We’ve all heard it before: There’s nothing new under the sun. Everything has its precedent. You can’t surprise history. The axiom itself comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes, but it’s virtually commonsense nowadays. In today’s devotional, I’d like us to see if we can’t learn from some familiar history by taking a look at a heated controversy that occurred in the early church way back in the 300s AD. I think we’ll find a lot of similarities between then and now that might help us today.

Almighty, eternal, and life-giving God, be our wisdom and guide today. Lead us with your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

John 21:15-19
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

“Rock of Ages” — Augustus Toplady (YouTube video for in-home worship: Click here for Video)

Rock of Ages, cleft for me, 
let me hide myself in thee; 
let the water and the blood, 
from thy wounded side which flowed, 
be of sin the double cure; 
save from wrath and make me pure. 

Not the labors of my hands 
can fulfill thy law’s demands; 
could my zeal no respite know, 
could my tears forever flow, 
all for sin could not atone; 
thou must save, and thou alone. 

Nothing in my hand I bring, 
simply to the cross I cling; 
naked, come to thee for dress; 
helpless, look to thee for grace; 
foul, I to the fountain fly; 
wash me, Savior, or I die. 

While I draw this fleeting breath, 
when mine eyes shall close in death, 
when I soar to worlds unknown, 
see thee on thy judgment throne, 
Rock of Ages, cleft for me, 
let me hide myself in thee. 

Before Christianity was granted legal status in Rome under Constantine in 313 AD, Christians often found themselves facing serious persecution. The emperors Decius and Diocletian both waged harsh campaigns against the church in the latter half of the third century. Pastors and ministers were asked — or, more likely, forced — to hand over their Bibles as proof that they had repudiated the faith. Though some refused and decided to go into hiding or suffer the consequences, many others were not so strong. They turned over their scriptures and lived to tell the tale.

You might imagine what happened next. When the persecutions eventually died down, those who had escaped into hiding came back, and when they did, they found many of their not-so-faithful fellows once again proclaiming the faith. A storm of controversy ensued. “Why should these traitors still be welcome in the church? Didn’t their betrayal uncover a genuine lack of faith? Should we even consider them Christians anymore?” For those faithful few, the issue was one of purity. If the church is to be the true church, then it should be a pure church. In the same way, true ministers must be pure ministers, and these traitors certainly weren’t.

The same debate has happened time and time again throughout history. Today, in the world of social media and celebrity preachers, we often see it when a pastor or a church leader admits to being unfaithful in his or her marriage, or it’s discovered that they’ve been embezzling money for years. It’s relatively easy for pastors to fall from grace. The bar, rightfully so, is high.

But, what should we make of their overall ministry? Does their infidelity mean that we should consider everything they did as worthless, if not outright bad? Those fourth-century Christians were especially concerned about the people who had been baptized by the leaders who had cooperated with the Roman authorities. Was their baptism valid or not? If the pastor isn’t faithful and pure, how can he or she perform a faithful and pure baptism?

The answer came from a guy named Augustine. He reminded everyone that the real power behind the baptismal act isn’t in the faith or the purity of the minister, but in the faith and purity of God. Christians are simply vehicles for the grace of God that works through them. This meant that, even though these church leaders had succumbed to the Roman authorities and betrayed the faith, their ministry shouldn’t be considered wholly worthless and invalid because the real power behind that ministry is the power of God himself.

Does this mean that Christian purity and faithfulness don’t matter? Hardly. In the story from John’s Gospel that we just read, Jesus asks Simon Peter if he loves him. In fact, Jesus does this three times in quick succession, apparently as a comment on the three times Peter denied Jesus after he was arrested by the Roman authorities.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

Was Jesus just rubbing it in? I don’t think so. More likely, he was showing Peter grace while at the same time encouraging him to do better. This passage is often seen as Jesus reestablishing Peter as a leader within the first Christian congregation. Maybe those sharing breakfast with them that morning thought Jesus was ignoring the seriousness of Peter’s betrayal, that he might have chosen someone a bit more faithful, but Jesus seems to have known that the power of the gospel isn’t dependent upon the purity of the minister but on the God who stands behind him.

None of us is a perfect vessel, and yet God uses us anyway.

I think we can learn a lot from both of these stories today. For starters, both are a good reminder that none of us is a perfect vessel, and yet God uses us anyway. We don’t have to worry that the love and grace that God pours through us is in some way tarnished or ineffective because we’re still sinners. If God could only work through perfect people, then there’d be nobody to get anything done. Thankfully, God is bigger and better than even our worst failures.

A second thing we might learn from these stories has to do with the wider world of God’s action. God is working to bring love, righteousness, justice, mercy, and peace all over our world, and he’s doing it through a whole lot of different churches, ministries, organizations, and people. Not a single one of these churches, ministries, organizations, or people is pure and perfect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t support and applaud the work that God is doing through them anyway. And that’s because it’s not, first and foremost, their work. It is God’s work, and in the end, that’s what matters most.

So, go out and be the hand of God in the world, and don’t be afraid to look for and support the work of God that you see happening anywhere and everywhere around you, even if some things about that work or those who are working it might not be quite where it should be. This, at least, seems to be the lesson we learn from history.

Closing Prayer
Holy God, thank you for working through us even though we’re imperfect and impure. Help us to see and support your work of love, righteousness, justice, mercy, and peace wherever you choose to work it. We ask this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, and in the full power of your Spirit.  Amen.