Day Twenty: St. Cyprian: On the Unity of the Church: 19-27
Who: Third century bishop of Carthage (in modern Tunisia), and martyr from Africa
What: A letter to encourage the unity of the church against schisms and heresy during massive Roman persecution
Why: A disturbance had happened in the church because of a priest called Novatian — a schismatic of the third century, and founder of the sect of the Novatians. Cyprian wrote to counter this and argues that there can only be one united Church, and the Novatian breakaway was a false church and that Novatian was an antipope.
When: Around 249 AD
You can find today’s reading on page 102 here: lentfatherscomplete.pdf
Here we come to the final chapters of Cyprian’s letter. This flows straight on from yesterday’s judgement on those who would draw people away from the Church towards their own schisms and heresies. Though, he makes a distinction between those who have lapsed in their faith, and those who intentionally lead people astray;
...on the one hand, he who has lapsed has only injured himself; on the other, he who has endeavoured to cause a heresy or a schism has deceived many by drawing them with him. In the former, it is the loss of one soul; in the latter, the risk of many.
He goes on to say that if you go astray through lack of discipline or temptation, then you can repent and be forgiven, but the intentional heretics risk unforgiveness and their souls; hence why it is written, he says, “hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown” (Rev 3:11).
Speaking more about the crowns we attain, Cyprian delves into confessing sins and how that the mere act of confession doesn’t save us or give us the “full desert of the crown”, but “it initiates our dignity” which is why Jesus said, “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt 24:13). Everything we do and say during our Christian walk in this life is a “step by which we ascend to the summit of salvation”, and not the summit itself, which is why we need to watch ourselves and keep on the narrow path because every time we repent and confess our sins, “the adversary is more provoked”!
“For the Lord chose Judas also among the apostles”, Cyprian points out, even though Judas betrayed the Lord afterwards. This didn’t break the faith of the Apostles, and neither should seeing those in the Church fall away, as sad as it may be at times. We are a corporate Body together in the Faith, but our salvation is our own to “work out with fear and trembling” and isn’t dependant on anyone else, even though they may be someone you respect and find encouraging.
As Paul wrote to the Roman church, saying a similar message, God is not diminished by what we do:
What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Although everyone is a liar, let God be proved true.
But if these leaders who have caused schisms and dissent, cannot be brought back with “wholesome council”, then those who are ensnared in the deceit need to “loose yourselves from the nets of deceit, free your wandering steps from errors, acknowledge the straight way of the heavenly road”. But if they don't, then those Christians who have not been deceived should heed the advice of Paul when he says, “withdraw yourself from all brethren who walk disorderly” (2 Thess 3:6) and to also “let no man deceive you with vain words” (Eph 5:6), for the wrath of God is upon these people. Therefore, flee from them, “lest, while anyone is associated with those who walk wickedly … should be found in like guilt”.
And just as Paul also wrote in Eph 4:4-6, Cyprian echoes this sentiment to back his point of keeping in unity with one another;
God is one, and Christ is one, and His Church is one, and the faith is one, and the people is joined into a substantial unity of body by the cement of concord.
So just like a physical, human body, can't be torn into pieces and broken up, neither can the true Church body be dis-unified.
So, Jesus, before he went to his passion, left us with a heritage of peace that he gives to us and leaves with us (John 14:27) so that we may be called “sons of God” (Matt 5:9);
If we are fellow-heirs with Christ, let us abide in the peace of Christ; if we are sons of God, we ought to be peacemakers.
Pointing back to the Apostles, Cyprian references Acts when “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” and that “these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14; 4:32), “and thus they prayed with effectual prayers; thus they were able with confidence to obtain whatever they asked from the Lord's mercy.”
But now he laments because the “unanimity is diminished” among the believers and no longer do they sell their possessions or share things for the common good, as the Church once did. Now, he observes, “we do not even give the tenths from our patrimony (inheritance)” and would rather buy than sell to store up treasures in heaven.
Thus has the vigour of faith dwindled away among us; thus has the strength of believers grown weak.
Quoting Luke 18:8 about whether Jesus will find faith on earth, Cyprian says that this has now come to pass with the Church becoming idle and lazy in their faith, since many no longer take the teaching of the Gospel seriously.
Closing off his letter, Cyprian tries to encourage the Church to muster itself up out of this drowsy, unenthusiastic state, and turn back to the vigour they once had, just as those who came before then also had.
Let us, beloved brethren, arouse ourselves as much as we can; and breaking the slumber of our ancient listlessness … If these commands be observed, if these warnings and precepts be kept, we cannot be overtaken in slumber by the deceit of the devil; but we shall reign with Christ in His kingdom as servants that watch.
This message holds just as much truth for the Church today, even after all this time. Cyprian's words ring true throughout history and serve as a timeless reminder to not forsake our first love and turn back to Jesus with our passion and joy renewed (Rev 2:4-5)!