Irenaeus of Lyon – John 6: 47-58
I want to introduce you to someone who lived some 1900 years ago. Irenaeus the bishop of Lyon. He is one of what we call the early church fathers. These are people who were prominent in the church after the first apostles. He lived between 115 and 200AD we are not actually sure of the exact dates. We do know he was born in what is now Turkey into a Christian family. Not much is known about his early life except that he became a missionary in Lyon, France, not far from the Taize Community of today. When the local bishop was killed in a persecution of Christians, Irenaeus was chosen to fill the position and became the local leader of the Christian community there. These were interesting times as the Christian presence in the Roman Empire was miniscule. Some fascinating research by Rodney Stark tells us that by the year 150AD, the middle of Irenaeus’s life there were maybe 41,000 Christians in the whole Roman Empire. Less than 0.1% of the population were followers of Jesus, a tiny but growing minority. They usually met in one another’s homes, and they were often having fascinating debates about what it meant to be a Christian. At this stage they had no Bible as we know it, and they were very much adventurers in the faith, working out the shape of their faith in Jesus.
One of Irenaeus’ claim to fame was that he and other leaders saw the need to start to gather writings that might define true Christianity. Different groups of Christians were following quite different paths in their Christian journey and there was a growing need to define what this faith was all about. This was partly a reaction to a large and influential group of Christians, led by a fellow called Marcion, They thought the God of the Old Testament was thoroughly bloodthirsty and violent and this didn’t fit at all with the God of Jesus. So they wanted to ditch the whole Old Testament. We don’t know for sure but some scholars suggest the Marcion followers were about half of all Christians at one point and quite a few of you may well say ‘pity they didn’t win the day’. Irenaeus however liked the Old Testament. I don’t think the violence thrilled him, but the very earthy stories of God alive in the lives of very real fallible human beings did. The Greeks had ideas of perfection and being perfect, but the Hebrews and the Old Testament told an earthed story rooted in human experience. People did have failings but it wasn’t perfection that mattered in story after story in these writings. Rather it was trust and faithfulness rooted in real human beings that counted. That’s what God worked with trying to shape a new earth. For Irenaeus ditching the Old Testament was unthinkable. Real human lives were important. He actually penned a statement that was rather startling… the glory of God is the human being fully alive…After all in Jesus Irenaeus said God had chosen to enter human life.
Irenaeus also leapt into an argument about how many gospels of the dozens then in circulation should be included in the writings that were being gathered into what we know as the New Testament. He advanced the creative idea that must be four since there had been four faces in the vision of Ezekiel: a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Although his logic may appear rather strange to us, there are only four gospels in the New Testament and if you know your symbols you’ll also recognize the signs of the gospel writers – a man for Matthew, a lion for Mark, an ox for Luke, and an eagle for John! That we have four gospels is due some quirky arguments and dear old Irenaeus.
But it’s this quote I want to focus on. the glory of God is the human being fully alive. We see God’s glory in a human being fully alive. Irenaeus was struck by the claim that Jesus was a real human being and yet was alive with God. His favourite festival was Christmas because that celebration the incarnation, God alive in a human being. There was a huge influence of what is called gnostic teaching and practice which focused on the opposite. Some were saying God was to be found by denying our human –ness, our every day-ness, and looking for spirit filled experiences. They wanted to split life into separate physical and spiritual spheres. Some adopted ascetic practices that denied the body as a way to God, and others said it didn’t really matter how you lived in your body because that life didn’t count, and so we have stories of free sexual expression and wild parties. Life in the Spirit and life in the body were two different things. Irenaeus said, ‘no this bodily earthy stuff is infused with the spirit.’ Look for God in all that is created. Honour your bodies, honour the earth, and honour the spirit that lives within these physical realities. The glory of God is the human being fully alive.
Questions raged about whether Jesus was really human, did the resurrection involve the body or was it just a spiritual reality, and was salvation a release from this world or a transformation of this world. The gnostic or dualists who sought to separate body and spirit said Jesus wasn’t really human, the resurrection was a spiritual event, and salvation involved exiting this world. Irenaeus stood on the other side of the fence. Jesus was human, the resurrection involved the body, and salvation was about transformation of this earth we call home. .
You may say what difference does this make. Consider this…many Christians in the United States in particular say don’t get too hung up about caring for the earth because we are going to heaven anyway. If the earth burns up, who cares because we are going to a better place. In fact some would say the sooner the better. Wow, Irenaeus would have something to say about that. But this influence of devaluing the earth and the body also shows in other ways. Many of us fail to take our lives seriously. Too easily we slip into patterns of life that say this is as good as it gets. Is it laziness or is it fear, or is it a lack of faith but we never take the risk of exploring aliveness. We want to be sure we have bases covered, we fear stepping out of the norm, we worry about what others may think, we like to stick with the crowd. Fully alive… well ‘half alive’ is the best we can hope for.
Consider this…Jesus makes it abundantly clear that as we engage with him we will find true life, abundant life, full aliveness. I think that’s what the message in today’s reading about eating flesh and bread is about, finding sustenance, seeing a vision of how to live well, dwelling in each other’s company so something of the life of Jesus enters our very bodies and minds. Eat this bread that I offer, take mylife into your life and you’ll find true aliveness. It’s a bold claim that is at the heart of our celebration of communion (The Lord’s Supper). If you want to be truly alive engaging with Jesus will help.
I want to get specific. Jesus opens our eyes to a journey sharing, adventure sharing God. Yes the God of the Old Testament may appear bloodthirsty, but clearly this was not the God of Jesus. Marcion got that right. So maybe the writers telling us about the Amalekites, men women and children, being slaughtered at God’s command got it wrong. What they got right, however, was the sense of God as a journey sharing, adventure sharing God. A God of the exodus, a God of Abraham and Sarah, a God of Ruth, a God of David. People who took risks. People who saw life as a journey of adventure. People who simply put their trust in God. Our God shares our human journey, our God loves a good adventure, our God takes risks, our God is interested more in a faith-filled journey than in perfection.
Jesus opens our eyes to the gift of yourself. Each of us sacred, valued. Each of us with a part to play. The glory of God is to be found in living your life and being who you are according to Irenaeus. His call to us is not to deny our life but to enter into it more fully. His call to us is to look deeper and discover your soul – your inner calling. You’ll know when you are touching base with this calling because you will feel alive. Keep searching for your deep passions and deep desires and trust that these passions and desires are of God. The life of God within. I need to stress the deep here because we are not talking about the desire for a new car, or an easy life….go deeper. A good practice is to regularly look at your life and ask, ‘when did I really feel alive?’ ‘What was going on?’ ‘Why was I buzzing and feeling so energized?’ Usually when we touch base with our true calling there is a release of energy in our beings because we get in tune with our soul, our deep places, our deep desires.
Jesus opens our eyes to the truth that life is found in linking our lives with others and working to bring new life into the world. Life is found in giving. Life is found in team. Life is found in making a difference together.
“The glory of God is the person fully alive.” Say ‘YES’ to yourself often. Engage with your life – it is a gift of great value. Listen to the inner murmurings. Search for the inner calling, and give yourself with others to making a difference.
“The glory of God is the person fully alive”.
Thank God for Irenaeus!
Dugald Wilson 12th August 2018
Question: What would you do if you had time and money to do anything? ( If we keep asking this question we’ll get a glimpse of inner calling.)