The Feast of Saint Ignatius of Antioch
21 October 2007
A Sermon Preached by the Rev'd Dr Andrew C. Blume
Almighty God, we praise thy Name for thy bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch, who offered himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that he might present unto thee the pure bread of sacrifice. Accept, we pray thee, the willing tribute of our lives, and give us a share in the pure and spotless offering of thy Son Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
What an honour it is to mark my first Sunday here at Saint Ignatius by celebrating our patronal feast. I must confess that before I applied for this post, my recollection of Ignatius’ importance to the life of the primitive church, not to mention his continuing interest to the Church today, was rather dim. I knew that I had read his writings and had discussed him in a seminar on pain, suffering, and death in the New Testament and Early Christian writers. I also vaguely remembered that wonderfully Eucharistic phrase,“I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of the wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ” (Ignatius, Romans 4:1). So, like any good academic, I knew that I had some prep to do before I arrived here.
Dutifully, I went to the Early Church section of my library, chose the battered copy of Cyril Richardson’s Early Christian Fathers that I have had since I was an undergraduate, grabbed the dog, and went to a nearby café to start reading. On opening the volume, I was amazed to see that I had not only read this before, but from the paleographical evidence of my notes and underlinings, I had read his corpus of seven letters three times! As I began reading, I knew that my motivation “to hear, mark, read, learn, and inwardly digest” his thought was much higher than in the past. What astounded me as I re-read these short epistles was just how personal, highly emotional and passionate they were, and how clearly they painted a picture of a highly self-aware, real, flesh-and-blood person. I discovered not a Christian Comics super hero facing the lions (and I do like lions), but a man who loved God, loved Christ, loved people, and really loved life, and who thought that our lives here actually mattered, that life in Christian Community mattered. Through these brief letters to the people and leaders of the churches of the Mediterranean, written in the company of a cohort of Roman soldiers, I discovered a fascinating and inspiring figure—and not simply on account of his martyrdom.
Ignatius’ teachings reach out to us across the centuries and speak to us with fresh power. He speaks of the need for Christians to be united in love and the practice of our faith. He speaks of the need for Christians to whole-heartedly believe in the humanity of Jesus Christ. Ignatius speaks of the need to live lives that reflect our beliefs and not simply to talk and think about God in Christ, but to live as God would have us live.
Christian unity is perhaps the most important and constant theme of Ignatius’ letters. Although Ignatius wrote a great deal about Christian unity expressed in the office of bishops, it is clear that unity, real unity, was most profoundly expressed in what the people gathered to do as a community. “Try to gather more frequently to celebrate God’s Eucharist and to praise him,” he writes (Eph. 13:1), “for you must have one prayer, one petition, one mind, one hope, dominated by love and unsullied joy—that means you must have Jesus Christ” (Magnesians 7:1). Sharing the bread together “yields continuous life in union with Jesus Christ” (Eph. 20:2). We are to be united with each other in Christ, united together in Christ’s faith, united as one body moving together in the world. We must all come to one table, one altar, he tells us, and not be separated from each other for, “there is only one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup of his blood that makes one” (Philadelphians 4). In our Common Prayer, in our Eucharist together, we show our unity by sharing the sacrament of Thanksgiving in which God changes us and unites us to his unchanging purpose, which is love.
Christians must not divide themselves into factions and sects, but be united in love and purpose in the sacrament of the one altar. Indeed this is what we mean when we say that we are part of the Catholic Church—as Ignatius himself did for the very first time in Christian history (Smyrnaens 8:2). We are members of a universal Church, connected with our brothers and sisters in Christ in the ministry of our Bishops and, above all else, in our celebration of the Sacrament that unites us with Jesus Christ, who is the real authority upon which the Church is built, who is the Gospel that God has acted to bring the whole world into relationship with the God of Israel.
For Ignatius, Jesus Christ himself, as a direct consequence of his true humanity, his true sharing with us of life and love and pain that culminated with his actual death and real resurrection, and not some book, was this Gospel. This is a Gospel that calls us into a sacramental community that gathers to break bread and share the cup, to be transformed, and to help spread God’s love throughout the world. Love, Ignatius teaches us, is the goal towards which our faith, which is our relationship with the God we know and who loves us, leads us. It seems clear that “everything that has to do with real goodness” (Eph. 14:2) is dependant upon Love because Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection embodied nothing other than Love itself.
For Ignatius, being Christians means acting like Christ (Magnesians 10) and he criticises people who
care nothing about love: that have no concern for widows, orphans, for the oppressed, for those in prison or released, for the hungry or the thirsty. They hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who suffered for our sins and who, in his goodness, the Father raised (Smyrnaens 6:2).
Ignatius makes a powerful and explicit connection among Christian unity, participating in the Eucharist and ethics, among sharing in Christ’s body, conforming yourself to Christ, becoming his body and ethical behaviour, among Christ’s real humanity, his real suffering and death and our actions towards those in need.
As Ignatius travelled towards his certain death at Rome, passing through the great cities of the Eastern part of the Empire, he encouraged those he met and those to whom he wrote to be engaged with their lives in the world. Instead of exhorting the people to merely imitate his death, Ignatius gave instruction for how people were to live, truly live as Christ would have us live. And whether we lived or whether we died, we are to participate in God’s loving purpose for us. For Ignatius, like Paul believed that, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, 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 8:39).
Ignatius really is the first person, just about seventy or eighty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, to describe the Church, the Catholic Church, as we know it. He describes local communities, each led by a bishop, and each connected with other communities both by faith and by the relationship of the bishops themselves. Above all, these communities gather to celebrate the Eucharist, in which Jesus is really present with the people in the bread and wine and who becomes part of each person who receives the Sacrament. All this these things, a self-consciously Catholic Church, Holy Orders, Sacraments, and above all the faith and love of God in Christ all exist in a time before there was a Christian Bible as we know it. All these elements, each calling us to love God and love our neighbour are driven not by a text, but by the Gospel, not by words but by The Word. It is no wonder, therefore, than a group of mid-nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholics—who themselves were drawn to the earliest Christian Fathers and the unity of the early Church, the threefold ministry of deacons, priests, and bishops, and the centrality of the Sacraments—found Ignatius so appealing and chose him as the patron for their community.
So today, as we begin a new chapter of the life of this parish family, as we look to how we may care for each other and minister to people in this neighbourhood and in this wonderful City, we too look to Ignatius of Antioch. And there we find a flesh-and-blood man, who strove to imitate Jesus in his life and death, who cared for the poor, who led the Church and encouraged all to gather to join in the Sacrament that truly makes us all one. Ignatius calls us into the deepest level of Christian unity that we can imagine. He calls us all, together, into intimate relationship with God in Christ. He calls us into a relationship so profound that each of us is transformed into divine lovers, walking the world as Jesus’ very body, his arms and legs, and hands and feet, incarnating the Love of God into the here and now. I pray that we may all hear and respond to this call and go from this place strengthened by his example and by the sacrament that we are about to recieve.
Andrew Charles Blume+
Saint Ignatius of Antioch, 17 October 2007
©2007 Andrew Charles Blume
All quotations from Ignatius’ letters are from Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (New York: Macmillan, 1970).
For more about Saint Ignatius of Antioch click here.