Hilary Term

The sermon today went just fine, apart from the incomplete sentence toward the middle, which required that I improvise (unprepared) a bridge that modulated from the fragment to the next sentence. And the service was exquisite, the music lovely, and the relief when it was over, tremendous.

Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers, Teacher of the Faith • January 14, 2008

2 Timothy 1:13-14, 2:1-3; Psalm 119: 161-168; Luke 12: 8-12

Guard the good treasure entrusted to you,
with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

In the name of God Almighty: Father, Son and Holy Spirit — Amen.

When advocates come to us, demanding that we join one or another faction in a bitter conflict, the wisdom of history teaches us that matters are rarely as cut-and-dried as the partisans insist. Theology, not being an experimental science, admits of different expressions for the faith once delivered to us by the saints. Scripture frequently embraces testimonies on behalf of more than one perspective. History teaches us only in retrospect, and practical considerations rarely line up on one side only. The virtue of humility teaches us to think of others as better than ourselves, and the virtue of patience obliges us to bear with one another as long as possible, even in intense disagreement. But glib answers and formulaic slogans win the instant applause of partisan audiences, such that many people, including sometimes even disciples of Jesus, persistently trade in superficial responses to complex problems.

“Complex problems,” for instance, including the question of how best we guard the good treasure that has been entrusted to us. Complexities such as, for one instance, the Arian controversy, in which Hilary played a prominent role. The Arian controversy, perhaps the paradigmatic theological conflict in church history (or at least, I tend to think so, as having taught church history for a few years) took decades and decades to settle, long after the first apparent resolution at the Council of Nicaea, lingering years after many of the main participants – Arius and Athansius, and Hilary himself – had died. The opposing parties both thought they were defending the divine truth; the opposing parties both cited scriptural warrants for their positions; the opposing parties both deployed political tactics fall short of the best representation of Christian piety. In retrospect, we praise Hilary as a defender of the faith, and chastise Arius as a heretic; but I doubt that any of us can honestly determine whether we’d have been a Nicene or an Arian had we been caught up in the midst of that bitter controversy. Indeed, I’m acquainted with plenty of people today who neither know nor (I fear) care whether they profess Arian or Nicene faith.

St Paul, who was no stranger to strong claims and divisive behavior, nevertheless reminded his congregations to seek the kind of unity that flourishes with cooperation, mutual respect, and humility. “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” Paul insists that his congregations neither stifle the voices of the prophets, nor accept blindly every thing they hear: “Test everything,” he commanded them; “Weigh what is said.” That ethos illumines this morning’s lesson from 2 Timothy, where the command to guard the saints’ treasures is surrounded by reminders that we rely on the faith and love that is in Christ, on the Spirit’s guidance, on strong grace, and on our solidarity with the many witnesses who withstood fierce resistance in the name of the truth.

Now, fierce resistance and suffering do not provide unambiguous pointers to the truth. We do not decide difficulties in the church by ascertaining who has suffered more, or by honoring the most relentlessly stubborn advocates. Sometimes people are stubborn and encounter fierce resistance because they’re flat wrong. At the same time, we take very seriously the witness of sisters and brothers who willingly set aside personal benefit, and in some cases personal health and well-being, in order to exemplify the faithfulness and righteousness to which God calls us. Such witnesses refuse to deny their faith in Jesus no matter what the stakes, no matter what the cost – they put their trust in God‘s promise of salvation. Councils may err; rulers may persecute; authorities of all sorts may make wrong-headed decisions; but when no leader will back us up, we can and should persist in adhering to God’s ways, in rejoicing at God’s promises.

Standing on the promises of God, we reach beyond the limitations of our weakness, beyond the obstacles that error and self-deception put in our way. We aspire to a holiness and righteousness that we cannot effect by sheer dint of determination, and God supports our aspiration by teaching us, in Scripture and in the liturgy and in the dogmatic wisdom of the ages, how to seek the harmonious sanctity our restless hearts long for. We reach beyond human willfulness, to discover the glorious beauty of God’s will. We reach beyond folly and vanity, to encounter the vision of truth into which God has invited all who hunger and thirst for righteousness. We stand on the promises, and reach forward to God’s judgment, for only God’s own judgment will set right what we have disordered – but that judgment will come to us not as an onerous burden of gloom, but as release into the fullness of what we have been aiming for all along. God’s judgment and God’s promises match one another in glory, in harmony, in beauty and wisdom – and we anticipate God’s promises by extending our reach toward all that God has taught us through all the ages.

Thus even in the midst of struggles, the church may never forget its support for the gifts of deliberation, of reflection, of discerning the spirits. By careful study, we recognize the complexities that beset us: the strengths even in erroneous teachings, and the weaknesses even in teaching concordant with the church’s tradition. By patient, humble consideration, we approach the wisdom by which God will fashion the greatest goodness out of our discord; and to the extent that we can begin to see that goodness now, in all our sisters and brothers, to that extent we begin to dwell in a foretaste of the goodness of God’s new creation. In this home for theological study we cannot afford the fallen malady of perfunctory diligence; here, the nuances and ornaments, the jots and tittles, the whys and wherefores surround us with blessings on every side, and all together sound a hymn of praise to the author of this wondrous, intricate vale of tragedy and redemption.

We best guard the good treasures not by hiding them away in some dusty vault, where no accident might dent them, no unworthy tongue speak the mysteries. We guard the treasures by bringing them into the light, turning them to see their every side, acknowledging that which we admire and that which worries us; we listen among all God’s witnesses for teachers who understand what we do not, and when we have understood glimmers and flashes of the heavenly glory made known to us in Christ, we venture to teach others as well. Unashamed of our allegiance to Jesus, confident in the promises whose full revealing we yet await, we confess our errors and raise up our wisdom, so that God may supply what our controversies obscure – by the working of the Holy Spirit who is living in us.


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