Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Church Fathers Starting with the Letter L: Leo the Great

Matthew 5:1-12
by Daniel Harrell

If you happen to know anything about the fifth century’s Pope Leo the Great (this morning’s Church Father Starting with the Letter L) then you may know about he single-handedly faced down the notorious barbarian Attila the Hun and saved the city of Rome from destruction (at least until a few years later). Labeled “the scourge of God” by the Romans, Attila and his savage army ransacked the rest of Italy and had their sights set on the eternal city. But Leo roared onto the battlefield and repelled the Huns—reportedly with the help of a few angels though I’m guessing some gold was probably involved too. The renaissance painter Raphael had this take on it. It hangs in the Vatican and was commissioned by Pope Julius II who chose to sit as the model for Leo.

Leo’s bravery in the face of danger was in part what earned him the designation as “great,” only one of three Popes in church history to enjoy such acclamation. Thinking of Leo for this morning, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a similar act of bravery I witnessed during our recent family vacation. We traveled out to Yellowstone and while in Montana (courtesy of Jim and Sue Eaton’s lovely cabin there) my wife Dawn, daughter Violet and I decided to go for a short hike on Dawn’s birthday: A hike because Dawn loves to hike, and short because Violet is three. I dropped by the Visitors Center for trail suggestions, of which there were plenty, including a relatively easy one just off the highway.

Having made our choice, we were curious about the bold-typed warning printed at the bottom of the trail map: THIS IS BEAR COUNTRY. TAKE YOUR SPRAY. Take your spray? They make bear spray? Turns out they do. I asked the Visitor’s Center staff whether this was truly necessary for such a short hike so near to the highway, and they recounted how just last week a teenager was mauled by a local grizzly, albeit in the backcountry of Yellowstone. Nevertheless, they said, best to carry spray in case. And by the way, they had some on sale. Only fifty bucks a can.  it turned out, they sold Bear Spray. It cost fifty bucks a can. (Luckily, I hadn’t bought Dawn a birthday present yet. And it did come with a cool holster to carry it in.) So off we went, locked and loaded, and we made it just up to the first ridge line when hark, we heard an unfamiliar snarl. Just down in the vale we spied our own barbearian. Obviously our first impulse was to take a picture. But once the barbaric beast sensed our presence and turned toward us, action was required. Being a mama bear in her own right, my brave wife stepped up with her spray and the threat was no more. I now refer to my wife as Dawn the Great.

Fourteen years ago in Boston I began an annual sermon series during the summer on the Church Fathers, those personalities from church history who fashioned our faith and codified what we have come to embrace as orthodox Christianity. It’s managed to garner a bit of acclaim. Go to the popular religious website patheos.com, and you’ll find my weekly column “Church Father ABCs.” The ABC part is because I chose to tackle these noteworthy fathers (and mothers) a letter at a time. Of course if you know your ABCs, you’re probably wondering why 14 years only has me at the letter L. The problem was that with so many patristic heroes clustered around letter A—Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas for instance—it took me a while to get out of there. My rationale for taking an annual peek at these people comes from my own conviction that our faith derives in no small part from the faithful personalities who’ve lived it and wrestled with it through crucial moments in church 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 the Bible alone as our sola source of authority, but interpreting and obeying the Bible necessarily stands on the interpretive and obedient shoulders of past believers.

Last year was my first foray into the Fathers here at Colonial—of great interest to some, a good reason to go to the cabin for others. Having come to Letter K, we looked at the mystic Thomas a’ Kempis and existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Now patristic scholars in the house rightly note that to include a Kempis and Kierkegaard exceedingly stretches the definition of “church father.” Technically, to be a Church Father, you had to live in the first five centuries AD. But we’re American Protestants, we get to make our own rules. I do begin this year’s installment with a bona fide Father, but something of an abomination to most Protestants inasmuch as Leo the Great set the stage for centuries of abusive power exerted by medieval pontiffs. Granted, this abuse did pave the way for the Great Protestant Church Father if there ever was one: Martin Luther himself, the patron saint of all things Minnesotan. We’ll wrap up this year’s series with the patron saint of everything Narnian, CS Lewis.

As for Leo the Great, facing down Attila the Hun earned him some serious street cred. Born of aristocratic Tuscan stock, Leo ascended to the papacy in 440 AD. Now a hero and savior to the empire as well as the church, he easily expanded his pontifical influence. His greatest theological contribution was what we know as The Tome of Leo. It’s significance was its role in helping the hotly contested theological debate of that day; namely, the dual natures of Jesus Christ.

How was it possible for a human being to be fully God? On the one hand, Jesus was clearly a flesh and blood person, just like you and me. A historical figure, he was born and walked and talked and ate and did most everything else we humans do. On the other hand, Jesus was God incarnate, and thus he did things no human ever did—talked to demons, walked on water, fed multitudes, changed the weather and raised the dead. If a man is God, is he really a man? God’s not a man. And God doesn’t sin. But what man doesn’t sin? God doesn’t die. But Jesus died. How can Jesus be God?
Early Christians offered all sorts of options for making this work, from Jesus having a split personality to his being a human body with a divine soul and even one where Jesus’ presence on earth was more like a mirage. Predictably, the debate mostly involved the various sides labeling the other heretics. The Emperor convened a congressional committee to attempt a solution—you know, with representatives from the humanity side and representatives from the divinity side—to see if they couldn’t cobble together a compromise. But the committee only perpetuated the divide. It took the Emperor falling off his horse and dying—some would say providentially—before a new committee could be formed, one which history remembers as The Council of Chalcedon. Leo asserted his judgment at this Council through his Tome which stressed the importance of Jesus’ uniqueness as the one and only person ever with two natures. It may sound strange, but no stranger than the Doctrine of Trinity that understands God as three persons with one nature. Chalcedon affirmed Leo’s Tome, and Christians have tried to believe ever since; that “our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same Son, complete in Godhead and humanity, truly God and truly man… without confusion, without change, without separation or division.”

Leo wrote, “Lowliness is assured by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity. To pay the debt of our sinful state, a nature that is incapable of suffering was joined to one that could suffer. Thus, in keeping with the healing we needed, one and the same mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ, was able to die in one nature, and unable to die in the other. He who was true God was therefore born in the complete and perfect nature of a true human being, whole in his own nature, whole in ours. By our nature we mean what the Creator had fashioned in us from the beginning, and took to himself in order to restore it. For in the savior there was no trace of what the deceiver introduced, and we, being misled, allowed to enter. Jesus took our nature without the stain of sin, enlarging our humanity without diminishing his divinity…. One and the same person—this must be said over and over again—is truly the son of God and truly the son of man. He is God in virtue of the fact that ‘in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.’ He is human in virtue of the fact that the ‘the word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’”

Leo’s triumph at Chalcedon further entrenched his papal authority—an authority he claimed descended from St Peter himself. At the conclusion of the Council of Chalcedon, the bishops attending agreed. They cried out in unison: “This is the faith of the fathers … Peter has spoken thus through Leo ...” Leo’s consolidation of authority led to the migration of Christianity’s center from Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) to Italy, away from its heavy Greek influence to the influence of Latin logic. As the Roman Empire waned, a power vacuum opened up for this mighty migration to fill, such that the Christian church assumed an imperial power itself that endured for the next thousand years—an era ironically known as the Dark Ages.

Nevertheless, the later abuses of ecclesial power were not Leo’s fault. He used his great personal influence for much good. He died in 461, leaving 96 sermons and numerous letters revealing his passion for Jesus and the gospel. His 95th sermon is based on this morning’s text from the Sermon on the Mount-twelve verses we call The Beatitudes. Jesus as the word made flesh came to earth after centuries of heavenly silence—there had been no word from the Lord in 400 years. Predictably, much of the preaching in the interim ended up emphasizing human wisdom rather than God’s action. When the Word finally returned in Christ, Leo wrote that “there were no thick clouds surrounding Him as of old, nor were the people frightened off from approaching the mountain by frightful sounds and lightning, but quietly and freely His discourse reached the ears of those who stood by: that the harshness of the law might give way before the gentleness of grace, and the spirit of adoption might dispel the terrors of bondage.”

However, having grown accustomed to relying on human wisdom, Jesus’ beatitudes generally have gotten interpreted as more of the same. The pure in heart get to see God? OK, be pure. The meek inherit the earth? Be humble then. Easy enough—to say that is, but not so easy to do—even when we want to do it. By contrast, Colonial’s own Robert Guelich, in his Sermon on the Mount commentary, argued that the Beatitudes should not be viewed as wisdom teachings stressing human responsibility, but rather prophetic teaching stressing divine deliverance. You’re not blessed because you mourn. You’re blessed because God comforts you. You’re not blessed because you’re hungry for righteousness and justice. You’re blessed because God fills you up. You’re not blessed because you’re persecuted. You’re blessed because God bestows his riches on persecuted people.

Leo preached that “The blessedness of seeing God is justly promised to the pure in heart. For the eye that is unclean would not be able to see the brightness of the true light, and what would be happiness to clear minds would be a torment to those that are defiled. Therefore, let the mists of worldly vanities be dispelled [by the Lord], and the inner eye be cleansed of all filth of wickedness, so that the soul’s gaze may feast serenely upon the great vision of God.” Leo employs the passive voice here to emphasize how the purity of heart is God’s doing. It is God who enables us to see Him.

And yet that God does this does not render us passive. On the contrary, God’s grace empowers us to live Christ-shaped lives. God’s Spirit in us shapes us and leads us to follow Jesus; to be devoted to the kingdom of God and to his righteousness.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled,” Jesus said. Leo preached, “This hunger is not for any bodily food, this thirst is not for any earthly drink: it is a longing to be blessed with righteousness, and, by penetrating the secret of all mysteries, to be filled with the Lord himself. Happy is the soul that longs for the food of righteousness and thirsts for this kind of drink; it would not seek such things if it had not already savored their delight. When the soul hears the voice of the Spirit saying it to the prophet: ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good,’ it has already received a portion of God’s goodness, and is on fire with love, the love that gives joy of the utmost purity. It counts as nothing all that belongs to time, it is entirely consumed with desire to eat and drink the food of righteousness. The soul lays hold of the true meaning of the first and great commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole mind and your whole strength,’ for to love God is nothing else than to love righteousness.”

Righteousness is a word that gets twisted up a bit in our individualistic culture. The tendency is to confuse righteousness with something I possess for myselfsomething that the Scriptures actually condemn as self-righteousness. Godly righteousness, as Leo intimates, is God’s possession. To be filled with righteousness is to belong to God—and not so much individually as collectively—as the people of God, the body of Christ, the holy catholic (little c) church. Righteousness is not a state of being, but a way of living modeled after Jesus. To do right by each other, to give and love and serve, is to demonstrate our own citizenship in God’s kingdom, and that indeed his Spirit does dwell in our midst.

Therefore, Leo preached, “Let believers examine their own state of mind and carefully scrutinize the sentiments of their heart. If they find some fruit of charity in their conscious self, let them have no doubt that God is in them. And that they may become more and more able to welcome so great a guest, let them persevere and grow in mercy which expresses itself in acts of love. If God is love, charity ought not to know any limits, for nothing that is limited can contain the fullness of the Spirit, who is God Himself.”

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