Saint Ignatius of Antioch: The Patronal Feast
Sunday, October 23, 2011
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.
The other evening, following a concert in the church, a man pulled me aside and asked why an Episcopal Church was named in honour of Saint Ignatius of Antioch. I gave the gentleman my opinion that it was not so strange for a self-consciously Catholic Episcopal church, founded at the time of the great ritual controversies of the third quarter of the nineteenth century, to be drawn to this particular early second-century martyr. Ignatius, I explained, was perfect for those who came in the second wave after the Oxford Movement.
Ignatius was one of the earliest of the Church Fahers. He was a man committed to the unity of the Church, to the profession of the faith in the one who was both perfect man and perfect God and that would later be codified in the great creeds (Trallians 9:1-2), to the frequent celebration of the Eucharist, and to the authority and place of the three major orders of ministry. Furthermore, his writings had been made available in Latin in England at a fairly early date by the mediaeval English Bishop of Lincoln Robert Grosseteste, and he valued Christian unity as expressed in the Sacraments. That there is a great (and, I am afraid, late and unreliable) account of his martyrdom in the Colosseum was an added bonus—certainly for our ability to imagine him and have powerful images that evoke the man behind the learned letters.
Our Ignatius is so overshadowed, however, by the Jesuit saint whose parents must have shared a devotion to our patron, that he seems a remote and mysterious character. This, I believe, lies at the heart of the confusion and frequent questions asked about him and his association with our community. Every time I re-read his letters, I am more and more convinced, however, of his importance in the history of Christian thought and of his relevance to our contemporary situation.
Ignatius lived during the first age of globalization. He was a part of an interconnected world that stretched from the north of England and the Gate of Gibralter almost to modern-day India. He was aware of how communities needed to be joined together despite being separated by vast distances and he believed that the ministry of Bishops and the celebration of the Eucharist were the way to achieve this unity. Indeed, it has been on the subject of Christian unity that I have focussed my previous sermons for this festival. Today, however, I want to take a slightly different approach to understanding Ignatius’ continuing witness to the Church and to the Churches spread across the known world.
In his letter to the church at Magnesia, a town in Asia Minor about fifteen miles from Ephesus, Ignatius advised the people there that “we have not only to be called Christians, but to be Christians” (4:1). Ignatius offered this remark to the Magnesians in response to the unwillingness of some to accept the authority of their young bishop and who, as a consequence, had separated themselves from the worship of the church, excommunicating themselves from the sacrament that unites us all with one another, with Christ, and with God. For Ignatius, calling yourself Christian meant that you also acted like a Christian. Christians do not, he firmly believed, separate themselves from the life of the community. For Ignatius, schism and disunity were amongst the greatest of sins (Eph. 5:3, Philadelphians 7-8) and one who believes in Christ—the one who was truly human, suffered, died, and rose from the dead, guaranteeing us our place in the resurrection (Trallians 9)—must live according to his faith, which is nothing less than his relationship with God in Christ.
I imagine that this idea of living out the profession of our Christian faith must have been a subject about which Ignatius preached regularly. It was important for Ignatius and it remains important to us to this very day, for at the core of this notion is the place where Christian thinking meets Christian living: we can not truly call ourselves Christian unless we act like Christians. We are corporeal beings, we live in the world and in relationship with other creatures, and while we are in the flesh are called to act spiritually, that is in unity with God in Christ (Eph. 8:2).
This is a theme to which Ignatius returns again and again in his brief corpus of letters and it is a particularly important theme of his letter to the church at Ephesus. He writes, “some indeed have a wicked and deceitful habit of flaunting the Name about, while acting in a way unworthy of God” (Eph. 7:1). Summing up this attitude he writes,
“The tree is known by its fruit.” Similarly those who profess to be Christ's will be recognised by their actions. For what matters is not a momentary act of professing but being persistently motivated by faith. (Eph. 14:2)
Ignatius suggests that we are called to be outward and visible signs of the inner grace we have received in baptism and that has been nourished with the Sacrament. If we gather as the church, united in the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, if we go forth into the world and live out the commandment to love God and love neighbour as we love ourselves, then we are showing with our actions who we have said we are in our profession of the creed.
The compilers of the First American Book of Common Prayer knew this to be one of the essential duties of the Christian and left our Church a daily reminder in our liturgy of Evening Prayer. In the General Thanksgiving we pray:
And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days.
We show forth God’s praise, “not only with our lips but in our lives.” Daily, then, we are called to give our lives over not merely to the profession of our creed with words alone, but to the actual, physical service of Our Lord. It is in this way only that we may walk before him “in holiness and righteousness all our days.” But, as we know, this is not so simple and is much easier to say than do.
For his part, then, Ignatius gives us a good idea of what being Christian is all about rather than just talking a good game. At the heart of it all for Ignatius is something that I have touched on in my preaching over the past few weeks. As we have learnt from the parables of the Kingdom, Ignatius reminds us that we are called away from pride and arrogance and we are called to lives of authenticity and humility. Jesus shows us over and over again both that those with power do not have automatic access to God and at the same time that there is no one too lowly to be in relationship with God. Writing to the Ephesians, Ignatius states that “he who fails to join in your worship shows his arrogance by the very fact of becoming a schismatic. It is written, moreover, ‘God resists the proud’” (Eph. 5:3). Put simply, we are called to a genuine humility that allows us to be in relationship with each other.
Moreover, in discussing those who think they know better, those proud whom God resists, Ignatius writes to the Church at Smyrna,
Let no one’s position swell his head, for faith and love are everything—there is nothing preferable to them. Pay close attention to those who have wrong notions about the grace of Jesus Christ, which has come to us, and note how at variance they are with God’s mind. They 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 6:1–7:1)
Ignatius tells us that the proud assume they know God’s mind, but in their lives—in which they abstain from corporate worship and care not for their neighbour—they are not showing forth God’s true mind, which is love. Those who care for the widows and orphans, the poor and oppressed, the prisoners and the hungry, the ones who gather with the whole church to celebrate and share the Eucharist, those are the ones who are showing forth God’s love into the world, those are the ones who are being Christians. We are called, therefore, into life in community, gathered by our Bishops and clergy around the Eucharistic table, and sent into out into the world in love to care for our brothers and sisters, care for God’s creation.
This is the essential meaning of the passage from the Gospel of John appointed for today. Here Jesus proclaims, “If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honour him.” Serving Christ, that is to say working as Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, is the essential element of following Christ. We do not follow Christ merely in our hearts, but with our actions. In doing this, Jesus is always present with us and we are always intimately connected with him and with God the Father.
As we commemorate our great patron today, let us look to his example of Christian authenticity, his unswerving ability to profess not only with his lips, but in his life the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of Love itself. Let it inspire us to lives of authentic and humble service to the God who loves us more than we can know and who draws us to himself daily both in our common worship and our vocation in the world.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 21 October 2011
All references to the letters of Saint Ignatius of Antioch are to the translation and edition of Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (New York: Collier, 1970).
© 2011 Andrew Charles Blume