We gather, as the church in Synod, on the Feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch, an heroic figure in the life of the early Church. He was only the second bishop of Antioch in Syria and had a long episcopate there. But early in the 2nd century, during the reign of the Emperor Trajan, he was arrested by imperial authorities, condemned to death, and transported to Rome to die in the arena.
This was a familiar strategy for the Empire. By being tough on the leaders, the government hoped to terrify the rank and file. Instead, Ignatius took the opportunity to encourage his flock, speaking to groups of Christians in every town at which they stopped along the way on his final journey!
When the prison escort reached the west coast of Asia Minor, it stopped before boarding ship, and delegations from several Asian churches were able to visit Ignatius, to speak with him at length, to assist him with items for his journey, and commend him to the grace of God. In response, he wrote seven letters that have been preserved – five to congregations which greeted him on the road, one to a congregation which would greet him in Rome, and one to St. Polycarp, who was Bishop of Smyrna, and a disciple of the Apostle John.
It is from these letters that we learn most of what is important to preserve about Ignatius’ legacy – 1) the importance of maintaining Christian unity in love and sound doctrine (he warns them against factionalism in the church and against the heresy of Docetism, which taught that Jesus was not fully human, but only divine; 2) the role of the clergy as a focus of Christian unity, 3) Christian martyrdom as a glorious privilege.
You and I can probably sign on to, and celebrate, the first two; but have a little problem with the third – martyrdom! I guess that’s why the Church has selected the Readings we heard today from Holy Scripture. Jesus reminding us of the fact that our lives are like that grain of wheat which, if it remains a single, unplanted grain is not worth very much; but, if it “dies,” it bears much fruit. (John 12:23-26) Dying to self in order to live for others!
And then St. Paul’s famous testimony, read at virtually all of our funerals, “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.” (Romans 8:38-39)
Both Jesus and Paul are reminding us of something Ignatius took for granted – that dying is not the worst thing that can happen to us! Being unfaithful is much worse. And living for something greater than ourselves is what, in many ways, makes life worthwhile! Most all of you know that the word “martyr” does not only mean one who loses one’s life for the Faith, but that it also means “witness” – the kind of witness made by heroes and heroines like Ignatius who were willing to give it all for the sake of the Gospel.
Many people today in the Church fear, not so much personal, individual death, but the death of the Church itself, as we have known it and loved it over the years. The Presiding Bishop herself said earlier this month that, on the heels of General Convention, “we are in a paschal moment” in The Episcopal Church today. But she also went on to ask,
“Will we discover resurrection or will we stay holed up in the tomb? We have opportunities to be creative and collaborative – we can’t be preservers of turf or maintainers of the status quo. That is, I believe, to remain in the tomb. We can be celebrants of the spirit behind the law, the life-giving, creative law that the Jewish people know as Torah. We can experience the grace that comes of loving God and our neighbor, and not being afraid.”
And both Bishop Katharine and the President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson, made these observations about the new Executive Council which I believe can equally apply to this Synod meeting, to the annual Convention of the Diocese of Iowa, and other such gatherings taking place around our church this fall:
“We are together…embarking on a journey to serve God’s people and God’s creation across this planet…The decisions we make as a body will impact the lives of people far beyond this place or this church. I think the biggest question before us is what will occupy us…where will we spend our energy?…We live with a vision of the reign of God, the kingdom of God, which last time I checked had not been fully realized; therefore we have work to do in the name of Jesus.” (Jefferts Schori; Oct. 2009)
“What if…(this)…Council (this Synod) created a truly spiritually based Christian community together, based on relationship and understanding of each other’s gifts?
What if we understood and embraced the vision of our forebearers, and then took a look at that vision in light of our realities today? What if (we) prayed hard together and were able to discern what we are being called to do at this time in the life of the church? What if we figured that out together and then what if we did it?” said Bonnie Anderson.
What if we figured it out together? And what if we did it? What if we really embraced the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Faith which St. Ignatius confessed and was willing to die for? What if we figured out how that Faith needs to be lived out today? And what if we did it? (Pause)
“Be deaf,” Ignatius wrote, “to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary; who was really born, ate, and drank; was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate; was really crucified and died in the sight of heaven and earth and the underworld; (who) was really raised from the dead.”
And on another occasion, he wrote, “Try to gather more frequently to celebrate God’s Eucharist and to praise him…break one loaf, which is the medicine of immortality…” And finally he said, “Flee from schism as the source of mischief…Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
Well, we are gathered as lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons in Synod on this day, my dear friends. And surely Jesus Christ is present – in Word and Prayer and Sacrament…here in the Church Catholic.
Let us seek to be that spiritually based community, praying hard and trying to discern what we are being called to do at this time in the life of the church, having confidence… with Jesus, Paul, and Ignatius that
Nothing! No…Thing…will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.