What a Responsibility

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's
Stone Harbor, NJ
The Feast of Athanasius, Bishop - May 2, 2007

This evening, we come together to celebrate the Feast of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria from 328 until his death in 373. For those of you who enjoy reading the section of Historical Documents at the back of the Book of Common Prayer, you may recall that there is a Creed attributed to him – The Creed of Saint Athanasius on pages 864 and 865. Just a glance at the sheer length of it is enough to make most of us eternally grateful for the shorter Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed that we use in our worship. Nonetheless, it is an important document because it reveals a lot about the church controversies that were roiling in the 4th century. And, being in Alexandria, Athanasius was in the midst of a good number of debates.

Alexandria was THE powerhouse east of the Roman Empire and, as such, attracted a great number of thinkers. And whenever two or more thinkers are gathered together in a room, there are at least as many – and usually more - opinions. So, Alexandria was a hot-bed of theological dispute. And Athanasius was a controversial theologian – in fact, he was exiled five times for a total of 17 years during his 47 years as Bishop.[1] Talk about having the strength of your convictions! Each time he was exiled, he sought refuge in the west and it is for this reason primarily that he has had such a great influence on western Christianity and is remembered in our calendar on May 2nd of each year.

I think about our recent walk through Holy Week and those first days following the resurrection and the myriad ways in which the disciples let Jesus down. First we have Judas, remembered as the ultimate traitor. Then there is Peter with his denial – not once, but three times – of his place as one of Jesus’ followers. And, after the resurrection, none of the disciples believe Mary when she comes to tell them that she has seen the Lord and that he has spoken to her. And Thomas, remembered as the doubting one, until he touched the wounds of Christ with his own hands, he simply would not believe.

And what about you and me? Our own betrayal of Christ is surely not as overt as that of Judas –nor is it as direct as Peter’s denial – and yet . . . Athanasius wrote: “What a responsibility the Church has, to be Christ’s ‘body,’ showing him to those who are unwilling or unable to see him in providence, or in creation!”[2] This is a tall order and yet it is one which each of us undertakes through our baptism by water and the Holy Spirit. Whenever we renew our baptism, we promise to continue in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; we promise to persevere in resisting evil; we promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons; and we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. Athanasius was right; being the Body of Christ – being the Church – is a great responsibility.

But there is a promise as well – the reason that our baptismal liturgy takes the form of a covenant and not a contract – in our baptism we are promised that we are joining God’s work already in progress in the world. Each time we are asked a question in the renewal of our baptismal vows our response is, “I will, with God’s help.” We are not asked to do this work alone. No, we are invited to join God’s mission and, through the waters of baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to join God’s mission. God is already at work in the world and we have agreed, in baptism, to join God at work. Moreover, in baptism, we are promised that we have everything we need. We don’t need to wait for the perfect bishop, priest, or deacon to walk through these doors. We don’t need to wait until we’ve raised the right amount of money. We don’t need to wait until ten new families with young children walk through our doors. God has given us everything we need. Just take a look around you . . . “What a responsibility the Church has, to be Christ’s ‘body,’ showing him to those who are unwilling or unable to see him in providence, or in creation!” What a responsibility . . . and what a blessing!

[1] Helen Theodoropoulos, class notes from January 12, 2005 lecture on Athanasius, Cappadocians and Friends, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary.
[2] Athanasius, quoted by James Keifer in “Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, Theologian, Doctor,” James Kiefer's Christian Biographies, accessed