Church Fathers Letter T: Tertullian

Church Fathers Letter T: Tertullian

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

by Daniel Harrell

We’re just back from our annual visit to New England, full from time spent with family, good friends, oceans and mountains and many pounds of fresh seafood. I made it to Fenway Park twice to see the Red Sox amidst their season for the record books—I haven’t been since moving to Minnesota. Among the new additions to Fenway are these gardens on the roof. The Red Sox grow all the vegetables they serve at their concession stands. Made me feel good about our gardens. 

The first game was against the Twins. Our section near the Pesky Pole was populated with several other Minnesotans, their Twins hats incognito, nervous, no doubt, by the raucous sea of obnoxious Sox fans surrounding them and screaming every sort of baseball f-bomb as the game ambled on. The Twins won that night, and afterwards the good-natured Sox fans went on to vigorously glad-hand and scream congratulatory expletives at the wide-eyed, nice Minnesotans who weren’t exactly sure how to take it.

I was back to Fenway the next week to see Red Sox Yankees, the Sunday Night ESPN game that ended up being the game of the year. We scored tickets from an old friend and took with us Dawn’s sister Kim. The Yankees led 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth. Resigned to the loss, several thousand fans headed for the gates, eager to beat traffic and happy enough with having beat the Yankees the previous three nights.

But not us. Though we had to drive all the way back to Cape Cod late, we donned our rally caps and took it to the Lord in prayer. Sure enough, the Yankees’ closer couldn’t throw a strike and loaded the bases. Then a two-run single, followed by a botched throw to first and—boom—tie game! On to the bottom of the tenth and Andrew Benitendi bounced a walk-off single up the middle and our beloved Red Sox swept, igniting pandemonium in the park. It was a great game! I couldn’t help but imagine those impatient fans who’d left early, despondent at having missed the glory because they couldn’t muster the endurance to wait just a one more inning.

As with all things Red Sox, there are theological implications. It is not by accident that love’s characteristic line-up in 1 Corinthians 13 has patience batting first. Since the earliest days of the church, theologians have understood God’s love for the world—from creation to cross to final glory—as an exercise in patience. As Isaiah reminds, it is “those who wait for the Lord who renew their strength, who run and will not be weary, who walk and will not faint.”

Writing from the second century, the church father Tertullian regards patience as the “fortifier of faith and the pilot of peace.” “Patience assists charity; establishes humility; waits long for repentance; sets her seal on confession; rules the flesh; preserves the spirit; bridles the tongue; restrains the hand; tramples temptations under foot; drives away scandals; . . . consoles the poor; teaches the rich moderation; overstrains not the weak; exhausts not the strong; and is the delight of the believer.”

Patience is listed fourth in the fruits of the Spirit. More than mere waiting, patience is faithful endurance amidst hardship without complaint. It’s why people in need of healing were first called patients. True healing takes time and often involves suffering. Open your King James Bible and patience is translated long-suffering; it is attribute of God. Psalm 86 describes the Lord as “full of compassion, and gracious, long-suffering and plenteous in mercy and truth.” 

“By his own patience God disparages himself,” Tertullian wrote, suffering long on a cross for love’s sake. In 2 Peter, we read of God’s justice, that “The Lord is not slow … as some would count slowness; but is long-suffering and not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

Speaking of long-suffering, this sermon is the fifty-first in a series I started twenty-one years ago on the Church Fathers (and Mothers), those heroes of our faith whose passion for Jesus amidst trial and tribulation fashioned the truths we profess this morning. As there have been so many notable personalities, I determined to tackle them each summer a letter at a time, bringing me this year to Letter T (next week Teresa of Avila). If you don’t have the patience to wait six more years for me to finish, you can read the book still available on Amazon for the ridiculously bargain price of ten dollars.

We don’t know a lot about Tertullian’s life aside from his living most of it in the Roman city of Carthage (modern day Tunisia). A powerful and provocative writer, known as the “snapping Tertullian,” he was a staunch defender of church orthodoxy and morality. He would have been aghast at the continuing horrors of child abuse embroiling the Catholic church and its leaders, and with the sexual harassment committed by Protestant church leaders, most recently at Willow Creek Church outside Chicago. 

Tertullian would have demanded reconciliation and reform—beginning with repentance—grounded in a fear of the Lord. “Truth does not blush,” he wrote, “Where there is no fear there is no repentance and where there is no repentance there is no amendment of life.” God loves us just as we are, but has no intention of leaving us that way. The Lord pours grace “as a flood of light on the just and unjust through his Spirit,” Tertullian argued, and repentance is the first fruit of grace. But grace is offensive, fundamentally an indictment; extended only to those who sinful enough to need it. Grace begins with blame and human pride violently resists any blame. To have someone forgive you implies that you are not a good person. To have someone be cursed and crucified on a cross for you implies you are a terribly bad person. As Tertullian put it, “The first reaction to truth is hatred.”

But “those who hear the truth and hold it with an honest and good heart,” Jesus said, “will by patience, endure all things.” They will “renew their strength, run and not be weary, walk and will not faint.” The path to true healing and real resurrection is a cross road, demanding loss of life for the sake of new life, a high price and the worthy cost of discipleship. The Scriptures teach, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” And then, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” His cross is our life. 

Tertullian pressed believers to keep the cross before them in every aspect of life. You may remember last Lent my quoting his recommendation to cross yourself, fingers to forehead, to remember and recognize God has crucified you too and by grace raised you already with Christ. Writing to Christians in 200 AD, Tertullian obaerved, “At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and our shoes, when we bathe, when we sit down to eat, when we light our lamps, and on our beds before we sleep, [or we might add, as we get your kids who are driving us crazy off to school, or are frustrated at our spouses for failing to communicate or clean up, when we go to work and struggle to get though our day, as we have that difficult conversation, or go over our finances, before we write the email or post on social media, as we fume over people we’re mad at or complain over our lot in life; when sitting stuck in traffic, or reading or hearing the news and going crazy over the latest political decision, as we resist change and push back at all we feel is unfair and not right, as we worry for the world and take all our hopes and joys and anxieties to God in prayer at night] in every act of daily life, we wear out our foreheads and fingers with the sign of the cross.”

Christians decided early on that the sign of their faith would not be a manger or an empty tomb or a flaming tongue, but rather the cross. The cross is the signature of the church, a long-suffering love that bears each other’s burdens, caring for the neighbor and the stranger, the poor and the hopeless with true grace, generosity and joy. Tertullian wrote:

We are a body knit together by a common profession of faith, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope. …There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God. Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, each puts in a donation; but only if it be a pleasure, and only if able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken from there and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house … or shut up in prisons, … for no other reason but their fidelity to the cause of Christ’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession. It is our care for the helpless, our practice of loving kindness, that brands us in the eyes of those who oppose us. See, they say, how Christians love one another… how they are ready even to die for one another. … We who are united in mind and soul have no hesitation about sharing property. All things are in common among us except our women.

The evidence of true love among the Christians brought about Tertullian’s own conversion. He was so impressed by their courage and conviction; and their patient endurance amidst persecution. For the early Christians, being crucified with Christ was too often literal because grace is offensive. The church suffered long and hard for its offense; and yet having already been crucified with Christ, they reacted with gladness. Tertullian wrote, “The only regret we feel is at not having been a Christian earlier. If we are singled out and marginalized, we glory in it. If ostracized, we offer no defense; if interrogated, we make voluntary confession; if condemned, we praise the Lord. What sort of crazy people are we? We are punished for what is our joy.” “We multiply whenever we are mowed down, the blood of Christian witness is seed.”

Long-suffering love embodied by Jesus and a fruit of the Spirit infused the church with deep patience. Tertullian taught how patience denies any craving for revenge: “The Law found more than it lost when Christ said, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 5:44-45). This most important commandment summarizes in a word the universal discipline of patience, since it does not allow us to do evil even to people who deserve it.” … “If we love our enemies as we are commanded, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as bad ourselves.” This has always been the power behind non-violent resistance.

Tertullian is a disputed figure, historically speaking. It’s hard to know where to place him theologically sometimes too. Orthodox enough to be praised by many contemporaries and later admirers, he was just heterodox enough to be denied sainthood. Still, his core convictions remain central to our faith. He was an early defender of the Trinity and insistent on truth residing in Scripture (“One who listens to it will find God.”). He also stressed sanctification, that increase in holiness due to our freedom from sin as believers. He advocated a simple, virtuous life, one that relied daily on the Spirit’s power accessed through prayer, which for Tertullian was akin to sacrifice, a gift given to God everyday and for everything. In his treatise On Prayer, Tertullian wrote:

It was the will of Christ that prayer would not be effective for any evil. He conferred all of its power for good. Thus prayer knows nothing except to call souls of the fallen back form the very path of death, to restore the weak, to cure the sick, to purify those possessed by demons, to open the doors of a prison, to loose the bonds of the innocent. Prayer washes away sins, repels temptations, extinguishes persecutions, consoles the discouraged, delights the generous, accompanies travelers, calms waves, paralyzes robbers, supports the poor, rules the rich, lifts up the fallen, upholds those who are falling, maintains those who are standing. Prayer is a wall of faith, wings that carry us upward and protect us on every side. 

Thus Scripture commends us to “pray without ceasing.” Prayer is like breath, a sacred respiration, inspired by the Spirit, full of grace and truth and love. Prayer requires patience, we know from experience. But love is patient—patient enough to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things. We pray without ceasing because love never fails.

Prayer is an offering that belongs to God and is acceptable to God: it is our offering and our sacrifice.We must dedicate this offering with our whole heart, we must fatten it on faith, tend it by truth, keep it unblemished through innocence, clean through patience, and crown it with love. We must escort it to the altar of God in a procession of good works to the sound of psalms and hymns. Then it will gain for us all that we need and ask [through Jesus] to whom be honor and power and glory. Amen.

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