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Saint Andrew's Church
Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church

Pentecost 20C, Proper 25                                                           Luke 18:9-14                                                    October 27, 2019

Ever since the beginning of the Church people have invented their own ideas about what it takes to be faithful to God.  The result is many different churches with many different theologies.  We call these ideas heresy.  And there are a lot of them.

Which ancient heresy do you think is the most prevalent in the church today?  In a recent survey the answer was "Donatism."  Which of course raises the question:  What is Donatism?  Here is a little history, and maybe knowing something about it will help us avoid making similar mistakes.

Donatism affected the church in North Africa in the fourth century.  Early in the century, the Roman Emperor Diocletian persecuted Christians.  During the persecution, Christians who renounced their faith, made offerings to the Roman gods, and turned over any sacred scriptures, they were allowed to live.  Those who refused--were usually killed.  While many Christians resisted and were martyred, many others did not.  They renounced Christianity, allowed their books to be burned, and were allowed to live.  

The persecutions ended with Diocletian's death and his successor, Constantine, made it a lot easier for Christians.  So many of those who had denied their faith returned to the Church.  But what really upset people at the time is that a number of clergy who had renounced their faith returned to the church and were functioning as priests and bishops.

Many Christians in North Africa did not want to allow lapsed clergy to return.  They considered it offensive to the memories of those who had become martyrs.  They might return to the Church as laymen--after an appropriate penance--but not as clergy ever again.

This issue split the church and a person named Donatus became the chief spokesman for the rival church.   Donatus said lapsed clergy were not eligible to perform the sacraments, and that any which they may have performed were invalid.  They thought the impurity of the clergy somehow infected the whole church.  They wanted a pure church, led by pure clergy, composed of pure members.

The other church, which became the mainstream church, responded by saying that lapsed clergy could be restored to full authority after having performed appropriate penance.  They based this on the concept of forgiveness for all.  They claimed that the holiness of the church is not based on the purity of its leaders or the purity of its members.

All are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God.  The holiness of the Church rests entirely upon the holiness of God who in his graciousness forgives us our sins in Jesus Christ.  This became the orthodox Christian position.

I think Donatists, both ancient and modern, are people who are really worried that the impurity, moral failings, and erroneous beliefs of others will somehow corrupt or infect them.  It's kind of like the kid's notion that we can catch cooties from someone who is a well-known and notorious cootie-monster.

There is a grown-up version of this not only in our churches today, but also in our culture.  People are really concerned with their ideological purity, political purity, nutritional purity, moral purity, you-name-it purity these days.  And this modern-day Donatism affects people of all stripes.  There are liberal Donatists and there are conservative Donatists.  

People treat others with whom they differ not just as folks who they think are wrong, but as cootie-monsters.  Liberals who accidentally click on Fox News and conservatives who accidentally click on MSNBC both feel like they have to run to the bathroom and wash their hands.

Now, if we are concerned about the Church, we should be troubled by the ways in which Donatism is affecting it.  Sadly, the Donatism in the Church often mirrors the modern-day Donatism in the broader culture.  Christians simply adopt the rhetoric of the broader culture and use it in their argument against other Christians.

You know, those whacko progressive Christians.  Those conservative Evangelicals.  Those wishy-washy Episcopalians.  And sadly, the way these labels get used as a way of drawing lines between the pure and the impure, the righteous and the unrighteous, the holy and the godless.

Remember, Jesus had to deal with a similar issue in his day.  Some Pharisees complained, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"  Pharisees thought that Jesus and his follower would somehow catch cooties by eating with sinners and tax collectors.  But Jesus says that you've got it upside down.  Jesus doesn't get corrupted by coming into contact with sinners.  Rather, sinners get healed by coming into contact with Jesus.

Jesus tells the story this way with the two men, the Pharisee and the tax collector.  The Pharisee canoot brag enough about how great a believer he is.  The tax collector keeps his head lowered as he comes into the temple.  He is full of remorse.  All he does is ask for God's mercy.

The Pharisee came asking nothing of God and he goes home getting nothing from God.  The tax collector, despicable fellow that he is, shows up empty handed asking for God's mercy, and goes home justified, that is, in right relationship with God.

Donatists always go home empty.  Tax collectors and sinners on the other hand go home full.  When we come into God's presence not trying to puff ourselves up by putting everyone else down, but with an honest and humble acknowledgement of our emptiness, God fills us with his love and forgiveness.

And this, my fellow Donatists, is good news.  We have no purity or holiness apart from the grace, love, and mercy of God.  Now, how we respond to this good news ought to make a difference in our lives.  In gratitude for the free gift of god's grace, we ought to lead better lives, good lives, indeed, holy lives.

All are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Jews.  Gentiles.  Evangelicals.  Anglo-Catholics.  Conservatives.  Liberals.  Nascar fans.  Opera lovers.  Even modern-day Donatists.  In Christ, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace that he lavishes upon all of us.  My purity, your purity, the Church's purity has nothing to do with it.  And for that, we say, thanks be to God.