Attending to Pelagius

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Readings for First Monday in Lent

Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-18

Psalm 19:7-14

Matthew 25:31-46

This sermon was preached at All Saints Chapel at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley CA on March 10, 2014.

The first British theologian used this morning’s Gospel (Matthew 25: 31-46) to support his argument that Christ judges Christians not based on their faith, but based on their actions. And the judgment is based not only on sinful actions committed but based on the good works of compassion that Christians fail to practice. “They are condemned,” he writes, “not for doing evil, but on account of the good they did not do.” And according to this Gospel passage, this theologian appears to be correct.

The British theologian that I am referring to is also the first British heretic: Pelagius. He was born in Britain in the mid 4th century, studied in Rome where he taught theology to wealthy women and, according to the insulting remarks of St. Jerome, he was an obese man, overstuffed with Irish porridge, who displayed his fat even on his forehead. He denied Original Sin and preached that, with the right use of free will, a baptized Christian can be perfect. Pelagius would ask, “Did not Jesus say, ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect?’, upping the ante on the command in Leviticus to “Be holy because I the LORD am holy.”  In fact, Pelagius has quite a lot of Scripture to back up his argument; all the Scriptures we just heard could be cited by a Pelagian to support his argument. However, Pelagius, though skilled and equipped with Scriptures, could not compete with his fierce opponent, the great master of rhetoric, Augustine. As a result, Augustine came to be hailed in history as a Saint and the Doctor of Grace (and likely the greatest theologian in Western Christianity) while Pelagius was exiled, excommunicated, condemned as a heretic, and has been maligned as the poster child of all kinds of heresies throughout history.

I share the life of Pelagius not because I think he deserves a feast day or a bracket in Lent Madness. I share his life and his teachings because the Gospel today urges us to be attentive to those on the margins. And Pelagius, who loved God so much and “wanted above all else to be a good Christian,” has been marginalized throughout church history and imprisoned behind ecclesiastical bars of orthodoxy. He deserves some of our attention. I want to be clear that Pelagius was not, as many like to think, a progressive humanist who embodied “enlightened 20th century liberalism.” Pelagius was a rigid moralist, an icy puritan who would have no problem condemning all of us to hell. But I still think Pelagius can teach us something during this Lenten season if we attend to him.

Although I am honestly grateful that Augustine won the day with his theology of grace (I certainly couldn’t qualify as a Christian if Pelagius won the debate), I hear the invitation in Pelagius and in this Gospel to not use grace as a free ticket that allows me to be a jerk or that allows me to ignore the homeless person on the street but as an inspiration and a motivation to take a risk and encounter the face of Christ in the hungry, the imprisoned, the homeless and the stranger, those on the margins of society. As the Hebrew prophet said, “The kind of fasting that God is looking for must involve feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and serving the poor. Otherwise you’re wasting your time.” (Isaiah 58:6). Though our salvation does not depend on our works and we are all “sheep” destined for the kingdom by virtue of our baptism, Pelagius and the prophets (including that troublesome prophet from Nazareth) push us to uphold our baptismal covenant: “to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being,” especially the poor, the hungry, the homeless and perhaps even the heretics. By attending to these, we can get a taste of our inheritance, the kingdom prepared for us since the foundation of the world.

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