“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!” ~Jesus
Faith is hard. And messy. Very messy, in fact, as anybody who’s ever made a serious go at it can tell you. (One begins to wonder about the Protestant insight that faith is “free” when it requires so much work, but that’s a discussion for an entirely separate post.) For some, the messiness of the Christian faith has induced them to reject it, criticize it, and despair in it. The messiness prompts the opposite reaction from me. Why, you ask? Good question.
First, though, allow me to illustrate what I mean by “messy” with a brief excursion into the world of the fifth century. (No groans please. Just bear with me.) The year is 431 and our destination is Ephesus of New Testament fame.
We have two major metropolitan sees, Alexandria and Constantinople. Their two archbishops, Cyril and Nestorius respectively, don’t like each other—at all. Cyril thinks Nestorius’s teaching is deficient and damaging to the piety of the average believer. He sends a letter asking him to desist. Nestorius, as you might expect, politely refuses. Cyril sends another. Nestorius sends out pamphlets defending his position and proceeds to alienate his whole flock, which includes, tragically enough for Nestorius, none other than the Emperor‘s overbearing older sister. A council is called in Ephesus to deal with the crisis. Cyril arrives early and proceeds to stack the deck in his favor. Nestorius, woefully outnumbered, waits it out under self-imposed house arrest until his allies from Antioch show up to support him. Alas, the delegation from Antioch gets hung up (the overland route from Antioch to Ephesus is grueling, some of their aged bishops die en route, and funerals simply take time), and Cyril, knowing they’d incline to side with Nestorius anyway, moves to convene the council without them. This he cannot do without the imperial legate, who must start the council by reading the imperial warrant for it to be legal (church and state are not separate in fifth century Rome, you understand). The trouble is, this man also supports Nestorius and insists on waiting for the Antiochans. Cyril tricks him into reading the warrant accidentally. (It’s a long story, but it involves a mob. Of bishops, no less. Most good stories from the early church involve mobs.) The council sits without Nestorius or his Antiochan supporters. Nestorius, not unreasonably, refuses to answer a summons to attend. Taking this for guilt, the bishops assembled condemn him. Shortly thereafter, the Antiochan delegation arrives and they, as might be expected, are fuming that the council they just trekked long and hard to attend was convened and adjourned without them. In the spirit of ecclesiastical spite, they hold their own council where, not surprisingly, they condemn Cyril and his party (including the bishop of Ephesus itself!) and vindicate Nestorius. Needless to say, things continue like this for a while with ever increasing degrees of degeneracy, including sister-induced prevarications by the Emperor, unabashed political machinations involving whole churches, and (the height of sorry impropriety!) a sordid attempt by Cyril to buy off the Emperor with some ostriches and other exotic imports. What’s the conclusion of all this dramatic messiness, you ask? Let’s just say that today, we preface the name Cyril with the word “Saint.” We don’t do that for Nestorius.
All this, and I still haven’t told you what the debate was even about. Quite. Allow me to put the complexity of the matter in the form of a question: is the man Jesus none other than the eternal Son of God? Cyril says, “Unequivocally yes, yes, for the love of Jesus, yes!” Nestorius says, “Well, sort of. It depends what you mean by ‘man’, ‘Jesus’, ‘none other’, and ‘Son.’” Um, yeah.
To whom would you rather listen? That’s what I thought. Cyril may have been a bit, shall we say, political for our tastes, but I’m glad he won, ostriches notwithstanding.
Nothing has really changed all that much in 1,500 years. This display of messiness mirrors our own. We fumble along, do the best we can with the tools this paltry world gives us, and eagerly hope for Jesus to be vindicated in the end despite our rather constant failings. We make mistakes. We doubt. We sometimes wonder if all our faith is made void by our well-intentioned but nevertheless very worldly approaches to things. We may even despair in the faith itself. Lord have mercy, I sometimes do.
This all brings us to the word that opened our journey:
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!
News flash, friends. It is not up to us. It never has been. We toil and labor in this life, but this Church and this faith of ours fundamentally does not depend on us. It depends on him. It always has. When I look across the sweep of church history and see the fabulous messes that constitute our fumbling heritage, I take incredible solace from the fact that Christ has had his way with his people despite themselves. And he will have his way with me, also. Amidst all our mistakes, all our doubts, all our worries, all our seasons of agonizing waiting, we know that he is just as in charge now as he’s always been. That’s why the shear messiness of our faith comforts me. Jesus himself said it would be messy. But he also said:
But take heart! I have overcome the world!
And he has. He overcame the world at Ephesus in 431. He overcomes the little world of this writer every single day. And I am very thankful for that.
“Oh take my hand, dear Father, and lead thou me, till at my journey’s ending I dwell with thee. Alone I cannot wander one single day, so thou guide my footsteps on life’s rough way.” (19th century German hymn, So nimm den meine Hände)
Author’s note: hover your mouse over the links for additional context about the Council.