Sunday, December 11, 2016

Serve Jesus Like Santa: The Council

Yes, Church, there is a Santa Claus. I've never visited the place he called home. But hundreds of miles from his home and mine, I've walked the roads he once walked, gazed across the waters he'd seen, breathed the air he breathed. Oh yes, Church, there is a Santa Claus. And over these past two weeks, we've been learning his story. We heard how he was born in Patara on Turkey's south coast in the third century. We heard how he was raised to believe in Christ, and how he followed through. We heard how his parents died, leaving him their wealth. We heard how young Nikolaos tossed bags of gold through the poor man's window so his daughters could wed – because generosity targeted to the needs of the poor, to glorify Christ and Christ alone, is how to serve Jesus like Santa Claus did. 

And then we heard how, a decade later, the bishop of Myra died – how one pastor heard a voice, saying to make the next man into the church bishop – how Nikolaos was the man in the prophecy, God's choice to lead in Myra. We heard how the persecutions raged under Diocletian and Galerius, how they hounded the church and her leaders, how Nikolaos spent years in prison and under house arrest, tormented and tortured for his faith. His courage under pressure, his refusal to compromise, is how to serve Jesus like Santa Claus did. And we heard, at last, a happy ending: how Diocletian and Galerius passed from the scene; how Licinius lost the empire's civil war; how all power came to the hands of one man, Constantine, who'd seen the sign of the cross in the sky and learned to love Christ's people.

Thanks to Constantine, there was finally peace and stability in the Roman Empire. In the church, though? Not so much. A lot of arguments and disagreements we'd been suppressing now had to come out into the open and work themselves out. There were three big ones, and our hero Nikolaos no doubt was familiar with them all. The first, believe it or not, was an argument over when Easter was. Today, that sounds a bit silly. I mean, Easter is Easter! But it wasn't so simple. If Easter is the anniversary of Jesus' death, which was more important – that it fall on the same date, or that it always be a Sunday? And then, should we use the Jewish calendar for it like Jesus did, or the Roman one? The first question was settled; the second one wasn't yet. But could we really have different churches thinking Easter is different days, when Easter is about the thing that most unites us?

And then there was a second argument, an even more important one. Nikolaos maybe took a special interest in this one. The church had just survived several bouts of persecution. Diocletian had ordered the scriptures to be burned, and he targeted pastors and ordered them to make pagan sacrifice to save themselves from prison or death.

Some stayed strong, like Nikolaos did. But other Christians didn't. Even some pastors didn't. Some gave in under pressure – backed away from the church, made the sacrifice, lapsed in their faith. Others went even further, handing over Bibles – and because they 'handed them over,' they got a new nickname: “the ones who hand over,” the traditores, from which we get the word “traitors.”

But the days of persecution were over now. Some of the lapsed believers wanted back in – they wanted to make up for what they'd done, they wanted to repent and come back in. The same was true for pastors, even a few of the 'traitors.' Can they be forgiven? Is there a way for them to get back to where they were, or not?

Traditionally, the answer was yes – that had always been the way bishops handled those who buckled under pressure during seasons of persecution and then repented. But this time, an Egyptian bishop named Meletius said no – he resented those who took the easy way out. So he refused to believe they could ever be forgiven, refused to share communion and fellowship with even the most repentant of them – and the result split the church Jesus had died to make one.

That was bad news. But there was a third argument brewing, and it was more explosive than the other two put together. Nikolaos knew all about it. In the famed city of Alexandria, where Alexander was bishop, there lived a popular preacher named Arius. He pastored the church built over the spot where the Gospel-writer Mark had been killed centuries before. Arius was a sharp-minded guy. He went to the best schools and thought he knew his stuff. And one day, he heard Bishop Alexander say something about God that Arius didn't think was quite right. So Arius, like any good theological know-it-all, decided to correct his bishop and say, “Uh, actually, it's like this...”

Unfortunately, Arius was the one who had it wrong. When he read his Bible, he saw that it called Jesus the “only-begotten Son.” And Arius couldn't see a difference between being begotten and being created. They seemed so similar. In Arius' mind, the thing that made God be God was that, deep down in his essence, at the heart of who and what God is, he's unbegotten – unrelated to any source in any way. 'Unbegotten' is God's essence, the way God is at his core, by definition. So if the Son is 'begotten,' that must be the Son's essence. 

Arius couldn't stand to think that the ultimate God had really been personally involved in taking on human flesh and blood, in suffering and dying for us. There had to be a gap between God and Jesus somehow. And Arius said it was because God was unbegotten and Jesus was begotten. But he reasoned that Jesus, the Son of God, had a beginning. He was somehow older than time, but still “not eternal.” And before that beginning, there was no Son of God. Arius believed that Jesus was a “perfect creation of God,” who had been “created by the will of God” out of nothing – unlike God, and just like all of us.

Arius was dead wrong. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3). What John writes makes it clear: the Word was eternally with the Father, and what God the Father eternally is, deep down in his essence, the same is true of the Word. The Word isn't a created thing; he's the Maker of all created things. Arius and his friends disagreed. Sometimes they said that Jesus may be the Word of God, but he isn't that Word, the eternal Word. And sometimes they admitted that Jesus is 'god,' sort of – he's a divine being – but they couldn't admit that he's the true God, with a capital 'G.'

What Paul writes makes it just as clear. By Jesus, “all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). Jesus isn't a created thing; he's beyond all things, before all things. The power that holds reality together is in him. His constant touch is the force that binds quarks into protons and neutrons, and then and electrons into atoms, and atoms into molecules. In him we live and move and have our being. And “in him all the fullness of Godhood was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). Everything that makes God 'God,' you'll find it in Jesus. No created thing could hold the fullness of God – but the Baby in Bethlehem's manger does, for the sake of bringing us back to him.

Arius started the argument, but he wasn't alone. Some of his old classmates sided with him – and a few of them had become bishops. He found other pastors who agreed with his thinking, and soon enough they were tricking other bishops into writing them letters of recommendation. Arius was a persuasive fellow. He started winning people over. And he had another gift: he knew how to write catchy songs. He set his ideas to music, and soon every Tom, Dick, and Harry was humming them. 

Bishop Alexander tried to stop Arius – tried to hold a trial, got little groups of pastors and bishops together to make clear that Arius was teaching something dangerous and new. But this was getting too big to contain.

Those three arguments threatened to tear the church apart. And that was the last thing the new emperor wanted. He didn't care which side won out, but it wasn't good for the empire to have the Christians fighting. And so he did something that had never been done before. Bishops were used to meeting with other local bishops; but he would invite everybody. Just months after Constantine took power, there was Nikolaos, bishop of Myra, just barely starting work on rebuilding his city's main church. And now a letter comes to him – a letter the emperor sent to all the bishops, asking them to come to Constantine's palace in a lakeside city called Nicaea.

Nikolaos is no longer a young man. He's in his mid- to late fifties. And the trip is not a short one. But he went. Nikolaos went north, over four hundred miles, to Nicaea, to the imperial palace there. I've never been to Patara or Myra, but I visited Nicaea seven years ago. Most of the palace ruins are underwater now, but not back then. All the bishops across the empire and beyond had been invited. And on the day the council met for the first time, Nikolaos found himself surrounded by over three hundred of his colleagues, each with some local pastors in tow. They came from Egypt, from north Africa, from Italy, England, Spain, the lands of the Goths, from Mesopotamia, Persia, India – never before in history had so many top church leaders gathered in one place. 

There they sat alongside Nikolaos on the benches – men whose names he'd heard but never met. Over there was Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem, successor to Jesus' brother James. In that corner sat Eustathius of Antioch. And there sat Vitus and Vincentius, representing the absent Roman bishop Sylvester. Here at one end was Jacob of Nisibis, a noted wise man and miracle-worker from the east. There at the other end, Paphnutius of Thebes, disciple of the great monk Antony. Paphnutius was one-eyed and crippled, thanks to the torture he received just years ago. Maybe near him was Paul, bishop of Neocaesarea, whose burned and mutilated hands no longer worked – again, marks of having stood strong in the time of trial. Many, maybe most, of the bishops bore similar wounds. And then, there sat Bishop Alexander, and at his side a tiny, dark-skinned deacon, twenty-seven years old, with a bright mind and a bright future. He'd go on to be one of history's most influential Christian thinkers, but for now, he was just Athanasius, ghostwriter of Alexander's theology letters.

I remember the first time I ever attended National Conference. The idea of being surrounded by so many pastor colleagues was really exciting. I'd never had that before, being with so many. Nikolaos must have felt the same sort of excitement that day, as the Spanish bishop Hosios, president of the council, stood up and got the ball rolling. And then Emperor Constantine entered – there he was in person, wrapped in luxurious purple robes with a gold crown on his head, kissing bishops' scars and pleading with them to overcome their differences and chart a way forward for the church.

And then the debate began. Most of the bishops weren't clearly decided at first. A lot of them had a hard time following the argument. (Believe it or not, when pastors around here get together for lunch, they don't talk about theology or ministry half as much as they do about football.) The debate seemed so abstract, maybe even irrelevant. 'Essence' this, 'substance' that – these weren't trained philosophers, most of them, listening to that. Start talking like that around pastors today, and you'll still see plenty of eyes glaze over or glance at the clock. It was no different then. “Why does it matter? What's the practical pay-out of all this? Can't we just leave it to the nerds and be done with it?” That's what some bishops were thinking when the council started. Maybe you know the feeling. Even I do, sometimes – and I'm one of the nerds!

But Nikolaos – Nikolaos didn't think it was all abstract. He didn't think it was irrelevant. He wasn't undecided. He knew from the start where he stood. And it was not with Arius. Nikolaos' parents had raised him to worship the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And Arius' ideas threw a wrench in all that.

If Arius is right, then Jesus had a beginning. He's got a totally different essence than the Father does. And if that's true, then the difference between Jesus and his Father is way bigger than we can imagine. If Arius is right, then Jesus can't be “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Anything created can change. If Arius is right, then how can we be sure Jesus won't change on us someday? Where's the security in what Arius teaches?

And if Arius is right, then Jesus is less 'god,' less 'divine,' than God is. But if that's true, if they aren't the same essence, if they aren't even the same kind of being – if God is as different from Jesus as the Creator from the creation – then Jesus can't reveal God to us. Jesus can't tell us that if we've seen him, we've seen the Father (John 14:9). Even Arius himself admitted that, if he was right, then it's impossible for even Jesus to understand God.

And then, if Arius is right that Jesus isn't the true God, Jesus shouldn't be worshipped, because worshipping any created thing is idolatry. And right there, out goes centuries of Christian prayer and worship, all the way back to what the apostles did in Jesus' own presence. What's more, if Arius is right and Jesus and the Father aren't one God (cf. John 10:30), then the Gospel of John's case for unity falls apart, because Christians don't have to be one people: being one as they are one ain't so demanding (cf. John 17:11).

And if that weren't bad enough, if Arius is right, and Jesus doesn't share the essence of the Father, then being joined to Jesus – being the branches of his vine, the members of his body – does not join us to God. And that makes all the difference, because salvation is God's life being shared with us. If Jesus doesn't link us to the Father's life, doesn't bring us into an eternal communion, then John was wrong to promise that “in him was life, and that life was the light of men” (John 1:4) – because if Arius is right, then God's life wasn't in him, and it didn't enlighten us. If Arius is right, our salvation is left incomplete; we haven't been brought near after all. That matters.

Nikolaos saw, maybe more clearly than most people who ever lived, that Arius just could not be right. The Bible showed it, the witness of the Church showed it, the Christian life showed it. Jesus is worthy of our prayer and worship – that's just what Christians do. Jesus does reveal God to us – we know that, we experience it. He's our perfect window into God – and as the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), he has to share God's essence. What the Father is deep down, the same has to hold true for Jesus. Jesus was never created out of nothing, like the universe was; he's the uncreated Creator, like the Father. Jesus never had a beginning; when the beginning began, Jesus was the Word that was already there – and that matters! Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” – all the way back to eternity past. Jesus is the Word who was with the Father, the Word who eternally was God, but now in history made flesh to pitch his tent in our camp (John 1:14). He's our real Emmanuel – he's literally “God-with-us.” 
That's what Nikolaos knew. And after a month where hundreds of bishops rubbed shoulders with him at Nicaea, you could count on one hand those who remained unconvinced of what Nikolaos and others already knew. So the council made a statement. They rejected anybody who said that Jesus came from nothing or once didn't exist. They rejected anybody who said Jesus was a creation, or changeable, or of some different essence than God. They confessed belief in “one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things seen and unseen; and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten of the essence of the Father – God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God – begotten, not made – of one essence with the Father, through whom all things came to be...”

They're familiar words. In some churches, they're recited every Sunday, and hopefully also believed. Some of our favorite Christmas hymns point us back to them. In the end, they won the day. But during Nikolaos' days on earth, the controversy didn't end. Even today, Arius' dumb ideas still have a few followers, like Christadelphians and Jehovah's Witnesses and probably a lot of well-meaning churchgoers who just haven't thought their faith through like Nikolaos did. Arius and the couple bishops who still agreed with him were kicked out of the church and banished. And no one could deny that Nikolaos was a defender of what the church taught.

There's a legend that, during the council, Nikolaos heard Arius teaching his blasphemies, and so Jolly Old St. Nick took a break from being quite so jolly and just walked up and smacked Arius in the face. That's probably a later legend. That just ain't St. Nick's style. But what is his style is more like what Paul wrote to Timothy:

The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil... (2 Timothy 2:24-26)

That's more Nikolaos' style. And in the years after the council, when he wasn't busy overseeing the demolition of Myra's pagan temples, he was reaching out to the bishops who'd been hoodwinked by Arius. He was hearing them out, gently explaining to them what the Bible really said, showing them how it made a difference in his life. And thanks to Nikolaos, one of Arius' pet bishops actually did repent and come back to the church and to the real Jesus, the consubstantial Son of God.

Nikolaos knew that Jesus is important. Nikolaos knew that what he believed about Jesus was important. And he knew that what his neighbors believed about Jesus was important. It makes or breaks salvation. Is Jesus who the church announces him to be – as really our Emmanuel; as the eternal Word made flesh in history; as the Son begotten without beginning, who shares the Father's essence and reveals God to us; as the unchanging Savior who pours God's life into us and makes us something new? Or is he something else, something less, like Arius thought? What do you think? What do you believe? Which Jesus have you known?

This Christmas season, don't settle for a counterfeit. Don't be content to misunderstand Jesus. Don't be satisfied to leave all that 'theology stuff' to the nerds. It matters. It really matters – for you, for your next-door neighbor, for everyone. Be a student of the Word. Understand what God wants you to know about who Jesus is and what Jesus does. Be a teacher of the Word. Gently help your neighbors, in your pew or on your block, to see the big brightness of the real Jesus – like St. Nikolaos did. The light still shines in the darkness, and all the darkness of Arius' dumb ideas or any other false teaching has not overcome it. May we see and share the light, too, the same as St. Nikolaos did, and so serve Jesus like Santa. Amen.

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