Contending for the Easter Faith
Easter is a time to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to reflect on the rich implications of the Paschal mystery: His death and His resurrection. It is time for those who follow Christ to realize that we too have been raised with Him into the new life of God’s costly love, bearing within ourselves the marks of His passion , death and resurrection.
But all too often, we forget all this and become distracted and discouraged by people and events: personality clashes; anger and bewilderment at the spectacle of those who would demean the Faith through false theology and hurtful practices; disgust over politics in the church; sorrow because of the disunion within the body of Christ, expressed not just theologically but culturally, linguistically and geographically (say, in the chasm that exists between New York and Fort Worth) and frustration with seemingly endless meetings, conventions and synods, marked as they often are with controversy and confrontation.
How can we continue in our Easter joy in the face of all these challenges? Perhaps the beginning of an answer might be to remember that all this is nothing new. It has been going on for a long time. It is the very stuff that God uses to bring about His will. He works in and through His creation: in and through His sinful creatures (you and me) to craft something true and whole – The Kingdom of God. So often in the history of the relationship between God and His creatures, we can say, “men meant it for ill, but God meant it for good.” So that almost in spite of ourselves, we have been instruments of God’s will. This has happened over and over again throughout the history of the church. The triumph of God in and through division; linguistic, cultural and geographic differences, and personal and theological disputes.
Let me give one striking example of this. I call it “A Tale of Two Cities”. One was Semitic, literal, uncouth, down-to-earth, prosaic. The other was Greek-influenced, subtle, sophisticated, cultured, mystical. One took the Scriptures literally, the other allegorically. One stressed the humanity of Christ, the other His divinity. They were, of course, Antioch and Alexandria, the two most important Christian centers in the Eastern Roman Empire of the 4th century: the century of the coming together of the Bible as we know it, and of the Nicene creed. The differences and disagreements of these two cities focused in their dispute over Christ came to a head at a church convention in Nicea in 325 A. D.
The secular political power was worried over the division in the church concerning something as central to its identity as the very nature of Christ because the emperor viewed the church as a stabilizing factor in the declining Roman Empire. So Constantine called a Council to settle the matter. The debate fell to two young priests: Arius and Athanasius. Arius was an attractive and popular parish priest in Alexandria, Athanasius the secretary to the Patriarch of Alexandria, Alexander. They personified the split between Antioch and Alexandria. How so? Because while Arius lived in Alexandria, he had grown up in Antioch, and reflected its differences with Alexandria. Arius believed that Christ was the greatest of all created beings, but he was just that – created. Athanasius believed that Christ was God, thus that he had always existed. Arius’ watchword was “There was a time when Christ was not.” And their disagreement over nothing less than the nature of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity came down to a single Greek letter: iota. Athanasius argued that Christ was “of one substance with the Father”, homoousion. Arius countered Christ was of “similar substance with the Father”, homoiousion. An “iota’s” difference, yet the very heart of the Christian Faith.
Because without His divine nature, Jesus Christ becomes just another good man and great teacher, similar to Confucius and Ghandi; A way to the “better angels of our nature” who lived a particularly noble life, and whose dust mingles with that of countless others somewhere in the Middle East. Certainly not the way, the truth and the life. Easter becomes a rite of spring celebrating the rebirth of nature after the seeming death of winter. No resurrection of the body. No eternal life in Christ. No heaven, no hell. If Athanasius had compromised on that one Greek letter, there would be no Christian faith.
Well, it “seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to the Council” that Athanasius was right and Arius was wrong. So the Nicene Faith won out...for a time. But because of the political machinations of the Empire, and the fickle natures of the bishops, Arianism swelled, and became ascendant once again. St. Jerome wrote “the whole world groaned, and woke up astonished to find itself Arian.” All that is, except Athanasius and a few others. For this he suffered and was driven into exile five times. Truly it was Athanasius contra mundum – Athanasius against the world.
Years later at yet another “General Convention” in Constantinople in 381, Athanasius and the Nicene Faith were vindicated. Though he didn’t live to see it, because of the faith and persistence of this one man, God’s truth prevailed. Coming out of intrigue, politics, linguistic subtleties, suffering, hatred and mischief. There is a lesson here for us in our time. If we remain faithful, in spite of all distractions, we will prevail. But we must remain involved in all the controversies – just as Athanasius was – because this is how God works out His will in and through the human condition.
The heresy of Arius and others is alive and well today. It flourishes in all the main stream expressions of Christianity. If good people demur from contending for the Nicene Faith out of a misplaced desire for “peace” or compromise, then error will prevail, and God’s truth will be defaced, and the cause of Christ will be diminished. We must have the courage to name heresy for what it is, and fight it. Nothing less than God’s truth hangs in the balance. If God gives us the will to do these things, He will also give us the grace to accomplish them. So we ask for His grace. That’s why we come to church. To worship, learn and share the Resurrection Way. We receive His grace not just for solace, forgiveness and comfort, but to enable us to remain faithful , and contend for the true faith – the Nicene Faith – which alone can overcome the world. Pray for us holy Athanasius. We are your heirs.
The Rev’d T. N. Jordan
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