Back in the late 4th and early 5th centuries – late 300’s and early 400’s – a British monk named Pelagius caused a stir in the early Church. At the time, Christianity had been legal and then the official religion of the Roman Empire for a few decades. Pelagius went to teach in Rome and saw that the Christians there had become very lax. He wanted to firm them up. That was a good idea, but along the way he developed some errant teachings. Among them was this: People are born essentially good and our sins are separate, errant acts that we are able to stop and therefore we must stop them.
Pelagius was opposed by the biggest intellectual giant the church would see for at least its first thousand years after St. Paul, and perhaps ever since Paul: St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine argued the Church’s established teaching, that people are born with a propensity to sin. There’s something inside us that causes us to chafe against authority at every level.
This applies to commandments, federal law, state and local law, homeowners’ associations, band parents, and our family norms. It even applies to rules set specifically for our benefit. One of the big issues in health care is getting people to take their prescription medications. I don’t mean affordability, that’s another issue. I mean pills they have and won’t take for whatever reasons. The FDA estimates they aren’t taken as prescribed 50% of the time.
We don’t even follow the rules we set for ourselves. US News and World report says 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by the end of January. And it’s more than that. We tend to struggle with self-discipline in any number of ways. Some of us are much better at that than others and some of you may want to argue with me about your specific circumstances, but look around. We all know we could do better and we so often don’t.
This isn’t just some esoteric point. Remember that the entire arc of scripture is about reconciling the creation with the Kingdom of God. That’s why this building is so beautiful and we try to make our worship beautiful. The soaring ceiling and stained glass reach toward heaven to physically represent the joining of heaven and earth. They remind us that this place is holy ground. We’ve gathered for holy time. We set time and space apart for meeting God and enacting that reconciliation. Our sinful nature required the sacrifice of Christ and requires God’s grace to forgive not just our acts of sin but to forgive, heal and transform our very nature, to reconcile us with the Thy Kingdom Come.
Augustine and Pelagius debated publicly and in writing for a long time. Pelagius developed a school of followers who argued his positions, too, while Augustine had allies across the Church, as well as the great weight of scripture on his side. He won. Shortly after each of them had died, the issue was resolved at the Council of Ephesus in 431AD.
But false teachings, heresies, never really die. Today we might hear an echo of Pelagius in a familiar phrase, “You’re not a bad person, you just did a bad thing.” That is true on some level. Many people are on balance good most of the time and feel badly when they fail. But it’s a dangerously seductive band aid on what is a much deeper wound. It’s the sort of thing we say when we feel constrained from saying the truth because it’s not the right time or place. In the workplace or in a school we aren’t always able to just say, “You did a bad thing, but you are a beloved child of God. You feel badly about it, so let’s pray on that and ask for his forgiveness and guidance.”
When the people shared with Jesus the horrors of the use of Galilean Jews’ blood in Roman sacrifices, they were more concerned with what that implied about the people who had died rather than the barbaric practices of the Romans. They appear to have had in mind a very simplistic expectation that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. This was awful, so must not they have been awful, too?
Jesus then cites a horrible accident. In each instance he challenges their assumptions that the acts or the accidents, as well as the people’s sins themselves are the issue.
Jesus says no, it isn’t these external factors that matter. It’s our hearts. Unless we repent, we will perish as they did.
On the surface, you could take that to mean that it is about the incidents and accidents themselves. But Jesus goes on with this parable about the fig tree. The fig tree above the ground may not be doing well, but that really isn’t the issue. If the roots are good, then all it needs is some good care and it can produce well. If the roots are bad, then it won’t and it should be cut down.
This is how repentance works. Whatever we have done or failed to do, the real issue is what is deep inside us. And we know this is true. If we want change, real change, we’ve got to get at the root of our human weakness. I need God’s help to build “Thy kingdom come,” in me.
It’s like weeding. I hated weeding when I was a kid. Mom would make us get out there and work at it, probably not for very long but it felt like forever. I just thought about all the things I’d rather be doing. But it didn’t bother my knees or my back or my hamstrings or my hands.
Now I actually enjoy it. It’s nice to see the work done and everything neatened up. It’s good to have that physical task to work out the stresses of everything else I’ve got going on. But it does bother my knees, my back, my hamstrings and my hands.
When weeding, you can’t just nip the weed off at the ground’s surface. You’ve got to get the root. Sometimes those roots come easy. Sometimes they are deep and even wrapped around other roots. Sometimes the plant’s defense is to break easily at the surface. Sometimes they are part of a vine, and that’s when the real fun begins.
Vines are awful. Have you ever pulled Virginia Creeper out of a hedge? Potato vines are worse! But if you have the tenacity to follow it all the way, how great does it feel to get that root out?
Pelagius would have had us spend our lives nipping weeds off at the surface because everything below the surface, at the core of our nature, is just fine.
I can hear some of you thinking, “That’s why God gave us Round Up.”
Which brings me to the key point in all of this. We cannot get to the root of our sin without God’s grace. If we want to make real change, if we want to get the weeds out and fertilize our good roots so we can bear good fruit, we need Jesus. We need the Holy Spirit. There’s your herbicide. There’s your fertilizer.
We certainly have a will, a role to play in obedience and perseverance, in learning and choosing God’s will. We have the capacity to not. Invite him in to the work he needs to do. Are you a good person or a bad person? You’re a beloved child of God with a will that only he can heal and ultimately reconcile to himself. He gave everything for that purpose.