May 1, 2022
Ignatius of Antioch is frightening.
Not because he’s a scary guy. Or a fire-and-brimstone dude. Ignatius was born around the turn of the second century in what is now modern-day Turkey. He wrote one of the earliest creeds, and it was against Docetism. The confirmands learned about Docetism back in October. The Greek word dokein means “to seem,” so Docetism is the belief that Jesus just seemed to be human, but really he was a Spirit walking around during his whole time on Earth. God was only playing at being human, the God-in-Christ wasn’t really like us.
The Gospels go out of their way to prove Jesus was really real, before and after the resurrection. John has Jesus cooking fish and eating with the disciples in today’s scripture. This is also echoed in Luke 24:36-51 where Jesus says, “Ghosts don’t have flesh and bones as you see I have.’ Jesus then asked them, ‘Do you have something to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish. He took it and ate it as they watched.” I’m not up on my “Ghost rules” but apparently ghosts can’t eat and that’s a known fact in First Century Palestine. If you’re ever wondering if someone is a ghost or not, give them a fish.
The fish was a major symbol of Christianity for the first 300 years. It pointed to these stories as a reminder that Jesus was actually human. He actually rose from the dead and had to eat just like we do. The symbol on the cover is from a Christian burial site in Palestine. The bread and fish were early symbols that reminded the early church of the multiplication of bread and fish and the abundant life found in Christ. These are very concrete symbols and speak to our daily needs. He also got tired just like we do, and that’s why he was asleep in the boat during the storm. A boat was another symbol of the early church in the first 300 years. So was an anchor. Jesus was calm during the storm and held steady. The anchor was a subtle symbol of peace when the early church was being persecuted by the Romans.
Ignatius lived in a time of great persecution from the Roman Empire. This isn’t what makes him frightening. Nor was Ignatius afraid–he seemed to yearn for martyrdom in a few of his letters, calling it a great honor to die for the faith. Ignatius really lived: He was an actual person. Through archaeology, we can piece together what his life might have been like in that time and place. Through his letters we can figure out the issues facing the church and how communities responded to the various pressures. Ignatius led the church in a time when it was dangerous to be Christian. Tradition holds that he was fed to the lions in the reign of Emperor Trajan.
What makes Ignatius frightening is that 2,000 years later, he is still relevant. Docetism is alive and well. So many things “seem” to be a certain way. Things seem bad. We seem unable to love our neighbor. It seems like things are changing way too fast. It seems like I just cannot forgive myself, or the one who betrayed me, or what happened to me.
It might seem this way… What we need are critical thinkers who are searching for what is really going on. Ignatius is saying Jesus is of the stock of David. Jesus is of Mary, truly born, and he ate and drank. Truly persecuted under Pilate, truly crucified and died, and there were witnesses. Jesus is as real as the paper these words are printed on. As real as the pulpit.
Christianity can seem like a religion where you just have to believe Jesus died for your sins to avoid the fires of hell. There is way more to it than that. But it’s not about avoiding a hell when you die but getting people out of hells here and now. It’s about bringing heaven to earth through how we treat our neighbor, God’s creation, and our enemies. It’s about the hard work of forgiveness and not keeping violence in circulation.
On the third time Jesus appears to his disciples, he’s cooking fish over a charcoal fire. After eating with his disciples, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. The last time Jesus and Peter ate together was at the Last Supper. Then Peter went by a charcoal fire to warm himself while Jesus was on trial, and he denied Jesus three times. Now Jesus restores Peter three times. This forgiveness is really real. It changes lives.
This faith is really real. It really happened. We can see it in symbols dating all the way back to the start of the church. The first depiction we see of Jesus also comes from Syria, not too far from Antioch. It has been dated to about 235, showing Jesus as a beardless young man of authoritative and dignified bearing.
What was absent from Christian symbols for the first 300 years? The cross. The cross wasn’t used because people were still hanging from them. What we think of the oldest Christian symbol wasn’t adopted until Constantine in the 4th century. Up until then it was a symbol of death and terror to enemies of the Roman state, not something comforting
The Bible also wasn’t a symbol of the early church as it didn’t exist yet. The first Bibles came in the 4th century. Jesus’ followers for the first 300 years did not have Bibles. So when folks come to you wearing a cross and thumping the Bible but sounding nothing like Jesus, that’s Docetism. They are seeming, they aren’t the real thing. How do we tell if some’s the real thing? We see if they act like Jesus, like a meme on social media read:
The very real Jesus hung out with sinners
-upset religious people
-told stories that made people think
-chose unpopular friends
-was kind, loving, and merciful
-and took naps. Be like Jesus.
Don’t just seem to do these things, really do this stuff. It might seem frightening at first, but it’ll change your life and the world for the better. May your actions be real to others. As real as bread and fish to hungry people. As real as donated clothes on someone’s back. As real as the love between us this day. As real as the sunset over Templed Hills Camp when the confirmands led us in worship. It really happened. I was there. I saw these young men and women and how they welcomed, loved, and served one another that week and throughout our year together. What an inspiration and model to the church.
I know it seems like so much is wrong with the world, but when I look at these confirmands and their mentors and families, I know what’s really real. Thanks be to God.
 October 24, 2021: Jesus Part 1 in our confirmation packet, pages 10-12.