Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sermon: Trinity 3 & St. Irenaeus

28 June 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 15:1-10 (Mic 7:18-20, 1 Pet 5:6-11)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Like most of us, St. Irenaeus was born into a Christian home and raised in the Christian faith. But unlike most of us, he lived in times when confessing that Christian faith was a great risk to one’s very life.

The pastor he grew up with, St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was executed by the Romans when Irenaeus was between 30 and 40 years old. Irenaeus went into the priestly ministry himself, and preached as a missionary to the French people at Lyons. Two decades after Polycarp was martyred, Irenaeus’s bishop was also put to death. And in 177 AD, Irenaeus was himself made the Bishop of Lyons.

In such perilous times, the world would have advised Bishop Irenaeus to lay low, keep his head down, stay quiet, and don’t make waves. And that advice would have suited the devil just fine. For Satan is indeed our adversary “who prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” St. Peter exhorts us not to shy away from battling the devil, but rather “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.”

St. Irenaeus understood this suffering, not from history books, but from life experience. For not only did his predecessor as Bishop of Lyons and his childhood pastor die as martyrs, St. Peter himself, who warns us about the suffering of our Christian brotherhood, was also put to death, crucified, as was the Author and Perfecter of our faith Himself.

One of the ways the devil constantly attacks the Church is by attacking the Church’s doctrine. For the Church teaches us what God has revealed to us in Holy Scripture: the Good News that he loves us, sent his only begotten Son into the flesh to die for us, to save us, to forgive sin, defeat death, slay the diabolical lion, and bring us to everlasting life. Like Jesus, we say: “It is written…”

To this, the devil replies: “Did God really say…?” For Satan wants to destroy the doctrine of Scripture. And this is why Satan sought to destroy the faith upheld by Irenaeus, why Satan killed the earlier Bishop of Lyons, why the devil extinguished the life of holy St. Polycarp, why the evil one brought Peter to the cross, and why the serpent of the garden of Eden sought to bruise the heel of our Lord Himself – though in the process, had his own head mortally crushed.

Christianity is not for hobbyists, for dabblers, or for those with nothing better to do on Sunday morning. There is nothing cute or lighthearted about the faith we confess, the faith that opened the veins of the martyrs. The devil could care less if we were here to be entertained or to hear funny stories. Rather the devil wants to distort and destroy our faith.

For our faith is a mystery that connects us to God and to His work in recreating us, reforming us to be recast as perfect beings, destined to live forever. The Christian faith is the very epic struggle between God against those rebellious creatures who seek to undermine His work. It is a war with very real, physical casualties.

And though St. Irenaeus understood this, and though he risked everything to teach the pure doctrine of the Church - his own life was spared. The Bishop of Lyons lived a full lifetime combating the devil, preaching the Gospel, serving the Lord Jesus Christ, writing on, and defending, the faith, administering the sacraments, ordaining other men into the Holy Ministry, and turning back the crafts and assaults of the devil one battle at a time.

In our Lord’s parable, the faithful shepherd will go after a lost sheep – even if it means temporarily leaving his other 99 for a while. The shepherd is expected to wander into the lion’s territory, to risk his own life for the sake of the errant sheep. Not every shepherd comes back alive. And yet, unlike hirelings and slackers, the faithful shepherd is in the business of calling those who wander back to repentance.

The shepherd does not rejoice in the size of his flock, in how respected he is by other shepherds or by his own sheep, or by the quality of the sheep-pen or his own possessions. Rather, the cause of his rejoicing is in repentance. For as the Good Shepherd Himself teaches us: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.”

The same doctrine shines forth from our Lord’s next parable: the Lost Coin. The woman doesn’t rejoice because the silver coin is worth all that much in the eyes of the world, but rather because it was lost, and now is found.

St. Irenaeus was a profound theologian, whose books are still studied in seminaries. There are many doctoral dissertations yet to be written based on the theological works of Irenaeus. And yet, Bishop Irenaeus did not rejoice in being right, in being published, in being famous, but in preserving the true doctrine of the Church for the sake of souls. The real theologian is a pastor, a shepherd, one who seeks out the lost and calls him to repentance.

In Irenaeus’s day, as in our day, there were scoffers and deniers of our Lord. There were those who sought to diminish our Lord’s humanity. There were those who claimed to have some kind of secret knowledge apart from the Scriptures. There were those who claimed to teach the true faith apart from the bishops of the Church Catholic.

St. Irenaeus preserved the true faith against all of these assaults. He defended the virginity of the Virgin Mary. He confessed the real physical incarnation of our Lord. He argued for the truth of the Bible. And he appealed to the authority of the Church based on an apostolic chain of authority through the ordination of pastors by previously ordained pastors.

And while we are not saved by holding to correct doctrine, holding to false doctrine can condemn us to hell. The Church of every generation depends on theologians and writers, men who are not only thinkers, but confessors; men who are not only teachers, but believers – to preserve the faith once delivered to the saints and passed on to us.

But most of all, we Christians of every generation need faithful shepherds, proclaimers of the Good News, men who will call us to repent, teachers of the mysteries and revelations of God, pastors who remind us that our God is “pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression.” We need theologians and doctors of the Church not merely to hash out esoteric theology, but to clearly teach the Good News that “He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us, He will tread our iniquities underfoot…. [and] cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

Christians all around the world honor St. Irenaeus not for his own greatness, but for the greatness of Christ that Irenaeus preached, taught, confessed, and lived – even at the risk of life and limb. St. Irenaeus knew what was important in this life: calling wandering sheep to repentance and protecting those sheep from the wiles of the devil, whose false teachings denied the Lord Jesus and sought to undermine the majesty of the Most Holy Trinity.

We rejoice over the fellowship we continue to enjoy with St. Irenaeus, who today praises God to His very face, because we rejoice with heaven itself and before the very angels of God that the pure doctrine of the Gospel, through which sinners repent and are saved, has been preserved by the Holy Spirit through the work and ministry of St. Irenaeus, and has been victorious over every manner of persecution, through every attempt by Satan to devour it, and in spite of our own modern indifference to it.

And even if we are called to suffer for the sake of the Gospel, we have this promise of God:

“After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

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

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