Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sermon: Feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch

17 October 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 9:1-8

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Jesus gave the paralytic two great gifts. The greater gift, the one that our Lord tells him is reason for him to “be of good cheer” is that his sins were forgiven. The lesser gift is the restoration of his power of movement. The latter is related to the former, but it is entirely possible to have complete forgiveness of sins and still suffer in this life.

In fact, that’s pretty much how the Christian life is. We are baptized, forgiven, given salvation and everlasting life. And yet, we still suffer the ongoing consequences of sin. We get sick. We suffer incurable diseases. We have family problems. We endure natural calamities. We die.

In this evening’s Gospel, our Lord removes the cripple’s paralysis. He does this out of mercy toward the paralytic, of course. But he also did it “so that you may know that the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins.” Our Lord cures the paralytic as a retort to the scribes who accuse Him of blasphemy. For accusing Him of blasphemy is to accuse Him of fraud, of claiming to be God while not being God.

Our Lord claims to be God, is God, and proves that He is God. God forgives sins. God heals cripples. But the greatest thing He does is forgive sins. For in forgiving sins, we aren’t merely cured of symptoms – like paralysis. We are rather cured of the cause of the paralysis: sin. In the forgiveness of sin we find everlasting life and communion with our Creator. Fellowship with the Triune God is restored. That’s why nothing in this life is more important than the Gospel. Not even life on this side of the grave itself.

Our Lord was crucified to release us from our suffering. Our Lord died so we might live. A few years after our Lord died and rose from the dead, a boy named Ignatius was born. He grew up as a Christian, learning the faith from Jesus’s apostle John. Ignatius would become a bishop himself, serving as the pastor of Christians in Antioch – the place where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians.

Shortly after the turn of the century, as the 100s were just under way, the Romans began yet another purge of Christians. Bishop Ignatius, the defender of the faith against various heresies, was arrested and condemned to die in the arena. He was chained to a detachment of Roman soldiers and marched to Rome where he was to meet his fate.

During the course of his transportation as a prisoner, Bishop Ignatius wrote various letters to the churches. Today commemorates his martyrdom for the sake of Jesus Christ and His Gospel.

St. Ignatius explains in his Letter to the Romans why he was so eager to follow Jesus, even to the point of being tortured to death:

“Now is the moment I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing seen or unseen begrudge me making my way to Jesus Christ. Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil – only let me get to Jesus Christ! Not the wide bounds of earth nor the kingdoms of this world will avail me anything. I would rather die and get to Jesus Christ than reign over the ends of the earth.”

Why was the Bishop of Antioch so intent on dying for the sake of Christ? He explains: “That is whom I am looking for – the One who died for us. That is whom I want – the One who rose for us.”

St. Ignatius takes up his cross and follows Jesus, because Jesus died for us and rose for us. In his Letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius implores us to frequent participation in the Lord’s Supper, the “medicine of immortality” the “antidote which wards off death but yields continuous life in Union with Jesus Christ.”

St. Ignatius is willing to sacrifice all – his possessions, his comfort, even his life itself rather than forfeit the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whom he calls “Savior” in his Letter to the Ephesians.

For Ignatius, who learned the faith from St. John the Apostle, understands that the work and ministry of Jesus, very God in the flesh, the One who died and yet lives, is all about the Gospel. No price is too dear in order to remain in Christ. And indeed, Ignatius considers it an honor to be counted worthy of martyrdom for the sake of His Lord.

St. Ignatius stood up to the same doubters and naysayers as our Lord, the scribes who denied that Jesus was truly God in the flesh. As a bishop, Ignatius battled against a heresy known as Docetism – that denied that our Lord is truly the fleshly incarnation of God. For the Gospel itself hinges on the incarnation, and it is through the miracle of the incarnation that we, like the paralytic, find life in our once-useless flesh.

Let us confess with the holy bishop in his own words as we celebrate his heavenly birthday:

“I am giving my life (not that it’s worth much!) for the cross, which unbelievers find a stumbling block, but which means to us salvation and eternal life. ‘Where is the wise man? Where is the debater?’ Where are the boasts of those supposedly intelligent? For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary, in God’s plan being sprung both from the seed of David and from the Holy Spirit. He was born and baptized that by his Passion he might hallow water.

“Now, Mary’s virginity and her giving birth escaped the notice of the prince of this world, as did the Lord’s death – those three secrets crying to be told, but wrought in God’s silence. How then were they revealed to the ages? A star shone in heaven brighter than all the stars. Its light was indescribable and its novelty caused amazement. The rest of the stars, along with the sun and the moon, formed a ring around it; yet it outshone them all, and there was bewilderment whence this unique novelty had arisen. As a result, all magic lost its power and all witchcraft ceased. Ignorance was done away with, and the ancient kingdom [of evil] was utterly destroyed, for God was revealing Himself as a man, to bring newness of eternal life. What God had prepared was now beginning. Hence everything was in confusion as the destruction of death was being taken in hand.”

It is only through this Gospel of Jesus that emboldened Ignatius against death and against suffering. And it is only this Gospel of Jesus that we, nineteen centuries later, can in the words of our Lord: “be of good cheer” for our sins are forgiven!

The Gospel is more dear to us than even life itself – for the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is life itself: true life, sanctified life. eternal life.

Dear sons and daughters, “be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven…

…In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

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