Sermon for Epiphany 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

For some time I’ve been playing around with this idea that the splits in Western Christianity which began in the Sixteenth Century Protestant Reformation (the results of which we’re still dealing with today) were less about differences of opinion about what Jesus said, but more about differences of opinion about what St. Augustine said. I’ll not bore you with too much more than that thesis (unless I ever get round to writing a book on the matter, in which case I’ll play it for all it’s worth). I would suggest, however, that our sad divisions have too much to do with questions about justification, that is, the precise mechanism by which one avoids hell and gets into heaven.

Specifically, I think they have to do with how Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians read Augustine’s denunciation of the heretical soteriology of Pelagius differently. Perhaps this is surprising, though perhaps not to those who came to my soteriology lecture last month, but that particular question (“By what mechanism in particular are we saved?”) is disputable by faithful, fully orthodox Christians. This is not to say that questions of Justification are irrelevant. Rather, the debates of the Sixteenth Century (which are still debates I hear people engaging in) often try to oversimplify the terms of the argument such that it is no longer a good faith argument.

There are, nonetheless, some ideas from this centuries-long debate which I find useful, not because I can get on board with a reformed view of the mechanism of Justification, but because they are insights with broader implications. One of these, believe it or not, is a Wesleyan concept called “prevenient grace.”

If any of you grew up Methodist you might have been taught this belief. In brief, it’s the idea that God’s Grace is already at work in us at birth. Before a child is baptized, before somebody in some far-flung land with no experience of Christianity hears the Gospel, God’s love and favor already abides with him or her.
We see this phenomenon, I believe, in this morning’s Gospel reading. The Magi were neither Jews nor Proto-Christians. They were likely Zoroastrian priests who practiced astrology and aimed at acquiring other esoteric knowledge. They were, in short, occultists. We even get the English word “magic” from them. Our English translations of scripture tend to chicken out and call them simply “wise men”, since we Christians don’t tend to look too kindly on the occult (nor should we, I’d argue), but let’s call the wise men what they were: pagans.

Yet, these pagan priests knew there was something to see in Bethlehem. They even used their “wicked” astrology to get there. (I wonder how many of us make this connection when we put a star on top of our Christmas tree.) The Magi were drawn to the Christ Child and thanks to what was no doubt divinely granted intuition they protected him from Herod.

I think this has something to teach us about how we approach those who don’t believe or who believe in something very different from us. I think it teaches us that we should go beyond just being civil, just being polite because our mothers taught us never to talk about politics or religion (at least mine did… see how that worked out).

We should, rather, see those who disagree with us as children of God, endowed with Grace from their Creator. This is not to say that all religions are just different paths up the same mountain, as it were. There are some who believe that (there are some here who do, and that’s fine) but I don’t. What I think most of us can affirm, though, (unless you’re a hyper-Calvinist and believe in a capricious God who has only given Grace to a few) is that each of us has an innate desire to seek God and to please God, and that should give us all a common purpose and mutual love.
May our own epiphany, our own striking realization this season, be of God’s presence as it is made manifest in friend and stranger, in coreligionist and non-adherent, in those from whom we are now estranged but pray will be reconciled to us and to God through the perfect love of Christ which binds all Creation together.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.