Recently I ordered a children’s book for my daughters titled, The ABC’s of Church History. It creatively introduces children to some faithful Christians of the past, beginning with Augustine of Hippo (“A”) and ending with Ulrich Zwingli (“Z”). Of course there are only twenty-six letters in the alphabet, and that means there are a lot of key historical figures who get left out. But it is a good introduction to some of the most important lives and voices of the Christian tradition.
A friend of mine was over and saw the book sitting on the end table, rolled his eyes, and said, “Brian, that’s such a pastor thing to do! Who else buys a church history book for their kids?” He’s probably right. But I want my girls to know that they are part of a larger family that reaches back through history. As odd and quirky as some of these folks are, they make up our family album of faith.
And I want the congregation I serve to know these family members too. In a culture that is fixated with novelty and has little time for “the old,” it is more important than ever that we, as Christians, stay connected to the past. In his marvelous book Water from a Deep Well, Gerald Sittser warns that every generation of believers runs the risk of becoming a prisoner of its own myopic vision of the Christian faith, assuming that how it understands and practices the faith is always the best. Sittser then goes on to quote C.S. Lewis, who vehemently urged Christians to read old books as well as new:
“None of us can fully escape the blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”
So in this sermon series on Mark, I’m trying to breathe in “the clean sea breeze of the centuries” by not just reading modern commentaries but also soaking in the wisdom of faithful and winsome pastors and theologians of the past. A rich resource has been the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (IVP). Let me offer you a chance to breathe in this fresh air as well. The sermon this past Sunday was on Jesus’ words to Jairus, a leader of the local synagogue, whose twelve-year-old daughter had died: “Do not fear, only believe.” Faith, we said, is a radical and risky act of trust. Listen to these eloquent words of a voice from the past, a fourth century preacher named Aphraates:
When the chief of the synagogue asked him about his daughter, Jesus said to him:”Only firmly believe and your daughter shall live.” He believed and so his daughter lived and arose. Similarly when Lazarus died, our Lord said to Martha, “If you believe, your brother shall rise.” Martha said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe.” And he raised him after four days….So let us draw near then, my beloved, to faith, since its powers are so many. For faith raised up [Enoch] to the heavens and conquered the deluge (Gen. 7:1ff). Faith causes the barren to sprout forth (Gen.21:1-3). It delivers from the sword (Gen.22:1-19, Heb. 11:17). It raises from the pit (Gen. 37:28). It enriches the poor (Mk. 12:42-44). It releases the captives. It delivers the persecuted (Heb. 11:27-29). It brings down the fire (1 Kings 18:38). It divides the sea (Ex. 14:21). It cleaves the rock, and gives to the thirsty water to drink (Ex. 17:6). It satisfies the hungry (Ex. 16:15). It raises the dead, and brings them up from Sheol (Heb. 11:35). It stills the billows (Mt. 8:26). It heals the sick (Mk. 2:5). It conquers hosts (Heb. 11:34). It overthrows walls (Heb. 11:30). It stops the mouth of lions, and quenches the flame of fire (Heb. 11:33-34). It humiliates the proud and brings the humble to honor (Heb. 11:26). All these mighty works are wrought by faith. Now this is faith; when one believes in God the Lord of all, Who made the heavens and the earth and the seas and all that is in them. He made Adam in his image. He gave the law to Moses. He sent his Spirit upon the prophets. Moreover he sent his Christ into the world, that we should believe in the resurrection of the dead; and should also trust in the efficacy of our baptism. This is the faith of the church of God (from a sermon titled “the Sole Requisite to Receiving New Life”).
See what I mean? Can you feel that clean breeze fill up your lungs, renewing your mind and enlivening your soul? This is why we need the faithful voices of the past. And yes, if InterVarsity Press ever comes out with an Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture for Kids, I will probably buy it.