Everyone’s Favorite Heresies: Perfect Pastors?
January 28, 2024
1 John 1: 5-9
My character is spit spot spic and span,
I’m practically perfect in every way,
So people say,
Each virtue virtually knows no bound,
Each trait is great and patently sound,
I’m practically perfect from head to toe,
If I had a fault it would never dare to show,
I’m so practically perfect in every way,
Both prim and proper and never to stern,
Well educated yet willing to learn,
I’m clean and honest my manner refined,
And I wear shoes of the sensible kind,
I suffer no nonsense and whilst I remain,
There’s nothing else I feel I need explain,
I’m practically perfect in every way,
Practically perfect that’s my forte,
Uncanny nannies are hard to find,
Unique yet meek unspeakably kind,
I’m practically perfect not slightly soiled,
Running like an engine, that’s just been freshly oiled,
I’m so practically perfect in every way,
Who knows this song?
Or who know who it is written about?
Mary Poppins – practically perfect in every way.
Our heresy today has to do with perfection – in particular, the perfection of the clergy.
At one point in the Church’s history this was an active debate – should the clergy be held to different standards than others and – if they are seen to be morally lacking in some way – does that invalidate their ministry – or are the sacraments they administer somehow corrupted?
Because there is no pastoral equivalent to Mary Poppins, the Church mercifully decided this was a heresy.
I joked with Meg that this ought to be a really easy sermon – name the heresy, point to myself and say – “it obviously didn’t catch on.”
And yet I suspect that this preoccupation with purity is more enduring than we care to admit.
Our reading this morning comes from the letter 1 John, chapter one.
Prayer of Illumination:
In the reading of these words that point to you, the living Word, speak to us fresh insights for the living of these days. We pray this in the name of Christ, our rock and redeemer. Amen.
Scripture – 1 John 1: 5-9
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
In the year 303, the Roman Emperor Diocletian declared a general persecution of Christians throughout the empire. As you might imagine in something as large and unwieldly as the Roman Empire, his edicts were carried out with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
In the North African province, the Governor was content to let priests and bishops hand over their holy Scriptures as sign enough they had repudiated their Christian faith – no need for senseless bloodshed. Just hand over the holy writings and let’s move on.
In time the persecution ended and the right for Christians to worship as they wished were restored, but the seeds of an enduring conflict had already been sewn in the Church. Not everyone was keen to welcome those betrayers back into the church, and certainly not into their former positions of authority.
Some began calling these clergy traditores – sounds like traitor, right? They had betrayed Christ by handing over the holy Scriptures and to this emerging group of hardline purists, this level of betrayal put you in the same company as Judas. It permanently disqualified one from Church leadership, and any sacraments performed by a traditore were seen as invalid.
This powder keg really blew up in 311 when a new bishop was installed in Carthage – Bishop Felix – who was an alleged traditore himself. This emerging sect refused to accept the leadership of Bishop Felix and installed Donatus Magnus as a rival “true” Bishop in his place, because Donatus had never renounced his faith. This is how the sect came to be known as the Donatists.
That’s the brief history of our heresy for today, but why does it matter?
There’s a quote that makes the rounds, and is often attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo who was the Church’s chief critic of Donatism. The quote is: “The Church is not a museum for saints; it is a hospital for sinners.”
You will not find anything remotely sounding like that in the writings of Augustine, but it is a folksy summation of what was at stake with the Donatist controversy. Will the Church be a hall for champions to be installed on their pedestals and admired from a distance, practically perfect in every way.
OR – will the church be the place that offers shelter to those who have failed?
I think most all of us would agree that the Church should be that hospital for sinners, a healing-place for those who try and fail, but Donatism focused specifically on the church’s clergy – which begs the question “Do we – and should we – have different standards for the leaders of the church?”
When we were finishing seminary, Meg was serving this church just outside Richmond. She took the High School students to Montreat Youth Conference and I tagged along – they were a great group of kids and advisors and my friend Jen was the keynote speaker.
Jen told this story from her own adolescence in South Carolina. She grew up in a town with two sides, literally separated by train tracks. She loved playing Basketball and so tried out for the school team and made it, which then put her in relationship with a number of the black students who lived “on the other side of those tracks.”
She went on to describe how fun it was to develop these new friendships and bond as a team, but then it took a turn when there was a full-blown race riot in the community during her junior year. Suddenly, being a white girl with a foot in the black world was a very tense place to stand.
She explained how her white friends began to say things to her – the kinds of things that made her feel shame for having friendships across the color line. Jen confessed to this room of 1200 people that she had a failure of courage – she didn’t defend her new friends from the team or the community they come from. In fact, she quit the team and fell in line with what was expected of her as a white girl in a South Carolina town with a pair of train tracks running down the middle of it.
To me – it was a stunning and beautiful and painful moment of confession.
I marveled at her courage to be so vulnerable.
And then later that night – as we unpacked what we heard that day with the students – Jackson, this goofy red-headed kid you could not help but adore – he said “I did not like that story she told about folding under pressure and quitting the basketball team – I mean, what kind of a lesson is that? You’re supposed to be inspiring us, not telling us about your failures!”
That familiar question was staring at us – “is the Church a museum for the saints or a hospital for sinners?”
I think about a friend and colleague in the Church – a wonderful pastor and preacher who, after much therapy and soul-searching made the difficult decision to end his marriage. The blowback he received from the congregation he still serves was…significant. One member angrily confronted him and said, “Your divorce has completely destabilized my marriage!”
Another came at him, furious, because he was set to officiate their daughter’s wedding later that Spring – as if the marriage ceremony would somehow be compromised by the marital status of the pastor presiding.
This is precisely what the Donatists suggested: if the Lord’s Supper was officiated by a traditore that it was somehow tainted – that it was incapable of conferring God’s grace to the recipients.
Augustine may not have said the thing about the church being a hospital for sinners, but he did articulate that the grace conferred in the Lord’s Supper is never, ever dependent on the holiness of the one who stands at the Table. If that were true then no sacrament would stand. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
It’s really a deeper question than whether so-and-so is fit to preside at the Table.
Dig down and what we’re really talking about is who that table is for? Is it really open to everyone? Is there room enough for all, even those who betray their Lord.
There’s a story about Judas that says, after his death, he found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated it for a few centuries longer, he began to climb towards the light.
The walls of the pit were slimy, and he kept slipping back down. One time he almost got close to the top, but then he slipped and fell all the way back down. It took him many years to recover, but eventually he started to climb again.
After many more falls and failures he finally reached the top and dragged himself up over the edge and then he fell onto the floor of an upper room with twelve people seated around a table. Then he heard the voice of Jesus say to him: “We’ve been waiting for you, Judas. We could not begin without you.”
You will not find anything remotely like that in Scripture, but it might be a good, folksy summation of the Gospel itself, and a love that is practically perfect in every way, even when we are most certainly not.