“God’s anonymous: the saints in Caesar’s household”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
Born in May of 1916, Richard Evans Baker, also known as Dick “Two Ton” Baker, was an American singer and entertainer, best known for his work in Chicago back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. He started playing piano when he was only two-and-a-half years old. After high school, he joined a local twelve-piece band and had occasional gigs as a pianist, singer and master of ceremonies. Later, when he made it “big,” he even had his own shows like Wonder House, The Happy Pirates and, of course, The Two Ton Baker Show.
In a 1949 interview for the Chicago Tribune, he said, “The only thing I ever wanted to do in the world is play piano and sing on the radio. This isn’t work, it’s play--and I’m getting paid for it!” And he said, “The world is full of petty things. I hope my monkeyshines and songs make people forget the barbs for a little while.”
But of all the songs for which he’s known even today, like I Like Stinky Cheese and Myrtle the Turtle and Flip the Frog, there’s one called, I’m a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch.
Maybe you know how it goes--“Of all the saddest words that I have ever heard, the saddest is the story told me by a bird. He had spent about an hour, a chatting with a flow’r, and here’s the tale the flower told. Oh! I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch, an onion patch, an onion patch. I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch, and all I do is cry all day; Boohoo, boohoo. The air’s so strong, it takes my breath away. I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch. Oh! Won’t you come and play with me?”
The book of Philippians also happens to mention a whole bunch of lonely little petunias in an onion patch. I’ll start reading at chapter 4, verse 10: “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:10-13).
As you may already know, the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of his most important and most beautiful letters of all. In the words of commentator Bruce Wilkinson, “Paul’s epistle to the Philippians is the epistle of joy and encouragement in the midst of adverse circumstances. In it, he freely expresses his fond affection for the Philippians in view of their consistent testimony and support, and lovingly urges them to center their actions and thoughts on the person, pursuit and power of Jesus Christ.” And another commentator wrote, “Where do we find joy in the midst of trying circumstance? Paul knew, as did the Philippians, that true joy comes only through humble faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ.”
And what an amazing book it is, for it’s here that we find words like these…chapter 1: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy” (Philippians 1:3-4). Chapter 2: “Being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). And chapter 3: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
And as he draws this letter that’s so full of joy and thanksgiving to a close, he takes a moment to thank them for all that they had done. He said, “I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18).
Finally he said: “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philippians 4:21-23).
Now whenever we read those words, we tend to not pay very close attention at all, much like when an airline stewardess explains how to fasten your seatbelt and put on your oxygen mask. Kind of like, “I’ve heard it once, and pretty much don’t need to hear it ever again!”
But for a moment, let’s pause and take a closer look at those words in verse 22: “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.”
First or all, who’s Caesar?
Throughout Rome’s thousand years of history, there have been quite a lot of Caesars. Think, for example, of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus and Tiberius Caesar and Claudius Caesar and Titus Caesar. You get the idea.
But the one we’re talking about here is the one named Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Today, we simply call him “Nero.”
And apparently, as historians would be happy to tell us, he was quite a guy! He ordered the construction of amphitheaters, was a proud sponsor of the Olympic games and made frequent public appearances as an actor, poet, musician and charioteer, making him quite the “cause of celebration” among the lower classes and slaves.
But for all the good he did in his 13 ½ years of reign, suffice it to say he was not a very nice guy. For example, his building projects were so extravagant and so expensive, he financially drained entire provinces, taxing his poor people to death.
And speaking of death, he was pretty good at that too! Afraid that his thirteen-year-old step-brother Britannicus might try to claim his throne, he had him poisoned. And his own mother, Agrippina, wasn’t much better off. She was, apparently, so ambitious and so cruel, that he killed her too. He killed one of his closest friends and advisors, a philosopher named Seneca. And he divorced, banished then killed his first wife Octavia and her older sister too.
Then there was the great fire of Rome in July of 64, destroying as much as ninety percent of homes and taking the lives of twelve thousand people. And whose fault was it? Nero’s!
But that’s nothing to say of what he did to Christians, what he called “an illegal sect” and “a danger to society.” Not only did he blame them for burning Rome, he arrested them, persecuted them and tortured them. He sewed them up in animal skins, only to let wild dogs and animals eat them. He crucified them. And he smeared them with wax and tar, then set them on fire to brighten his gardens at night.
Like I said, he was not at all a nice guy!
But strangely, incredibly, even miraculously, right under his two-inch long Roman nose, there were followers of Christ--Christians. As Paul wrote to the Philippians: “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:22).
Which makes us wonder, how was that even possible?! I mean, Christians, in Caesar’s house?! After all, they had everything to gain by being 100% Roman and everything to lose by being Christian.
That’s a good question!
So who were they? Now we can’t say for sure but, first of all, they could well have been members of his own family.
But also, when we say “household,” we could mean even more, as in his household servants--his cooks, his gardeners, his horse groomers, his kennel-keepers, his porters, his doorkeepers, his messengers, his secretaries, his librarians, his shoemakers, his architects, his stonemasons and his carpenters. From the poorest of the poor to the very elite, the upper crust, right there in Caesar’s house, there were men and women who believed in Jesus.
But like I asked a moment ago, how was that even possible? After all, Jesus had died and risen and ascended into heaven barely thirty years before. And all that happened long, long before there were any such things as radio, cars or TV. So how did word about Jesus, and this gospel of grace and forgiveness, make it all the way, in such a short time, to even the capital city of Rome? And how, in just a few short years, did the gospel infiltrate the very house of the most powerful man in the world?
The answer? The apostle Paul. As he wrote in Philippians chapter 1: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that I am in chains because of Christ” (Philippians 1:12-13).
Can you picture him there, sitting in prison, chained to a Roman guard? Then Paul starts talking: “Have you heard about my God? Have you heard about Jesus?”
“Be quiet,” says the guard. “I don’t want to talk about that.”
But Paul doesn’t stay quiet. Instead, he says, “I notice you have armor on. I have armor too--the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God”…and “You, you’re a Roman citizen? I am too! But even better than that, my citizenship is in heaven, and I eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ”…and “You serve Nero Germanicus, but I serve Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords!”
And while most prisoners were as sad and depressed as anyone could be, Paul was filled with the hope and joy of the Spirit.
So it’s not so much that Paul was chained to the soldier. The soldier was chained to Paul! He couldn’t help but hear the good news.
And if you were to fast-forward another one hundred and thirty years, the gospel reached so far that a church father named Tertullian wrote a letter to a Roman citizen saying this: “Though we’ve been around for only a little while, we have filled your empire. Your cities, your islands, your forts, your towns, your marketplaces, your very military camps and wards and companies, and palace and senate and forum--all of these swarm with Christians.” And he said, “We have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods. They are the only places that you can name in your empire where there are not Christians.”
Then fast-forward once more to the year 380, and Christianity will not only be tolerated, it’ll be the official religion of the Roman empire!
And it all started right here in Caesar’s house!
Have you ever heard of the European Water Spider, also known as the Diving Bell Spider? Probably not! Among all the species of spiders, it’s the only one that lives almost all of its life under water.
First, it comes to the surface once a day, where it gathers air in a thin web-like sac. Then with that thin balloon inflated with air attached to its back, it descends beneath the water, attaches it to some stationary object below the water, then lives inside that sac until the air is used up. Then it comes back to the surface the next day and starts all over again.
And that’s just how we Christians ought to be! Though we live in a world that’s often against us and sometimes threatens our very survival, we can carry the message of heaven’s grace and mercy with us. And that way, we can continue to serve and to survive in a world that needs us most.
So what does all this mean to teach us?
I’ll leave you with this--just as there were saints in Caesar’s house, there are saints absolutely everywhere today from Washington State to Washington, Missouri to Washington, D.C.
And when I say “saint,” I don’t mean perfect people. I mean those who love God even in the midst of the worst that life can bring--health problems, difficult children, job stresses and economic hardships, those who give of themselves in spite of aches and pains, irritating neighbors, frustrating co-workers and family squabbles, who try every day to love those with whom they live--sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing miserably, yet getting up and trying again.
Why? Because that’s who we are. We are saints in Caesar’s house, every one a gift of God’s grace.
We thank You, Father, for the many nameless people in the Bible, who played such an important part in Your plan. Choose us and use us so that we too may live lives for Your glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen