In the 4th Century in what now is Turkey, a man named Phocas lived in a little town called Sinope. There were walls around the city gate and Phocas had a little house with a garden just outside the gate.
Phocas tended his garden and made a living selling its fruits. At that time period, the government sat at the gates and controlled any entrances and exits to the city. If you were a merchant going in and out you had to pay a tariff to sell your wares.
So Phocas sat outside the gate and the people going by passed right by his house. He would greet them and offer to let them sit in the cool of his garden and enjoy a rest. He had fruit to eat and refreshments and was known for his hospitality to strangers.
Phocas used the opportunity to speak to them about his faith and became known as ‘The Christian at the Gate.’ He did this until he was an old man and was widely respected and jeered alike.
One day things changed. Diocletian, the Roman emperor, instituted a purging of Christians from the empire and declared all Christians were to be killed. He sent a band of Roman soldiers to Sinope with secret orders to capture and publicly execute Phocas.
When this band of soldiers came, riding across into the city, they arrived at Phocas’ gate weary and tired and he was there to greet them. Phocas didn’t know why they’d come, he just greeted them as though they were long-lost friends, bringing them into his garden and offering them refreshments.
Because the men strangers in town, Phocas offered them lodging and put them up in his home for the night. During the evening meal, as they all were talking, Phocas asked them, “What is your business here?” The soldiers responded, “Our business is really a secret but we can trust you seeing as you’re a man of honor and hospitality.”
The soldiers then revealed, “We’ve been sent by the emperor to search out a dangerous person. His name is Phocas. He’s a follower of that dangerous Jesus that the Christians are all talking about. He’s a danger to the empire and he must be executed. If you know him, could you please help us find him?”
Phocas immediately responded, “I do know him very well. And he’s very near. In the morning I’ll help you with your business.”
The men went to bed as Phocas contemplated what to do. He could escape; he had 10-12 hours to get away before they awoke the next morning and could be 20-30 miles out of danger. But if he did, these Roman soldiers, sent on orders of the emperor, would return with their mission unfulfilled and likely lose their lives for not executing their task.
Phocas was in a quandary, and the way the story’s been famously passed down, it only took him a few minutes to decide what to do. He took a shovel, went to the middle of his garden and began to dig. All night long he dug.
The next morning, Phocas had his grave built and was standing in it, leaning on his shovel, when the captain of the guard sought him and asked, “What’s going on?” Phocas then told him who he was.
The men were astonished. They were reluctant to execute him, considering how he had obviously acquitted himself, but Phocas wouldn’t have it. He said, “If you let me live, the chances are great that you won’t live. I have no bitterness against you. My heart is filled with the hope of heaven.”
Eventually the soldiers executed him, assured by Phocas’ declaration that, “I’m not mad; I’m not bitter. This is the way life is. And if you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, this is what you do. My Savior didn’t flee from Gethsemane; He didn’t flee from the Cross and I won’t flee from bearing this.”
They buried him in his grave and put a monument on top of it outside little Sinope. This story of Phocas the Gardener was passed down for 10 centuries. The monument stood there until the 15th century when the Ottomans overthrew the Byzantine Empire in 1543 and destroyed the monument.
For almost a thousand years the monument stood as a testament to the man whose body was in the grave but whose soul was with his Savior.
The moral is the hope of heaven removes fear. It makes life REAL life and we today can dare to live a little more like Phocas and a little less like the way we’re prone to.