Sunday, December 13, 2020

Santa at the Council: Advent Reflections on the Life of St. Nicholas

Yes, church, there is a Santa Claus. And in the past two weeks, we've been learning the story of the real St. Nicholas. Born in the town of Patara on the southwest tip of Turkey around the year 270, he lost his family to plague and, left with a vast inheritance, was led by God into strategic giving, rescuing whole families from the death of body and soul. Around the age of thirty, he traveled thirty miles to the town of Myra and was chosen by the voice of God as its new bishop. A few years into his ministry there, Emperors Diocletian and Galerius launched a persecution of the church that landed Bishop Nicholas in prison, where he was tortured for his faith in Jesus. When we last left Nicholas, it was the year of our Lord 313. Bishop Nicholas was 43, and it had finally been declared legal to be a Christian. Nicholas could rebuild his church and comfort the flock he'd been called by God to shepherd. See, the Santa Claus of history, not of legend, was a man of flesh and blood, led by the Spirit, finding his way to follow Jesus in a challenging world – much like us. And from his success, we can learn how to imitate him as he imitated Jesus Christ.

A couple years after we left him, Nicholas might have been astonished and thrilled with the direction the empire was going. For the first time, he might have held in his hand a Roman coin with a Christian symbol on it. Two emperors ruled the empire: Licinius held the east, and he was a tolerant pagan who upheld the law, but in the west was a man named Constantine, who'd just the other year had a vision of a cross in the sky, and a voice bidding him to conquer under this sign, and no other. He bowed the knee to Christ, though he was unbaptized and hence not fully part of the church. Over the coming years, Constantine and Licinius would squabble for dominance, watching each other warily, even as they fought off the threat of the Goths. At last, in 324, it turned into yet another civil war – as if Nicholas hadn't lived through his share of those! But this one was a religious civil war: Licinius cast himself as the defender of the old Roman religion, Constantine as the defender of the message of Christ. Again and again, the pair faced off in battle – at Adrianople, in the Hellespont, and finally at Chrysopolis, where on September 18, Constantine finally broke Licinius. When the dust cleared, there was only one emperor holding the reins of power – and that man was Flavius Valerius Constantinus.

Nicholas certainly paid attention to the news. While pagan persecution would not be the end of the church, he'd no doubt prayed for Constantine to come out on top, for the health of the empire and the opportunities it would bring for the gospel to shape culture and touch lives. Now stability could finally return. The church had legal protection and imperial endorsement, and while Constantine certainly had his foibles and Christianity was hardly in the majority, they would be upheld.

At the same time, the church had a lot of questions to settle. There were many lingering questions about how this or that thing was to be done – what the right call would be, how to deal with this situation or that. And it was important that the whole church get on the same page. We – as children born of church division – tend to think that, if you don't like how the church is being run, just go break off, do your own thing, start your own or else be a solo Christian in the comfort of your cocoon. We split, we divide, we church shop. We are wrong. St. Nicholas – and most of Christian history is unanimously with him on this – would have had harsh words when he saw that sort of thing happening in his day. Because those are the sins of schism and heresy and rebellion, which can be deadly enough to cut people off from Christ and place them in danger of everlasting fire. Church unity matters deeply to Jesus, so it mattered deeply to Nicholas. And if church unity matters, then it means that some issues have to be dealt with in a unified way, across the entire church, not just a part of it – and as the Spirit leads the whole church to decide, so is the whole church bound.

Some of those questions were about church order. If the church is one, then which local church answers to whom? Do the bishops of cities like Antioch and Alexandria take leadership roles in their broader areas, much the same way that Rome's bishop was known to? And where does the bishop of Jerusalem rank? Is there a real hierarchy in each town's church? Who has the authority to give communion to whom? How should bishops be chosen and ordained? How long should somebody be a Christian before they can be ordained into the ministry? And if one bishop ordains somebody from another bishop's jurisdiction without consulting that bishop first, is that valid? Also, what about people who'd become leaders in a fake church – how can separatists and heretics be brought back, and can pastors of fake churches get ordained for real if they repent?

Other questions dealt with the worship of the church. Which days should Christians stand to pray in church? On what occasions should they kneel before God? And how should we decide which Sunday is Easter – what role should the Jewish calendar play in setting the date?

Still other questions were about ethics for those in clerical ministry. May clergy lend money out at interest and get rich that way? May clergy live in what look like compromising situations with women? And what about clergy who denied the faith during the persecution – can they stay in ministry?

Even more questions were about penance – the process of restoring sinful believers to full fellowship. A lot of believers lapsed during the persecution – whether through pressure or simply cowardice, they turned over their Bibles or they offered sacrifices or they tattled on other believers. The church didn't believe in just waving a magic wand over the situation and saying it was all good. Just like people in the Bible used to sit around in sackcloth and ashes after serious sins, offering penance for what they'd done, so the church often asked people to do penance for a certain length of time before they could be welcomed back into full communion after certain serious sins. But how long? Was there a difference for those who hadn't yet been baptized versus those who had already made certain promises to Jesus with their baptismal vows? And what about for other sins, like going back to professions that were incompatible with the gospel – how long should that penance be, and when can it start? And if somebody's under the church discipline of their bishop, should there be a way to appeal that to the neighboring bishops, in case yours made a mistake? Those were some of the other questions.

But the biggest question had to do with Christ himself. Nicholas had caught wind, before the civil war broke out, that there was trouble brewing. In the famed big city of Alexandria, north of Egypt, there lived a popular preacher named Arius, a priest from Libya. He'd been trained in the best schools, he thought he knew his stuff. He was a theological know-it-all – except he didn't know it all. Nicholas at some point got a letter from Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, who'd been a long-time friend with Arius, about how Arius had been unfairly treated by his bishop Alexander. Then Nicholas got a letter from Alexander setting the story straight.

Arius' preaching had gone off the rails, and when Alexander – known for his gentle, quiet, and tolerant spirit – reluctantly tried to correct this young star, Arius doubled down on his mistakes. Not only that, but Arius started writing very catchy music to spread his theology – and soon people everywhere were singing it, were humming the tune, were getting these words stuck in their heads. Our faith is learned through what we sing, which is why hymns are so important. And soon Arianism, the beliefs of Arius, were spreading like a disease, and on the verge of becoming a theological pandemic. Alexander warned that Arius had started “teaching an apostasy which one might reasonably consider and label the forerunner of the Antichrist.” Those are serious words!

So what was Arius' problem? When he read his Bible, he saw that it called Jesus the “only-begotten Son.” And Arius couldn't see any difference between being begotten and being created – they just sounded so similar. To 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' was, for Arius, God's definition. So if Jesus the Son is 'begotten,' that must be the Son's essence – defining him as different than God. Arius could not stand to think that the ultimate God had personally been involved in taking on human flesh and blood and in suffering and dying for us. Arius wanted to drive a wedge between the Supreme God and Jesus as a merely “mighty god.” Arius realized that this wedge would open up a vast gap. To him, only God is unbegun, while the Son has a beginning; only God is eternal, and Jesus had an origin in time. There was a time when there was no Jesus, no Son of God: “There was when the Son was not,” and “when there is no Son, the Father is God.” Arius sang that Jesus “has nothing proper to God in his essential property,” and that therefore even Jesus doesn't really know his own Father, seeing and knowing him only from a distance, like us. Arius sang things like, “To the Son himself, [God] is invisible,” and “the Father is essentially foreign to the Son,” and “God exists ineffable to the Son,” while “the Son himself does not know his own essence.” Arius believed that Jesus was a “perfect creation of God,” who had been “created by the will of God” out of nothing – unlike God, but just like all of us.

Now, 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. Paul also tells us that by Jesus Christ, “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). The person of Christ is no creature; he's beyond all things, before all things. The power that holds reality together is him. His constant touch is the power that binds quarks into protons and neutrons, then into atoms, and atoms into molecules that make up us and all we see or feel. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). 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 Godhood – but the Baby in Bethlehem's manger has the fullness of everything God is.

The difference between these two views could not have been wider. And you can't have two totally different views of Jesus side-by-side. Jesus is too important. The church would have to either take a side or else break apart in bitterness. And that was the last thing the new emperor Constantine wanted. He'd already learned the hard way, after trying to settle some church controversies in northern Africa, that fighting Christians were an exhausting political problem. And so Constantine had an idea. Back in Acts 15, all the apostles got together in the city of Jerusalem to settle questions in a unified way. Since the apostles had ordained bishops as their successors, why not have bishops do the same thing? Bishops occasionally got together in local provinces to settle local questions; why not have bishops come from all over to settle the questions that matter all over?

Thus, one day, a messenger came into Myra with a letter for Nicholas. This was important official mail. This was a letter from the emperor. It was an invitation to come, in May of the year 325, for a months-long meeting hosted by the emperor at his palace in a lakeside city called Nicaea. Constantine had sent a copy of this letter to each bishop. All the leaders of God's church were invited to come settle all the questions of the day – including this biggest one. Now, by the time Nicholas has this letter in his hands, he's about 55 years old, and has been a church leader for nearly half his life. He's got his church rebuilt. He can trust his priests, his junior or associate pastors in Myra, to handle things while he's gone. And so, although it's a long journey of over 400 miles, St. Nicholas hit the road for Nicaea.

About eleven years ago, I spent some time in Nicaea, walking the same roads St. Nicholas walked. The ruins of the palace are mostly underwater now. But on the day the council opened, Nicholas found himself in the innermost hall of that palace, surrounded by hundreds of his episcopal collagues, many with some assistants in tow. They came from Egypt, from Africa, from Italy and England and Spain, from Greece and Asia and Galatia, from the Holy Land, from Mesopotamia and Arabia and India – never before in history had so many leaders of God's church gathered in one place. Picture Nicholas sitting in his assigned seat on the benches alongside so many men whose names he'd heard. Over there was Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem. In that corner sat Eustathius of Antioch. There sat Vitus and Vincentius, priests sent on behalf of the absent Roman bishop Sylvester. Here at one end was Jacob of Nisibis, a miracle-worker from the east. Over at the other end was Paphnutius of Thebes, from the deserts of Egypt – one-eyed and crippled from torture. Nicholas met Paul of Neocaesarea, whose hands had been burned and cut. Alexander from Alexandria sat, with a short 27-year-old deacon by his side – the brilliant young man Athanasius, ghostwriter of Alexander's big letter. Can you imagine how excited Nicholas was to meet everyone, to put a face to the name?

And then a Spanish bishop named Hosios, presiding at the council, stood up, and so did everyone else. Then the Emperor Constantine, ruler of the Roman Empire, entered, wrapped in luxurious purple robes, with a gold crown on his head, decorated with jewels. The emperor made his way through the crowd of bishops, kissing their scars sustained in the persecution. Picture Nicholas, standing face-to-face with the emperor, looking right into Constantine's eyes. In age, the two were peers – Nicholas was almost two years older. At last, Constantine sat on a golden throne, the bishops sat, the emperor gave a speech encouraging the bishops to keep the church united. And then the council began.

And so opened many raucous debates, most especially on the big question. Many of the bishops weren't clearly decided at first. A lot of them had a hard time following the argument, with all its technical philosophy words and all their abstract ramifications. 'Essence' this, 'substance' that, quibbles over Greek grammar. Some eyes no doubt glazed over. Maybe a few of them were thinking, “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?”

Nicholas didn't think that. He didn't think it was irrelevant. He wasn't undecided. He knew from the very start that he was not on Team Arius. His parents had raised him in the faith of the church, the whole church; and that faith meant to worship the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. If Arius was right, then the whole church was wrong in how it worshipped and how it prayed. That was serious. Everything was at stake.

See, if Arius were right, then the difference between Jesus and his Father is way bigger than we can imagine. If Arius is right, then Jesus may not really be “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Anything created can change. So if Arius is right, how can we be sure Jesus won't turn on us someday? There's no basis for security in what Arius teaches. And if Arius is right, then Jesus is less 'god' than God is. And if that's true, then Jesus can't reveal God to us, because he doesn't really know God himself. Yet Jesus told us, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). And if Arius is right, then Jesus shouldn't be worshipped, because he isn't the Supreme God. And right there, out goes centuries of Christian prayer and worship, right back to how the apostles acted in Jesus' own presence. What's more, if Arius is right, then Jesus and the Father aren't one God. But the Gospel of John builds its call for Christian unity on that truth: we should be one people because the Father and the Son are one God (John 10:30; 17:11). So the nature of the church itself was in jeopardy.

And if that weren't bad enough, if Arius is right, then being joined to Jesus – the branches of his Vine, members of his Body – does not join us to the Ultimate God. But salvation, true and full salvation, is about God's own life being shared with us. If Jesus doesn't link us to the Father's life, then John lied in writing 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 the life that's in Jesus, and nothing less than God's light can enlighten us for eternity. If Arius is right, our salvation is finally incomplete, and we haven't been brought to God's own heart. That matters. And it matters more than anything. For Jesus had also said, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23) – which means that those like Arius who demoted Jesus from God's level were blaspheming against God and refusing the light of grace. Bishop Alexander had been right to accuse Arius and his friends of “resisting God” and being “destroyers of souls!”

Nicholas 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, eternally! Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” – all the way back to eternity past, and unchangingly for endless ages to come (Hebrews 13:8). 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,” full stop.

That's what Nicholas knew. And after a month of meeting with the hundreds of bishops who rubbed shoulders with him at Nicaea, you could count on one hand those who weren't convinced. So on top of answering a lot of the other practical and ethical and ecclesiastical questions in front of it, the council also made a statement about what the Christian faith is all about. They rejected anybody who said that Jesus came from nothing or once didn't exist. They rejected anybody who said he 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 – we call them the Nicene Creed. Some churches recite those very words every Sunday. Some of our favorite Christmas hymns point us back to them. In the end, the beauty of Jesus Christ won the day. But even during Nicholas' life on earth, the controversy raged on among those who didn't accept the work the council did. Even today, Arius' bad ideas have followers – some in groups like Jehovah's Witnesses, others among lots of well-meaning Christians who haven't thought out their faith the way St. Nicholas did. Arius and his supporters were suspended from church fellowship by the council and sent into exile by the emperor.

There's a legend that, during the council, Nicholas heard Arius teaching his blasphemies, and so Jolly Old St. Nick took a break from being jolly and walked up and smacked him in the face. Popular story, but unlikely to be true – it's a very unreliable story, and it just isn't St. Nick's style. But what is his style is 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 Nicholas' style. The council wrapped up by August in the year of our Lord 325, several months after it began, ending with a grand victory-feast hosted by the emperor in his own halls. And in the coming years, when Nicholas wasn't busy breaking down Myra's pagan temples, he was reaching out to the people who'd been hoodwinked by Arius, including the ex-bishops who'd been exiled. Nicholas was hearing them out, gently explaining to them what the Bible really said and the Church really held, showing them how it made a difference in his life and in the church's life. And through the patient witness of Nicholas, God granted even to one of Arius' own pet bishops the gift of repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth – and that bishop came to his senses and escaped from the snare of the devil. He really did repent, he really did come back to the church and to the real Jesus – and God used St. Nicholas to help that happen.

St. Nicholas knew that Jesus is important. St. Nicholas 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? Where do you stand? Which Jesus Christ have you known? Who and what do you say that the baby laid in the Bethlehem manger is?

This Christmas season, don't settle for a counterfeit. Don't be content to misunderstand Jesus. It matters – for you, for your next-door neighbor, for everyone. Be a student of the truth. Understand what God wants you to know about who Jesus is and what Jesus does. Be a confessor of the truth. Gently help your neighbors, in your pew or on your block, to see the big brightness of the real Jesus – like St. Nicholas did. The Light still shines in the darkness, and all the darkness of Arius' bad ideas (or any other false teaching) has not overcome it. May we see and share the Light, too, the same as St. Nicholas did. And may we learn from him to worship at the side of the manger, beholding the fullness of true God and true man truly present there! Amen.

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