A Church History Meditation on the “Foolishness of the Gospel”

John 3(16) image (Christ slain for sin)

“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

1 Corinthians 1:18

For a number of years, I have been reading early church history and looking for particular summaries of the gospel. One year I found this beautiful statement by Melito of Sardis from the second century of who Jesus is and what He did in Christian History Magazine. May it draw your heart to Christ, as we move closer to Easter.

[The image above was found on the Grace Lutheran Church of Dyer, Indiana website. I don’t know who its creator or what its title is. I think of it as an image of “Christ, slain for the sins of the world.” Distasteful and upsetting (see 1 Cor. 1:18) as it might be to some, 

to those who read the Scripture and believe,
to those who through the quickening work of the Holy Spirit have come to see “that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Hebrews 9:22),
who believe that Christ, the lamb of God who takes away our sins, once and for all time put away the need for blood sacrifices,
……… this picture is a testimony of God’s love and commitment to redeem out of the world all those who place their hope in Him.]

Melito of Sardis
(died c. 190)

Keeper of the Christian calendar

In the late second century, Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus wrote about “Melito the Eunuch” who “lived entirely in the Holy Spirit” and is among “the greatest luminaries who lie at rest in Asia and will rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming.” Melito traveled to Palestine to visit the Holy Places. Virtually nothing else is known of his life.

Melito’s importance lies in the topic of his most popular work, Homily on the Pasch, and in his role in the controversy over the proper date on which to celebrate Easter.

In Melito’s day, some Eastern churches (especially in Asia Minor) followed Jewish custom and celebrated Easter at the same time as Jewish Passover. This “Christian Passover” marked not only the Lord’s resurrection but also his sufferings as the Passover Lamb.

Other churches (e.g., the Roman Christians under Victor) celebrated Easter on the Sunday after Passover, marking the vital importance of the resurrection, which occurred on the first day of the week.

As bishop of Sardis, Melito defended the former position, termed quartodeciman (meaning “fourteenth”). He believed it dated from the apostle John’s stay in Ephesus. Ultimately, however, the Easter Sunday position triumphed. The Council of Nicea (in 325) rejected Quartodeciman practice.

This decision, along with decisions to commemorate Christmas, Epiphany, and Pentecost, as well as days for martyrs, shows the increasing importance of the Christian calendar, a means for Christians to mark sacred time. Melito’s Homily on the Pasch not only shows some of these developments, it is one of the most beautiful meditations ever written on the work of Christ. The word Pasch evoked for early Christians a number of themes: the Jewish Passover, the Passover meal, the lamb sacrificed and eaten at Passover, Holy Week, and Easter—sometimes all at once. In this sermon, the rhythmic prose declares this mystery:

The mystery of the Pasch
is new and old,
eternal and temporal,
corruptible and incorruptible,
mortal and immortal …

Born as Son,
led like a lamb,
sacrificed like a sheep,
buried as a man,
he rises from the dead as God,
being by nature both God and man.

He is all things:
when he judges, he is law,
when he teaches, word,
when he saves, grace,
when he begets, father,
when he is begotten, son,
when he suffers, lamb,
when he is buried, man,
when he arises, God.

Such is Jesus Christ!
To him be glory forever! Amen.

[1]Christian History: Worship in the Early Church. electronic ed. Carol Stream IL: Christianity Today, 1993; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996.

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