Tomorrow, and certainly on Sunday, we are celebrating the Feast of St AUGUSTINE, our Patronal saint, and sometimes called “defender of the faith”. And I love St Augustine, and I love his humanity, He struggled with his own sin and shaped the theology of Christianity.
AUGUSTINE was born in North Africa, a little over 300 years after Christ’s death on the cross. His father was a pagan. His mother was a Christian, St. Monica and her feast day is the day after Augustine’s. He abandoned what Christianity he had and took on a concubine for fifteen years.
He was a right Jack the Lad …. And he’s pretty open about it! In his Confessions, he lays out the sort of wild lifestyle he lived, and there is plenty of reason to suspect that by the time he was baptised into the Christian faith by St. Ambrose he was probably one of the first alcoholics who got into recovery in the written history of the world.
I remember a lecture once outlining Augustine’s main thrust theologically, where the lecturer began with this story…
An executive was having a bad day. He decided to cheer himself up by calling home and talking to his wife. The maid answered the telephone. “I’d like to speak to my wife.” “She’s having an affair with the butler and can’t talk to you now,” she said. “Get my gun and shoot the both of them!” he ordered. There was a long silence on the line. Finally, the maid came back to the phone. She said, “I shot them both and, to be of help to you, I threw both their bodies in the swimming pool.” “Swimming pool? We don’t have a swimming pool! Is this 278-0246?”
St Augustine would have said that the man would have deserved to be shot anyway… For something else he’d done!
But, although he deserved to be shot, Augustine’s God, through grace, lets him off!
Our lives are imperfect, and we do deserve to be shot. We all need to hear AUGUSTINE’s favourite Scripture: “Let us conduct ourselves properly, as people who live in the light of day … and stop paying attention to your sinful nature and satisfying its desires.”
He finally came to the right conclusion, that “The church is holy because of her purposes and not her members.”
Further, he believed, “She contains within her fold both good persons and evil.”
The church is not, as some believe, a place for the display of good people. Within the congregation we find all the symptoms of being human that we find anywhere else. We gather because we know we are imperfect and sinful. We come to celebrate that God still gives us blessed forgiveness.
Our relationship to each other is not a demand for perfection, but rather it is an expectation of undeserved forgiveness.
There is neither a perfect priest unscarred by mistakes, nor a perfect member who has discipleship accomplished.
Like ill people who gather in hospitals and uneducated people in schools, we sinners gather in churches. Only Christ is holy and perfect. Only his word and sacraments are his pure, undiluted presence in the world.
In fact, it seems clear that the human organization of the church so blunders and limps along with its human organization that it would have died out years ago had it not been “of God.”
This has a lot to say about our behaviour as church members. Of course, you can find hundreds of hypocrites in the congregations of our churches, beginning with you and me. Of course, you can find serious shortcomings and failings in any priest’s attempt at ministry. Of course, you can find better-run, less offensive, more attractive “entertainment” than here in the church where sinners gather.
That’s because we need to be better and desperately need God’s help and guidance to do it. Jesus knew that, and he told the church members of his day, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3).
As members of the human race, only God’s grace saves us. That idea is central to AUGUSTINE’s theology, and it has a familiar ring to it!
AUGUSTINE called for a radical change in what was called Pelagianism. He taught: we, by our birth into the human race, inherit a moral disease – from these evils we can be saved only by God’s grace. It is not our choice. The Almighty chose us to be part of his redeemed family.
The Dean of Edinburgh University used to tell a humorous story about graduation day one year. He was amazed to see, complete with robe and mortar board, one of the Kuwaiti students from the Divinity Faculty in line for graduation.
The young lad had not completed his course, but was going to go up and get his diploma anyway. The Dean literally had to pull him out of line. It seems that the Kuwaiti thought that everything can be negotiated and bargained for.
We are like that Kuwaiti student. We do not deserve the award by our actions and grades, but God lets us be here anyway.
Our whole attitude now is not one of pride that we have accomplished a religious and moral victory. Rather, we should be amazed, astonished, and thankful that God chose us. When we eventually understand that idea, how our attitudes toward church, and even God, change! We do not “do him a favour” by being here. He is not flattered that we select him over the golf course, the football match on Sky, or an outing to Braehead Shopping Mall, ASDA or B&Q!
Another passage in Romans reads, “But God has shown us how much he loves us – it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us! We rejoice because of what God has done through our Lord Jesus Christ, who has now made us God’s friends” (Romans 5:8, 11b).
And this has got to change our attitude towards each other, our church, and its ministry and mission!
• No more resentment when the church asks for help, be it with our time or our money.
• No more excuses when the church offers opportunity to learn and mature further in our faith.
• No more anger when mistakes or big bloopers are made by Bishops, priests, Vestry, or Synod.
• No more timidity when the opportunity comes to serve and witness to our faith.
Because when we realise we only deserve to be shot anyway, humility comes in to replace our pride, gentleness replaces meanness, and sincerity replaces hypocrisy.
AUGUSTINE, defender of the faith, was one of the great teachers of the church and a great Christian thinker. Both Roman Catholics and Protestants acknowledge his importance as a theologian and shaper of the church.
He taught us that:
1. Sin is the result of free will and imperfection.
2. Evil does not stop at the church doors.
3. As a member of the human race, it is only by God’s grace that we are saved.
All this came from his own early life of debauchery, and from God, who spoke to him in Romans 13: “Let us conduct ourselves properly, as people who live in the light of day … take up the weapons of the Lord Jesus Christ, and stop paying attention to your sinful nature and satisfying its desires.”