Wednesday, July 09, 2008
Ignatius of Antioch
Church Fathers Starting with the Letter I: by Daniel Harrell
As a minister, I talk often with people struggling through ethical dilemmas at work, wrestling with forgiveness in relationships, sorting out lifestyle choices related to money, fighting temptations related to sex or bearing responsibilities tied to needy people. The irony is that none of these problems would be problems if these same people weren’t Christians. “It’s funny,” admitted one person, “I’m often caught with this strange realization of how simply abandoning my faith would take care of most of my stress. My ethical dilemmas would evaporate and I wouldn’t feel the responsibility. I probably wouldn’t feel the guilt either.” “We usually have it backwards,” another admitted, “We usually think that if we love and obey God our troubles will go away. But that’s not how it is at all. I find that the closer I get to God, the harder my life becomes.”
Jesus did say that to follow him required bearing a cross. We speak of the gospel in terms of saving your life, but Jesus calls you to lose your life first. He calls you to be perfect as God is perfect, to love your enemies, to sell your possessions, to return good for evil, to care for the poor, to go last and be least. And for what? You’ll be blessed, he says. When? Well, you may have to wait for that. God has great plans for those who belong to Him. These plans may not be so evident in this life, but definitely after you die, then you’ll be glad you believed. Of course in a culture where gratification can be but a few mouse clicks away, promises of post-mortem happiness are not terribly enticing. Impatient, Christianity often loses sight of its eternal joy in favor of what can get enjoyed in the present. Faith gets boxed and sold as a quick fix, your best life now and all of that. I’m still waiting for that testimony from someone whose life was falling apart when they found Jesus—only to have things get worse. Unfortunately, if this testimony ever did happen, folks would probably deride the person for being a martyr, you know, one of those self-absorbed types who turn up the melodrama on their travails so that others will pay them attention. Or worse, a person who uses their sense of self-sacrifice as way of making them seem a better person than you are. Nobody likes a self-righteous masochist.
It is a shame martyrdom has taken on that characterization. Though it may be that the derision of martyrs is more a defense mechanism to cover our own fears. Would you ever suffer for what you believe? I read this week of a newly converted couple in Iran, shopkeepers who were arrested by police for holding a Bible study. The police locked the couple in jail, severely beat them and interrogated them for four days, charging them with committing activities against national security. After a sham court hearing, they were freed on bail charges of $75,000, only to return home to find that shop ransacked by locals who knew of their beliefs in Jesus. Soon afterwards, the couple received threats of further violence against their business and their family. Believing in Jesus, yet fearing for their life, they recanted their faith. I wasn’t expecting to read that last part. Somehow I felt disappointed. I was expecting to read how this couple refused to denounce Christ and gladly suffered the consequences. I was expecting their faith to be stronger than mine. Far from feeling derision, I needed them to endure as martyrs if only to demonstrate that to live is Christ and to die is gain.
For the first Christians in Rome, as today in Iran, believing in Jesus was a life or death proposition. To be a Christian was to be an outlaw, an outcast, a criminal and a troublemaker. Human life was cheap in the Roman world and perceived troublemakers were dispatched with without a care. Many who stepped forward to accept Jesus stepped backwards once the government turned up the heat. This wasn’t what they had signed up for. But for others, Paul’s promise that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” grounded their faith in a reality that stretched beyond the boundaries of earthly life. Drawing their courage from their Lord who rose from the dead, these martyrs endured suffering without fear. They could confidently sing with the Psalmist: “With the LORD on my side I am not afraid. What can man do to me?”
Among these martyrs was Ignatius of Antioch. Doomed to die for his beliefs in Christ, he asked prayer “that I may not only speak of a willingness to follow Christ wherever, but truly want it; that I may not merely be called a Christian, but actually be one. “For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” …The greatness of Christianity lies in its being hated by the world, not in its being convincing to it.”
Eleven years ago I embarked on an annual sermon series during July concerning the Church Fathers, those personalities who over the early centuries of church history fashioned our faith and codified what we have come to embrace as orthodox Christianity. As there have been numerous noteworthy Church Fathers (and Mothers) it seemed sensible to tackle them a letter at a time. However, since many of the patristic heroes cluster around the letter A—Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas for instance—it took me three years to advance to the letter B. Since then I have covered the Venerable Bede, Benedict of Nursia, Bernard of Clairveaux, John Chrysostom, Catherine of Siena, John Calvin along with the baroque painter, Carravagio. Then followed Dionysisus the Areopagite, Dominic and Dante; Jonathan Edwards, Meister Eckhart, and the 20th century poet, T.S. Eliot. Letter F featured the third century African slave girl Felicitas, Francis of Assisi and Charles Finney, with an all-Gregory-all-the-time series under letter G: Gregory Thaumaturgus, Gregory of Nanzianzus, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory the Great. Last summer you may remember enjoying olives and cheese for communion thanks to Hippolytus, a beautiful tenor rendition from Handel’s Messiah, the polyphony of Hildegard and the poetry of George Herbert.
Patristic scholars in the house rightly note that I have exceedingly stretched the definition of “church father.” Technically, to be a Church Father, you had to live in the first five centuries AD. But seeing as we’re mostly evangelical Protestants here (which means that our grasp of church history generally reaches back only as far as C.S. Lewis), I have tended to dispense with such technicalities. This summer, however, the letter “I” offers a unique chance to explore the lives of two men who lived in relatively close proximity to the events of the New Testament. Ignatius of Antioch was purportedly a disciple of John the gospel writer and appointed bishop of Antioch by Peter himself. His martyrdom occurred around 110 AD, less than eighty years after the crucifixion. Next Sunday I plan to introduce you to Irenaeus, a third century theologian of great import. And then after a break (I have morning duty on July 20), I’ll conclude this year’s installment with either Ignatius of Loyola (the patron saint of spiritual retreats), Innocent III (the patron saint of all things bad about medieval Christianity), or Isidore of Pelusium, a desert father requested by our own Chris Lee (I can’t ignore a church fathers request since I get so few. OK, I don’t get any.). I need your help in deciding which father to cover on the last Sunday of July. If you have a preference, please go to the tally at left and vote. I’ll preach the winner.
Antioch, in modern-day Turkey, was one of the most important churches of the time period immediately following the apostles. It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. Antioch also served as a home base for Paul and Barnabas. Ignatius became leader of the Antioch church during a time of intense debate as Christianity sorted out a theology deeply colored and divided by Jewish and Greek influences. Denouncing division as “the beginning of evil,” Ignatius tackled the issues head on. On the Jewish end were those who advocated adherence to Old Testament Law as an augmentation to grace. They weren’t going as far as to require circumcision as in Galatia, but they did insist on rigorous Sabbath-keeping. In response, Ignatius argued in favor of replacing the Sabbath with the Lord’s Day. He’s a reason why we meet in church on Sunday. On the other end were those who accommodated to Greek influence, asserting that flesh and matter were by nature evil. Therefore, Jesus could not been a flesh and blood human being, he only appeared to be, like a holy hologram. In response, Ignatius vigorously defended the full humanity of Christ alongside his divinity.
Of course anybody so passionate about defending Jesus as Lord was bound to catch the attention of Roman inquisitors. In Rome only Caesar was Lord and to believe otherwise branded you an atheist and traitor deserving of death. The Ignatian corpus, seven letters total, all come to us from his detainment during a military escort from Antioch to Rome where he would be led to the Coliseum and fed to the lions. Interestingly, we don’t know whether Ignatius was ever actually eaten. But we presume so; there exist no reports of the Lord pulling another Daniel. Not that this bothered Ignatius. He took his cue, his conviction and his courage from Paul’s words to the Philippians: “to live is Christ, to die is gain.”
Imprisoned for his own faith and mission work, Paul knew that there was a good chance he would get executed. In anticipation, he wrote in verse 20 “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed.” Many have taken this to mean Paul was concerned that he might choke when the time came to stand up for Jesus at his pending Roman tribunal; that he might recoil from his customary boldness once the heat was on; that he might get scared. But Paul wasn’t scared. A better rendering than “be a-shamed” in verse 20 is “be shamed” as in “be disgraced.” In continuity with the Psalmists, Paul’s confidence in God assures him that God will not shame him even if his adversaries do. Paul knows that the outcome of his ordeal will honor Christ and benefit himself—even if the outcome is death. Since to live is Christ and to die is gain, Paul wins either way. In verses 21-24, Paul oscillates between longing to depart to be with Christ and staying engaged with his “fruitful labor” on earth. His sure hope in Christ creates genuine enthusiasm for eternity now, but his equal passion for Gentiles to have eternal life too makes staying and working advantageous. “What shall I choose?” he rhetorically asks himself, as if the decision were his to make. But happily he knows it’s not. God alone is sovereign over life and death. Therefore, verse 25, “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my return to be you again, your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.” Interestingly, although Paul expects a return to Phillipi in the flesh, the word he uses for return here is the same that in most every other Biblical instance refers to the second coming of Jesus. Paul covers all the bases. Dead or alive, sooner or later, “here there or in the air,” he would see the Philippians again and their mutual joy will be outstanding.
Likewise for Ignatius, though his earthly doom was more impending than Paul’s. Tortured by Roman guards on his march to his execution, Ignatius writes as a man who had already given his life away. His zeal at gaining Christ is a martyr’s zeal—one that for skeptics smacks of melodrama and self-righteous masochism. Yet even skeptics cannot miss his burning sincerity and courage to share in the sufferings of his Lord. His only fear is that his friends will try to keep him from it.
He writes, “It is as a prisoner for Jesus Christ that I hope to greet you, if it is indeed by God’s will that I should deserve to meet my end. Things are off to a good start. May I have the good fortune to meet my fate without interference. What I fear is your generosity which may prove detrimental to me. For you can easily do what you want to, whereas it is hard for me to get to God unless you leave me alone. … If you are quiet concerning me, I shall become a word of God; but if you show your love to my flesh, I become a meaningless cry and will have to run my race again. Grant me no greater favor than to be a sacrifice to God. It is a fine thing for me to set with the sun leaving the world and going to God, that I may rise with him.
“The delights of this world and all its kingdoms will not profit me. For what shall it profit a man, if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul? I seek him who died for us, I desire him who rose for us. I am in the throes of being born again. Bear with me beloved, do not keep me from truly living, do not wish to keep me in a state of death. I desire to belong to God, so do not give me over to the world and do not seduce me with perishable things. Let me see the pure light; when I am there, I shall be truly satisfied at last. Let me imitate the sufferings of my God. If anyone has God within, understand what I want and have sympathy for me, knowing what drives me on.”
To read Ignatius is to recall the regular ease with which I compromise with the world; how readily I neutralize my convictions and too often wilt at the slightest challenge. My faith can be so weak sometimes. In those times I wonder why anyone would follow Jesus, but then I wonder how anyone would not. In the gospel of Ignatius’ mentor John, Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life… The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Still, many could not believe and sadly walked away. Jesus turned to his disciples and asked, “Do you also want to walk away?” To which Peter, the other mentor of Ignatius, replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
“The prince of this world would snatch me away and destroy my desire to be with God,” Ignatius wrote, “so let none of you who will be at my execution give Satan help. Side rather with me, that is, with God. Do not have Jesus Christ on your lips and the world in your hearts. Give envy no place among you. And if, when I get there, I should beg for your intervention, pay no attention to me. Believe instead what I am writing to you now. … My earthly desires have been crucified and there no longer burns in me the love of material things, but a living water that speaks inside me saying, ‘Come to the Father.’ I take no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I want the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was of David’s seed; and for drink I want his blood, the sign of his imperishable love and eternal life.” To want Christ is to have him forever. Since to live is Christ and to die is gain, we win either way.