“Magog? Where’s that? Never heard of it,” said the snaggletoothed Phoenician sailor, dismissively. But Barry, a man on a mission, would not be so rudely dismissed.
“North, then,” Barry tried again. “I want to go north.”
So Bar-Tholomew, a mountaineer farmer who had never been on the ocean, began the first of a number of hitchhiking sea adventures, setting out on a wind-blown merchant vessel from Caesarea, Judea, a rugged, forsaken eastern corner of the Roman Empire.
Barry, as we’ll call him, retched from seasickness, tried but often couldn’t ignore hunger with only hardtack crackers and stale, putrid water on ship, and suffered confusion and even fear while sailing to strange lands and dealing with even stranger natives.
Fellow Apostle Peter Bar-John had told the inner circle back in Jerusalem that the time had come to move on the Lord’s command and travel to the ends of the earth.
Initially, Barry thought of comfortable Greece or Rome. His blood ran cold when he got the assignment of Magog, the northernmost land known to man, a land cursed by God as described by the ancient prophet Ezekiel.
It was like us being told to go and evangelize headhunters in New Guinea.
With fellow Apostle Judas Thaddeus, the travelers made ports in Ephesus and Troy, then hopped another boat through the straits and spent seven confusing and lonely days on the shores of the Black Sea, where not even famed traveler Paul of Tarsus would reach.
Then the Christian missionaries learned of a caravan headed east. And they finally found their way to Magog, today known as Armenia.
Stopping in the capital, Albanopolis, the travelers learned there was no synagogue and no friendly community of fellow Jews. What kind of pagan hellhole is this? Barry thought irreverently to himself.
So the missionaries began making inquiries about the palace and the king of the land. After some days of prayer they presented themselves as ambassadors, which is one definition of an apostle.
“And what king do you represent?” said King Polymius from his throne.
“The king of heaven and earth,” Barry defiantly replied. “God became a man and dwelt in our land, preaching repentance of sins and teaching how to live in goodness and peace.”
Barry found neither interest nor rejection in the bearded king’s stony face. So Barry and Jerry, as we’ll call him, took turns recounting the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Again they were met with blank stares and silence.
“I will send for you,” interrupted Polymius as he motioned sword-carrying guards forward as escorts for the kneeling foreigners.
With no Jews to provide hospitality, nights for the two Galileans were spent in groves outside the capital, while days were spent mingling with passing traders and farmers from the countryside.
“Wheat?” asked a farmer who knew some Greek. Bar-Tholomew means son of the burrows. Barry had found a kindred spirit, and talk of soil and tilling and seed led the Galileans to a house with neighborhood farmers. Finally talk turned to the crucified Christ who is the bread of life.
In the third week a military escort marched through the streets, came upon the Galileans and marched them to another palace and to a new court.
“Spies!” spat Prince Astyages. Barry and Judas suddenly yearned for the preferable, cool Polymius. “You would bring down the emperor’s wrath on our heads!”
Farmers brought others who in turn brought still others to the Galileans in jail while Polymius and his hot-headed son debated days on end on what to do. Word spread rapidly through the city about the curious, detained men from the God who offers the bread of life and living water that satisfies forever.
In the fullness of time the soldiers came. Polymius was away, leaving the apostles to the wrath of the prince. There was no trial. Astyages did not care to put in an appearance.
The soldiers were left to their own cruel devices. They decided on some target practice with Jerry. “A denarius says you can’t hit an eye,” one soldier challenged. “You can’t split the knee socket,” another taunted. Cruel bets were placed as life slowly bled from the apostle.
After talk turned to the tanning of leather, the soldiers turned on Barry. They stripped his skin in long slices. To counter the agony, Barry yelled at the top of his voice, “Jesus! Jesus!”
Following the executions, Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity, not caring to wait for Roman emperor Constantine’s edict. The story of the two foreigners who cruelly died with the Lord’s name on their lips reverberated and grew generation upon generation.
As has the Easter story been passed down to us this week.
For the new birth of Easter first required blood and death. A wise man once said, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Many in various places and in various ways up to the present day paid such a cruel price. But because they suffered and died so many more will live.
And that is the hope and the joy of Easter.
Stephen Harris sends this fictional short story as an Eastertime gift to you and yours from State Road.