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Bold as a Lion: Leo the Great and Resurrection Courage

Reading Time: 5 mins

Jesus continues to do the same for me and for you as he did for his disciples. He still shows up for us. He still speaks his peace to us.

We are all afraid of something: heights, tight-closed places, snakes, tornados. No matter how reasonable or unreasonable, everyone has their own personal fears. My grandmother, for instance, was deathly afraid of moray eels, even though she had never been swimming in salt water. 

If you lived in Italy during the 400’s, it would have been very reasonable to be afraid of Attila the Hun. Attila was a godless pagan who did not fear God or man. He led his armies into Europe from Central Asia and brought utter destruction to both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. Attila was ruthless. He left nothing but death in his wake. No one was safe from him. Men, women, children; pagans, Jews, Christians; soldiers, shopkeepers, priests—Attila killed them all. The carnage unleashed by Attila and his barbarian horde caused one Christian hermit to call him “the scourge of God.” [1] 

In the summer of A.D. 452, Attila sacked, looted, murdered, and pillaged his way down the boot of Italy, getting closer and closer to the city of Rome. Everyone in Rome trembled in fear at Attila. Well, almost everyone. One man had no fear of Attila. His name was Leo. 

Leo was the bishop of Rome, the pastor of the flock of Jesus in the capital city of the Western Roman Empire. He’s known to history today as Pope Leo the Great, and as his Latin name suggests, Leo confessed Christ as a courageous lion in the face of both false doctrine and death. The Roman Catholic Church commemorates Leo as a saint on April 11, but this lion of the faith should be remembered by all Christians everywhere as a bold confessor of Jesus Christ.

The year before his encounter with Attila, Leo had led the bishops of both Western and Eastern Christianity at the Council of Chalcedon to reject several heretical teachings about the person of Jesus Christ. Against heresies that either denied the full humanity, full deity, two natures, or unity of the person of Jesus, Leo taught and led the Council in affirming that Jesus has one fully divine nature and one fully human nature but that these natures are inseparably united in one Christ. [2] Leo emphasized that this teaching is not a matter of philosophical speculation or linguistic wordsmithing but of salvation. In a letter he wrote to Flavian, the Bishop of Constantinople, Leo emphasized that the importance of the doctrine of the person of Christ is that, in Christ, God and human were united in one person for our salvation. Leo boldly confessed that Christ suffered for us in the flesh as both true God and true human, shedding his blood on the cross to forgive our sins and reconcile us to God. [3]

At a time when other church leaders were lost in philosophical minutia and looking for just the right terms for every aspect of Christology, Leo emphasized the importance of seeing the bigger picture of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection for our salvation. Leo certainly did not skimp on doctrinal truth for the sake of some false notion of Christianity unity. Instead, he boldly proclaimed that the reason for precision in doctrinal truth is to make sure that we get the Gospel of Jesus right in order to proclaim it, confess it, and trust it for our salvation.

One year after Chalcedon, Leo was called upon by the Western Roman Emperor to parley with Attila in order to save the people of Rome from almost certain death. Unarmed with anything other than the Gospel, Leo marched right into the camp of the Huns and waved his bishop’s crozier under Attila’s nose. Leo successfully negotiated peace with the leader of the Huns. Leo was unafraid to confess Christ even in the face of the barbarian leader whose mere name made all Europe tremble with fear. [4]

The source of Leo’s courage to confront Attila was that Leo had no fear of death. As he proclaimed in an Easter sermon, Leo firmly believed that Christ had destroyed death for us, and so we need not fear it. “The power of Christ’s death once confronted our death,” says Leo. [5] By dying for us, says Leo, Christ submitted to death in order to destroy it, saying: “Death, I shall be your death; grave, I shall swallow you up.” [6] Because of the resurrection of Jesus, says Leo, now we need not be afraid of death, because our risen Lord Jesus has taken its sting away and made it for us nothing more than a temporary sleep until he returns.

Leo firmly believed that Christ had destroyed death for us, and so we need not fear it.

This boldness in the face of death is not unique to Leo. It is the gift of the risen Lord to all who believe in Him. 

Jesus first gave this gift to his disciples the evening of the first Easter Sunday, when fear of death made the disciples of Jesus tremble and hide behind locked doors. The religious leaders had put Jesus to death! If they killed Jesus, they might kill his followers too. That’s why the disciples are cowering when Jesus himself shows up in their midst (Luke 24:36-48). 

At first, this only heightens the disciples’ fear! They are terrified! They believe that they are seeing a ghost, a spirit, a phantom—either a trick of their mind or, worse, something from the spirit world, maybe even something demonic. But Jesus calms their fears. He says: “Peace be with you.”

“Peace be with you,” or shalom aleichem. A lot is packed into this greeting. Shalom means safety, well-being, healing. It means the cessation of all things wrong. It means the termination of fear. This kind of peace, shalom, is the opposite of fear. It is the end and undoing of fear.

Because Jesus speaks “shalom,” he actually gives shalom. He creates peace with his words.

Jesus words create peace for his disciples through showing them how the Scriptures are fulfilled by his death and resurrection. “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44b). Then, Jesus opens “their minds to understand the Scriptures.” He says to them: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead” (Luke 24:45-46).

The disciples’ fear is rooted in the fear of death: both Jesus’ death and their own. But now, Jesus comes alive into their midst, having defeating death. Through his proclamation of this act, he creates peace in their hearts.

The death-defeating, fear-busting, peace-bringing, and courage-giving of Jesus doesn’t stop with the Scriptures. Jesus also shows up personally, in the flesh. He says to his disciples “it is I, Myself.” (Luke 24:39). These words, “it is I, Myself,” are the very center of this Gospel reading. [7] With these words, Jesus offers physical proof of his resurrection to his disciples. He literally gives himself to them; what fearless Bishop Leo called “the fresh tokens of the passion.” [8]

Jesus continues to do the same for me and for you as he did for his disciples. He still shows up for us. He still speaks his peace to us. He still comes bodily into our midst, despite whatever fears we carry with us. We may not fear being killed for following Jesus as did his first disciples. We may not fear being slaughtered by a ruthless barbarian like Attila, but there are things we fear, nonetheless.

When we come to his table, the same risen Jesus who appeared to his disciples offers us his true body and blood joined with the promise: “It is I, Myself crucified and risen for you.” Through his Supper, the risen Christ gives us the same real, resurrected, death-defeating, fear-ending presence that encouraged the disciples and made Leo a fearless confessor in the face of death. This same risen Jesus says to us: “Peace be with you. Shalom be with you. The end of fear be with you. The end of death be with you.”

Receiving the risen Christ in Word and Sacrament, our faith is strengthened so that we can go and share the fear-conquering faith Jesus gives to us with others. For Jesus calls us to go be “witnesses of these things” to those who still live in fear. Fed and strengthened by his resurrection real presence for us, like Leo who walked right into the midst of the Huns, we boldly confess that Christ is risen and has defeated death.

[1]  Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated Second Edition (Nashville: Nelson, 1995), 132-133.
[2]  The Christological Controversy, trans. and ed. Richard A. Norris, Jr. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 29-30.
[3]  Leo the Great, “Letter to Flavian of Constantinople,” in The Christological Controversy, 153.
[4]  Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity from Constantine to Gregory the Great (A.D. 311-600) (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1950), 321. C.f. Justo L. Gonzales, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, Revised and Updated (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 282-283.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Touching the Risen Christ: Wisdom from the Fathers, ed. Patricia Mirchell (Ijamsville, MD: The Word Among Us Press, 1999), 67.
[7]  Just, 1043.
[8]  Leo the Great, Tome, 5, in Ancient Commentary on Scripture, New Testament III: Luke, ed. by Arthur A. Just, Jr. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), 386.