A Sermon for SS. John & Paul, Martyrs/Third Sunday after Pentecost | Revd Dr Robert Wilson

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

St John and Paul/Third Sunday after Pentecost

Today we celebrate the feast of St. John and St. Paul, as well as commemorating the Third Sunday after Pentecost. St. John and St. Paul were servants of Constantia, daughter of Constantine. After her death they spent on the poor the property that she had left them. Julian the Apostate asked them to enter his household, but they answered that they would not be servants to one who had himself abandoned the service of Jesus Christ. The Emperor Julian gave them ten days to consider their choice, whether they would serve him and sacrifice to Jupiter or die. They distributed to the poor all that remained of their goods. On the tenth day Terentian, prefect of the Praetorian Cohort, was sent to them, bringing with him the image of Jupiter. He explained the commandment of the Emperor that they should worship the image or die. They answered that because of their loyalty to Christ they had no hesitation in choosing death. They were martyred on this day in 362.

The reign of the Emperor Julian, known as the Apostate because of his abandonment of Christianity for paganism, is an often neglected period in the history of the Church. We tend to think of the first few centuries as the age of the martyrs, culminating in the great persecution under Diocletian. After the conversion of Constantine we tend to think of the period after that as an age of faith when the Empire now publically acknowledged Christianity and there were no longer martyrs, only confessors. While this is true as an overall view of the period, the reality on the ground was far more complex. The Emperor Constantine did not establish Christianity as the religion of the Empire, but he did grant it official toleration. This meant that Sunday was now recognised as a day of worship and the clergy were accorded the privileges of the pagan priesthood. But the actual practice of the Christian faith was only that of a minority, albeit a growing minority. People naturally tended to gravitate to the most favoured religion as a way of promoting the security of the Empire. But the fundamental fabric of the Empire remained pagan. Even those who saw themselves as Christians tended to embrace Arianism rather than the orthodox Nicene faith. The Emperor Constantine himself was equivocal on the matter, while his successor Constantius was an Arian. Indeed, St. Jerome could state at this time that the whole world groaned to find itself Arian.

When the new Emperor Julian succeeded to the throne it seemed to him that the process of Christianisation was sufficiently superficial that it could be easily reversed. Though Julian had been brought up a Christian he came gradually to renounce his faith for the earlier paganism. He saw the increasing adoption of Christianity as the most favoured religion as the cause of the decline of the Empire, rather than a means of defending it. He therefore set out to promote the older paganism that was still technically the religion of most of his subjects. He had a great love of the pagan classics and sought to promote pagans rather than Christians as teachers. He also sought to promote the older pagan cults at the expense of Christianity. But there was a certain tension in his attitude to Christianity. Though he detested Christian doctrine as barbarous and uncivilised, he recognised that Christianity had been successful in promoting higher ethical standards among his subjects. He recognised the charitable work of the Church, noting that the Jews cared for their own poor, but the “impious Galileans care not only for their own poor, but for ours as well”. He sought for the pagan priesthood to adopt a higher form of life and imitate many of the charitable works of the Church. In effect he was rather like many of our contemporaries in that he sought to adopt some elements of Christian ethics, but repudiate Christian doctrine.

Herein lay the reason for his failure, for he failed to realise that Christian ethics is ultimately dependent on Christian doctrine. The old pagan cults had never really had anything to do with charity and morality and to expect them to imitate the charitable works of the Church while remaining pagans was simply not realistic. Among his contemporaries even those who shared his paganism found Julian’s ideas absurd and impractical. For the Christians he became known as the Apostate and many, like St. John and St. Paul, refused to compromise with the revival of paganism. Julian himself died after a brief reign of a few years in a vain attempt to conquer the Persians. The words attributed to him on his death “Thou hast conquered Galilean” are probably apocryphal, but aptly summarise the situation.

Julian’s attempt to revive paganism was so artificial and unrealistic that it actually helped to strengthen Christianity. By the end of the century it was no longer a minority religion but the religion of the Empire. The Emperor Theodosius finally repudiated Arianism and embraced Orthodoxy as the religion of the Empire. Julian’s pagan revival proved only a temporary interlude.

While all of this is clear to us with the benefit of hindsight it was far from clear at the time. We do well to cherish the memory, not only of the martyrs of the first centuries, but also those like St. John and St. Paul who kept the light of faith alive at a time when it seemed that a revived paganism was likely to extinguish it again. We too need to keep the light of faith alive in these dark times today. Many of our contemporaries, like the Emperor Julian, think that it is possible to repudiate Christian doctrine, but retain elements of Christian ethics. They have still to learn the lesson which the reign of the Emperor Julian teaches us, that it is impossible in the long term to sustain the practice of Christian ethics without a commitment to Christian doctrine. It is certainly true that Christianity is ultimately a way of life lived, rather than a set of abstract doctrines, but the strength of the way of life is ultimately derived from the distinctive Christian doctrines. St. Augustine found much wisdom in the books of the Platonists and other philosophers, but in none of them did he read that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

It is this faith that was proclaimed by the martyrs like St. John and St. Paul and the confessors down the ages. It is this faith that we should seek to continue to uphold today and show to the world by allowing it to bear fruit in our lives.

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