Once upon a time, a bishop got in the face of an emperor. One had immeasurable power behind him. The other had nothing but righteous indignation on his side.
The outcome of the standoff surprised everyone who heard the story.
It all started in 390 AD when a famous charioteer was arrested in Thessalonica. Being popular with the masses, citizens rallied together and petitioned the governor for his release. When he denied their request, they did what any ancient crowd would do: they revolted. In the ensuing chaos, the charioteer was freed…and the governor was killed.
Theodosius had control of Rome, the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. He also had the distinction of being a Christian ruler; in fact, he was the emperor who made Christianity the official religion of the state!
But Theodosius also had a temper.
He called for a chariot race to be held in Thessalonica. When patrons gathered at the event, the emperor’s soldiers trapped them inside, and over the course of a few hours, systematically slaughtered 7,000 people.
The bishop in Milan had great influence on the life of St. Augustine. He also had an amazing intellect that allowed him to defend Christianity against the ancient heresy of Arianism. What he didn’t have was an army. But that didn’t stop him from confronting an emperor he considered guilty of murder.
He called on Theodosius to repent, but the emperor countered the bishop by recalling an earlier king’s sin. “King David committed murder and God forgave him,” pointed out Theodosius. Unflinching, Ambrose replied, “You have imitated David in his sin. Now imitate him in repentance!”
Theodosius refused. Understanding the emperor to be out of God’s will, Ambrose denied Theodosius Communion.
Everyone in the empire held their breath.
In the pinnacle of irony, Ambrose had declared a theological war on the most powerful man on the planet, the same man who’d declared his own faith to be the official creed of the empire! Ambrose could have been killed. Worse, the government could have reverted to their persecution of the church.
Neither happened. Instead, after a season away from the church, Theodosius returned to the church on Christmas Day seeking reconciliation with God and Ambrose. He removed his imperial robe, bowed, and asked for forgiveness.
Ambrose consented and restored the emperor to the fellowship. He even helped a law get passed that mandated a period of 30 days be met before any death sentence could be passed against a citizen.
Amazingly, Theodosius was not the only emperor that Ambrose stared down in his ministry. He had to remind Valentinian, a later emperor, that, “Emperors are in the church, not over it.”
Long ago, Christian leaders modeled courage in the face of injustice, cruelty, and martyrdom. That same courage is needed today.
The Big Picture by Brian Harris. Paternoster, 2015, Page 55.
Topics Illustrated Include:
Taking a Stand
(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)