A few episodes back on 5 Minutes in Church History, I think I quoted to you from Charles Spurgeon. And we were talking about the value of tradition in the life of the church today. Well, I want to take another look at this idea of tradition. I’m going to do it in a sort of odd way. We’re going to look at a tradition that sort of, well let’s just say it, sort of runs amuck. This is the tradition surrounding Saint Sebastian.
Now we don’t know a lot about Saint Sebastian. What we can piece together is that he was from Milan and he was martyred around 288. Now the first historical record that we have of Saint Sebastian comes to us from bishop Ambrose. Ambrose was the bishop at Milan, he had a reputation for being an eloquent, brilliant speaker and theologian, and it was actually Ambrose’s preaching that factored into the conversion of Augustine. In one of those sermons that Ambrose preached, in his sermon on Psalm 118, Ambrose references Saint Sebastian and references his martyrdom.
Now this is a fitting Psalm to be talking about martyrdom. It’s a Psalm that stresses how those facing persecution should take refuge in the Lord. But then after Ambrose, and as we sort of wind through the Middle Ages, the story of Saint Sebastian takes some rather odd turns. It’s not too long we begin hearing that he was martyred, or I guess we need to say he was attempted to be martyred by having a series of arrows shot at him from a rather short distance. So here’s this poor guy sort of riddled in arrows, but as the legend went on he didn’t die from it! So then Diocletian, the emperor at the time, dispatched the soldiers to literally—and sorry to be so graphic here but—to literally beat him to death.
And then, as the legend continued to grow, not only did he miraculously survive this onslaught of arrows, but when his followers, his fellow members of the church went to claim his body for a burial, miraculously his body was free of any wounds and free of any scars. So all these sort of legends begin to grow up around Saint Sebastian. And then he becomes in the Middle Ages a sort of talisman. By simply having his image in a house would keep a family free from plagues. There are all these legends of soldiers who would be wounded on the battle field and somebody would bring by an icon of Saint Sebastian and the soldier would be miraculously healed. And of course there are even stories of the dead who are brought back to life.
Now what we see here in this is much more superstition and fiction, than fact and non-fiction. But it’s also I think a cautionary tale for us. Now none of this we can put at the feet of Saint Sebastian. He was just a martyr figure in the early church who was serving God faithfully there at Milan and paid the price—paid the price of his life. But as some things wind through church history they can take on a life of their own; they can take on a tradition. And this is the part of tradition that I think causes so many of us to wince. This is tradition run amuck. In this case, it’s very easy to see how this superstition has become carried away with itself, but as a general rule of thumb I think as we look at some of these things in tradition, we can sort through them by just asking some simple questions.
You know, if the tradition diverts us from Christ, diverts us from the gospel, diverts us from the words of Scripture, and points us to experiences or points us to some great achievement of some great person, well I think that’s tradition run amuck. But, a tradition that points us to Christ, that points us to the gospel, that very clearly and compellingly says, “You need to listen to the Word of God,” well that’s a tradition that’s worth listening to. That’s a tradition worth holding on to.
So be careful how we sort through this idea of tradition and it’s function in the church. And maybe that’s the cautionary tale we can all learn from, not Saint Sebastian, but from the legend of Saint Sebastian.