March 26

Augustine: City of God

By Marsh Chapel

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John 11:17–45

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Recently, it may have happened, that one friend stopped another on Marsh Plaza, Lent 2023, just in front of the sermon sign board.  To his friend he said, Have you heard Hill’s last sermon on Augustine?  Not pausing for more than split second, the friend replied, I sure hope so!  I really do hope so!  With gladness, let us report you have only 19 minutes before that hope is fulfilled.   

Regarding hope, as it happens, Augustine himself, in his magnum opus, The City of God, had much to say: “As, therefore, we are saved, so we are made happy by hope. And as we do not as yet possess a present, but look for a future salvation, so is it with our happiness, and this “with patience;” for we are encompassed with evils, which we ought patiently to endure, until we come to the ineffable enjoyment of unmixed good; for there shall be no longer anything to endure.” (Bk 19, Ch 4).  As the Visigoths finished the sacking of Rome in 410ce, and then moved on to the rest of the Empire, Augustine wrote (413-422) this magisterial teaching about the future, about history, about good and evil, about the city of God, the heavenly city, in contest with the city of ‘man’, the earthly city.  As Augustine moved on from his earlier interests in Plato (‘the individual teacher does not make the truth, he finds it) in Aristotle, Cicero, in the Manicheans, in the Neoplatonists, on conversion he began to immerse himself in the Holy Scripture, under the preaching of Ambrose, and his thought took on steadily and continuously the shape of a full biblical theology. (In our time, we sorely lack a full throated, liberal biblical theology:  its lack is among other things at the very root of the fracturing, right now, of my beloved United Methodist Church). Our last Lenten sermon in conversation with Augustine is thus in conversation with his last work, lengthy work, work of a lifetime, The City of God: Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” (Bk 14, Ch 28)  

In Augustinian fashion, we come toward him, and with fervent desire we trust to the saving Gospel itself, this morning, through the blessed land of Holy Scripture, and Augustine’s prized favorite, the Gospel of John. 

For the Gospel of John, allowed a meager few weeks interjection into our lectionary this month, by interruption of Matthew, is centrally, even solely, an announcement of presence, divine presence, the presence of God. Really only this theological, interpretative insight will make sense for you and me of John 11.  In 90ad, 60 years after the cross, some in the Johannine community spoke in the voice of Jesus. Especially this is so in the ‘I Am’ sayings. If Jesus on earth did not say these things–who did? Answer: the Johannine prophet (s). The preacher in John 11 announces presence. I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. You are a person of faith? Practice that presence.  You are a Christian? Practice that presence. You are a Christian yearning for a faith amenable to culture and culture amenable to faith? Are you? Yes? Practice that presence. The ancient, troubled, community of the beloved disciple, that of John, has your back. Even—especially—in a virulent epoch, or even, as today, for us, in a post-virulent one, where the virus has not, yet, let go. 

Remember, what carries Jesus to the cross, in the Gospel of John, is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Not the cleansing of the temple, but the resurrection to life of Lazarus, in the Johannine narrative, brings the advent of the cross. Jesus is crucified, here, because he claims divinity, and embodies divinity, in this Gospel. This makes a bit of sense of the placement of this reading just before Holy Week, rather than just after. ‘No good deed goes unpunished’ does not capture the gravity and eternity of the moment, but it does give the average hearer a point of orientation to John 11. John Ashton wrote fiercely of this Gospel:  

Conscious as they were of the continuing presence in their midst of the Glorified One, no wonder the community, or rather the evangelist who was its chief spokesman, smoothed out the rough edges of the traditions of the historical Jesus…(His portrait of Jesus) arose from his constant awareness, which he shared with members of his community, that they were living in the presence of the Glorified One. So dazzling was this glory that any memory of a less-than-glorious Christ was altogether eclipsed…(They) realized that the truth that they prized as the source of their new life was to be identified not (only) with the Jesus of history but with the risen and glorious Christ, and that this was a Christ free from all human weakness. The claims they made for him were at the heart of the new religion that soon came to be called Christianity (199) The Gospel of John and Christian Origins.  The new religion that soon came to be called Christianity…  

Ashton: The difference between John’s portrait of Christ and that of the Synoptists is best accounted for by the experience of the glorious Christ constantly present to him and his community (204) (The Gospel of John and Christian Origins). For the two basic historical problems of the New Testament are ancient cousins, first cousins to our two fundamental issues of salvation today. The first historical problem behind our 27 books, and pre-eminently embedded in John, is a form of dislocation—our shared condition March 2020—March 2023, dislocation–for John the movement away from his mother, his motherland, Judaism. How did a religious movement, founded by a Jew, born in Judea, embraced by 12 and 500 within Judaism, expanded by a Jewish Christian missionary become, within 100 years, entirely Greek? The books of the New Testament record in excruciating detail the development of this second identity, this coming of age, that came with the separation from mother religion. 

The second historical problem underneath the Newer Testament is disappointment, the despair that gradually accompanied the delay, finally the cancellation, of Christ’s return, the delay of the parousia. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Paul expected to be alive to see the advent of Christ. Gradually, though, the church confessed disappointment in its greatest immediate hope, the sudden cataclysm of the end.  

These two problems, historical and fascinating, create our New Testament: the separation from Judaism and the delay of Christ’s return. In the fourth Gospel the two come together with great ferocity. What makes this matter so urgent for us is that these very two existential dilemmas—one of identity and one of imagination—are before every generation, including and especially our own. March, Lent 2023: how shall we live in faith? How do I become a real person? How do we weather lasting disappointment? How do I grow up? How do we become mature? What insight do I need, amid the truly harrowing struggles over identity, to become the woman or man I was meant to become? What imagination—what hope molded by courage—do we need to face down oour ennui, our sloth in imagination. More than any other document in ancient Christianity, John explored the first. More than any other document in Christianity, John faced the second. Both mean choice. Both bring us to the summit of freedom. Once every three years, interrupting Matthew, we hear the great passages—Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the Blind Man, and, today Lazarus. Hear the Gospel, John 11: We…YOU!…have the freedom, a bit in contest with Augustine, to choose…and to move: 

  • From fear to love. 
  • From spiritual blindness to spiritual sight. 
  • From life to spirit. 
  • From isolation to community. 
  • From home to health. 
  • From rainbow to firmament. 
  • From control to freedom. 
  • From spiritual hunger to hungry spirituality. 
  • From nationalism to patriotism. 
  • From denominationalism to ecumenism. 
  • From death to life. 

What we have experienced, endured since March 2020, now three years ago, may be as rugged and necessary a preparation as possible for Augustine’s last work, The City of God. 

Here Augustine sets out his greatest hope, that what was hidden may become clear, what delighted not may become sweet…this belongs to the grace of God.  He sees and foresees a lasting, perhaps interminable, conflict between two cities, one of love and one of self, one of heaven and one of earth, one of grace and one of sin, and, over time, for him, ne’er the twain shall meet. 

Here Augustine–in the shadow of the goths ascendant it is hard to forget– conveyed an increasingly dark view of the future, of the potential perils and calamities of human activity, long and very long before the splitting of the atom, long and long before the blood-soaked victims of modern weaponry today in Ukraine, long and long before the sudden advent of potential technological dangers in AI, long and long before the measured advances of climate change, long and long before the myriad consequences of social media, Augustine saw through a glass darkly: All human beings sin, some are afraid to correct the sins of others, God inflicts suffering on all to correct. “They are punished together, not because they have spent an equally corrupt life, but because the good as well as the wicked, though not equally with them, love this present life; while they ought to hold it cheap, that the wicked, being admonished and reformed by their example, might lay hold of life eternal.” (Bk1, Ch 9). 

Here Augustine sets out his fullest theology of history, his greatest expression of hope: “But God foresaw also that by His grace a people would be called to adoption, and that they, being justified by the remission of their sins, would be united by the Holy Ghost to the holy angels in eternal peace, the last enemy, death, being destroyed; and He knew that this people would derive profit from the consideration that God had caused all men to be derived from one, for the sake of showing how highly He prizes unity in a multitude.” (Bk 21, Ch 22) 

Yet, more emphatically, here Augustine severely doubts the capacity for human goodness, for the human being to do good.  As Joseph Buttinger put it:  For Augustine, God alone is the cause of every human movement toward good…Augustine pointed to the inescapable conditioning of all moral activity by the situation of the agent, outside of whose control are in general not only the presentation of the object, but also the kind of feeling that the presentation excites.  Augustine found it increasingly difficult to leave room in his doctrine of grace for a genuinely free response on man’s part to the Spirit’s gift. (Encyclopedia Brittanica, vol. 14, Macropedia, 329—a priceless set, given me long ago, by a complete stranger).  In that this pulpit diverges from him. It makes one wonder whether, as old age advanced, Augustine reverted or returned to his youthful sojourns with the Neoplatonists and Manicheans, his dualistic earlier loves.  For them, as for the late Augustine, the human will is not efficient, but deficient. 

Here Augustine presages what our fifth-generation personalist BU PhD Professor Lloyd Easton at Ohio Wesleyan, long ago reminded us of Karl Marx saying, history moves with iron necessity towards inevitable results.  And George Santayana, at Harvard: those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. And William Faulkner: The past is not dead.  It is not even past.  You may fear or dread ‘The City of God’ because of our fallibility, because of its length and inscrutability, and because of our pervasively human spiritual disability, evident, daily, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.  Augustine, remembering the pear tree, would understand.  

Our grandmother had a pear tree in her back yard, and long-stemmed pear picker, which at her death came my way.  It was a beautiful tree, surrounded in memory by glad hours of her presence, her sense of presence.  Augustine remembered a pear tree, not for a sense of presence, but for a sense of absence. For from his youth he carried the simple memory of boys shaking down a neighbors’ pear tree, not from need or hunger, but rather: For of what I stole I already had plenty, and I had no wish to enjoy the things I coveted by stealing, but only to enjoy the theft itself, and the sin…we took away an enormous quantity of pears, not to eat them ourselves, but simply to throw them to the pigs…our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden…the evil in me was foul, but I loved it. (Book II 4). We too know the shadow that shadowed Augustine all his days.  Like Citizen Kane and ‘Rosebud’, his religious genius also carried an existential shadow, which is, on the one hand, his blessing, and on the other hand, his curse, for us; on one hand his arrow hitting the mark, and on the other his lasting mistake, his ‘noxious legacy to theology’ (Buttinger). One day on a Montreal sidewalk long ago, and just months before his own death, British Bishop and New Testament Scholar JAT Robinson said, to me, what lingers for me is the sense of shadow, the shadows that continue to stalk us.  Shadows stalked Augustine too. 

I take a slightly different message from my own experience of a pear tree. Our grandmother, a rather more modest Methodist one.  It was a beautiful tree, surrounded in memory by glad hours of her presence, her sense of presence.  Presence in daily goodness.  Presence in humble service.  Presence in enjoyment of family.  Presence in a little harvest, a little fun, a little enjoyment of the very simplest of pleasures.  I wish that Saint of Hippo, Augustine, had known her.  Maybe in the great beyond they have met, and talked, and learned together.  At least she did know, and use daily, his prayer, with which we began this Lenten series, and now with which we end it:  Great art Thou O Lord, and greatly to be praised. Great is thy power, and thy wisdom is infinite. Thee would we praise without ceasing, for our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee. 

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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