39Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
Today is the feast day of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and Martyr of the Church. He was from the first generation after Jesus, born near the time of Jesus’ death and dying at the beginning of the 2nd century. As he was taken to Rome to be fed to the lions in the Coliseum, he wrote letters to the churches in the region through which he passed. Seven survive.
The word ‘bishop’ has gathered a lot of extra weight traveling through the centuries. Ignatius would have been the head of the household of faith – spiritual leader, teacher, symbolic representative of the whole community – but also a link to the beginnings. He had been formed in the faith by John the Evangelist.
The value of such an historical link has not always been recognized in American society. Yet we often will convey the chain of custody for some eyewitness account. “Bill heard it from Mary who heard it from Jean who saw it happen.” And though we have all played the telephone game and know how messages can get distorted, the first generation wasn’t playing the telephone game. They were sitting at a teacher’s feet, learning the stories, learning their significance, reading the letters of Paul and – by the generation of Ignatius – writing down the narratives as Gospels.
Ignatius was a witness carefully taught by the witnesses. And that chain of teaching continues through the centuries. But authority in the church is not from that chain of succession alone. It is a balance between the tradition handed down through the office of the elder, the text of the Scriptural witness, and the living work of the Spirit.
Ignatius had all three.
It is hard to imagine the violence of a society that makes sport out of feeding people to the lions, watching people die in innumerable creative ways. Crucified upside down. Dressed as enemies and cut down by gladiators. Buried up to the neck in the track of the chariot race. Limbs chained to each of four horses set running in opposite directions. Dipped in pitch and set alight as torches.
It evokes the image of lynching when towns came out to vent their hate as if it were a Sunday picnic – and went away with souvenir pieces of the body.
Into this world came a teacher who yielded himself to violence in the name of peace. John heard him. And Ignatius sat at John’s feet. And we sit at their feet, a people learning to be faithful to the one who taught us to love all people – even, and especially, in the face of hate.