In fourth-century Antioch, a man died leaving his young wife a widow. She was only 20 years old and had a son named John to raise by herself. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for her. Christians had been in Antioch since the time of the Apostles. Peter was the Patriarch of Antioch, and Paul and Barnabas visited as missionaries. By the time of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, one estimate put the number of Christians in the city at about 100,000 people.
The young widow’s son John grew up to become a monk. When he was about 34 years old, he became a deacon. A few years later, in 386 CE, the Antioch church ordained John as a priest. According to history, he preached with such eloquence, people called him “Golden Mouth.” In 398 CE, the church called him to be the bishop of Constantinople. This calling is somewhat ironic because he did not want to be a bishop. During the years he served, he spoke during many times of crisis.
Sharing God’s message rarely leaves people unscathed. As the Bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom collected enemies who found his sermons hitting too close to home. On three occasions, his enemies convinced the emperor to send him into exile. During his third exile, in the modern country of Georgia, John died at 58 years old.
In a sermon with the title, “To Those Who Had Not Attended the Assembly,” John addresses the apostolic saying, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them.” It sounds like a combination of Matthew 5:44, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” and Matthew 25:35, “For I was hungry and you gave me food.” The English translation of his sermon is over eight thousand words, which would take over an hour to deliver.
John begins, “My recent long sermon was useless… to address the missing people at church.” He was talking about people who had left the church or were not attending regularly. Even though the sermon was first heard over sixteen hundred years ago, the tone is fresh. He weaves theological brilliance with a practical faith. It includes some subtle arguments against several heresies.
In this sermon, John worries about the church becoming inconsequential. His liturgical context included regular feast days. He laments, “How am I distressed when we used to have so many gather for feasts, but now not even the smallest part of that multitude is gathered here?” It sounds like the fourth-century equivalent to saying, “Do you remember the good old days?” When I read his sermon, I wondered if the Christ-followers have recalled a brighter past since Jesus sent out the seventy (Luke 10:1-24). Imagine if a few days later someone muttered, “Remember when he sent out seventy? That was a good crowd.”
John Chrysostom’s sermon concluded that his listeners should reconcile with the people who “had not attended the assembly.” He wrote, “Forgive those who offend you so that you are forgiven for your own offenses. The greater the wrongs you can forgive, the greater the pardon you will receive… Forgiveness begins by forgiving oneself… Therefore, let us be earnest and eager to reconcile with those who have vexed us.”
John doesn’t introduce a new outreach program to bring back those who were missing from past feast days. He doesn’t try to shame anyone for leaving the church. He doesn’t use any of the counter-productive church growth techniques. He championed forgiveness and reconciliation—the basic building blocks of a life in Christ. For John, the two are connected. Reconciliation is built on forgiveness.
As we look at this broken world, we can be agents of reconciliation. We can follow the advice of a parent of the church, John Chrysostom, and we can look for ways to reconcile with others.