SERMON: St. Irenaeus

SERMON: St. Irenaeus

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Judith Brown on 28th June 2023

Today we remember Irenaeus, Bishop, theologian and writer.  He was born about 130 AD and died about 200 AD.  He came from what is now Izmir in Turkey, just across the Aegean Sea from Athens, and eventually became Bishop of Lyons in southern France – Lyons being then a large trading port on the Rhone. It can be difficult to feel in any way attached to such early saints about whom we know so little – unlike the saints of the New Testament, or even those holy souls of our own islands to whom we are particularly endebted in so many ways – Patrick, Columba, Cuthbert, Bede, just to name a few of the earliest.  But to the first generations of Christians Irenaeus was very significant. He had listened to Polycarp, Bishop of his home town who was martyred when he, Irenaeus, was a teenager:  Polycarp in his turn had known the apostle, John.  So Irenaeus was for early Christians a direct and personal link with apostolic times and so with our Lord himself.

For us Irenaeus is perhaps most important for his work as a theologian and writer.  His most famous work in Latin was Against Heresies. This was written to refute the teachings of various groups loosely known as Gnostics who claimed that the Christian faith was about a secret knowledge possessed only by an elite few. Irenaeus insisted that salvation was offered to all and that understanding the faith was rooted in the gospel witness and the teaching of the church.  His insistence on the witness of scripture is particularly interesting historically as he had clearly had access to all four gospels and most of the letters attributed to Paul – at a time when the New Testament was only just taking its final form.

Our readings today reflect this theme of faith, based on the gospel witness, open to all, of light shining for all.  But it is also light shining within those who respond to the gospel.  This takes me to one of the most well known phrases in Irenaeus’s writings,

As so often with writers whose work is closely argued or prolific, certain themes and phrases are sometimes particularly cherished by later generations.  One of those from Against Heresies is “The glory of God is a living man (a human person); and the life of man is the vision of God.”

Gloria enim Dei vivens homo, vita autem hominis visio Dei.

This sounds extraordinary – even presumptious.  Who are we, ordinary, everyday, perhaps struggling Christians, to think that we are, or perhaps could be, the glory of God.  Who are we to think or even hope that our lives might lead us to a vision of God?

Underlying Irenaeus’s assertion is surely a belief in a gracious, loving God, who searches us out, who rejoices in his creation, and has saved and sanctified it.  It is if you like a reverse image of the Genesis account of the Fall.  Far from being ejected from Paradise, humankind is called into God’s loving embrace.  God actually desires us, longs for us to be part of that family of which Our Lord is the first-born.  When we respond to that call we actually in some sense give Him glory.  Clearly we cannot enhance God’s glory in the way we might enhance an earthly monarch’s glory by gifts or service.  John’s gospel in particular teaches us that the glory of God is not a matter of might, power, brilliance and so forth – but about self-giving love.  The love which shone through that gospel’s account of Christ’s final days and hours is still at work, calling, redeeming and sanctifying.  When human persons respond they become fully alive, rather than shadows of what they are meant to be.  They are the fruition and fulfilment of God’s self-giving love: they – we – are in a sense His glory.

But what of the second phrase – “the life of man is the vision of God”? Again this may sound difficult and presumptious.  The Old Testament warning that no man can see God and live springs to mind.  Paul writing to the Corinthian Christians (2 Corinthians, ch. 3) tackled this head on, as it were.  Indeed, he writes, Moses had to cover his face after his encounter with God on the holy mountain to protect the Israelites.  But Christ has removed that veil and His Spirit gives Christians a new freedom.  “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another”.  (2. Cor. 3:18)  It is not just that we can now through the Spirit see more deeply and truly the nature of God’s love, that His very nature is Love.  We are in turn changed by that sight. Moses’ skin began to shine – hence the necessary veil.  In Paul’s Graeco-Roman world there was a belief that an encounter with or sight of the divine changed the person involved.  It is a powerful sense still among Hindus.  In seeing the holy we are ourselves changed and made holy. In Christian thinking the loving gaze of God transforms and sanctifies us.  We are called to be fully alive.  Or in the words which John’s gospel gives to Jesus, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)