on the feast of S Irenaeus of Lyons
preached at the Finger Lakes Conference • June 28 1999
Tobias Haller BSG
Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies... — 2 Timothy 2:23
The Apostle Paul warned his young protege Timothy, “Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” Like most advice, this bit of avuncular Pauline wisdom has largely been ignored. An agnostic viewer of the church’s history — or an honest Christian — might be tempted to say that the church’s history consists of little else besides stupid and senseless controversies.
Christ went to the cross to save the world, but the proximate cause of his predicament was violent controversy about the sabbath, the Temple, and various fine points of Jewish dietary law, and the precarious balance of power between Rome and the tetrarchs. Peter and Paul faced the problems of what we’d now call a pluralistic society, and the question of whether, and how far, Gentiles should be let in on the Christian thing — and whether, in the case of men at least, such an entry required parting with a nonvital portion of their anatomy. Later Irenaeus wrote a big, fat book about heresies, most of them now long forgotten. The Holy Fathers who hammered out the Nicene creed argued on and on about the difference between “same as” and “similar to” — and their successors in the Reformation argued about double predestination and allowing the chalice to the laity. The list goes on and on…
And please don’t mistake me: I do not say these matters were of no importance. Although the burning issues of one age are the cold ashes of the next, while they burn, they do give some light, and as the Gospel appointed for the feast of Saint Irenaeus has it, giving light is a large part of what we are to be about. (Luke 11:33-36) It is out of these conflicts — some of them now seeming so trivial and pointless — that the church took shape, defining itself in these tensions. As Saint Paul himself once observed, with a flash of Hegelian insight, it is through controversies and factions that the genuine truth is eventually discerned. (1 Cor. 11:19)
The downside of all of this is the hurt and harm that happens in the process. As parties form around various positions, mutual anathemas are issued, and where the power of the sword falls into its hand, orthodoxy can be a terrible thing indeed, mowing down those it considers heretics — which is just a fancy Greek word applied to members of the opposite party.
But if we look closely at our church, the church that survived the controversies, that was formed out of these tensions, the strange thing is that our surviving church quite often represents the forces of change and development, not the orthodox defenders of what they think of as the faith once given. Yesterday’s heresies become today’s orthodoxies, and presto chango: who is the heretic? If nothing else, none of us Gentiles would be here if the Circumcision Party had had their way. Even though they had scripture and tradition on their side, the church moved on.
As it has a way of doing. Because the church is not so much about taking up a position as in being a way. The Spirit moves where it wills, leading a pilgrim people. And to follow the Spirit, and to follow Christ, means pulling that cross from the ground and carrying it every day of your life, not knowing where it will be planted next. If the church is to be true to its own best self, it must always be on the move, and follow the One who is the Way.
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The other thing about heretics — the orthodox kind, the kind who get left behind when the church moves on, the kind who think they have God in their pocket next to their zipper-flap bibles — the thing about heretics is that they are always so sure of the truth. Their truth, that is. Now, as Professor Indiana Jones told his class in archeology, “I’m here to teach you about facts. If you want to talk about truth you’d better check the philosophy department.” But the orthodox heretics have forgotten that: they treat the truth like facts. They think it’s all clear and self-evident, printed in black and white, with words of Christ in red. In doing so, they neglect the living Truth who is not a fact but a Person; who is a Word that is always being spoken in our hearts, not set in stone or printed on india paper in red ink. Christ, the living Word is also the living Truth, the Truth that reveals itself not in static (and therefore dead) absolutes but in the relatedness that binds all things in one. The real Truth is about relationships, for it is out of relationships that reality itself is constituted, from the Holy Trinity on down.
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We are, like it or not, in the midst of another Reformation. The parties are formed up, taking their positions, marshaling their data. Out of this turmoil new life will arise, but many will suffer in the process. Is there a better way? Is there a nobler truth? You know there is. And you know who he is. Only Christ, whose mother hen wings stretch out and over the universe of human fallibility can gently rustle us together so none of us gets lost. Only Christ whose naked Truth was a scandal to Jews and a folly to Greeks can embarrass us into setting down our dog-eared Bibles with a blush of shame, as we realize who it is we have been arguing with, demeaning and demonizing. He is the Way, he is the Truth, and he is Life. And before him all our controversies, no matter how deeply convinced we are of their importance, become senseless and stupid. He is the Way, and the Truth, and Life. May we always walk in that Way, rejoice in that Truth, live in that Life.+