The Roman Empire didn’t like Christianity. From the first century, starting with Nero, it persecuted the church.
The Church was thought of as a politically seditious group. Just like its leader, the church made Rome uncomfortable.
The church was a radically alternative community. It shared its goods and wealth. It lived in peace and refused to go to war. It cared for the sick both inside and outside the church.
It followed and modelled what its leader had taught and had the audacity to claim Jesus was Lord and not Caesar, a statement that was political treason.
The church didn’t worship the Caesars or the gods of Rome. And it had a strange communal meal in which, it was thought, Christians ate human flesh and blood. Rome actually accused the Church of ‘odium humani generis’, that is hatred of the human race; a deeply ironic charge given the Romans’ cruel military campaigns and horrific civilian entertainment.
In 257, the Roman emperor Valerian began a new persecution of the church. He issued an edict banning all Christian meetings and declaring that the clergy, bishops, priests and deacons would be arrested and executed.
Valerian’s great interest was to accumulate wealth and he decided to confiscate all Church property.
As the persecution continued the bishop of Rome, Sixtus II, and most of his clergy were beheaded.
Lawrence was the bishop’s senior deacon, one of seven deacons in the Roman church, who administered the church budget and had the particular responsibility to care for the poor in a similar way to the seven deacons in Acts 6.
Lawrence knew that Valerian would come after church’s property and possessions so he decided to give away all he could and had it distributed to the city's poor.
Emperor Valerian, knowing that Lawrence was the principal financial officer, promised that he’d set Lawrence free if he would surrender the wealth of the church to him.
Lawrence agreed, but said that it would take him three days to gather it all together.
Valerian was delighted.
For three days, Lawrence went throughout Rome and invited the poor, the sick, the old, the widows and orphans, all of whom were supported by the church, to gather together.
When Valerian arrived, Lawrence presented him with this motley crowd of people saying: "Here are the treasures of the Church."
Seeing the shock and anger on Valerian’s face, Lawrence continued: "Yes, Emperor, the Church is rich, indeed. Far richer than the Empire."
Emperor Valerian was outraged and ordered Deacon Lawrence to be roasted alive on a gridiron.
The witnesses who recorded his public martyrdom said Lawrence bore the torture with great calmness, and even joked with his executioners saying, "You may turn me over. I am done on this side."
If Lawrence was right, that it is the poor who are the treasure of the church, what might that mean for us?
By the end this day, another 20,000 people will have died simply because they were too poor to live.
Half the world struggle to live on $2 a day or less.
One billion children live in poverty.
Annual global military spending exceeds $1 trillion, 100 times what it would cost to put every child in the world through primary school.
Remember how quickly the governments of the world made the decision to bailout the banks? It was been estimated that the amount of finance used would end global poverty for 50 years.
Now remember the Jubilee 2000 Drop the Debt Campaign and how long it took to convince governments to write off just some of the unjust debts owned by poor countries.
Rome was a cruel world power in Lawrence’s time. How cruel are today’s world powers?
Lawrence pointed to the destitute, the beggar, the outcast, and said they were the treasure of the church, and in doing so he suggests there’s an alternative way to look at the world; one very different to that of the prevailing culture around us.
Jesus Christ asked us to see him in the face of the poor. He also asked us to spend ourselves on the poor too, just like Lawrence did.
And, he asks us to follow him – Jesus, the one ‘…that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.’ 2 Corinthians 8:9