Feast of St. Francis of Assisi
Douglas A. Beck, ObJN
Columba Chapel, Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Galatians 6:14-18; Psalm 148:7-14; Matthew 11:25-30
A new creation is everything! From now on, let no one make trouble for us; for we carry the marks of Jesus branded on our bodies.
I speak to you in the name of God: + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Apostle Paul, writing sometime in the 50’s to the Churches of Galatia, addresses Gentile Hellenist converts to Christ in his Letter to the Galatians. Paul debunks the teaching taught by others that requires circumcision in order to complete one’s conversion to Christ. Further, Paul rebukes those Galatians who seriously consider the notion. The mark of conversion to Christ is faith, he writes — faith in Christ crucified. Not only does Paul address the Church of Galatia, but I believe that there is something in his letters that addresses issues that we face today. The faith that he is talking about is our faith, too. Our faith is borne from within through the indwelling of the crucified and resurrected Christ.
Paul’s letter reminds us that this faith borne of the indwelling Christ is the action of Christ giving of himself in order to deliver us from the present age (Gal 1:4). In order to live to God, we are crucified with Christ (2:19). “It is no longer [we] who live, but it is Christ in [us].” The life we live is “by faith in the Son of God” (2:20) Christ came to fulfill the law so that we might come to him by faith (3:1). We who belong to Christ have crucified our flesh, “its passions and desires” (5:24). This is so that we, with Paul, may say: “[We] never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to [us], and [we] to the world…a new creation is everything! We carry the marks of Jesus branded on our bodies” (6:14). To carry the marks of Jesus branded on our bodies is to live a life that bears witness to this new creation. It seems to me that what Paul is describing is a “worldview of the incarnation”.
We have died to our former selves. The life we live is Christ. I recently heard someone refer to this life in Christ as living from our original self or the person that God, the one who calls us through our baptism, creates us to be. There is a fairly recent (1990) statement from the representatives of the joint Anglican [and] Oriental Orthodox International Commission that summarizes this well. We acknowledge God, as revealed in the life, teaching, passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ who calls [us] into union with Himself, Living by the Holy Spirit, [we as His] own people have been given authority to proclaim this Good News to all creation.
The “worldview of the incarnation” expressed in this statement and in Paul’s letter to the Galatians — we also find it in the life and witness of Francis of Assisi whose Feast we celebrate on this day. Francis demonstrates what it looks like to be marked by God through total obedience to faith in Jesus Christ.
Who do we think of when we think of Saint Francis? Perhaps he’s the lovable saintly figure found in a garden, the one who preaches to the birds or the one who inspires theannual Blessing of the Animals service. Perhaps he is the poet writing the “Canticle of the Sun” — that’s the poem that inspired the hymn “All Creatures of our God and King”. Or, we might think of the one to whom the prayer, “Lord, make us instruments of your peace” is frequently attributed. We might think of him as the one who put together the first living creche when we rehearse the annual Christmas Pageant with the Sunday School children.
While these are attributes that we commonly give to the saint, notice that we still haven’t tied the pieces together that give us the picture of one who demonstrates the “worldview of the incarnation”. If we stop here, we put the theology of St. Francis at risk and we replace it with the novelty of St. Francis.
So, who is Francis as God created him and called him to be? Notice that Francis’ life was one of becoming. He did not shape it. But, he allowed himself to be continually shaped by the Christ that he grew to know from within. Notice, too, the gift of grace present in Christ’s shaping of Francis.
Francis lived within one hundred years of the Renaissance — the rebirthing of human culture. With the rise of the wealthy few, came the stark impoverishment of the many. It was also the height of the power of the Church. Just three hundred years later, the Reformations of Europe would be underway.
Francis was born into a wealthy family in the year 1181. Kind and joyful with a stroke of biological Italian temperament thrown in is how one biographer described him.
As a frivolous youth, he was the leader of his social group. They referred to themselves as the “Merrymakers”. For them, the name was literal. Francis marched off to one of the many wars between the city-states of the time. He was taken prisoner and went through a period of disillusionment. While in prison, he sensed a call to follow “the great King.” He chose to devote time to God in prayer and reflection. As a result, his imprisoned heart changed and when released, he left with a desire to please God above all. Further, he was inspired to give care for lepers. These were among the very ones that once repulsed him.
Francis, while praying in the abandoned ruin of San Damiano’s Church heard the voice of the great King instruct — “rebuild my church, you see that it’s in ruins” —which he took literally. So he physically rebuilt the St. Damiano church by hand. Later, he understood this rebuilding to be one of restorative work for the sake of the unity of the Church. And, he went about this work of Christ for his remaining lifetime.
Francis is one demonstrating what it looks like to speak Gospel truth to power. Given the events of our time from natural disasters and human failings, we would do well to follow his example in ways in the manner that God guides us. Francis upset his father by publicly divesting himself of the pleasures granted to him through his family status. He travelled to Rome to meet with Pope Innocent III. He boldly resigned his leadership position of the Order that he founded. He did so in protest of the many friars whom he believed had departed from the Order’s original intentions.
All of this is to say that Francis, through the action of his faith, devoted a lifetime to God’s mission — rebuilding the Church and restoring the kingdom in the here and now. He freely said, “yes!” to God’s call in his life without regard to any outcome. He never asked the question, “Why?” when it came to God, at least that we know of. He reportedly worked with intense energy, clarity and an assuredness of God’s presence — a certain “fool for God” by society’s standards.
Two years before Francis’ death, the marks of Christ that Francis took on in faith — his response to the call from God in his late youth — those marks of Christ — they never stopped shaping Francis. And, near the end of his life, they revealed themselves, bearing witness to the world, in a new way.
As Francis’ life of service to seek and serve Christ in all of creation progressed, those inward marks became outward, physical marks. Another way of saying this is to say that the inward and invisible grace within Francis — that grace — became even more revealed. The once inward marks of Christ became apparent as the physical marks of the crucified Christ’s hands and feet on Francis’ very own flesh. This taking on of the marks of Christ, in a new way, indicates the culmination of Francis’ response to receiving and following where Christ led him in his life among creation. The new physical expression of the marks of Christ were, for Francis, a sealing of his closeness to God. These were the marks that carried him to his death on October 3, 1226.
Twentieth Century historian, Lynn White, Jr., calls Francis of Assisi “the greatest radical since Jesus Christ.” While it is hard to disagree with White’s point about the great radicalness of Christ, I question the extreme greatness of Francis’. Isn’t putting something on the pedestal of greatness just another form of relegating something a novelty? Further, isn’t saying that something is great another way of saying that it is simply unattainable for the rest of us? Paul’s answer to these questions is that it is attainable “for [all] who follow the rule” (Gal 6:16). The rule is Christ alone.
As it was for the apostle Paul and Saint Francis of Assisi, may it be for us. May we never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to us, and we to the world. A new creation is everything! It is attainable. As for we who will follow this rule — peace be upon us, and mercy. From now on, let no one make trouble for us; for we carry the marks of Jesus branded on our bodies. I speak to you in the name of God: + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© Douglas A. Beck, 2017