THE EPISTLE AND GOSPEL TEXTS appointed for this day are both quite challenging.
Hebrews 6:4–6 (ESV): 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
Matthew 12:31–32 (ESV): 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
These verses seem to push the limits of human sin and God’s grace. What are we to make of them?
Instead of addressing these verses and the questions they raise head-on, I’m going to approach them obliquely through the life of the saint whose martyrdom we commemorate this day: St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage. His life, his thought, his writings, his pastoral guidance dealt with just such issues and provided good direction for the church in the third century. It is still good direction in the twenty-first century.
Cyprian was born of wealthy pagan parents in 200 A.D. in North Africa, in the region of modern day Tunisia. He received a good education in rhetoric and law, and practiced law in Carthage before his conversion to Christianity in 246. Just two years after his conversion, Cyprian was consecrated Bishop of Carthage, a prominent city of the Roman Empire. The beginning of Cyprian’s episcopacy corresponded to the beginning of the reign of a new Roman emperor, Trajan Decius (reign 249-251). Decius intended to strengthen the Roman state by revitalizing the Roman cult, the practice of the religion of Rome including sacrifices to the gods. Part of this revitalization effort was persecution of Christians who refused to offer the required sacrifices. This persecution was particularly severe in Carthage where Cyprian served as bishop.
In such times of persecution, the bishop of a city was often a target since he was the spiritual leader of the church. The idea was simple: cut off the head (the bishop) and the body (the church) dies. That put Cyprian in the crosshairs. What do you suppose he did? In 250, he fled Carthage and went into hiding — a place of relative safety from which he provided continued guidance and support for the church through a series of letters. But, his absence meant that the persecution fell upon a church without the physical presence and support of its shepherd. In his absence, thousands of Christians apostasized. These fell roughly into two categories: the sacrificati, those who offered the required sacrifices to the Roman gods and the libellatici, those who purchased falsified certificates of sacrifice, who didn’t sacrifice but who presented documents saying they had done so.
Though the persecution was severe, it was short lived. Decius died in battle in 251, and the persecution diminished. Cyprian returned to Carthage and was readmitted to his bishopric by a council of bishops. He faced a major problem: what to do with the lapsii, those Christians who had lapsed/apostasized during the persecution. There were many difficult questions: Could they be forgiven for that sin? Could they be readmitted to the Church? Who spoke for the church in this matter?
The issue was hotly contested by two groups. The first group was led by Confessors, by Christians who had remained faithful during the persecution and had suffered for their faithfulness. Surprisingly — at least to me — they advocated leniency for the lapsii: forgiveness and readmission to the church with no serious repercussions for their apostasy. Further, due to their faithfulness through persecution, the Confessors claimed a special status for themselves as “friends of God” and claimed that they had the authority, by virtue of that status, to speak for the church in this matter. They pitted themselves against the bishops. A second group was led by Anti-Pope Novatian, a bishop of Rome consecrated in opposition to the rightful pope. He and his followers took a hard line: no forgiveness was possible for the lapsii.
And what of Cyprian? He charted a middle way through these two extremes. Forgiveness is possible through repentance and penance.
This was Cyprian’s via media, his middle way:
The sacrificati, those who had truly offered sacrifice to the Roman gods, might be forgiven and readmitted to the church, but only on their deathbeds. They could not live in the church, but they could die in it.
The libellatici, those who had presented falsified documents of sacrifice, might be readmitted to the church after a period of public penance: confession, repentance, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The length of this period was determined individually by the presiding bishop.
Cyprian reached these positions in a council of bishops who then gave this guidance to the church. This established some principles of fundamental importance:
1. We may not excuse serious and notorious sin as if it doesn’t matter.
2. We may not exaggerate serious sins as if they are beyond the reach and power of God’s grace. Do you see how that relates to our texts today? The only sin that may not be forgiven is the sin of which one refuses to repent.
3. The bishops speak for the church. That is the ancient polity of the church and is normative for the ACNA; the bishops speak for the church.
In one sense, it is tempting to consider Cyprian’s flight from persecution as a failure, as an act of cowardice that spared him from hard decisions during persecution. But, in another sense, it is easy to see how God used that experience for the good of the church. Surely, his own experience led Cyprian to a deep sense of compassion for those who lapsed and a deeper understanding of God’s grace.
So, in Cyprian’s story it is now 251 A.D. Decius is dead. Cyprian is once again bishop of Carthage. The persecution has diminished and the issue of the lapsii is being addressed. You might think things have settled down, but no. A plague began in Ethiopia, encompassed Egypt, and spread to the rest of the Roman Empire, at its height killing some five thousand people per day in Rome alone. It is known as the Cyprian Plague because Cyprian witnessed it and wrote about it. It lasted nearly twenty years. This is the second reason I wanted to speak of Cyprian today. I’ve heard so many times in the past year and a half that we are in unprecedented times, uncharted waters, due to Covid. That is simply not true of the church; we, the church, have just forgotten our history. The church has navigated pandemics before, and has done so faithfully and well. That we have seemed so confused, so caught off guard, by Covid is to our shame.
The church historian Eusebius wrote about the Christian response to the Plague of Cyprian:
Most of our brethren showed love and loyalty in not sparing themselves while helping one another, tending to the sick with no thought of danger and gladly departing this life with them after becoming infected with their disease. Many who nursed others to health died themselves, thus transferring their death to themselves. The best of our own brothers lost their lives in this way — some presbyters, deacons, and laymen — a form of death based on strong faith and piety that seems in every way equal to martyrdom. They would also take up the bodies of the saints, close their eyes, shut their mouths, and carry them on their shoulders. They would embrace them, wash and dress them in burial clothes, and soon receive the same services themselves.
The heathen were the exact opposite. They pushed away those with the first signs of the disease and fled from their dearest. They even threw them half dead into the roads and treated unburied corpses like refuse in hope of avoiding the plague of death, which, for all their efforts, was difficult to escape.
And Cyprian himself wrote of the spiritual benefit of the plague, of the opportunity it offered Christians to reflect on and prepare for death. These excerpts are from his treatise “On Mortality”.
What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! what sublimity, to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion; that in thus bravely showing forth our faith, and by suffering endured, going forward to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod, we may receive the reward of His life and faith according to His own judgment! Assuredly he may fear to die, who, not being regenerated of water and the Spirit, is delivered over to the fires of Gehenna; he may fear to die who is not enrolled in the cross and passion of Christ; he may fear to die, who from this death shall pass over to a second death; he may fear to die, whom on his departure from this world eternal flame shall torment with never-ending punishments; he may fear to die who has this advantage in a lengthened delay, that in the meanwhile his groanings and his anguish are being postponed (14).
And further, beloved brethren, what is it, what a great thing is it, how pertinent, how necessary, that that pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are in health tend the sick; whether relations affectionately love their kindred; whether masters pity their languishing servants; whether physicians do not forsake the beseeching patients; whether the fierce suppress their violence; whether the rapacious can quench the ever insatiable ardour of their raging avarice even by the fear of death; whether the haughty bend their neck; whether the wicked soften their boldness; whether, when their dear ones perish, the rich, even then bestow anything, and give, when they are to die without heirs. Even although this mortality conferred nothing else, it has done this benefit to Christians and to God’s servants, that we begin gladly to desire martyrdom as we learn not to fear death. These are trainings for us, not deaths: they give the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown (16).
This is the way the Church faced plague, and it is the way the Church should face pandemic.
With the plague still raging, at the accession of Valerian as Roman Emperor (reign 253-260), the persecution of Christians also resumed. Cyprian was arrested in 257 and was placed under what we might call house arrest until his final hearing before proconsul Galerius Maximus in 258.
The circumstances of Cyprian’s trial and subsequent martyrdom are recorded in the Proconsular Acts of the Martydom of St. Cyprian, as follows:
Galerius Maximus, proconsul: “You, Thascius Cyprian, have you regarded yourself as the father to these irreligious men?”
Cyprian, bishop: “I have.”
“The venerable emperors bid you sacrifice.”
“I shall not do it.”
“Reflect on your decision.”
“Do what you must. In so just a cause, no reflection is needed.”
Galerius consulted briefly with his council and then said reluctantly: “You have lived a long time as an impious man and have drawn many into your wicked conspiracy. You have been the enemy of the Roman gods and their sacred rites. The venerable Augusti, Valerian and Gallienus, and the noble Caesar, Valerian, have been unable to bring you back to the practice of their ceremonies. You have now been arrested as a chief criminal and leader, and shall be made an example of to your followers. Your teaching shall be sealed with your blood.” Then he read the decree: “Thascius Cyprian is to be executed by beheading.”
Cyprian’s answer was: “Thanks be to God.”
When they heard the sentence, the brothers and sisters standing by nearby cried out: “Behead us along with him!” and many of them followed him out.
Cyprian was led away in the company of his brother, and was executed.
Cyprian is a saint for our times, a saint for these days: a saint who recognized the seriousness of sin and the abundance of grace; a saint who insisted on the unity and order of the church under the authority of bishops; a saint who knew how to live Christianly without fear of death; a saint who knew that God could and would work all things together for the good of those love him, for those who are called according to his purpose. Amen.