3 June 2010
In the Name of the True and Living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Thanks go to Father Daniel Jones and to all the people involved in the celebration of this Feast for the kind invitation to celebrate and to preach this Eucharist. I am grateful indeed. Father Jones is on my mind these days as Sunday will be his last as rector of this parish. He is retiring at least for the second time. Please accept my condolences, Father Jones. I extend my condolences even as I ask his priestly colleagues here tonight to have some pity on him and to extend to him the courtesy and the opportunity from time to time to plead the sacrifice of the Eucharist at one of the altars in their stewardship.
What, really, is going on tonight? It’s a warm night in Wilkes-Barre, and I could be doing something else entirely. I could be traveling back to the Wyoming Valley from watching the Yankee game this afternoon in the Bronx. Why did I choose to do this rather than that? The answer to that question is the main point I wish to make, and I plan to take it up after making the briefest trip through renaissance drama and historical theology.
Hamlet has a scene where the king, Claudius, is at prayer. Probably he has a lot to bring to the Lord. Claudius likely killed his brother to get the crown and his brother’s wife. He works hard at his prayer, and he makes an effort to repent that would satisfy the most demanding confessor, but the scene ends not with repentance nor with the satisfaction of a deed well done but with this couplet:
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go. (III.iii.97-98)
Claudius is not able to pray. That terrifies me. It is totally beyond my experience. Think of the possibility that your prayers are not heard for whatever reason, or that there is no one there when you pray. I understand that terrifying possibility as a dramatic representation of one or more of the striking ideas of the Protestant Reformation.
Standing silently and stolidly behind Claudius’ inability to pray, I believe, are the twin towers of the Reformation: Luther and Calvin. For Luther and Calvin believe that our wills are not free. Claudius may not be free to pray to God; he may not be free to repent of the sins we believe he committed. In the world of Luther and Calvin’s theology (and much less urgently Saint Augustine’s) we are not free, unaided by prevenient grace, to take a decision that leads to our repentance or to our salvation.
For early Protestants Luther solved the mystery of grace and free will when he denied the freedom of the will in De Servo Arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Human Will, 1525), a riposte to Erasmus. In it Luther congratulates Erasmus on having seen that the denial of free will was the foundation of nascent Lutheran theology: “You have not wearied me with all those extraneous issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like—trifles, rather than issues—in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you, and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot. For that I heartily thank you” (Packer and Johnston, trans., 1957, p. 319).
Luther and Calvin see the human race as not simply losing free will, but as never possessing it. And Calvin’s views on the subject pervade his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) where he stresses repeatedly that the human lack of free will is the result of God’s will—a will that has determined, in eternity, what the eternal fate of every person will immutably and irrevocably be, whether for the elect or for the reprobate.
Claudius may simply be, very sadly, a theatrical representation in accord with Calvin’s theology of those unfortunates whose reprobation God willed from eternity. Both his attempt to repent and his failure to repent may be part of an awesome decree that withholds from him the grace necessary to repent. Calvin is memorably logical and inflexible on the subject: “Againe I aske: how came it to passe, that the fall of Adam did wrap up in eternall death so many nations with their children being infants, without remedie, but because it so pleased God? Here their tongues which are otherwise so prattling, must of necessity be dumme. It is a terrible decree, I graunt: yet no man shalbe able to denie, but that God foreknewe what end man should have ere he created him, and therefore foreknewe it because he had so ordeined by his decree” (Institutes, III.xxiii.7, Norton, trans., 1582).
And so, I return to the original question of this homily: What, really, is going on tonight? Why did I choose to do this rather than go to the game in the Bronx? Why have all of us put aside the other opportunities tonight affords to be here and to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi? I can answer for myself, and I can hope your consciences allow you to agree or to write your own version.
Not very much reformed, I am here and take the occasion of celebrating this Eucharist to give an assent of my will to God and so to continue a relationship and a conversation as old as my consciousness. Any feast, any service of prayer, or any reading of Scripture, of course, is an occasion that may be used similarly. More specifically, by asking God’s blessing on this bread and this wine, I exercise to its fullest extent the agency given me, my free will, for the purpose of carrying out God’s mission in the world that is the reconciliation of the world to God. By pleading the sacrifice of the Eucharist tonight, I ask that this sacrament incorporate all who partake of it into the mystical Body of Christ and that all of us be Christ’s Body in the world that is so desperate for meaning and purpose. I ask God to forgive and to restore all who have erred or sinned to his fellowship and to ours. All of these things are most definitely in play in my intention tonight. The Feast of Corpus Christi is a feast—like any other—whereby our identity as God’s servants and as Christ’s Body may be realized and strengthened. In fact, so many wonderful things are in play tonight, that were they so clearly in play every night, I very well might chose to keep only them in play and never watch a Yankee game again.
And now to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, power, dominion, and praise, henceforth and forever more. Amen.