Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Church Fathers Starting with the Letter J

Justin Martyr

I spent the Fourth of July week at the Cornerstone festival in rural Illinois. Cornerstone is a huge music extravaganza that features some 500 bands, mostly of the thrasher metal variety with explicitly Christian undertones despite names like The Dark Romantics, Manic Drive, Gasoline Heart and The Classic Crime. Though I’d never heard of any of the bands, I did like mewithoutyou, All The Day Holiday and Becoming the Archetype—though I couldn’t understand everything they screamed or sang or even said. The Cornerstone Festival started 26 years ago and is still run by its founders, the Jesus People USA,a delightful group of 70’s holdover hippie types (with plenty of new folks) who apparently didn’t want the attendees at Woodstock to have all the fun. Also not wanting their festival to only about music, the Jesus People invite Jesus speakers each year to discuss a variety of topics, which is how I got on the docket. One of them had read my book of evolution inspiring faith and thought that would make for some lively discussion (which it did). However, in the course of issuing my invitation, the Jesus People also noticed from our website that I like to talk about the Church Fathers, so they wondered whether I would lead a seminar series on that topic too. The Church Fathers at Cornerstone. As you can see, the Church Fathers rock.

Twelve years ago I embarked on an annual sermon series during July concerning those personalities from the early centuries of church history who 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—I’m only this year getting to Letter J. For those keeping track, I have looked at the Venerable Bede, Benedict of Nursia, Bernard of Clairveaux, John Chrysostom, Catherine of Siena, John Calvin and 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. Letter H brought Hippolytus, Handel, Hildegard and the poetry of George Herbert; while last year’s I-List included Irenaeus, Ignatius of Antioch and Ignatius of Loyola.

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 hey, we’re mostly evangelical Protestants here, our church history doesn’t go back a whole lot further than Joni whom we welcomed last Sunday (whose name does start with the letter J). Since I have only one Sunday left between now and my August vacation, I have a bit of a dilemma I’d like your help with again this year. I need to decide for next Sunday whether to introduce you to Jerome, considered one of the eight great “doctors” of the early church. Or Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century English mystic. To help me decide, I invite you up to the church blog to vote. I’m also open to write-in candidates, having already been chastised for not including the 16th century St. John of the Cross, famous for his Dark Night of the Soul, a perfect way to celebrate summer. You have until Wednesday and I’ll preach the winner.

My rationale for taking an annual look at church history in the first place comes from my own conviction that our own faith derives in no small part from the faithful personalities who’ve lived it and wrestled with it through crucial moments in world history. While we Protestants may not venerate these important people as saints, we cannot separate their contributions from our own doctrines and practice. We may hold to sola Scriptura (the Bible alone as source of authority), but interpreting and obeying the Bible necessarily stands on the interpretive and obedient shoulders of past believers and thinkers. Tradition is the memory of the church. And as Augustine argued, we are who we are only through our memories.

Did you know that church tradition is actually older than the Bible you hold in your hand? The writings of the first fathers, such as Justin Martyr (tonight’s J-Father), precede the coalescing of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments into a single authorized canon. This is not to say that Justin Martyr predates the Biblical authors, but his writing did contribute to the church’s affirming the books it did, while rejecting those books deemed heretical. We have the Bible we have in part due to the inspired discernment of the early church fathers.

Justin Martyr is so named for obvious reasons―he was executed for believing in Jesus. Among the earliest of the fathers from whom we have documentation, Justin was about as far from Jesus in history as we are from Abraham Lincoln. Born in Palestine to very pagan parents, his growing up in Palestine did make for a greater appreciation for Christianity’s Jewish background. An inquisitive lad, Justin sought meaning in life the way so many did in his day—through the discipline of Greek philosophy. Due to a variety of disappointments in his search, he was particularly open to an old man he met one day who wanted to know what Justin thought about God. Following some spirited back and forth, the old man began to explain to Justin his own faith in God as revealed in Jesus, a faith that had been foretold by the ancient Hebrew prophets. Justin wrote how “a fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and lives and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable. And I wish that everyone felt the same way that I do.” Justin, like every philosopher in his day, took this newfound knowledge to the streets to share it. His adventure resulted in a text we possess called his Dialogue with Trypho.

Justin later moved to Rome and founded a Christian school―no small feat given that Christianity was a capital crime in Rome. Refusing to shy away from his faith, he wrote two bold apologies for it and sent them to Emperor himself. Far from saying you’re sorry, an apology is a fervent and rational defense of belief designed to address the hard questions and issues that Christian faith presents. As the apostle Peter famously wrote, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Apologetics were big in the ancient world, as they have been at various points throughout Christian history. I remember attending rigorous debates in college between atheists and Christians with each side putting forward logical appeals as to why their particular worldview trumped the other. The point was to get to the actual truth, an unassailable right answer as to the existence of God or the validity of the gospel (though that rarely actually happened). In our own postmodern and pluralistic days, the very concept of actual truth is itself up for debate, though those debates rarely accomplish much either. The reason, I think, is as Augustine and Anselm asserted: We do not understand in order to believe in God. On the contrary, we must believe in order to understand. As Jeffery Pugh, Professor of Religious Studies at Elon College explains, the fact that we cannot think of God except as the very thought that lies at the outer limit of our understanding, means that reason detached from faith cannot achieve understanding [about God].”

This was Paul’s experience in his own apologetic before King Herod Agrippa and Festus the Procurator in Acts 26. Though Paul’s faith was substantially boosted by his direct encounter with the risen Jesus, his testimony of this encounter only succeeded in convincing Festus that Paul was crazy. Agrippa wasn’t persuaded either. In the end, Paul knew that only by faith could Agrippa understand, and only by prayer could Agrippa have faith. You can’t argue anyone into the kingdom of God. And yet, words still matter. But more than words. In verse 20 Paul said to Agrippa, I preached that people should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” Rather than arguments won on the basis of their coherence and rationality, a genuine Christian apology of the gospel requires evidence of lives changed by it. Peter agreed. Be prepared to give reason for the hope you have, but do so “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

Justin’s first apology to Emperor Antonius Pius insisted that the Christians Rome executed for refusing to worship the Emperor were the type of model citizens whose good behavior Rome should welcome. Abiding by the ethics of Jesus, Christians were honest in business, generous to the needy, responsible taxpayers and peacemakers. “For if those who learn the truth do not do what is right,” Justin wrote, “they have no defense before God. So we ask that the actions of those who are denounced to you be investigated in order that whoever is convicted may be punished as a criminal, but not as a Christian, and that whoever is shown to be innocent may be freed, committing no crime by being a Christian. Those who are found not living as Jesus taught should know that they are not really Christians, even if his teaching is on their lips, for he said that not those who merely profess but those who also do the works will be saved. … So we ask that you should punish those who do not live in accordance with Christ’s teachings, but merely say that they are Christians. We have been taught that only those who live close to God in holiness and virtue attain to immortality, and we believe that those who live unjustly and do not reform will be punished in eternal fire.”

However, in obedience to Jesus’ command to love our enemies, Justin also added, “We shall not ask you to punish our accusers, for they suffer enough for their own wickedness and their ignorance of the good.”

For Justin it was not enough to believe that Jesus died for your sins. Your life had to look like Jesus died for your sins. Such a life exhibits both a personal morality―freed from greed, lust, envy, hatred and the like―as well as the expression of virtues such as gratitude, hope, joy, justice and love. And in those moments when these virtues fail, sorrow and remorse taps into the power of grace to do better. Most profoundly, the Christian virtues of gratitude, goodness, hope, joy, justice and love display themselves amidst hardship and trial, as we witnessed last Sunday in Joni’s own story.

Justin wrote, “Christians learned true worship of God from the law and word that went out from Jerusalem through the apostles of Jesus and have fled for refuge to the God of Jacob and of Israel. Although we were full of war, of killing one another and of every evil, each one of us over all the earth has refashioned his instruments of warfare—swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks. We cultivate goodness, righteousness, kindness, faith and hope, which come from the Father himself through the Crucified One. It is evident that there is no one who can terrify or enslave those of us who have believed in Jesus. Although beheaded, crucified, thrown to wild beasts, placed in chains, fire and all other tortures, it is plain that we do not abandon our confession.”

The gospel rightly believed is the gospel rightly lived. Gratitude, hope, joy and love and the rest are not lofty theological ideals but earthy, ethical practicalities. Justin wrote, “Anyone who does not believe that God cares about [goodness and joy and justice] either manages to profess that he does not believe God exists, or makes out that God exists but approves of evil or remains unaffected like a stone and that virtue and vice are not realities, but that men consider things good or bad by opinion alone—this is the height of impiety and injustice. For we are firmly convinced that we can suffer no evil unless we are proved to be evildoers or shown to be criminals. You can kill us, but you cannot do us any real harm.”

Justin’s apology, like Paul’s before Festus and Agrippa, failed to turn the Emperor’s heart. Along with six other friends, he was beheaded for refusing to renounce his allegiance to Jesus. “You hear that we [Christians] look for a kingdom,” Justin wrote, “and you rashly suppose that we mean something merely human. But we speak of a kingdom with God, as is clear from our confessing Christ when you bring us to trial, though we know that death is the penalty for this confession. For if we looked for a human kingdom, we would deny it in order to save our lives, and would remain in hiding in order to obtain the things we hope for. But since we do not place our hopes on the present order we are not troubled with being put to death, since we all have to die sometime.” We call Justin, Justin Martyr, due to his death, but remember that martyr is merely the Greek word for witness. Martyr describes any genuine follower of Jesus who genuinely follows Jesus. The martyrs’ reward in heaven is not for their fatality, but due to their obedience to Christ. Martyrs don’t go around looking for ways to die. They just faithfully follow Jesus wherever he leads. The rest is out of their hands.

This goes for the persecution we sometimes suffer, but it goes for evangelism too. In college I remember talking and talking to a my pagan fraternity brothers about my Christian faith, but in the end none of it ever seemed to make much of a difference. However on the day before I graduated, I remember one of the wildest guys in the house, Jeff Shank, stepping into my room to thank me for trying. Not my trying to persuade him, mind you, but my trying to live by what I believed. He watched (as well as made sport). But somehow, my willingness to take it made an impact. In the end, to witness to Jesus is to speak truth and live truth as grace gives us the power to do it. The rest is out of our hands and in God’s hands, which is where it needs to be anyway.

Though Justin died, he was part of a collective witness that eventually succeeded. “Although beheaded, crucified, thrown to wild beasts, placed in chains, fire and all other tortures, it is plain that we do not abandon our confession,” he wrote. “As much as these things happen, by so much more do many others become believers and worshipers of God through the name of Jesus. It is like pruning the fruit-bearing branches of the vine in order to make other branches sprout, which become flourishing and fruitful. The same thing happens with us. For the vine, planted by God and Christ the Savior, is his people.”In time the Roman Empire would fall but Christianity would remain and grow.

Justin’s first apology remains best known for the picture it paints of early Christian worship. “On the day called Sunday there is a gathering together in the same place of all who live in a given city or rural district. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then when the reader ceases, the leader in a discourse admonishes and urges the imitation of these good things. Next we all rise together and send up prayers. When we cease from our prayer, bread is presented and wine and water. The leader in the same manner sends up prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people sing out their assent, saying the ‘Amen.’ Those who have means and are willing, each according to his own choice, gives what he wills, and what is collected is deposited with the leader. He provides for the orphans and widows, those who are in need on account of sickness or some other cause, those who are in bonds, strangers who are sojourning, and in a word he becomes the protector of all who are in need.”

Almighty and everlasting God, who found your martyr Justin Wandering from teacher to teacher, seeking the true God, and revealed to him the sublime wisdom of your eternal Word: Grant that all who seek you, or a deeper knowledge of you, may find and be found by you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

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