“Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ, our Lord. Amen.” St. John
If John were alive today, would we walk together? I’m not so sure. If he insisted on some of his convictions, which he preached defiantly beneath the golden dome of the Great Church in Antioch, we might have some trouble. One of the benefits of church history is that the differences that divide Christ’s followers are eclipsed in time. The long distance view looks cleaner and more spacious and overlooks the narrow piety and theological eccentricities of any particular age. We use the phrase “a man of his times” to cover a multitude of evils. We call him Saint John not to distinguish him from the rest of the believing community, but because he was and remains a saint in the same way that you and I are saints. We are loved by God and called to be saints by the grace and mercy of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 1:7).
John’s nickname, Chrysostom (pronounced Chris es tom by some, and Chris SOS tom by others), meant “golden mouth” but no one called him that in his lifetime. He was given that honorary title 150 years after his death, but from the beginning of his ministry people were enthralled with his preaching. John studied under Libanios, the famous secular professor of rhetoric at U of A (Antioch not Alabama). He was drilled in grammar and syntax, tutored in the Greek classics (Demosthenes, Plato, Homer) and trained to memorize long passages. John pursued the finest education in liberal arts and communications available and excelled in “all the oratorical and stylistic devices” of his day.1 And, then, at the age of 18, he rebelled. He threw aside, what he dismissed as “ostentatious verbiage,” and fell in love with the scriptures.2
After his baptism in 368, he chose a life of withdrawal and contemplation over his familiar milieu of elite intellectualism. He rejected a Hellenistic aesthetic and became passionately devoted to a rigorous and demanding asceticism. With ever increasing intensity, he embraced the monastic life. He went for long periods without sleep and food. He learned large portions of the Old and New Testaments by heart. He refused to lay down, day or night, for the better part of two years. Sleep deprivation and constant standing, were meant to enhance continuous communion with God. Since it was improper for a slave to lie down in the presence of his master, it was wrong for Christ’s servant to lie down before his Lord. Not surprisingly, this severe self-mortification ruined his health. His kidneys were damaged and his digestion was destroyed.3 Monasticism radicalized his life and ministry. Even though he became the fourth century’s greatest preacher-senior pastor at Antioch and then archbishop of Constantinople, John’s heart and soul never left the wilderness cave.
John’s new educators, among them Diadore, who eventually became the bishop of Tarsus (the hometown of Paul, the Apostle), trained him in solid biblical exegesis. John sought a literal straight-forward, and historical interpretation of the text, instead of an allegorical, figurative and spiritualized interpretation-the form of biblical interpretation popular in Alexandria. Years of secular training in rhetoric and wilderness training in the Scriptures produced a powerful preacher. He could hold an audience spell-bound, preaching extemporaneously, with intensity and depth.
People had never heard preaching like this before.4 John’s style was forceful, immediate, and compelling, a product, not only of his internal makeup, but the external conditions of his setting. Worshipers did not sit in pews, they stood and walked around. The audience was in perpetual motion and John had to keep their attention. He was the people’s theologian, exhorting his hearers to take his message home with them and repeat it over dinner. He made the whole counsel of God come alive.5 We have more than 600 of John’s sermons and 200 letters. His sermon series on the Book of Acts is the only surviving commentary on that book from the first 1,000 years of the church.6
For twelve years, John preached against the pagan decadence of Antioch-the wealthy, capital city of Syria (386-397). He juxtaposed the truth of the gospel with the lifestyle of his parishioners.
“Seeing Christ lying in the manger, you leave Him, that you may see women on the stage. . .a spiritual well of fire gushes up out of this table. And you leave this, and run down to the theater.”
“You leave the fountain of blood, the awful cup, and go to the fountain of the devil, to see a harlot swim, and to suffer shipwreck of the soul.” 7
John’s insistence on pressing for obedience in a culture so similar to ours, in its addiction to sports and entertainment, makes me wonder how we should preach today. Would we dare to preach like John today? John weighed in on a host of issues from greed to gluttony. He refused to leave sin undefined and in the abstract.
“Let us not continue to crave after the things of this life, neither after the luxury of the table, or expensive clothes. For you have the most excellent clothes, you have a spiritual table, and you have glory from on high. For Christ has become to you all things, your food, your clothes, your home, your family.”8
John’s biblical rationale was solid: “For all you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27). John preached against gourmet cooking and architectural ostentation. He took on women’s fashions and the race track. If John were alive today would he preach against NASCAR and tailgating in Tuscaloosa? Would he make the wealthy squirm at Briarwood and defend the cause of the poor at Shade’s Mountain? I’m not sure we would preach today the way John preached in his day. Would he even be invited to Beeson’s Pastors School?
Theologian and Priest
John is well known for expounding and defending the biblical truth of the Incarnation of God in Christ. He was thoroughly Trinitarian. He attacked Arianism: the heretical perspective that used Jesus’ humanity to deny the essential oneness of the Son with the Father in the Godhead. Preaching on Philippians 2, John, with characteristic vividness, likened the text- “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. . .” to a sharp two-edged sword, cutting through phalanxes of heretics, laying low in one fell swoop Arius of Alexandria, Paul of Samosata, Sabellius, Marcion, Valentinus, and Apollinarius.
John urged his congregation, “Rouse yourselves to behold so great a spectacle, so many armies falling by one stroke, lest the pleasure of such a sight should escape you. For when chariots race there is nothing so exciting as when one of them dashes against the other chariots and overthrows all the other chariots and charioteers and drives by alone towards the goal amidst the thunderous applause of the crowd.” That’s how it is, only so much greater, when the grace of God overthrows “all these heresies and their charioteers.”9
I wish I could preach like John, but in some ways, I’m glad I don’t think like John. His powerful grasp of theological truth and his impact on Christian thought in his own day and through the centuries is difficult to exaggerate, but his legacy is marred by his distorted understanding of the priesthood, the sacraments, sexuality and marriage, women, and the Jews. He defended the Incarnation, but he had trouble grasping a biblical theology of the person and the relationship of body and soul. John’s letter to Theodore persuading him not to marry shows his disdain for the physical body:
“I know that you are now admiring the grace of Hermione, and that you judge that there is nothing in the world to be compared to her beauty; but if you choose, O friend, you shall yourself exceed her in beauty and grace, as much as golden statutes surpass those which are made of clay. . . .For the groundwork of this physical beauty is nothing else but phlegm, and blood, and liquid, and bile, and digestive juices. . .So that if you consider what is stored up inside those beautiful eyes, and that straight nose, and the mouth and the cheeks, you will affirm the well-shaped body to be nothing else than a whitened sepulcher; the parts within are full of so much uncleanness.” 10
In some respects, John’s high-view of the priesthood was too high. Sacerdotalism and asceticism added to the burden of the office. In John’s day, the priesthood was inflated into something it was never intended to become. Desecration can go up or down. John compared the priest consecrating the Mass to Elijah calling down fire on Mount Carmel. The modern tendency has been to secularize the office and turn pastors into entrepreneurial visionaries and executive administrators. The ancients spiritualized the office and separated the clergy from the laity in ways that strike us today as somewhat superstitious and cultic.
John’s vision of pastoral ministry would have been helped by understanding the priesthood of all believers. If he had grasped a theology of the gifts of the Spirit and every member ministry, some of the pressure he felt would have been lifted. He would have been better off including women in ministry and resting in the truth that there is only one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus. His interpretation of the Mass meant that the priest played an essential role in the salvation of his congregation. “Only by means of these holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest,” who lift up the body and blood of Christ are people saved.11 This put enormous pressure on the priest. “Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves. . .”12
With that said, many of John’s concerns about the challenges and temptations facing pastors were well-founded and they remain true for us today. John was fearful:
“I know my own soul, how feeble and puny it is: I know the magnitude of this ministry, and the great difficulty of the work; for more stormy billows vex the soul of the priest than the gales that disturb the sea.” 13
John was at his best as a prophet pastor. His counter-culture message and his passion for Christ worked well in Antioch – a pagan, pluralistic city. But his reputation for outstanding preaching got him into trouble. In 397, he was literally kidnaped by armed guards, escorted 800 miles to Constantinople and forcibly consecrated as archbishop. The emperor’s chief advisor Eutropias thought the church in the capital city ought to have the best orator in Christianity.14
John accepted this twist of political fate as the providence of God. He believed he was being called to deliver his message of renewal and reform at the very center of religious and secular power. But if anyone thought that success and privilege would mellow John, they were wrong. In spite of the pressure to become a political super-pastor, John dug in his heels and drove his message home against money, sex, and power. He preached and lived like a prophet. He shunned banquets and ate alone (no para-church fund-raising banquets for John!). He had a passion for the poor and he made it a habit of offending ecclesiastical dignitaries. He made sure funds given for the poor got to the poor. He set up a leper colony next door to an upscale neighborhood. He preached against the high and mighty, and in due course they determined to bring him down. No matter how good the preaching may be, implying that the emperor’s wife is a “Jezebel,” jeopardizes the preacher. John preached with passion, exposed corruption, and made enemies. By 404, John was driven into exile and by 407 he was dead.15
St. John’s letters and treatises from exile remind me of Bonhoeffer’s letters and papers from prison. These strong and uncompromising epistles were written by a resilient saint, who steeled himself against the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is here where I most feel the need to walk with John. “Have you been carried into exile?” John asks. If you are wise, he insists, “you will regard the whole world as a strange country.”16 No one in Christ is at home in this world. We are all sojourners (Psalm 119:19). John’s controlling thought was simple: nothing can destroy you but yourself. Your own worst enemy is not the devil or disease, but your sinful self. Your greatest danger is self-betrayal. Your greatest weakness, littleness of soul. John would have agreed with Parker Palmer’s simple insight: “no punishment anyone lays on you could possibly be worse than the punishment you lay on yourself by conspiring in your own diminishment” (The Courage to Teach, 171).
John had been arrested and deported, exiled to Cucusos, a remote mountainous town in Armenia. In fragile health, he suffered a seventy day journey lying on a litter pulled by a mule. The trip nearly killed him. He survived the ordeal only to weather the extreme cold of Cucusos’ winters and the miserable heat of her summers. The food was bad and John lived under the threat of marauding bands of terrorists. In the winter months he was confined in a single small room, virtually bedridden, covered with layers of blankets for warmth.17 Destitute and abandoned, he suffered loneliness and inactivity. Everything had been taken from him- health, church, friends, ministry, and preaching. Everything, but the one thing- the truth that this exhausted fifty-six year old prophet pastor never tired of repeating either in lecture or by letter.
The psalmist voiced it,
“One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon his beauty and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).
The apostle Paul declared it,
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
“One thing I d forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
Job nailed it:
“I still have this consolation- my joy in unrelenting pain- that I had not denied the words of the Holy One” (Job 6:10).
Faced with every reason to quit and with every excuse to become bitter, John contended that “no one who is wronged is wronged by another, but experiences this injury at his or her own hands.”18 Nothing can ruin our virtue or destroy our soul, that is not self-inflicted.
John argued that poverty cannot impoverish the soul. Malignancy cannot malign the character. The lack of health care cannot destroy a healthy soul. Famine cannot famish one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. No! Not even the devil and death can destroy those who live sober and vigilant lives. The devil robbed Job of everything but could not rob Job of his virtue. Cain took Abel’s life, but could not take away his greater gain. Only those who injure themselves are injured. “Don’t confuse the argument,” John insists, “I did not say that no one injures, but that no one is injured.”19
The roots of John’s argument may be found in Plato’s Republic, but the truth of his argument is found everywhere in the Bible. He cites Joseph in Egypt, John the Baptist before Herod, and Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. He celebrates Paul’s many trials and afflictions. His bottom line was clear: none are harmed; all are honored. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, John elaborates on the liability of luxury and the blessing of lowliness. It is the rich man that is impoverished and Lazarus who is rich in eternal reward. John delights in the broad sweep of “that wonderful history of the Holy Scriptures, as in some lofty, large, and broad picture. . .from Adam to the coming of Christ” all of which makes his case:
“. . .No one will be able to injure one who is not injured by himself, even if all the world were to kindle a fierce war against him. For it is not stress. . .nor circumstances. . .nor insults. . .nor intrigues. . .nor catastrophes. . .nor any number of ills to which humankind is subject, which can disturb even slightly the person who is brave, and disciplined, and watchful. . .” 20
Self-betrayal is the danger, littleness of soul the problem. “Those who do not injure themselves become stronger,” wrote John, even if they receive innumerable blows; but they who betray themselves, even if there is no one to harass them, fall of themselves, and collapse and perish.”21
The best preachers are those who preach first to themselves and then to others. The herald hears the Word in the soul before it is spoken in the sanctuary. This was true of John. His “prison epistles”are free from lament and bitterness. He modeled the spiritual direction he sought to give.
John’s own life was the unspoken metaphor behind the message. He was the hidden parable in the proclamation. The messenger and the message were one. He was the illustration illuminating the text. This is the John I want to walk beside and draw strength from. I need to learn from him how to live and how to die. The end in faithfulness to the end may be a long way off, but it is the only end worth pursuing. I agree with my brother, Saint John, the golden mouth and stalwart contender for the Faith, when he writes,
“Let us then, I encourage you, be sober and vigilant at all times, and let us endure all painful things bravely that we may obtain those everlasting and pure blessings in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power, now and ever throughout all ages. Amen.”22
If I were to focus on a single text for this message, it would be Philippians 1:27-30, however the call this morning is not to exegete a text as much as it is to exegete a life. It is important to reflect on how the Word of God shaped John Chrysostom. We will look at John the Ascetic, Prophet-Pastor, and Theologian and Priest, but my main emphasis will be John the Resilient Saint.
The apostle Paul’s spiritual direction to the church at Philippi is exemplified in John:
“Whatever happens, as citizens of heaven live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one Spirit, striving together with one accord for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved-and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”
John exemplified St. Paul’s admonition: No matter what, he lived in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. He stood firm in the Spirit, striving for the faith, without fear. On behalf of Christ he accepted the privilege of not only believing in him, but also suffering for him.
John exemplified St. Paul’s admonition and so should we: No matter what, live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Stand firm in the Spirit, striving for the faith, without fear. Accept the privilege in Christ of not only believing in him, but also suffering for him.
1. J. N. D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom, Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (Baker Books, 1995), 8.
2. Ibid. 16.
3. Ibid. 32.
4. Ibid. 58.
5. Ibid. 60.
6. Kevin Miller, “Did You Know?” Christian History, issue 44, 1994, 3.
7. Chrysostom, “Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, (Hendrickson, 1995, vol.10, Homily VII, 48).
8. Chrysostom, “Instructions to Catechumens,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, (Hendrickson, 1995, vol. 9, 166).
9. Chrysostom, “Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (Hendrickson, 1995, vol. 13, Homily VI: Philippians 2:5-8, 206).
10. Chrysostom, “An Exhortation to Theodore After His Fall,” op. cit. vol .9, letter 1, sec.14, 103.
11. Chrysostom, “On the Priesthood,” op. cit. vol. 9, bk. 3, sec.5, 47.
12. Chrysostom, op. cit. vol. 9, bk 3, sec. 4, 46.
13. Chrysostom, op. cit. vol. 9, bk. 3, sec. 8, 49.
14. Robert Krupp, “Golden Tongue and Iron Will,” Christian History, op. cit. 8.
15. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press: New York, 1988), 317-318.
16. Chrysostom, “To Prove That No One Can Harm The Man Who Does Not Injure Himself,” op. cit. vol. 9, 274.
17. J. N. D. Kelly, op. cit. 259.
18. Chrysostom, “To Prove That No One ….”, op. cit. 272.
19. Ibid. 273.
20. Ibid. 279.
21. Ibid. 280.
22. Ibid. 284.