Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cyprian: A Witness for All Seasons

Almighty God, who gave to your servant Cyprian boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

St. Cyprian, whom the Episcopal Church commemorates this week, stands as both a great theologian and a great practical witness to the Gospel. As a theologian he wrote and spoke widely about the basics of Christian faith and about how to handle the controversies and failings in church life. As a practical witness he led the Church in organizing relief efforts ministering to all—Christian or not.

Beyond this, Cyprian’s life provides us with a very human example of what it means to “know the times and seasons” in discipleship. During the Decian persecution, Cyprian went into hiding. He did not deny Christ, as did many during that furious era, but he did not go out of his way to confess him in public, either. He waited out the persecution, guiding is diocese through a series of wise and encouraging letters. For this he was severely censured. This makes sense to a degree, given what others experienced at the hands of Imperial Rome.

But God had plans for Cyprian that required his surviving the Decian reign of terror. Cyprian—a man trained not only in the Gospel but in the intricacies of Roman law and culture as it was found in North Africa—became the chief framer of what would become the catholic point of view regarding those who turn away from the faith but later seek admission: a recognition that a sin has been committed, but an openness to re-admission, following a process of coming to grips with the nature and seriousness of apostasy. In this, Cyprian found the middle way between the extremes of those who thought no repentance was necessary for re-admission (and thereby turned the baptismal promises into little more than sentiments), and those who would not allow apostates back into the Church (thereby rejecting the Gospel’s mandate to forgive others, bear with “false brethren,” and be the servant of Christ’s reconciling work in the world).

One of Cyprian’s greatest insights was that the Church must strive to stay unified. A divided witness, even for a supposed "purity’s sake," destroys the message of Christ’s once-for-all action of atonement and humanity’s deification through Him. This is the “hope that is in us” the collect speaks of—something nearly lost in the often petty and devalued vision accepted by Christian leaders and laity alike.

St. Cyprian’s insight continues to be valid in our own day, when denominationalism and inter-denominational rivalry are held up for all to see as a sign that the Church is really no different than anything else on offer. Cyprian knew that whatever our failings, to “throw in the sponge” and accept human sin and division as normative in either the Church’s teaching or practice is a grievous error for which we will continue to pay until we climb down off our ladders of pride and embrace all of Christ’s disciples in love and humility. This is what denominationalism does. Do we have the courage to accept this? Or will we continue to look at the “other Christian” as the source of the problem, rather than our own, squalid selves?

When the time came (under the next persecution), Cyprian was ready. His mission was accomplished. His message was sent. It continues to challenge all who lower their expectations of what it means to follow the Son of God who was first and foremost “servant of all.”

On this his feast day, we can honor him no better than by repenting of our personal and institutional pride, seeking to be transformed by God’s grace into witnesses of right teaching and right practice as was God’s holy servant, Cyprian the bishop and martyr.

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