St Ambrose

Monday (December 7) is Saint Ambrose Day. For two glorious years my professional life was near perfect. I preached and presided on Sunday mornings, taught homiletics on Wednesday afternoons, and spent the rest of my workweek sipping cappuccino while reading and writing about St. Ambrose. While some consider the fourth century bishop of Milan to be the patron saint of lawyers, preachers of the Word of God, and church leaders who show by their lives God’s love for the world, I claim Ambrose as my personal patron saint of publishing contracts, month-long fully-funded research excursions to Northern Italy, and successfully dodging direct questions during a job interview at LSTC the day after I defended my dissertation. I was asked about Lutheran theologians; I quoted Ambrose. These days, I find that Ambrose has much to teach me about being a bishop.

Like all the Church’s blessed saints, I find much in Ambrose’s life and work to both marvel at and to be offended by. Ambrose’s treatment of the Jews makes me shudder. But I applaud Ambrose tearing down the imperial purple from his basilica—the fourth century equivalent of removing a flag from the chancel–-and I commend Ambrose’s rejection of Roman civil religion.

Ambrose was emphatic when it came to the empire. Talk about speaking truth to power, Ambrose regularly addressed the emperor from the pulpit. On one occasion, the bishop told Theodosius that the emperor owed his position to God, and unless the emperor promised to change a policy, the bishop could not in good conscience celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy, with its solemn prayer for the emperor. Ambrose quipped, “How can I ask God to do for you what you are not willing to do for yourself?”

On another occasion, after the emperor ordered the slaughter of seven thousand as punishment for a riot, Ambrose told Theodosius that Theodosius wasn’t welcome in worship until he’d done public penance. Whether it was the empire’s moral laxity, religious indifference, propensity toward violence, or disregard for the poor, Ambrose was quick to respond when the state failed to, in Jesus’ words, feed the lambs and tend the sheep (John 21:15-17).

This bishop’s exhortations were also ecclesiastical. Ambrose’s expectations of clergy make my pastoral expectations document sound like a weekend in Vegas. As Jesus exhorted Simon Peter to tend and feed his flock, as First Peter exhorts elders to tend their flocks eagerly and not for sordid gain, not lording but offering an example (5:2), so Ambrose exhorts priests to embody virtue. He asks, “Who would seek to drink from muddy water?” Ambrose’s directives for those who minister at Christ’s altar are straightforward and simple: Spend your days studying and your nights praying. No sex, no wine, no desire for money, power or glory, no worldly pleasures that inhibit the development of the likeness of Christ. No fancy clothes. I hesitate to speculate about Ambrose’s response to the purple shirts, chasubles, copes, and miters that I like to wear. Ambrose would invite me to sell them to Liz Eaton and give the money to the poor.

And let’s not get started on orthodoxy. Ambrose would tell you that the opposite of Catholic is Arian, not Lutheran. And the Nicene Creed, which Ambrose rigorously defended, makes no claims about the gender of God but only about the divinity of Christ.

As for how empire and church work together, Ambrose might describe the separation of church and state this way. The Church instructs and judges the state by setting the moral perimeters in which the state can legitimately operate. The state protects the church so as not to infringe upon its independence. As Ambrose wrote to his sister about another emperor, Valentinian: “It is alleged that everything is permitted to the emperor and that all things are his. I reply: Do not burden yourself, O Emperor, to think that you have any imperial right to those things that are divine. The palaces belong to the emperor, the church to the bishop.”

Ambrose’s clear directions—to clergy and emperor, church and state—reflect an Advent truth. Neither church nor empire nor any leader’s vision nor anything we should or ought to do will bring the reign of God. While individuals may play a role, while institutions surely have their place, God’s reign rests in God’s hands. “Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are scattered, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered” (Ezekiel 34:11). Jesus promised it this way: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32),

As God seeks out and rescues God’s sheep, as Jesus draws all people to himself, individuals and institutions need care and correction. For while they play a role, though they have a place, individuals and institutions, and all that we should and ought to do, never save the world or us. Left to themselves, nether church nor state nor any of us can truly feed the lambs and tend the flock.

And so God does. God feeds the lambs. God tends the sheep. Sometimes God feeds the flock through individuals. Sometimes God tends the flock through institutions. Sometimes God even uses USA, ELCA, and U and I. And sometimes we are the individuals and ours the institutions that need to be rescued and gathered, tended and fed.

And God does. God brings God’s people out. God gathers God’s people in. God feeds them on the mountains with good pasture. God promises, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. I will feed them with justice” (Ezekiel 34:13-16).

God tempers correction with care. As a preaching student once reminded me, even Jesus’ words to Peter—“Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep”—are more invitation than command. Jesus was concerned with gathering Peter in even as he sent Peter out. Jesus meant to restore Peter by entrusting the flock to his care.

Advent is about waiting to be gathered even as we reach out to those who are scattered. Advent is about being restored to God by participating in God’s own work of bringing God’s reign. Mostly, Advent is about expecting God to act. And so, with Ambrose we pray:

"O Jesus, God's only Son, you o'er sin the victory won. Boundless shall your kingdom be; When shall we its glories see?"

And God answers:

“Now. Now. Be gathered at my table, my sheep, and I myself will feed you.”

`© 2006 Craig A. Satterlee ● North/West Lower Michigan Synod ELCA ● 2900 N. Waverly Rd. ● Lansing MI 48906 ● 517-321-5066