In this country, the church has no legal standing to provide asylum to people accused of crimes, but there is a longstanding tradition of respect that makes authorities reluctant to enter a place of worship to arrest anyone. On very rare occasions, churches have provided sanctuary (as they did in the days of the Underground Railroad). It’s always controversial. First United Methodist Church of Germantown has taken in some undocumented immigrants, as Arch Street did last year, knowing full well that they are in violation of the law. This sermon is not about that practice. I mention it to put the story I want to tell you into context, because we often think that tales from over a thousand years ago must be alien to our setting, when they often could take place today.
In fact, at the end of the 300’s the same question about the Church telling the State to stay away – physically stay away – from church property was a major issue in Constantinople. The Archbishop of Constantinople, John, who is generally known by his nickname of Chrysostom (the Golden-Mouthed) faced off against a high imperial official named Eutropius. Eutropius had been empowered to rule in the emperor’s name, and one of the things he did was to make it illegal for the church to harbor fugitives. Chrysostom argued back that it was not up to the state to tell the church what it could and couldn’t do, especially in this area. It got truly ugly. But the day came when Eutropius fell from favor with the emperor. He was already hated by the people, and the army wanted him dead. He needed to take refuge somewhere, and quickly.
Here’s what happened next, in the words of one of those overblown Victorian writers.
“In the humblest guise of a suppliant, tears streaming down his puckered cheeks, his scant grey hairs smeared with dust, he crept into the Cathedral, drew aside the curtain in front of the altar and clung to one of the columns which supported it. Here he was found by Chrysostom in a state of pitiable and abject terror, for soldiers in search of him had entered the Church, and the clattering of their arms could be heard on the other side of the thin partition which concealed the fugitive. With quivering lips he craved the asylum of the church, and he was not repulsed as the destroyer of the refuge which he now sought.”
Patience. I’m going somewhere with this.
Actually, I should say that Chrysostom went somewhere with it. I’ll read on.
“He concealed Eutropius in the sacristy, confronted his pursuers, and refused to surrender him. ‘None shall violate the sanctuary save over my body: the church is the bride of Christ who has entrusted her honor to me and I will never betray it.’ He desired to be conducted to the Emperor and taken like a prisoner between two rows of spearmen from the Cathedral to the palace where he boldly vindicated the church’s right of asylum in the presence of the Emperor. ... The next day was Sunday, and the Cathedral was thronged with a vast multitude eager to hear what the golden mouth of the Archbishop would utter who had dared in defense of the Church’s right to defy the law, and confront the tide of popular feeling. But few probably were prepared to witness such a dramatic scene as was actually presented. The Archbishop had just taken his seat … and a sea of faces was upturned to him waiting for the stream of golden eloquence when the curtain of the sanctuary was drawn aside and disclosed the cowering form of the miserable Eutropius clinging to one of the columns of the Holy Table. Many a time had the Archbishop preached to unheeding ears on the vain and fleeting character of worldly honor, prosperity, luxury, and wealth: now he would force attention, and drive home his lesson to the hearts of his vast congregation by pointing to a visible example of fallen grandeur in the poor wretch who lay grovelling behind him.”
Talk about visual aids! It was humiliating to Eutropius, of course.
This is just one short section of Chrysostom’s sermon:
“Where now are your feigned friends? Where are your drinking parties, and your suppers? Where is the swarm of parasites, and the wine which used to be poured forth all day long, and the manifold dainties invented by your cooks? Where are they who courted your power and did and said everything to win your favor? They were all mere visions of the night, and dreams which have vanished with the dawn of day: they were spring flowers, and when the spring was over they all withered: they were a shadow which has passed away — they were a smoke which has dispersed, bubbles which have burst, cobwebs which have been rent in pieces.”
If you ask me, there’s not much Christian love in that. Not long afterward, Eutropius made a run for it when nobody was around but was captured in Cyprus and returned under guard to the capital and this time he was executed, although I would note that Chrysostom did not stop pleading for his pardon.
Jesus’ followers have never been particularly good with handling power. Oh, we may be very good at pointing out how others abuse it, and when we see its misuse we know how to call it out – and we should. But we are no less liable than others to let it go to our heads or to take the occasional cheap shot when we get a chance. The difference, maybe, is that we have a sense of shame when we are caught.
Jesus and his disciples had been traveling through Galilee.
“Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” [Mark 9:33-34]
Of course they were silent. When they were asked, they realized how silly they would have sounded to say, “He said he’s greater than I am, and I said, ‘No! I’m greater!’ then he said, ‘I’m greater than either of you,’ and we said, ‘You are not!’ and he said, ‘Am, too!’” They all knew – even though they had gotten drawn into it – how childish it was.
The antidote, the corrective, was right there.
“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” [Mark 9:36-37]
He picked the child up. He held the child. He acted as a grownup acts. He was caring and nurturing and unconcerned with the snipping and sniping. Greatness, if it matters at all, comes as a byproduct of the service that is offered to others. Greatness doesn’t come by proclaiming how great you are.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” [Mark 9:35]
It’s the same lesson he tried to teach them the night before he died, when he got up from the dinner table and wrapped a towel around his waist and began to wash their feet, the way the lowest servant would do. And he told them,
“I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know there things, you are blessed if you do them.” [John 13:15-17]
 Introduction to the “Two Homilies on Eutropius” in Post-Nicene Fathers. See http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/ecf/109/1090068.htm .