Seeds of Eternity

by Jack Hardaway, Grace Episcopal Church, Anderson, South Carolina

Advent 3 Year B
11 December 2005
Isaiah 65.17-25; Psalm 126
I Thessalonians 5.16-28
John 3.23-30

Saint Nicholas
Detail from the San Cassiano Altar
Antonello da Messina
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

He was a prisoner.
They had tortured him for being an enemy of the state. They considered him and others like him to be a threat to the safety and well being of the world.
They broke his body to punish him, to humiliate him, to scare him and to get information, about the others, the other subversives.
They broke his body, but not his will, nor his spirit.
Eventually they released him.
He went on to become the Bishop of Myra, a city in modern day Turkey.
His name is Nicholas, Saint Nicholas.

A truly extraordinary man surrounded by the most wonderful stories and legends from the early fourth century, at the end of the age of Roman persecution of the Church and the beginning of Christianity as the religion of the empire. Nicholas lived through that transition.

It was a hard time for Christianity.

Many people had denied their faith under torture, many had betrayed other Christians, there were informants, many had died because of those betrayals.

Then one day it became not only safe to be a Christian it became desirable.

So the Church had to decide how to handle all those who had fallen away and wanted to come back, many with blood on their hands.

People were angry. Many wanted the fallen and the betrayers and the persecutors as well to be cast out forever from the body Christ, doomed to the Pit of eternal banishment from God.

This was the time of the early and great councils of the Church, when the Nicene Creed was being written, when the Church was trying to decide how and if people could be brought back into the fold.

In the midst of these counsels, there was a group with twisted and bent bodies, those who had survived torture, they were considered living martyrs, they were called the Confessors, and they held great respect and authority in the Church. Nicholas was one of these, and a Bishop.

The Church had two ways to go, repentance and forgiveness could be offered and honored, or it could set the bar higher, and take a stand for purity, where actions and words had real consequences.

Many of the confessors thought every one should be like them, pain had twisted their spirits, and no one could ever measure to the true faith that they practiced. They were taking a stand. They became part of an ancient heresy that is still alive and well to this day, of having to earn God's love, of having to deserve eternal happiness. These are the angry Christians, who cultivate resentment like a fine bed of roses.

But there were other Confessors whose pain had transformed them, rather than twisted them. These Confessors came through the ordeal seeing their ability to withstand torture as a gift from God for which to be thankful. These were the ones who could grant absolution to their former betrayers, and baptize their former torturer. I believe Nicholas was one of these.

These are the ones who believed in the mystery of Grace, that the death and resurrection of Jesus was an incredible gift to be shared, rather than a standard to live up to, or a prize to be earned. The sheer and utter grace of God, the mighty fountain lifting up the Universe, it can be devastating to be suddenly confronted with the fact that it's not all about "ME," that its really all about the gift that is being given. Grace can be a rude awakening. It means cultivating neither anger, nor resentment, but rather cultivating thanksgiving, hope, joy, faith, peace, courage, prudence, temperance, justice. It means taking a stand for forgiveness and generosity and mercy.

It is a different way of being strict. It is in fact much more strict. Eternity hangs in the balance. We are preparing for eternity, within us are the seeds of eternity, and the seeds that we water now are the plants that we have to live with forever. In a sense we make our own hell, because if the seeds of grace are never nurtured, when judgment comes we will reject grace because we won't recognize it, the part of us that speaks that language will have been long dead through neglect.

Sometimes I say life is too short to walk around being angry and resentful all the time, but in reality I should say eternity is too long to walk around being angry and resentful all the time.

I like Saint Nicholas.

He reminds me of the deep roots that feed true joy and thanksgiving.

There seem to be so many angry Christians around these days, on the left but especially on the right. There are Christians even trying to justify human torture. I'd like to see them look a Confessor in the eye, look St. Nicholas in the eye. Eternity is too long.

I have met and studied a handful of people, like Saint Nicholas, who come through pain with a gift to offer the world, rather than demands that all others must meet. They have a spark in their eye, a silent joy that goes so deep.

John the Baptist found Joy in decreasing as Jesus increased.

Isaiah had the vision of a peaceable Kingdom, of the wolf and lamb feeding together.

They watered the seeds of eternity.

Be careful what seeds you water within yourselves. There is a time to be angry, over injustice, but that is about it.

There are more than enough angry Christians about, angry all the time about one thing after another. I can't help but think that most of it is misplaced, that most it is the wrong seed taking root.

This past Tuesday was December 6th, the feast day of Nicholas.

He is a different kind of Christian, one that has something to offer the world, a true gift, a gift that brings life and light, no strings attached, no demands, no terms of unconditional surrender, no list of whom to boycott.

He shows us the seeds of eternity taking root.

In the midst of pain and death and betrayal he shows us a mighty tree taking root, growing and reaching out and up. A tree of grace, a tree of thanksgiving, of mercy and hope and on and on. That tree, its bigger than the sky, past the stars.

Where does it end? Where does it begin?

By the Reverend Jack Hardaway, Rector, Grace Episcopal Church, Anderson, South Carolina. Used by permission.

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