Jun 3, 2024

Melito of Sardis


Melito of Sardis (?-180) was both tough and tender.  He had the audacity to make a bold request of the Roman Emperor yet did so nicely.  Melito sent his “Apology for Christianity” (apology means defense) to Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 170AD.  His cordial approach in writing stood in marked contrast to the combative tone of most correspondence of his day.  He began by honoring the emperor as a leader wanting to do right for his people.  He then pivoted to his purpose in writing: to appeal to the emperor to end the persecution of Christians.  There has been considerable debate among historians as to whether Aurelius was responsible for persecuting Christians.  The tone of Melito’s letter identified Aurelius as a sympathetic protector more than a persecutor.  Likely, the persecution was being orchestrated by regional governors who found Christians convenient scapegoats for their leadership challenges.  Melito urged Aurelius to stop confiscating Christians’ property, ease exorbitant taxes levied against them, and cease imprisoning them without cause. While there’s much about Melito’s life and ministry unknown to us, we also have a copy of his Easter homily discovered in 1932.  He preached it sometime between 160-170AD to his church in Sardis (modern Turkey), one of the seven churches addressed in Revelation 2-3.  An archaeologist was rummaging through old manuscripts in an Egyptian monastery when he came upon Melito’s sermon wrapped in a fifth century manuscript scroll.  It’s the oldest Easter sermon on record!  We moderns have nothing on our early Christian forebears.  His sermon is artfully written and theologically profound.  While we don’t know Aurelius’ reaction to the letter, his successors, most notably Diocletian, was ruthless in persecuting Christians.  Melito likely died during Diocletian’s reign, perhaps a victim of the persecution he was trying to curtail.  His Easter sermon leads us into prayer:

Born as a Son,led forth as a lamb,
sacrificed as a sheep,
buried as a man,
he rose from the dead as a God,
for he was by nature God and man.

He is all things:
he judges, and so he is law;
he teaches, and so he is wisdom;
he saves, and so is grace;
he is begotten, and so he is Son;
he suffers, and so he is sacrifice;
he is buried, and so he is man;
he rises again, and so he is God.

This is Jesus Christ,
to whom belongs glory for all ages.

Melito of Sardis, “On the Pasch” (ca. 175).
Melito of Sardis, Apology (preserved in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History IV, 26.7-11)

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.