A Tale of Two Christianities – 10/7/12 – Hebrews 2

his Friday and Saturday I was up at Camp Friedenwald in southern Michigan at meetings with Central District Conference Leadership Council, and I bring you greetings from our sisters and brothers of CDC.  We are a part of this wonderful and geographically far-flung conference.  Goshen in Northcentral Indiana is something of the hub of the conference, but at Friedenswald we also had James Rissler from Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship and Ron Adams from Madison Mennonite Church in Wisconsin, and Jane Roeschely from First Mennonite in Normal, Illinois, and Rachel Siemens from Wadsworth in Northeast, Ohio.  It’s a good family to be a part of and, as usual, there was plenty of laughter that went along with the discussion and planning times.

This is the first Sunday in October, which is designated as World Communion Sunday.  Even as we are a part of this far-flung CDC family of churches, we are also a part of this world wide fellowship of churches who share a common confession of Jesus as our master, the one who leads us into the heart of God and teaches us how to be human beings.  So as we gather around the Communion table today, we gather with Presbyterians in Seoul, South Korea; Anglicans in Nairobi, Kenya, and Pentecostals in the villages of El Salvador.  And we’re especially mindful that the one loaf and one cup connect us with those who gather in places of suffering and violence – Columbia, Iraq, Palestine.  What started in the hills of Galilee and the cross of Jerusalem has become a global reality of which we are part.

The epistle reading for this morning from Hebrews talks about how God has subjected the world, the created order, to human beings.  Even though we are just little pieces of dust floating around in the cosmos, we have this god-like power, which Hebrews, quoting from Psalm 8, refers to as being “crowned with glory and honor.”  Hebrews goes on to say, “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus…now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.”

Along with World Communion Sunday, the month of October contains two significant anniversaries in Christian history, and I would like to use these anniversaries as a way of telling two stories about two different versions of what it might mean to be a global Christian, a world Christian.  Two different ways of acting out being crowned with glory and honor over creation.  Both men, and they both happen to be men in this case, had a profound impact on the Christian tradition, and both leave a strong legacy into the 21st century.  Different kinds of legacies.

One is Constantine – the first “Christian” emperor of Rome, and the other is Francis – St. Francis of Assisi.

And we’ll look at three different aspects of their lives.

The first is just noting what the anniversary is, what’s the event that happened in October.

The second connects with that line from Hebrews, “But we do see Jesus.”  Both men had a vision of Christ that changed the course of their lives and, one could pretty easily argue, the course of the western Christian world.  So, what was the vision?  How did they see Jesus?

And third, what kind of world Christianity came from the legacy of these two leaders?  After their vision, what was the trajectory of Christian faith that they helped set in motion?

Anniversary, vision, and legacy.

We’ll start with Constantine.

He was born around the year 272 in present day Serbia.  His father, Constantius, was a skilled and upwardly mobile kind of person, serving as an officer in the Roman army, then being a body guard of the emperor, and then a governor.  Because of his father’s high appointments, Constantine received his schooling in the court of the emperor Diocletian, where he would have studied Latin literature and Greek philosophy.

Diocletian had divided his realm into four administrative districts in order to make the empire run more efficiently.  Not surprisingly, when Diocletian gave up the throne in 305 because of sickness, it set off years of civil war as leaders of these districts vied for power as to who would be the successor.  Constantine’s father had been put in charge of the westernmost district and it fell to Constantine to confront his main rival, Maxentius, who was ruling from Rome.  In October of the year 312, Constantine and his army marched on the city of Rome and engaged with Maxentius’ army in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, which spanned Rome’s Tiber River.  This month, October, 2012, is the 1700 year anniversary of that battle, which Constantine won, leaving only one other rival, whom he later defeated to become the sole emperor of Rome.

This month also marks the anniversary of the death of Francis, born in the year 1181 in the Italian town of Assisi.

He died October 3, 1226, which makes this a 786 year anniversary, which isn’t quite as round a number of 1700.  But it’s an anniversary nonetheless, marked by the Feast of St. Francis this past week, the time which honors his life.  Francis’ father was a highly successful cloth merchant, and Francis grew up in affluence.  As a young man he was attracted to the music of the French troubadours and enjoyed the pleasures of fine clothing and food.  But he became disillusioned with material wealth.  He eventually gave up all these things to become a beggar and a traveling preacher.  Although he received permission from the pope to found a new religious order, he was never ordained.  He called those who joined his order not monks, but friars, brothers.  One of the things that Francis is most remembered for is his communion with the earth and all living beings as expressions of the life of God.  In 1979 Pope John Paul II named Francis the Patron Saint of ecology.

This past week Father Richard Rohr, who is a Franciscan brother, has been writing reflections on St. Francis, and on Wednesday, October 3 he wrote this: “On this day in 1226, Francis died at sunset and asked to lie naked and exposed on the earth as he died. The friars were embarrassed, but conceded to his wish…In most paintings of people waiting for the Holy Spirit they are looking upward, with their hands outstretched or raised up, the assumption being that the Holy Spirit will descend from “up” above. In the Great Basilica in Assisi where St. Francis is buried, there’s a bronze statue of him honoring the Holy Spirit. His posture and perspective are completely different from what we have come to expect. He’s looking down into the earth with expectation and desire! This is the change of perspective that became our alternative orthodoxy.”

The reason that Constantine’s battle of the Milvian Bridge is such a key point in church history is that it was at this battle that Constantine is said to have had his vision of Christ.  So this is the second part, about how each one experienced those words of Hebrews “But we do see Jesus.”  Like other Roman leaders, Constantine would have been what we call a pagan and would have honored the Roman gods and the sun.  There are a few different versions of Constantine’s vision on the battlefield.  One comes from Eusebius, a historian employed by Constantine later in his reign.  Eusebius records that Constantine himself told him of his vision.  Constantine had been marching with his army toward Rome when he looked up to the sun and saw a streak of light in the shape of a cross, accompanied by the words, “By this sign, conquer.”  Constantine was at first unsure of what this had meant, but that night had a dream in which Christ appeared to him explaining that he should use this sign to overcome his enemies.  According to Eusebius, Constantine then created a military standard that he used in proceeding battles decorated with the letters Chi-Rho, the first two letters of Christ in Greek.  According to another version of the story, the night leading up to the battle of the Milvian Bridge Constantine had his soldiers paint on their shields the letters of Chi-Rho, which inspired them to defeat Maxentius and take Rome.  This is traditionally seen as the story of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, although he was not baptized until he was nearing the end of his life.

Just as an aside, when I was at seminary and learned about this story of Constantine I was using a computer that ran on Windows XP, and there was a very brief window of time when I was highly suspicious of Microsoft thinking they might be trying to conquer the world.  But I asked the seminary I.T. guy about it and he assured me that the XP of Windows was intended to mean “experience” which was news to me, but also comforting to know they were not pushing for global domination in the name of Christ.

Francis no doubt had multiple visions of Christ.  One that is most told occurred during his young adult years when he was still seeking clarity in his life path.  He had just been on a pilgrimage to Rome where he had gone to St. Peter’s and, after seeing the small offerings people were giving, gave all the money that he had on him.  He then went out into the street and saw a group of beggars.  He traded his nice clothes to one of the beggars and put on the beggar’s rags, joining the group for the rest of the day fasting and begging outside the door of the basilica.  He returned home to Assisi and was praying one day in a small dilapidated chapel outside of town when he heard a voice speaking from the crucifix.  It said, “Francis, Francis, go and repair my house, which as you can see, is falling into ruins.”  He initially took this to mean that particular chapel and raised some money by selling his father’s cloth to support the priest there – which his father wasn’t too happy about –  but he soon came to understand this as not only the church buildings, but also the people and the mission of the church.  Living with this vision and the discontent of his current life, in 1209, at the age of 27 or 28, he heard a sermon that gave him his vocation.  The reading was from Matthew 10:9 when Christ tells his disciples to go out and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven had come near, and to take with them no money, or extra clothes, shoes, or even a walking stick.  Francis abandoned all that he had, embracing a life of voluntary poverty, and began preaching to whoever would listen, including, stories say, various animals, a message of repentance, peace, and universal brother and sisterhood.

Those are the anniversaries and the visions of Christ that these two men had.  So what kind of World Christianity did each of them produce and what kind of legacy do they still leave?

One of the first acts of Constantine after his conversion vision was quite positive in many ways.  In the year after his victory at the Milvian Bridge Constantine got together with his remaining rival, Licinius, to issue the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed religious freedom throughout the Roman Empire.  This was especially meaningful for Christians, as the previous emperor, Diocletian, had tried to bring unity to the empire by carrying out the worst persecution against Christians to date.  Through the Edict of Milan, Christians were not only allowed a freedom of worship, but also had their personal property and places of worship that had been confiscated under Diocletian restored back to them.  Constantine also ended the practice of crucifixion, although he did replace it with hanging.  And, in 325, he personally convened the first ecumenical council of the church, an attempt to bring about a religious and thus political unity, producing The Nicene Creed, still a standard for Christian orthodox belief to this day.

But, as Christian faith and empire continued to merge together, one might wonder whether Rome was becoming more Christian, or Christianity was becoming more Roman.  Those who did not fit the mold of the newly established orthodoxy were more easily seen as dangers to society, and church leaders became closely aligned with the political agenda of the state.  Constantine has been hailed by the church for much of history as Constantine the Great who elevated the faith to its place of global prominence.  But, if you were raised in the Anabaptist tradition, then you have most likely been taught to look at the Constantinian Shift, as we have called it, with much more skepticism, even to the point of seeing it as the great fall of the church.  The legacy of Christendom exerts power from above, often through coercion and violence.  In this land of North America where we live, it is a legacy that has had devastating effects on the native populations here as missionaries, some well-intentioned, followed on the heels of colonialism in their attempt to extend Christendom to the New World.  It’s a legacy that is still with us whenever God and country get merged into one belief system.  It’s a legacy in which Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” simply makes no sense.

The epistle to the Hebrews talks about how God has subjected the world, the created order, to human beings.  We are “crowned with glory and honor.”  We have done quite well at subjecting the world to our own desires.  We need some help in seeing what it looks like to live in a World Communion in the 21st century that looks more like Jesus.  The alternative orthodoxy of Francis’ legacy is a world embracing faith that can point us in the right direction.  There are many ways that this is the case, but I’ll end by telling one more story about Francis.  It’s one of those stories that no one is really sure where it lands on the continuum of history or legend.  It’s one of the more popular stories told about Francis and it might be fictional, but like any good fiction, it’s true.  And it can serve as a parable for what it might mean to be a World Christian, the story of St. Francis and the Wolf.

Francis was staying in the town of Gubbio with some of the friars when he learned that there had been a wolf that had been terrorizing the village, killing their animals and sometimes even killing a villager.  Francis declared that he would meet with the wolf and, despite everyone’s warnings, set out with one of the friars.  The wolf came out of the woods to attack Francis and his companion, but Francis greeted it by saying: “Come to me, Brother Wolf.  In the name of Christ, I order you not to hurt anyone.”  The wolf slowed its charge toward them and came up to them, lowering its head under Francis’ hand.  Francis then explained to the wolf that it had been causing terror to the townspeople.  He said, ““Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and the people of Gubbio. They will harm you no more and you must no longer harm them. All past crimes are to be forgiven.”  The wolf had never been spoken to in this way before and extended its front paw to Francis’ outstretched hand to make his pledge, and followed Francis back to the village.  Everyone came out to the town square to see Francis with the wolf.  Francis spoke on behalf of the wolf that the wolf had pledged not to harm the townspeople, but that they would need to return the peace to the wolf by giving it food.  The townspeople agreed and, after Francis and his companions had moved on, for the next years whenever the wolf would come into the town, someone would open their door and feed it and there was no more terror in the village.  (See HERE for a telling of the story)