Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Ignatius of Antioch, Lion-Ground Wheat

Feast of Ignatius of Antioch - October 17, 2017
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

So committed was Ignatius of Antioch to the Way of Jesus that, as he travelled to Rome under soldiers' guard, he wrote a letter to the Christians in Rome urging them not to interfere with his upcoming martyrdom by wild beasts. Even if he was to be ripped apart by lions, he saw his own execution as an opportunity to demonstrate to other Christians an example of the fulfillment of their proclamation that to follow Christ is to suffer for Christ's sake.

Sometimes we exaggerate when we tell the stories of saints, but this part seems to be real. While travelling to Rome from Syria, Ignatius wrote letters to various Christian communities across the Empire, of which we have seven. In addition to embracing his own death, Ignatius wrote about the importance of the historical Jesus, rejecting the pre-Docetist claims that Jesus was divine only and not truly human. He implore the early Christians to remain united to one another in Eucharistic fellowship, which he described as "the medicine of immortality." Stressing the need for unity, he even coined the phrase "catholic church." It was this understanding of salvation through unity with Christ and with Christ's Body--both in its Eucharistic presence and its incarnation as the church--that gave Ignatius confidence as he approached his death in Rome. For him, salvation meant facing even a grisly death without fear because of the confidence imputed to those who truly belonged to Christ as members of his body. This kind of devotion led to non-historical traditions like Ignatius being one of the children whom Jesus welcomed even though the disciples would have forbidden it. Can't you imagine how someone so transformed by the Body of Christ might have actually been embraced by it as a little child?

What does it mean to have faith like that? What does it mean for salvation to be not only a ticket to heaven but a confidence in the face of great persecution? On the Feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch, we pray, "Almighty God, we praise your Name for your bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch, who offered himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that he might present to you the pure bread of sacrifice. Accept, we pray, the willing tribute of our lives and give us a share in the pure and spotless offering of your Son Jesus Christ." Ignatius must have been certifiably crazy to anticipate his martyrdom in the jaws of lions with joy. Countless Christians, who likewise were brutally killed for their faith, must have been absolutely insane to endure such suffering for the sake of Christ. Even today, followers of Jesus who are murdered in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Indonesia must be crazy to think that following Jesus means embracing a death like his. But they do it. And Christians always have. And why? Because the saving work of Jesus Christ has given them the incomprehensible conviction that to die in faith is to live for Christ.

Paul writes, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." We often read those words at a funeral, when we bring our own grief to God and ask for comfort that dries our tears and warms our hearts. Paul wrote them as one who knew first-hand what it meant for followers of Jesus to be executed for their faith. He knew what it meant to use the power of death to attempt to rip someone off the Way of Jesus and cast them into the despair of hell. But once he discovered the power of God's love in Jesus Christ, he recognized that nothing--not death, not life, not spiritual powers, not physical powers, not past or present or future could ever come between God's love and God's people.

Are we called to suffer like that? I don't know. It feels inadequate to compare our suffering with that of the martyrs. Our suffering may not be of the same order of magnitude, but our faith is exactly the same as theirs. Whether we are to be ground like grains of wheat in the teeth of lions or beheaded by masked Islamist terrorists or die peacefully surrounded by our family, we approach death with the same insane confidence that Ignatius possessed. Whether our house burns to the ground or our child dies in an automobile accident or our charmed life preserves us from any measurable suffering beyond a hangnail or a splinter, we still know that there is nothing that can take God's love away from us.

There is power in Jesus suffering and death, and the power it brings us is not limited to what we will discover on the other side of life. It is a power that fills us even now. When we declare that, through Christ, God has triumphed over death itself, we are not merely stating that there is life beyond the grave. We mean that the confidence that promises to carry us into God's arms dwells within us now. No matter what lies ahead of us, God is with us. No matter who is against us, God is for us. We cannot see that unless we have the faith that allows us to embrace even a terrible death. Or, put another way, only the faith we have enables us to embrace whatever suffering and death lies ahead of us. May we know the saving power of God as a power that brings us hope not only beyond this life but right in the midst of it.

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