Many people aren’t aware of the days that the Christian church has set aside to remember the heros of the faith. There is a complete calendar of days of remembrance for the great men and women who have persevered in Christ and lived as examples for all of us to remember. On November 23rd, the western church celebrates the life of St. Clement of Rome.
St. Clement, whose name means “merciful,” is a rather mysterious figure in church history. We do not have many details from his life. No one knows the story of his youth or how he came to become a Christian in Rome. These details are lost. Clement is, however, famous for two things: He was the bishop in Rome, and he wrote one of the most important letters in the early church, First Clement.
Legend has it the Clement was a disciple of the Apostle Peter. Irenaeus writes this about him, “This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles.”
Clement knew and spoke with the Apostles before they were killed, and we believe that he was ordained and consecrated a bishop by St. Peter himself. Clement was not the first bishop of Rome after Peter, however. Irenaeus also reports that two others preceded him, Linus and Anacletus. As side note, Irenaeus also says that this Linus is the one mentioned in 1 Timothy 4:21.
Paul may have also mentioned Clement in Philippians 4:3 , describing him as one of Paul’s fellow workers. We believe that Clement was the bishop of Rome in the late first century, early second century. While many people’s dates vary, most assign his time as bishop around 92 - 101 AD.
It is always difficult to separate legend from truth with the earliest Christian fathers, but this is the story of Clement’s death that has been passed down from us. Emperor Trajan banished Clement to Crimea, because of his success at evangelism in Rome. In Crimea, he continued to share the gospel, and many people came to faith in Christ.
Angered, Trajan ordered that St. Clement be thrown into the sea with an anchor tied around him. Clement drowned, of course. Legend has it that the tide moved back two miles each year until the place where Clement was drowned had been revealed. There, a divinely built shrine contained his bones.
Paul’s letters to the Corinthians made that carnal and fractious city famous for their strange behavior around communion, spiritual gifts, and a general lack of love. St. Clement’s letter was also written to the Corinthians to stop similar behavior. This letter became so famous in the Christian church that it was almost included in the New Testament. Eusebius writes in his history of the Christian church , book three, chapter 16, “We know that this epistle also has been publicly used in a great many churches both in former times and in our own.” When he uses the words, “publicly read,” he means that this letter was read in some churches like the letters of Paul or the gospels.
First Clement was written, in part, to correct the Corinthians’ scandalous behavior. It seems like a band of them deposed the bishop without ceremony and inserted their own. Clement writes, not just to tell them to stop, to encourage harmony, humility, and mutual submission to the order of the church. Here are some select quotations.
Chapter 4: “You see, brethren, how envy and jealousy led to the murder of a brother. Through envy, also, our father Jacob fled from the face of Esau his brother. Envy made Joseph be persecuted unto death, and to come into bondage.
Chapter, 20: “The very smallest of living beings meet together in peace and concord. All these the great Creator and Lord of all has appointed to exist in peace and harmony; while He does good to all, but most abundantly to us who have fled for refuge to His compassions through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory and majesty for ever and ever.”
Chapter 33: “What shall we do, then, brethren? Shall we become slothful in well-doing, and cease from the practice of love? God forbid that any such course should be followed by us! But rather let us hasten with all energy and readiness of mind to perform every good work.”
From Chapter 44:
For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ, in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry.
Clement’s life and work are an example to all Christians and to pastors about faithfulness. His writings demonstrate the need for the church to love each other and live in good order. Most of all, he points each of us to the all-availing sacrifice of Jesus Christ to justify us before God.
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