. She said something about angels, too, but we thought she was just being hysterical. She loved him so much that she would believe almost anything. She finally calmed down, and we just did our best to make it through the day. We were scared, frightened, and so we kept ourselves locked up in the house.”
Flavius knew this part of the story. It was his favorite part.
“Then what happened?” he asked.
“That evening while we were just sitting and talking, while the doors were locked, somehow Jesus appeared in the room. It scared us half to death! We weren’t sure if it was him or a spirit, but he showed us the wounds in his hands and side, and we figured a spirit couldn’t be wounded. So, it had to be him. How it happened, I don’t know. I just know that it did. But here’s what I think. …”
“What’s that?” Flavius asked.
“I think Jesus was the love of the Almighty made flesh, made human. And nothing, no stone or boulder, can separate us from the Almighty’s love. Not death. Nothing. …”
John’s voice trailed off as he looked across the ocean. It seemed to him like it was a boulder separating him from the people he loved. Flavius could somehow sense that.
“What about this ocean? It’s keeping you and me from the ones we both love,” Flavius said.
“You know, I had a vision the other day,” John said. “I believe it was from the Almighty. It was of heaven. And there was no sea there. I think I was being told that in the end, the Almighty’s love will overcome everything. It began to dawn on me that evening I saw Jesus again. And it gets clearer every day. I believe that Jesus is the Almighty come to earth, and that the Almighty is love, and so Jesus is love. And nothing can stop love from doing its work.”
John looked across the ocean, the wrinkles on his face showing the care he had for those friends back on the mainland.
After a few minutes Flavius said, “Brother John, I have caught some crabs for breakfast this morning. Would you like to join me back at my hut?”
John shuddered. Even though that late-comer Saul – or Paul as the Gentiles call him – had convinced him he didn’t need to obey all of those old laws, he still could not bring himself to eat shellfish.
“Thank you, brother,” John said to Flavius, “but I’ll pass.”
“OK,” Flavius replied. “I will see you at mid-day prayers.”
As Flavius walked away, he turned back to John.
“Brother John!” he shouted.
“Yes?” John shouted back.
“Christ is risen!” Flavius said, and he turned back to his path.
“He is risen indeed,” John thought, and then he tossed his rock into the sea.
Michael B. Henderson is the minister at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Florence and a member of the Morning News’ Faith & Values Advisory Board. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.