December 7, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
The apostle’s words are fitting for this day when we commemorate St. Ambrose, one of the Four Doctors of the Latin Church. What Paul charged Timothy to do is a task that has been taken up by others in later generations, including Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan in the late 4th Century. There is much known of his background: he was born into a Roman Christian family, the son of a government official in Gaul. He was trained in literature, law, and rhetoric. His initial vocation was in public administration, becoming governor in northern Italy over the region that included the great city of Milan. As governor, Ambrose oversaw the citizens who also had become Christian with the religion having official sanction in the Empire.
In 374, the bishop of Milan died and had to be replaced. Ambrose’s reputation as an administrator and one who could bring harmony among the different factions of Christians led to his being chosen to be bishop on December 7, 374. Despite his desire not to take up that role and the fact that he had not yet been baptized a Christian, Ambrose became bishop by the people’s acclamation. He was baptized, ordained, and consecrated all in the same week. In his new position, Ambrose’s background in civil administration would prove quite useful. Yet, that would not prepare him to be a teacher. Instead, that would come by adhering to the teachings passed down from the apostles to the Church.
This is where Paul’s words to Timothy show their great applicability on this day. His instruction to one who would take up the role of bishop is to “preach the word”. What word? Not the word of humanity, but the word that had been handed down from Jesus to His apostles and carried out to the world. That is the word to be used as the bishop “reproves, rebukes, and exhorts, with complete patience and teaching.” It would need to be so, especially as people want to deviate from it. That is what Paul warns Timothy: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
One of the great issues that faced Ambrose and the Church in which he was bishop was the question of the Son of God’s identity. Was the Son of God a creature, the first entity made by God, as the Arians were teaching? Or did the Son of God have an eternal existence, begotten from the Father, but not made, as the orthodox teachers confessed? Ambrose was a vigorous confessor and defender of the orthodox teaching about the Son of God. He worked to convince the Emperors to forbid the teaching of the Arian heresy in their lands. Writing hymns that contained the truth, including “Savior of the Nations, Come”, was a way that Ambrose taught the Christian faith. Ambrose’s learning and eloquent teaching based in that word of the apostles would bring him a pupil named Augustine, who himself would become Bishop of Hippo and another of the Four Doctors of the Latin Church.
What is seen in Ambrose’s life and work is the power that Jesus grants to His Church. There is something different and unique that the Church possesses. It is the wisdom that He has revealed and made known by His words and works. Jesus makes people wise to salvation by showing what God the Father’s will is toward them. If one wants to see the steadfast love of God the Father, one need only look at Jesus’ life. If one wants to know how God the Father considers you, one need only look at what Jesus has done and taught. This is not found in any other. There is no other source of it. And it has been given to the Church to be its possession and instrument in this world.
While others may be like Ambrose, intelligent and educated in the wisdom of the world, only the wisdom that Jesus gives brings the full truth about God and humanity. That is what needs to be known for salvation. In the disputes over the identity of God the Son, it would not matter what Ambrose could quote from ancient writers or the codex of Imperial Law or the great philosophers. The matter could only be settled by adhering to the word, faithfully speaking it and employing it to reprove, rebuke, and exhort.
Jesus’ words that you heard this evening also state that truth. Speaking about His disciples, the Church, Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” If the Church loses what Jesus has given to be its possession, there is nothing that can replace it. The salt that loses its saltiness and the light that is hidden under the basket both fail to perform the role that it is meant to fulfill. So it is when the Church abandons, neglects, or ignores the word that Jesus has given to it.
Jesus also states the truth about what His people are to proclaim and teach: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” When the Church does not preach that Jesus has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets or when it decides to delete or overlook what Jesus has instructed, then it fails in its role. Its identity is lost.
But when the Church and its leaders do what is instructed—when they permeate the world with the salt of the Gospel, when they shine their light in the darkness with their good works, when they teach all that Jesus has done—then they are indeed great. It is why Ambrose is commemorated and called great by the Church now, some 1700 years after his death. It is why we give honor to doctors and teachers of the Church. It is why even honorary titles are given in recognition of faithfulness in service. The greatness is not found in the individual or organization itself, but in what Jesus has bestowed to it. The greatness is in being given the wisdom that comes from above, that which brings salvation to its adherents.
That greatness is yours, even if you will not remembered by believers a generation or two later. What Jesus gives is eternal. And when He comes to judge the living and the dead, the greatness of receiving His wisdom will be confirmed in the resurrection to everlasting life. In Jesus’ coming kingdom, Ambrose and others like him will be recognized as great. But you also will be there, participating in the salvation that Jesus has granted to you, as you heard the preached word and were reproved, rebuked, and exhorted by it. Not turning away from listening to the truth and not wandering off into myths, the fullness of what Jesus has accomplished will be yours.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.