Sermon on St Irenaeus

There are 4 Gospels.

The Old Testament is a vital part of Scripture.

The material World is God created.

The Spiritual is not a separate realm from the physical.

Everything about Christ matters. His birth, his teaching , how he lived, how he died , and his resurrection and ascension.

These might seem bland assertions of some of the key principles of the Christian faith- hardly even worth mentioning, but

what if you have read somewhere that the early church had lots of other gospels which were suppressed by the church authorities later and you have been quite persuaded by the idea.

Or if you tend to think that the God of the Old Testament is greatly inferior to the version found in the New?

Or that the essence of religion is to help us rise above the mess and trouble of the world to a place of order, peace and serenity.

Or if you think the most important thing about Christ was his teaching about love and forgiveness, or that his death on the Cross for our sins is what matters most, or that his gift of himself so that he can be met in the bread and wine of the Eucharist is paramount?

In which case you will find that you don’t quite agree with those principles I began with after all.

I wonder how many of you have heard of St  Irenaeus of Lyons, who lived between about 130 AD and 200AD

He is sometimes cited in sermons, but he is more likely to be stumbled across in books of church history or of the history of theology.

All those principles I opened with were his.

But not one of those principles was plucked out of the air or originated in some kind of early church textbooks.

They were all forged in the heat of controversy. People were arguing very contrary things and Irenaeus found himself obliged to defend the understanding of Christianity that he had inherited.

It is useful to know a bit about his context. Irenaeus was born in Smyrna, today’s Izmir, and was only two generations away from the apostles. He had studied in Rome before moving to Lyons, which was emerging as a major trading city in Roman Gaul.

 His world was dominated by greco-roman religious cults and philosophies and Christianity was simultaneously  becoming cut off from its roots in Judaism and the most disliked religious movement in the Roman  Empire. Irenaeus became bishop of Lyons when his predecessor was killed during a sporadic outbreak of persecution!

But still many people were fascinated by Christianity, and people within the movement and outside were increasingly trying to fit it into, and accommodate it to the prevailing intellectual climate.

One result of this was the growth of the movement, or rather a range of movements, called Gnosticism which creatively blended elements of Christianity, paganism, Greek philosophy, and sometimes Judaism, to make a whole range of hybrid religious soups.

Some ideas that emerged from this movement were that there were secret gospels written which had been hidden by the official church, that the God of the Old Testament was an inferior deity from the one in the New.

That only the Gospel of Like and St Paul’s letters were really worth paying any attention too.

That Christ was a divine messenger who passed on secret wisdom which would free those in the know- the Gnostics- from this veil of tears into the heavenly realms.

And that this material world was created, not by God, but by a demon or a cranky lesser deity.

You might now get a sense of why Irenaeus took the stance he did.

One of the arguments he made was that all this was far from the original teaching and experience of the church.

 Thus, he appealed to authority and tradition. What the apostles had taught publicly and to the portrait of Christ as revealed in the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He was probably the first to appeal to the wisdom of the leading figure in the contemporary Church, the Bishop of Rome, and laid the foundation for the idea of papal primacy.

He emphasised the continuities between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

He insisted that Christ was far more than a divine messenger, dropping down to earth on a secret mission, to rescue a few selected people, but God’s Son, who was a human being, whose message and meaning was for all humanity.

This has of necessity been a very simplified sketch and you may still be asking yourself, what this dive into ancient theology has to do with us. Why take any notice of a long ago attempt to refute the ‘ heresies’ of the day.

For me Irenaeus provides an important reminder of what we could call ‘ Full Monty Christianity’. One which is both true and inspiring. One that functions as a corrective to our own limited understanding but also an invitation to explore further.

 We do need to remember that our universe is not a temporary residence of souls before they quit it for heaven. I am thinking here of some versions of modern- day religion in America which preaches it is okay to trash the planet because God will replace it soon anyway.

We must not forget that the Old Testament is also a place to find great spiritual riches. From the emotional honesty of the psalms to the call for justice we find in the prophets- from which we gain permission to lament and inspiration to change the world for the better.

Irenaeus drew a parallel between the four corners of the earth and the four gospels. Both being sources of orientation which complete a whole.

He makes you think again if you believe that the essence of faith can be reduced to love your neighbour or if it is to love Jesus.

And he brings you down to earth if you begin to believe that ordinary life, its pains, struggles and joys, are not important and not of any concern to God, or part of spiritual reality.

Irenaeus gives us a bigger picture of God and reminds us of the sacredness of our humanity.

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