Christian History Home > Issue 94 > The Starving Body of Christ
The Starving Body of Christ
We live in a world of vast economic injustice, crippling poverty, and wealthy churches. So did "golden-mothed" preacher John Chrysostom.
In recent years, believers from all segments of the Christian community have begun to recover the social dimensions of the gospel. In the Catholic church, the legendary luminaries have been Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa. In the Orthodox tradition, Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos is helping to rebuild Albania after years of domination by the world's most oppressive communist regime. Evangelical endeavors have included Ronald Sider's book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and Rick Warren's "Five Year P.E.A.C.E. Plan"—a massive effort to mobilize one billion Christians to rid the world of poverty, illiteracy, and other social ills. These trends will surely grow in the years to come. But unless we are guided by others wiser than ourselves, we may build our ministries on sinking sand.
In the history of Christianity, John Chrysostom is mostly remembered as a great preacher. The epithet "Chrysostom" means "golden-mouthed." His name came to be identified with the liturgy that is now celebrated nearly every Sunday in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The greatest medieval Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, said that if he could choose only one book to read outside of Scripture it would be John Chrysostom's commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. The Protestant reformer John Calvin adopted Chrysostom's method of preaching through the Bible book by book—a method still widely used in pulpits today.
You make golden vessels, but Christ himself is starving. You make golden chalices, but fail to offer cups of cold water to the needy.
Even outside the Christian world, John's influence has been great. After World War II, Charles Malik, a Lebanese Christian philosopher and board member of Harvard university, proposed that the social teachings of John Chrysostom be adopted as policy for the founding charter of the united Nations.
John's world was like ours—full of tensions, social injustices, love of money, and a "me first" mentality guiding every decision. In response to that world, he emphasized a Christian philanthropy that was rooted in the church's worship, the incarnation of Christ, and the Bible's command to love others. He believed that as we love and serve one another—especially the poor—we grow in the image and likeness of Christ. John's views on wealth and poverty have great potential to guide and challenge the church today.
Preacher, not people pleaser
John was born in Antioch, Syria, and trained in classical rhetoric and the literal interpretation of the Bible. While still a student, he decided to become a monk and gave up his possessions to serve God in the desert. For six years he subjected himself to such extreme forms of asceticism that he permanently injured his health. He returned to Antioch and soon became a priest. Most of his 600 sermons that survive were delivered there.
The city of Antioch was a great cultural center of the Roman Empire. John estimated that one-tenth of the population was rich, one-tenth was poverty stricken, and the rest were somewhere in between. He often preached against worldliness and neglect of the poor. In one sermon he asked the rich, "You say you have not sinned yourselves. But are you sure you are not benefiting from the previous crimes and thefts of others?"
His fame soon spread to Constantinople, the eastern capital of the Roman Empire. In 398, John was kidnapped and elevated, against his will, to the honored status of bishop of Constantinople (head pastor of the capital). Once again the "golden-mouthed" preacher found himself in a worldly cosmopolitan city. The luxurious perks that accompanied the life of an imperial bishop did not sit well with his monastic spirit. As soon as he arrived, he began reforming the church. Despite his love for liturgy, he was critical of the ornate decorations in the Church of the Holy Wisdom where he ministered. On one occasion, he sold the golden chalices in order to give the proceeds to the poor. He declared, "You make golden vessels, but Christ himself is starving. You make golden chalices, but fail to offer cups of cold water to the needy. Christ, as a homeless stranger, is wandering around and begging, and instead of receiving Him you make decorations."
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