by Daniel Harrell
It’s been a whirlwind of travel for my family this year, from your generous gift of sabbatical last winter, to the spectacular faith and science study trip with ten of our high school students to Italy and Geneva. Next week is the middle schoolers’ turn as I’m the guest speaker at Camp Pyro 2. Pray for me, or better yet, for them. As none of our family lives west of the Appalachians, summer vacation mostly means visiting relatives. Fortunately, Dawn’s family hails from Boston and Cape Cod, where we spent our most recent time away. We’ll wrap up our travels next month with a trip to our Southern side down in North Carolina where, sadly, it seems we will say our earthly farewells to my 91-year-old grandmother, a longtime saint who’s headed for heaven. She’s dreamed of joining a great chorus of witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, her heart is already there, her faith due to become reality as for all who call Christ Lord. Resurrection redeems our death and repairs all that is wrong—no more sorrow or crying or pain—in Christ, every enormous, heavy stone of anxiety and fear rolls away.
We Christians joyfully focus on an empty hole in the ground. Writing from the fourth century, the early Roman Christian Tyrannius Rufinus, wrote, “The glory of Christ’s resurrection brought out in Jesus the splendor of everything that previously seemed feeble and weak. … Flesh laid in the tomb … victoriously returned from the dead bringing up from the depths the spoils from hell. Christ brought forth those whom death held as prisoner, having promised himself, ‘when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.’ By his passion, Jesus made perfect the human flesh brought down to death by sin, and restored it by the power of his resurrection: sitting at God’s right hand, he placed it in the highest heavens.” This ancient faith reverberates still, centuries since, shining its eternal light on our present darkness, drawing us ever upward—“looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” as the book of Hebrews puts it, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Remember this, Hebrews urges, “so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” Dawn will preach from this passage next Sunday while I’m at camp.
Important reminders in a day with plenty of cause for growing weary and losing heart from the senseless violence filling our daily newsfeed to the political nonsense spouted as a solution. Economic pessimism and governmental gridlock exacerbate. Overreaction and anger replace constructive debate. The fall election cycle is setting up as an unbearably long-winded version of a WWF wrestling match. Somebody will win but nobody’s especially excited about either outcome. It’ll be good enough this round if the other candidate just loses. Princeton Seminary President Craig Barnes writes about two guys in a delivery truck: The driver mentions that his daughter is having a baby. “Thank God for Obama,” he says, “because she now has insurance.” But his helper in the passenger seat says his taxes are paying for the daughter to have that baby. Why should that be his responsibility? And now they’re stuck with each other in the truck in a silent, fuming funk.
Thank God for social media where you’re allowed to spew whatever you feel without any regard for a person sitting beside you. Be loud and be right. Mired under so many tweets, Barnes wonders whether we’ve conned ourselves into believing every idea has equal legitimacy. He describes attending an assembly at his daughter’s high school where the principal boasted of an educational environment where “there is no such thing as a bad idea.” Seriously? Our world and its history overflows with horrible ideas, tiny seeds that nevertheless rage to bitter fruition: racism and cruelty, greed and ruthlessness, massacre and murder. A society built solely on the pursuit of wealth and power invariably stokes an incendiary sense of furious victimhood. Abandoned to the fire is any legacy of wisdom, goodness or virtue worthy of righteousness. Affordable health care, community policing and safety, fair distribution of wealth and opportunity, immigration and human dignity: these are more than merely issues of economic policy or political expedience. These issues invite theological concern and warrant the infusion of values honed by deep and long traditions of biblical wisdom proved right by its action. There are plenty of bad ideas, but there are good ideas too.
While in Rome we saw of centuries of Christian wisdom sown deep among ruins and flowering bright in glorious cathedrals. Though our focus in Italy was on the footsteps of Galileo, we also retraced the steps of countless Christians and layers of faithful communities who infiltrated and eventually transformed an empire, faithful Popes and Kings, as well as artists, inventors, philosophers, theologians and scientists inspired by the Spirit of God. Our Christian faith has been tested and tried by time and by fire, proved right by people who dared believe amidst hardship, hopelessness, persecution and failure. They pushed back against corruption and oppression with love and grace, they sacrificed for the sake of true and righteous ideas, they found resurrection sufficient to confront and redeem evil. I set about nineteen years ago on a summer sermon series to reflect on some of these faithful people, and decided it best to tackle them a letter at a time. This season brings us to letter R and the little known theologian Rufinus, whose obscurity underscores Jesus’ high regard for the least and the last.
Rufinus hailed from the ancient Roman city of Aquilea, a town near Venice and Padua. He was privileged to study in Rome under the monumental Church Father, Jerome, who translated Scripture into Latin, the language of the Empire, the version of the Bible that reigned all they way to King James. Bible and theological translation were critical to the spread of Christianity, and Rufinus found his own calling in translation too. Moving from Rome to Egypt, from Roman to predominantly Greek culture, Rufinus catalogued the wisdom of Greek theologians—namely Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus—who were the earliest and most ardent defenders of the Trinity. Rufinus wrote extensively on the Apostles’ Creed, sealing its position as a cornerstone of church doctrine. Rufinus wrote of Christ’s Jesus’ descent into the hellish sea of human brokenness for the sake of reconciliation. He creatively described God becoming flesh in Christ as a kind of fishing hook, a lure to attract Satan into a contest. Jesus gave himself as bait and enticed the devil think he could win out over human weakness, only to discover upon taking the bait that he’d bitten off far more than he could ever chew. “Having swallowed it, Satan was immediately caught,” Rufinus wrote. “The gates of hell were broken, and he was, as it were, drawn up from the pit, to become food for others.”
Of course we read in Scripture of a Satan still on the loose, caught and released and “prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” My exceedingly rational theological and psychological training make me suspicious of blaming too much on the devil, hurting or offending others is something we can do just fine all by ourselves. Yet there does persist in our world unimaginable and inexplicable evil that defies human reason and medical diagnosis. Call it systemic evil or collective sin, there is a kind of dark power infecting whole nations, civilizations and institutions resulting in the horrors of holocausts and genocides, world wars and homicidal terrorism, ecological upheaval, racial injustice and global poverty. For such endemic evil the words demonic and satanic fit. While a thorny problem for those who expect heaven on earth, resurrection has already defeated Satan, making futile his roar and his maw. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;” the apostle Paul famously wrote, “perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; we carry in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our bodies.”
Affliction, perplexity and persecution do still happen, earth is not yet new creation, the kingdom of this world not yet fully the kingdom of God. Christians saved by the blood of the lamb still suffer as sheep led to the slaughter. We even slaughter each other. Translating Greek theology into Latin inevitably acquainted Rufinus with Origen, another hugely influential but more controversial teacher whose ideas were considered to be really bad by Rufinus’ mentor, Jerome. Rufinus wrote in a translation of Origen’s work that Jerome was actually a fan, which greatly irritated Jerome and ignited a feud between him and Rufinus that grew public and proud. Before long the two were tweeting insults against the other, hurling accusations of heresy and calling each other’s salvation into question.
Christians do disagree and debate, this is how theology advances, but within our communities, our faith aims for a discerned consensus, an agreement in the spirit on what is the will of God. Unlike democracies, answers are not obtained by vote, but through prayer and submission and hearing the word of the Lord. “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven,” Jesus said. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” The idea here is that Jesus’ presence persuades us to want as God wants, “thy will be done on earth as in heaven.” It’s a foretaste of resurrection itself. Unfortunately human pride and conceit can get in the way, which is why Jesus also commends humility and self-examination. Our personalities are not perfectly partitioned: light on the one side and darkness on the other, even as Christians. Instead our souls are shadowed and uncertain, murky as to motive, our self-examination laced with self-deception. We need perspective, but perspective is not something you can give to yourself. You can’t be your own pastor or spiritual director anymore than you can be your own doctor. There is no gospel according to me.
It takes “two or three,” Jesus said. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We preachers like to roll out this verse on Sunday mornings when only two or three people show up for church. But in the larger context of Matthew 18, Jesus isn’t talking about any required quorum for worship or a prayer meeting. You can praise the Lord and pray by yourself. What you can’t do alone is be the body of Christ. That takes a whole church. And churches are made up of people and therefore problems. The devil remains on the prowl, sowing conflict and dissension. One bad apple can spoil a whole bushel. Confront the bad apple, Jesus says, in private, and if he listens, everybody eats pie. If he refuses, take a few people and get to the core. If that doesn’t work, tell the whole church, but not in the gossipy ways our sins typically get told. The goal is reconciliation, getting a stray sheep back into the fold, even if it takes abandoning the other ninety-nine sheep to do it. What if the shepherd can’t retrieve the one who is lost and the offender resists the whole church? Then Jesus says let the lost sheep be “to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Dump the bad apple out of the basket.
How can this be the gospel? Given all the hyperbole in this chapter already—amputate your limbs if you sin, tie a millstone to your neck and be drowned in the sea if you cause others to sin—some assume Jesus to be exaggerating here too. In the next section he will tell his disciples that forgiveness knows no limits. Jesus loved every sinner and outcast, plenty of Gentiles and ta-collectors, the corrupt and the criminal. And yet there remains a critical difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness can be done by one person—you can forgive even if the offender rejects it. But reconciliation takes two. The forgiving father who loved his prodigal son was willing to wait forever, but the kid still had to come home for reconciliation to happen.
But why make the offended responsible for facing the offender? Why must the person hurt initiate reconciliation? We prefer to nurse the hurt, publish the tweet, feed the anger. We like being right, and even enjoy the energy conflict causes. Don’t tell me how to live my life. Who needs a whole church getting into my personal business? Under old parish models, you automatically belonged to the church closest to your house. Refusing to forgive and be reconciled meant selling your house and moving away. These days, thankfully, you can simply go a few miles to another church. Or better yet, spend time with God in nature by yourself.
Rufinus and Jerome did not want to make up. So, in obedience to Jesus, a third party intervened. Pope Anastasius summoned Rufinus to Rome and made him and Jerome work out their differences. Jesus was present, unity happened and the whole church benefitted. For the rest of his life, Rufinus devoted himself to translating commentaries and sermons, as well as a history of the early church written by Eusebius, among the only records we have. Whenever he found works translated to have been altered by editors with unorthodox agendas, Rufinus made the corrections. Scholars since have sometimes debated his accuracy, but consensus has swung to his favor given his proximity in time to those he sought to defend.
Craig Barnes reminds that “those who massacre people in clubs and hotels are religiously motivated. So are many of those who devote their lives to caring for the poor. And whether they realize it or not, so are those who find themselves in a conversation about public policy in the cab of a delivery truck. Religion is a major player in our world, for better and worse. We need the help of history’s best if we are to untangle some of the complex problems before us, including those caused by religion itself.” We need to constantly draw from our deep well of biblical virtue that makes forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption not only possible, but doable. It may be hard, but if two or three get together and work at it, Jesus promises to be there to make it happen.