Athanasius (296-373) was leading worship one Sunday when soldiers stormed the sanctuary to arrest him. Athanasius took it in stride. Before he was escorted out, he instructed his assistant to read aloud Psalm 136. Each of the 26 verses ends with the refrain, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Athanasius was accustomed to conflict. He was banished on five different occasions. Seventeen of the 45 years he served as Bishop of Milan were spent in exile. His enemies called him “Black Dwarf.” This diminutive, dark-skinned Egyptian accumulated lots of enemies over the years. What was his crime? Would you believe his orthodox view of Jesus? The 4th century was the era of considerable debate over Jesus. We’re not talking intramural debates over arcane matters. No less than salvation hung in the balance. Athanasius affirmed Jesus’ full humanity and divinity. Only one who was fully human could atone for human sins and only one who was fully divine had the power to save. The opposition, led by Arius, rejected Jesus’ divinity, and denied the Trinity. Jesus was a created being. In Arius’ words, “There was a time when Christ was not.” Athanasius fought this battle alone at times yet refused to back down. He outlasted four emperors who exiled him. They could have just as easily executed him. The conflict over Jesus’ identity and mission lasted his entire life. Only in his last few years did his beliefs gain wider acceptance. Athanasius’ writings (compiled in exile) have shaped the church for nearly two millennia. He is the epitome of courage in conflict. Today’s prayer by Athanasius was offered shortly before his death:
Thou art Jesus, the Son of the Father. Yea, Amen.
Thou art He who commanded the cherubim and seraphim. Yea, Amen.
Thou hath existed with the Father in truth always. Yea, Amen.
Thou rulest the angels. Yea, Amen.
Thou art the power of the heavens. Yea, Amen.
Thou art the crown of the martyrs. Yea, Amen.
Thou art the deep counsel of the saints. Yea, Amen.
Thou art He in whom the deep counsel of the Father is hidden. Yea, Amen.
Thou art the mouth of the prophets. Yea, Amen.
Thou art the tongue of the angels. Yea, Amen.
Thou art Jesus, my life. Yea, Amen.
Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.