A Sermon for the feast of Saint Augustine of Hippo
Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
28th August 2005, 8.45 & 11 a.m.
Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square
Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28
Divine Things and Human Things
We all like to be special. It’s not always the most attractive quality in us, but it’s there all the same. Even those who are shy and retiring and prone to low self-esteem can make a special ness even out of failure - “I just can‘t do anything properly”. None are more prone to this desire to stand apart, the desire to be special, than religious people. So much of our Gospel is about self-abnegation, being the servant not the master, taking the lower place, and so on, and yet Christian people can be alarming in our desire for specialness. A little story exemplifies it. Someone dies and goes to heaven. On his first day he is being shown around by Saint Peter, as you‘d expect with a new boy. They travel round the many rooms of the Father’s house, freely and cheerfully, as you would expect in heaven. Then all of a sudden Peter goes “Sshshshshsh” and tells his guest to be absolutely quiet as they pass a large and noisy room. When they are out of range, the new boy asks Peter “What was that about, why did we have to be quiet?” “Oh, that’s the Fundamentalists Room, they like to think they’re the only people up here”. Incidentally, the story proves that Heaven is managed by Anglicans, surely there could be no more quintessentially Anglican solution to a problem?
Against this tendency to want to be exclusive and special there is a parallel strand in Christian theology which puts the other case. It’s one that can go too far in unhelpful ways - “you are not special” is a dangerous message, especially for those who are vulnerable. We would not want the children we love to be told constantly, “you are not special”. The old Litany from the Book of Common Prayer (which in my last parish we used to sing in its entirety every Sunday in Lent, I think to make us all the more grateful for Easter) begins with four verses whose refrain is “Have mercy upon us, miserable sinners”. The meaning of words can slip and change over time, but to the modern ear that is just too over the top with the self-deprecation. However, that same Prayerbook also has, in its 39 Articles of Religion, a teaching that illuminates the point. No one knows the 39 Articles any more, because few churches have a copy of the prayer book in the pews so that the congregation can read them during the sermons. It’s no great loss, as our church has moved on a long way since then. The language of this Article (XXVI) is brutally direct, in that marvellous 16th Century way: “Although in the visible church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have the chief authority in the ministration of the word and sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their ministry, both in hearing the word of God and in receiving the sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men”. So, no matter how rotten the clergy, the sacraments come from God, not Human beings, they are bigger than us. I’m sure I am not the only priest who has many times given particular thanks for this teaching - that no matter how rotten I may feel myself to be - or in fact be! - Christ may still work through me as a vessel of his grace. Indeed, there is no other way for things to work. On the other hand, this is no recipe for complacency - the same article continues by saying the evil ministers need to be investigated, accused, “and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed”.
So, what has all this got to do with Saint Augustine? Principally that he was the chief architect of this doctrine. Augustine was one of the giants of the Early Church, one of the greatest theologians of what is called the Patristic period, the time of the Fathers. It covers approximately five centuries, and Augustine comes towards its close, departing this life on this day in the year 430 AD at the age of nearly 80, having seen and done many things, as you‘d expect with someone of nearly 80. He was Bishop of Hippo in North Africa - what a lovely title to have, surely second only to Giraffe! - although he is said to have tried to avoid visiting towns that were short of a bishop in order not to be made one! By nature he was first and foremost a scholar, a deep and serious thinker, with a strong ascetical streak, the tendency that makes men monks. I’m not entirely sure I would have liked Augustine; I have a feeling he would have been rather serious, and not a lot of fun at dinner, but perhaps I have not yet read enough to know him.
One of the many theological and practical problems Augustine faced was how to stand up to the Donatists. They were a breakaway Christian group who, like all breakaway groups, claimed to be the True Church. They had fallen out with the church because during a time of persecution, about a century before Augustine was dealing with the problem, some Christians had become collaborators. In particular, when the Scriptures had been outlawed by the Roman authorities, some Christians had handed their copies over, whilst others had hung on to them and been martyred for the sake of a book. The Donatists would not accept the ministry of anyone who had been a collaborator, a “traditor” in the language of the time. Their view was that a pure and holy line had been broken by having a traitor in the ranks. Only right-thinking and right-acting Christians were to be members of the Church, and there was to be no forgiveness. Tainted orders - bishops, priests or deacons ordained by dirty hands you might say - did not count, and sacraments administered by dirty hands did not count; and anyone baptised by dirty hands had to be baptised again. To this, Augustine’s response was very much like that of Jesus to Peter in today’s Gospel - “you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things”. Re-baptising, re-ordaining, re-consecrating, all these were anathema to him. God makes his promise, and Man cannot unmake it. It is God who in the sacraments takes the ordinary things of this world and makes them the extraordinary things of another world. It is almost as if God calls holiness out of things that didn’t realise they possessed them.
The Donatists were the holy huddle, the ones in the secret room, convinced that they, and they alone, were pure enough - and right enough - to inherit the Kingdom. And once you do that, it stops being the Kingdom of God, and becomes a merely earthly Kingdom. It may have the trappings of the Church, its leaders may be dressed up in the veneer of holiness, it may ape the words and deeds of grace, and in many cases it may well produce some good, but anything so limited and exclusive cannot be the Kingdom which Christ came to build. The point about those who want to exclude people from church, those who want to throw people out, is not that they are bad, it is that they are wrong. There are Donatists abroad in the churches today, as there always have been. They are the ones who think they are special. And that everyone else is not. And here they get it muddled. Our modern-day Donatists are not special because of anything they believe, or anything they do, or anything they belong to; they are special because God made them in his image and likeness, and God loves them. The Love of God is not limited by time and space. It is like the love that pours out when a baby is born - there is no less love left for everyone else. There is love for everyone. So, they are indeed special, as special as everyone else in the world! They might find that dismaying. I think it’s rather wonderful. And it is Good News indeed. All we need to do now, is go out and proclaim it in the world. Amen.