The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Light and the Dark: A Sermon on Romans 8: 26-39

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYS, July 30, 2017]

You don’t hear much about C.P. Snow these days. He was a scientist, a civil servant, and a novelist. He wrote a sequence of 11 novels, called Strangers and Brothers, in which he followed an aspiring lawyer and writer from his hungry youth to the brink of a distinguished old age.

Well, you can see why he grabbed my attention as a college student, right? A series of novels that asked the very questions I was struggling with myself—what to make of my life, how to follow ambition without becoming self-serving, what was the good life anyway?-—Snow’s hero Lewis Eliot grappled with them all. In today’s world, where bitter political differences are tearing apart old alliances, and even families, we can look back at Eliot and his friends confronting these same conflicts in the 1930s.

But Lewis Eliot did not wrestle with God. Like Snow himself, he was a cheerful atheist, despite his Church of England upbringing. Still—he knew religious people and several of them play key roles in the novels.

One character was based on his closest friend, a brilliant scholar named Charles Allberry, who translated the one surviving text left behind by the Manichees—the Christian heresy that believed that the whole of creation is a battlefield between the light of spirit and the dark of the flesh. They were the great adversaries of St. Augustine, and, until Allberry’s translation of a group of psalms that survived the persecution of the Manichees, nothing was known of their thought except what their opponents, such as Augustine, wrote about them.

Roy Calvert, the fictional character based on Allberry, and main character in The Light and the Dark, thirsts for God, but struggles with belief. As he tells Eliot:
“Listen, Lewis. I could believe in all the rest. I could believe in the catholic church. I could believe in miracles. I could believe in the inquisition. I could believe in eternal damnation. If only I could believe in God.”

“And yet you can’t.”

“I can’t begin to,” he said, his tone quiet once more. “I can’t get as far as ‘help Thou mine unbelief.’. . . . The nearest I’ve got is this,” he said. “It has happened twice. It’s completely clear—and terrible. Each time it has been on a night when I couldn’t sleep. I’ve had the absolute conviction—it’s much more real than anything one can see or touch—that God and His world exist. And that everyone can enter and find their rest. Except me. I’m infinitely far away for ever. I am alone and infinitesimally small—and I can’t come near.” [1]
The notion that some of us are cast away by God, that some of us are denied God’s love, because of some inherent flaw within us that we can’t identify, let alone cure, the concept that some number of us were born to be damned has haunted Christianity, especially American Christianity, from Jonathan Edwards to the present, as documented by the scholar Peter Theusen.[2]

And today’s Epistle is one of the key sources of that doctrine. In 1910, Bishop Charles Gore, a great scholar, and one of the leading lights of the late 19th and early 20th century Church of England straightforwardly declared that “There is . . . no point on which St. Paul has been more misrepresented than on his teaching about predestination. He teaches plainly that it is God’s plan to have mercy on all,” that it is God’s will that all be saved.[3] And he adds that “it is to do egregious violence to his general teaching to suggest that he entertained the idea of persons with an opposite predestination—to eternal misery.”[4]

So what, then, is St. Paul teaching us in today’s reading?

First, and obviously, that we need not be afraid that our prayers are too weak—that we don’t know how to pray, or what to ask for. The feelings of need stirring in us, the inarticulate emotions that stir us—these are themselves prayers. Or, as St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
Prayer isn’t a laundry list, or an online order that we have to get right. It’s an opening of ourselves to God, and effort to speak our hearts to God, but even more, to clear a space for that small, still voice within.

What does he then tell us?

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Let’s stop a minute there. How can that be? All things work together for good sounds awfully Pollyanna-ish to me. But then I read Susan Howatch, who asked the same question when attending a sermon at Guilford Cathedral. The preacher, the Cathedral’s Dean, asked how could you say that to the victim of a tragedy, or about the loss of a beloved friend. And he went on to explain that:
the sentence "All things work together for good to them that love God" was slightly mistranslated, and that the translation should have been: "All things intermingle for good to them that love God." This would mean that the good and bad were intermingling to create a synergy--or, in other words: in the process of intermingling, the good and the bad formed something else. The bad didn't become less bad, and the dark didn't become less dark--one had to acknowledge this, acknowledge the reality of the suffering. But the light emanating from a loving God created a pattern on the darkness, and in that pattern was the meaning, and in the meaning lay the energy which would generate the will to survive.

All things intermingle for good. The dark never obliterates the light. God is there with us, suffering alongside us, sharing our pain, just as Jesus did in his life.

And then Paul tells us that For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.

And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

But who are the called, the predestined, the justified?


But don’t take it from me; here’s Bishop Gore again: “The fact that they love God is the sufficient evidence of their election. Those who love God are also those who are ‘called according to his purpose.’”[6]

But perhaps, we may wonder, do we love God enough? The standard isn’t so high, Bishop Gore explains; all who have felt a movement of God in their heart, who feel the answering “yes” rise within them—these are the people who have been assured by Paul that their “yes” is enough.[5]

It’s not a test of merit or worth; it’s not a test at all. It’s simply opening ourselves up to life, accepting that the good and the bad will intermingle, that growth will hurt, and yet benefit us, that everything ends, and that’s sad, but everything begins, and that’s joyful.

All things intermingle for those who love.

Because to love is to be, and as Plotinus, the neo-platonist who looked on at the early church with curiosity and a little wonder put it, “Nothing that truly is can ever perish.” [6]

The rest is how we respond to that love, and how we let it change us. And as long as we are willing to open our hearts and our minds, to listen for God, to open ourselves to prayer so that the groanings of the Spirit –in other words, the true needs and wishes of our deepest selves—can come out. That’s what it means to be the called, and the predestined.

Nothing that truly is can ever die.

And what of the fictional Roy Calvert or the real Charles Allberry, whose despair was so heart-wrenchingly recorded by his friend in The Light and the Dark?

Look at all the terrible notions that Roy Calvert thinks he must affirm to enter and find the rest of God. The Inquisition. Eternal damnation. A God, in other words, of punishment and cruelty. No wonder he couldn’t find that belief that would enable him to surrender his innate sense of justice and decency!

But do you really think so good a person, who strove to find God, only to be blocked by the cruel idols that have been placed on pedestals and called God, could fall outside of the love of God, the sacrificial love of God as shown to us by Jesus Christ?

I don’t. Here I stand with Paul. Because as he writes:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,

nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Yes, here I stand.

Here we stand.

We can do no other.

[1] C.P. Snow, The Light and the Dark , at p. 59 (1948).

[2] Peter J. Theusen, Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine (2009).

[3] Charles Gore, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Practical Exposition (1910), vol. 2, p. 317.

[4] Id. at p. 319.

[5] Susan Howatch, “The Starbridge Novels and Twentieth Century Anglican Theology,” in Bruce Johnson & Charles A. Huttar, eds., Scandalous Truths: Essays by and About Susan Howatch 231, 235-236 (2005).

[6] W. R. Inge, The Philosophy of Plotinus at 70 (1918).

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