During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights will be spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully. As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it. The message from Jly 7, “The Restless Heart”, took as its texts Acts 8:9-25 and Romans 13:8-14.
“Um, I would find that highly surprising…”
“And nobody has really added anything to those stories for about two thousand years, right?”
“Well, what if Jesus doesn’t come back for another two thousand years? What stories are we going to use? Won’t the Bible seem really old then? How will people know how to live in their own time and place?”
And that question – beautiful in its simplicity – got me to thinking about the fact that when we have been at our best, the church has, for two thousand years – been trying to help people do that very thing.
And I thought about a trip I took one time to a little town in New York, where we were going to celebrate my grandparents’ wedding anniversary. I had grown up thinking that I knew my family: 1 brother, 1 sister, 1 mother, 1 father, 4 grandparents, 19 cousins. But at this event I kept seeing strangers go over and kiss my mother or worse, come and start tugging on my cheeks. And I realized that I most certainly did NOT know my family…
So this summer, I’m going to invite you to a family reunion of sorts. You won’t meet any of my cousins, but we’ll find a few sisters and brothers that you might not have met yet – but who have worked hard to help our Christian Family have a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus faithfully.
On November 13, 354 AD in the town of Hippo in what is now Algeria, North Africa, a Christian woman named Monica and her pagan husband had a son, whom they named Augustine. This boy, raised in the cradle of the Roman Empire, turned out to be one of the most profound influences on your life…and your faith. After his conversion to Christianity, which we’ll hear about in a moment, he rose to a position of great prominence and influence. He was one of the most important people who helped turn Christianity from a “movement” into an “institution” – that is, his preaching and writing gave shape to the church at a crucial time in her life.
For instance, Augustine was the first person to really define what a sacrament is. People had been having worship for three hundred years, but nobody had been able to put into words exactly what was happening. Augustine put it this way: “The word is added to the element, and there results the Sacrament, as if itself also a kind of visible word.” Augustine taught us to distinguish between the sign (say, the pouring of water) and the thing that is signified (say, the forgiveness of our sin). It sounds like “Christianity 101”, but hey, someone had to help us figure out this stuff – and more than anyone else in the first few centuries, it was Augustine.
The two works for which he is best remembered are Confessions and The City of God. The latter book was written after the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410. For as long as anyone could remember, Rome had been synonymous with strength and stability; for a hundred years, Rome had been a “Christian” Empire. Now the Goths had overrun the world’s city and the culture was changing. There would be new rules, new customs. People were dying to know – how can we still be Christians if the world around us is changing…I know, that sounds crazy to us, who live in a time of such great global and cultural stability when things don’t ever change, but trust me, nations rise and fall, empires change, and so do cultures and behaviors. Augustine wrote The City of God to help believers explore how to live lives of faith in the midst of change. And he did it 1600 years ago!
His earlier work, Confessions, is regarded as the first work of autobiography, and it contains a memoir of his conversion to the Christian faith.
He begins by describing his childhood, and how he had been raised in comparative wealth. His great intellect was obvious to anyone who knew him, and he was educated at the finest institutions. He became involved with the cult of Manichaeism, a belief that denied the reality of a loving creator and instead taught that humanity and all of creation are a result of a curious conflict between good and evil. The human being – body, mind, and spirit – is simply a battleground on which the forces of good and evil wage war.
During this time of adolescence and young adulthood, Augustine experimented with all sorts of behavior. In particular, he became engrossed with sexuality. As he descended deeper and deeper into what he would later see as sinful brokenness, he was increasingly uncomfortable – but he did not have the strength to leave it behind. In fact, one of his most famous prayers is this: “O Lord, make me chaste…but not yet.”
I think that some of you know how that feels – that there is some behavior – some anger, some lust, some substance, some pride – that you think is probably not right, but you are not yet convinced that you want to give it up. You have prayed, “O Lord, save me from this thing…next week”. Because we love our secret sin, don’t we?
At any rate, when he was 31 years old, he was reflecting on his situation – one that he termed as having “a restless heart”. Listen to his own words:
I was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all at once I heard the singsong voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain “Take it and read, take it and read.” At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall.
So he grabbed his Bible and it fell open to the passage we heard a few moments ago: Romans 13:13-14, which reads “So behave properly, as people do in the day. Don’t go to wild parties or get drunk or be vulgar or indecent. Don’t quarrel or be jealous. Let the Lord Jesus Christ be as near to you as the clothes you wear. Then you won’t try to satisfy your selfish desires.”
In his own words:
I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.
He knew the truth, and he would later reflect on it this way: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
This experience is crucial to understanding Augustine and his impact on our church and on our faith. He knew what it was like to wrestle with sin. He had been broken. He knew what it meant to do things that he didn’t really want to do, and to be unable to do things that he knew he really should do. More than any other church leader before him, Augustine came to see that Christians fall into sin time and time again, and that the only response possible is to throw oneself onto God’s mercy and trust in God’s forgiveness. A sinless life, he said, is impossible – so trust God.
In my preparation for this message, I did not find anyplace where Augustine preached about Simon the Magician in the book of Acts, but I am convinced that this would have been one of his favorite stories. In Acts 8 we heard the story of a pagan charlatan who used smoke and mirrors to impress the public and enrich himself…but he seemed to know that there was more. When he heard the apostle Philip preaching the Good News of Jesus, he believed! He received baptism, and he became a disciple who followed Philip around seeking to soak up as much as he could…
Until his old demons came back and he started to think about all the money he was throwing away by following Jesus…and all that he could make if he could just bottle up a little of that “Holy Spirit” and pour it out at will. When the Christians rebuke him for this, and name the sin in his life, then he confesses his sin (again!) and seeks to be faithful.
And it’s not just Simon, nor Augustine. How many of you know what it’s like to be here, to be committed, to be ready…and then to screw up big time?
Augustine was monumental in helping our Christian family understand that to live faithfully, we need both personal decisions and communal accountability. Too often in some congregations, we seem to expect only one or the other of those things. Some churches teach that “we’re all in this together. Come on in, get baptized, join the club, and we’ll take care of it as a group.” Others seem to say, “Look, it’s all about you, and whether you’ve made a decision to follow Jesus. Have you asked him to be your personal Lord and Savior? Good. Then you’re over the line and your work is done…”
Augustine shows us that the personal decision does matter – a great deal. Our decisions matter. But it’s not just one and done – say the magic words and get into the company of the faithful, end of story. No, we need to be converted. And then, together, we are re-converted. And re-converted.
I had a friend who played football for Pitt when Pitt was national champion in 1976. Just after graduation, he became a Christian, and made a decision to follow the Lord. Three weeks after that, he got married. The guys on the football team thought it would be funny to take him out and get him really drunk, and then they brought a stripper in. When she had done what she came to do, she was in an adjoining room getting herself dressed and they stripped my friend down to his boxers and threw him into the room with her. He stood up, swayed a little bit, and stammered out, “Listen…you don’t have anything to worry about from me…last month, I became a Christian!”
The woman eyed him up and down and said simply, “No kidding? I’ve been saved four or five times myself!”
Listen, I’m not holding out my drunken friend or his bachelor party entertainment as models for Christian growth…but I am here to say, with Augustine, that sin happens. We orient ourselves. We decide that we want to grow, we want to follow, we want to be faithful. And then, sooner or later, we screw up.
Augustine would say, and I would agree with him, that the question is not really “will you struggle with sin?” Rather, the question is, “how will you react to your struggle with sin?” When you blow it, will you be ready to wake up and trust God in the morning?
If you have not yet trusted God to direct your life – if you are still holding back somehow and have not sought to open your restless heart to God’s healing, why not?
And if you have trusted in the grace of God, but are not growing in your ability to live faithfully, what’s holding you back?
And if you struggle with sin and brokenness in the process, well, then, don’t be surprised. Confess it, and teach your restless heart to rest in God’s amazing grace. And live your faith, again, tomorrow. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Homilies on the Gospel of John, quoted in Bernhard Lohse’s A Short History of Christian Doctrine (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 137.
 Confessions, Book VII, Section 12
The material below is a copy of a handout that I shared with the people who were in worship on Sunday. It contains a little more information on Augustine as well as some of his writing. I pray that you enjoy it!
Faces at the Reunion: St. Augustine (354-430)
During the summer of 2013, we will be looking at the Christian Faith through the eyes of some of the servants of God who have preceded us in this walk. These men and women left behind a witness that has formed us, whether we know it or not, and in our worship we will have a “family reunion” this summer as we engage in their stories and gain from their experience.
Augustine (from North Africa) was one of the most influential Christian thinkers, writers, and pastors of the early church. Some have said that apart from the Bible, his Confessions is the most widely-read book of all time. He grew up as an unbeliever, had a dramatic conversion experience in his 30’s, and went on to shape the church as we know it today.
From The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book I (Translated by Edward Bouverie Pusey )
Oh! that I might repose on Thee! Oh! that Thou wouldest enter into my heart, and inebriate it, that I may forget my ills, and embrace Thee, my sole good! What art Thou to me? In Thy pity, teach me to utter it. Or what am I to Thee that Thou demandest my love, and, if I give it not, art wroth with me, and threatenest me with grievous woes? Is it then a slight woe to love Thee not? Oh! for Thy mercies’ sake, tell me, O Lord my God, what Thou art unto me. Say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. So speak, that I may hear. Behold, Lord, my heart is before Thee; open Thou the ears thereof, and say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. After this voice let me haste, and take hold on Thee. Hide not Thy face from me. Let me die- lest I die- only let me see Thy face.
Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge Thou it, that Thou mayest enter in. It is ruinous; repair Thou it. It has that within which must offend Thine eyes; I confess and know it. But who shall cleanse it? or to whom should I cry, save Thee? Lord, cleanse me from my secret faults, and spare Thy servant from the power of the enemy. I believe, and therefore do I speak. Lord, Thou knowest. Have I not confessed against myself my transgressions unto Thee, and Thou, my God, hast forgiven the iniquity of my heart? I contend not in judgment with Thee, who art the truth; I fear to deceive myself; lest mine iniquity lie unto itself. There- fore I contend not in judgment with Thee; for if Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall abide it?
From The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book X (Translated by Henry Chadwick)
Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new, late have I loved you.
And see, you were within, and I was in the external world and sought you there,
and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely things which you made.
You were with me, and I was not with you.
The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you they had no existence at all.
You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness.
You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness.
You were fragrant, and I drew my breath and now pant after you.
I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you.
You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.
For more information about Augustine, see http://www.reasons.org/articles/augustine-of-hippo-part-1-of-2-from-pagan-to-cultist-to-skeptic-to-christian-sage