Thursday 24 September 2015

The past is not dead; it is not even past: a sermon on Augustine and the Donatists

Have you read True History of the Kelly Gang, the Booker Prize-winning novel by Peter Carey? It’s about the eponymous Ned Kelly, a sort of Robin Hood figure in the turn of the 19th century Australian outback. It’s a dazzling read. Not only because of perennial themes wonderfully, comically, tragically woven into a riveting narrative – social exclusion and desperation, personal loyalty and honour, judicial cruelty and corruption – the stuff of legend; but especially due to the voice that Carey gives Kelly – it speaks to us passionately and personally, fusing the horizons of yesteryear and today. The epigraph on the title page is so apt, from William Faulkner: “The past is not dead. It is not even past.”

Reflecting on the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13 is what brought Faulkner’s statement to mind. It also triggered a memory that confirms it. I recalled one of those defining moments in church history, defining not only in the sense of setting the course that the church would take, but also in the sense of encapsulating a controversy that would re-emerge again and again along the way. No, indeed, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.”

Come with me to North Africa in the early 4th century during and after what will come to be called “The Great Persecution”. The emperor Diocletian has issued an edict declaring that all churches are to be destroyed, all worship forbidden, all sacred vessels confiscated, and all Bibles and sacred texts surrendered to the Roman authorities. Some of the church’s leaders give in to the demands, others resist and suffer for their faithfulness. Not surprisingly, the rigorists in the church consider those who buckled under imperial pressure to be traitors and apostates. Things come to a head with the disputed election of one Donatus as bishop of Carthage, an able, eloquent, and charismatic personality who, despite sustained opposition from church and state, will remain at the helm for the next 40 years.
What was at stake? According to Donatus and his followers, the church itself. The presence in it of those clergy who had bowed to pagan demands, they argued, compromised the integrity, tainted the purity, disrespected the martyrs of the church. Indeed they contaminated their congregations with their unforgivable crimes and must be removed from office.

Things got very nasty. The issue of the nature and constitution of the church aroused such passions. Subtract the violence and you could almost cry “Amen!” for such theological seriousness. The basic question was this: What is the connection between the unity of the church and the holiness of the church? The Donatists were adamant that the unity of the church is based on its holiness, and that the holiness of the church is constituted by the holiness of its members, particularly its ministers. The church, that is, is a community of saints, not a school for sinners. So the Donatists circled the wagons around the vineyards they planted, to protect the “true” church from the pollution of the world, and drastically to prune its own vines.

Opposing the Donatists was Augustine, bishop of Hippo (200 miles west of Carthage). Augustine and his followers were confident that the church could interface with a hostile world without fear of losing its identity. They insisted that the church is not a bolthole from the world, rather the church exists for the sake of the world, a world in pain and need. The church should not fear defilement either from pagan corruption or from Christian sinfulness, because its purity does not depend on its members and ministers but solely on its God. The church is not a community of the perfect, it is the community of the broken, those who live by God’s grace alone. It is therefore, inevitably, a “mixed” community, comprising quite bad people as well as pretty good people. Above all, said Augustine, the church is a fellowship of love – it is the love of Christ that constitutes its unity – a love that is patient and does not rush to judgement. And Augustine’s text? As the famous harvest hymn based on our parable has it: “Wheat and tares together sown, / unto joy or sorrow grown”.

I wish that this were a story of good guys and bad guys: Donatus – “Hiss! Boo!”; Augustine – “Hooray! Look out, he’s behind you!” – but it’s not as simple as a Christmas pantomime. Both sides in the conflict, in fact, did terrible, shameful things. A militant wing of the Donatists, the Circumcellions, plundered the homes of peasant farmers, robbed their granaries, kidnapped opponents, blinded them, murdered them. Augustine, in turn, if reluctantly, endorsed counter-measures including, eventually, state coercion and violence. When it comes to deeds, there were no winners in this schism. But in terms of ideas and principles? “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Donatus and Augustine continue to argue and battle for the soul of the church. Where should our sympathies lie?

Absolutely with Augustine, for one profound if rather obvious reason: if Donatus were right, we wouldn’t be here to discuss the issue, because if Donatus were consistent, there would be no church, just a sect. For where will you ever find a community of morally blameless people? Augustine himself was quite up front on this issue, even lurid. One who enters a church, he said, “is bound to see drunkards, misers, tricksters, gamblers, adulterers, fornicators ... The same crowds that press into the churches on Christian festivals also fill the theatres on pagan holidays.” And yet some Christians today would get their knickers in a twist about, well, me saying “get their knickers in a twist”. How we love a good moral panic! We’re a long way here from Augustine, or – better – Martin Luther, Augustine’s heir, who once advised his earnest young lieutenant Philip Melanchton to “Sin boldly – but believe even more boldly!” Augustine and Luther, you see, recognised that the gospel actually redefines the very meaning of “holiness”, translating it from the realm of moral purity to the sphere of grace and mercy.

Nor does one have to be a moral relativist to recognise how fluid and changeable is our understanding of what is right, seemly, proper. Calvin saw dancing as “a preamble to fornication”, while the English Puritan Richard Baxter considered it “a sinful sport”. In the time of my own ministry, what used to be called “living in sin” has become for most people – I dare say most Christian people – an acceptable, perhaps even desirable, prelude to marriage, or even a tolerable arrangement in itself. And if – heaven forbid! – I were a betting man, I’d wager that in a generation the vast majority of Christians will look back on gay partnerships as we look back on inter-racial marriage. In any case, the essential point that Augustine made is this: that “in the final analysis the difference between Christians and others lies in one thing only: the former are members of the church, the latter not” (David Bosch). What binds us together is not an agreed code of ethics or practices but the love of Christ working through the mutual acceptance and forbearance of his members, members who are called to welcome diversity, exercise tolerance, and practice what has been called “interpretive charity” (Stephen Fowl) in our judgement of others.

And this goes not only for personal behaviour – the issue at stake between Donatus and Augustine – but also, I would suggest, for personal belief. Or are we to weed the tares on the basis of TC – “theological correctness” – and shun the “unsound”? All I can say is God help me if I am ultimately judged by my theological convictions and consistency. The rule of “interpretive charity” should govern not only our behaviour but also our beliefs. The crucial thing in theological disputes is to recognise the intention of faith of those with whom we disagree, keep the conversation going, never be the first to walk away from the Table. Against contemporary Donatists, we must resist, says Rowan Williams, “the temptation to seek the purity … of a community speaking with only one voice and embrace the reality of living in a communion that is fallible and divided.”

Augustine, with penetrating spiritual insight, saw that nothing is harder to avoid than self-deception, particularly when, assuming that the church needs protection, we don the mantle of “defenders of the faith”. Augustine also saw that defining yourself by what you are against is the symptom of an obsessive personality that clings to legalism and dogmatism. And he saw too the ultimate tragedy of this “absolutist attitude” (Reinhold Bernhardt): that in desiring to legislate and exclude, and in rushing to premature closure, we become angry, bitter, loveless. As we learn from the parable of the Wheat and the Tares, we are simply not capable of carrying out judicious separations; they must be left to the Judge in the fullness of time. “Till then, all false zeal must be checked, the field must be left to ripen in patience, the net must be cast widely, and everything else left to God in faith” (Joachim Jeremias).

“The past is not dead. It is not even past.” And the future belongs to God.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Video sermon: the difference between a genius and an apostle

Here's a sermon I preached recently on "The Difference between a Genius and an Apostle". It was the sending service for a dear friend of mine who was retiring from 48 years of parish ministry, or rather embarking on the next stage of a very long and fruitful ministry. (I've posted before about this particular pastor when he got cancer.) The sermon's title comes from Kierkegaard, and the text was Matthew 28.

Sunday 13 September 2015

Can we stand it? A sermon for Racial Justice Sunday

Mark 8:38: Jesus said: “If anyone is ashamed of me and of my teaching in this godless and wicked day, then the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

We’ve just heard Mark’s account of the pivotal moment in the ministry of Jesus when, in the pagan district of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus gathers his disciples and discloses to them the cost of discipleship, what it means and entails to be a follower and not just a fan. First, Jesus tells the Twelve that his sphere of operations will imminently shift from north to south as he heads for a showdown in Jerusalem, where he will be murdered by a political coalition of Israel and Rome. Then, when Peter protests, Jesus vehemently rebukes him and roars that his objection is satanically inspired. Finally, Jesus details the ultimate end of his messianic project, driven to the site of his own execution bearing a cross, diabolical instrument of torture and lurid symbol of shame, the state’s supreme deterrent to those who would question and subvert its authority. Jesus concludes with the words of our text, which speak directly to those who might be ashamed “of me and my teaching”.

What “teaching”? Well let’s go to the heart of it, in this passage from Luke (6:27-36).

This, of course, is Luke’s version of Matthew’s better-known “Love your enemies” passage from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48) – and a most interesting version it is. In Luke, Jesus says, “Love your enemies … and you will be children of the Most High; for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” In Matthew, however, the rationale for enemy-love is that God “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”

The difference, hardly noticeable, is actually quite startling. In Matthew, the reason for loving your enemies is God’s regard for both the evil and the good. In Luke, however, Jesus doesn’t mention the good, rather his focus is entirely on the evil: to the wicked, he states, emphatically, God is kind. This is a subtly but hugely different matter. We might, at a stretch, refrain from doing the wicked harm, but are we willing and able to be actively kind to them? And how kind? Well, again, observe another difference between the First and Third evangelists: in Matthew, Jesus concludes his teaching by saying that we must be “perfect”, as God is perfect; in Luke, however, we must be “merciful”, mercy, you could say, defining the nature of God’s perfection, and thus suggesting just how far – how very far – our kindness to the wicked must go. Taking this commandment seriously, we might protest, is grace gone ga-ga.

Now, shifting gears – it’s Racial Justice Sunday – I want to share with you a passage from a book of autobiographical reflections called Brother to a Dragonfly by the late Will Campbell. Campbell was a maverick minister and civil rights activist. He was born and raised in Mississippi, and by the age of 17 he was ordained and preaching in local Baptist churches. He served as a medic in the Second World War, and then attended Yale divinity school. It was in the mid-1950s that he joined the Civil Rights movement. In 1957 he became the only white person to be invited by Martin Luther King to the inauguration of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and in 1963 he joined King’s campaign of marches and sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama.

Campbell had a good friend named Jonathan Daniels, a 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian and fellow civil-rights worker who in August 1965 – 50 years ago – was in Lowndes County, Alabama, registering black citizens to vote. On being released from jail for “agitating” (as the local folks put it), Daniels, a Catholic priest, and two black women stopped at a grocery store for a cold drink. On the way out, they were confronted by a deputy sheriff named Thomas Coleman. Coleman pointed his 12-gauge shotgun at one of the women. Daniels stepped in front of her as Coleman pulled the trigger. Daniels was killed instantly, the priest mortally wounded.

When Campbell heard the news of Daniels’ murder, he was with an old friend, P. D. East, a religious gadfly who, a few years earlier, had goaded Campbell into giving a 10-word summary of the gospel. Campbell used just 9: “We’re all bastards,” he said, “but God loves us anyway.” Now, at this moment of crisis, East decided to put his friend to the test. Here is Campbell on what happened next:
“Come on, Brother [P. D. said]. Let’s talk about your definition… Was Jonathan a bastard?”

I said I was sure that everyone is a sinner in one way or another but that he was one of the sweetest and most gentle guys I had ever known.

“But was he a bastard?” His tone was almost a scream. “Now that’s your word. Not mine. You told me one time that everybody is a bastard. That’s a pretty tough word. I know. Cause I am a bastard. A born bastard. A real bastard. My Mamma wasn’t married to my Daddy. Now, by god, you tell me, right now, yes or no and not maybe, was Jonathan Daniels a bastard?”

I knew that if I said no he would leave me alone and if I said yes he wouldn’t. And I knew my definition would be blown if I said no.

So I said, “Yes.”

“All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?”

That one was a lot easier. “Yes. Thomas Coleman is a bastard.”

“Okay. Let me get this straight now. I don’t want to misquote you. Jonathan Daniels was a bastard. Thomas Coleman is a bastard. Right?... Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves the most?” His voice now was almost a whisper as he leaned forward, staring me directly in the eyes.

I made some feeble attempt to talk about God loving the sinner and not the sin, about judgment, justice, and [the] brotherhood of all humanity. But P. D. shook his hands in a manner of cancellation. He didn’t want to hear about that.

“You’re trying to complicate it. Now you’re the one always told me about how simple it was. Just answer the question.” …

He leaned his face closer to mine, patting first his own knee and then mine, holding the other hand aloft in oath-taking fashion.

“Which one of these two bastards does God love the most? Does he love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most? Or does He love that living bastard Thomas the most?”

Suddenly everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation. The glow of the malt [whisky] which we were well into by then seemed to illuminate and intensify it. I walked across the room and opened the blind, staring directly into the glare of the street light. And I began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed with laughter. It was a strange experience. I remember trying to sort out the sadness and the joy. Just what was I crying for and what was I laughing for. Then this too became clear.

I was laughing at myself, at twenty years of ministry, which had become, without my realizing it … An attempted negation of Jesus … and … [a] denying not only the Faith I professed to hold but my history and my people – the Thomas Colemans. Loved. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled. Yet sitting in his own jail cell, the blood of two of his and my brothers on his hands.
“The Lesson was over.” Well, almost. Campbell still had one thing to say to the teacher, P.D.: “I’ve got to amend the definition… We’re all bastards but you’ve got to be the biggest bastard of us all… Because, damned if you ain’t made a Christian out of me. And I’m not sure I can stand it.”

This “revelation” was a turning point in Campbell’s life. His old friend East had forced Campbell to look at violent racists like Thomas Coleman (who, by the way, would soon be acquitted of Daniels’ murder by an all-white jury) in the light of God’s kindness and mercy, not only for the saintly, the good, the pretty-good, and the not-too-bad, but even for the downright-wicked. And thus opened a new chapter in ministry for Campbell: a vocation to share this radical gospel of grace with the implacable enemies of the Civil Rights Movement, with – wait for it! – the malignant white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan, reaching out to them, befriending them, visiting them in their homes, in jails and hospitals, marrying and burying them.

So here’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking that too often our commitment to working for justice and peace tends to dispense with this radical gospel of grace. I’m thinking that, in extremis – and it’s only in extremis, in crises, that the tire of faith really hits the road – when, say, we are confronted with an atrocity, with, say, a man flying a plane carrying 150 people into a French mountainside, or with a racist shooting in a church in Charleston, or a terrorist shooting on a beach in Tunisia – I’m thinking that here we draw the line. I mean, don’t we? We think surely God cannot extend his kindness and mercy to the perpetrators of such savagery.

Andreas Lubitz, the homicidal pilot of that plane; Dylann Roof, the murderer at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church; Seifeddine Rezgui, the murderer at the Imperial Marhaba Hotel: I wonder what Will Campbell would say about these brutal events, these wicked men? And I’m thinking I know – and thinking that the answer – “We’re all bastards and God loves us anyway” – thinking how it questions me, challenges me, and (dare I say) even shames me. Yes, because it suggests that I might just be one of those Christians who is “ashamed,” as Jesus says, “of me and my teaching”. Because, as Will Campbell admitted, “I’m not sure I can stand it.”

The cross of Christ is hard to bear. Can we stand it? Lord, have mercy!

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Children's Craft

At night, the quiet house is filled with the marks of the new world—of the redeemed creation seeping through. The Kingdom is visible in items rearranged and reassembled by small hands throughout the day. You can step into my lounge room in the evening and see it in cereal boxes repurposed as little buildings, in papers covered with strange magical markings. It is in the horse head made out of butcher’s paper and in the toothpaste box labelled “keys”, their substances altered by the innocent alchemy of a child’s mind. The outworking of a secret known only to the young: “the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 

The truth of the world glows here, in the dark: “Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”

I go about my house silently to gather up all these prophetic markers of the new world. I place them discreetly in the recycling bin.

Monday 7 September 2015

Five short videos on atonement theology

A while back I was interviewed for a series of short videos on atonement theology. The five clips below follow the overall arc of the Gospel story, discussing (1) the incarnation, (2) the role of Mary in salvation, (3) Jesus as teacher and healer (a patristic view of salvation that I've explained earlier in this post), (4) the death of Jesus, and (5) the resurrection and deification.


Saturday 5 September 2015

Church attendance manual (4): The eight types of sermons

It's been a while since I've added an entry to the Church Attendance Manual. For those planning to attend church on Sunday, here is an ecumenical typology of sermons:

Evangelical: God thinks you’re despicable. But Jesus loves you!

Liberal Protestant: God thinks you’re wonderful. Here’s a crayon drawing I did earlier to show you.

Progressive: I have not the faintest idea of what God, if there is a God, thinks about you. And if any of you disagrees with me, God thinks you’re an arrogant fundamentalist, and I agree.

Roman Catholic: I know many different things that God thinks on various matters. Here are nine of them, in no particular order.

Orthodox: We Orthodox are absolutely certain about what God thinks. But here’s a story instead of something that happened to me the other day.

Pentecostal: God doesn’t think, God feels. And how does God feel about you? Great!

Presbyterian: I – that is to say, myself, the ego, the first-person speaker whom Paul so poignantly yet so ambiguously names in Romans 7 – know – meaning that I perceive it, not only by way of intellectual comprehension but as something that I grasp and apprehend with my whole being, in the way that "Adam knew his wife Eve" (cf. Gen. 4:1) – what God thinks – that is to say, not just the content of the divine mind but the entire mode by which God apprehends created things, what one commentator has aptly called God's "sapiential omniscience". 

Itinerant evangelist: God is thinking about that ten dollar bill that you've got hidden in the bottom of your pocket.


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