The Rev. Frank
Wheat Among the
Jesus gives some rather shoddy gardening advice in our Gospel reading for this evening. In Jesus’ parable, the householder is content to let the weeds grow among the wheat until harvest time. Any gardener worth their salt knows that you have to keep your garden weeded to get the best yield at harvest time. Yet, this householder is more concerned that wheat may be lost in the weeding process. He feels it is best to leave the sorting of weeds and wheat until harvest time.
This parable became a central text in a hotly debated theological problem in North Africa in the 300s. Augustine of Hippo, who we remember this evening, was the champion of that contentious conflict. But to properly understand the problem, we have to go back to the start of the conflict, which came before Augustine was born. 
The Roman Emperor Diocletian unleashed a cruel persecution of Christianity from 303 to 313. The attacks against the Christian faith began in 303 with an order that Christian books were to be burned and churches destroyed. Christian leaders responded differently to the pressure.
Some Christian leaders refused to hand over their books and were imprisoned, tortured and killed for their faith. Others handed over heretical books, claiming them to be Christian, while hiding Bibles and other orthodox writings. A third group felt that preventing violence was most important and they handed over all the Christian writings in their possession. Some leaders and many Christians avoided the persecution by worshipping openly in pagan temples, which were said to be filled to overflowing at the time.
As in other times of persecution, there were some imprisoned and tortured who survived the persecution. These confessors, as they were called, were viewed as living martyrs who had proved willing to die for their faith. It was to this group the church turned in deciding how to deal with the traditores, which means “those who handed over.” In North Africa, the confessors were very firm in dealing with traditores. The word traditores, by the way, is the source of our word traitor and those who handed over books to be burned were seen as traitors to the faith. The traditores were lumped in with those who had worshipped pagan gods as those who had abandoned the faith. In the case of priests and bishops, all sacraments administered by these persons was declared invalid.
This issue came to a head in 313 with the election of the Bishop of Carthage. Carthage was at the time a major North African city and a real contender with Rome as a leading city of the Roman Empire. Caecilian was elected Bishop with the support of the less rigorous Roman Christians. The more rigorous party of confessors supported by local North Africans favored Majorinus as Bishop. When Caecilian was consecrated, the confessors cried foul saying that one of the consecrators was the traditor Felix of Aptunga. Felix was no longer a valid Bishop in their eyes, so the consecration was invalid and any ordained by Caecilian would also be invalid. The whole sacramental system of North African Christianity was on the line. Marjorinus died and Donatus of Casae Nigrae was elected by the confessors as their bishop.
The Bishop of Rome declared Caecilian the true Bishop and the Emperor called on a council to decide the issue. In 314, the Council of Arles agreed with Rome, that Caecilian’s election and consecration were valid. The weight of the Empire fell against the Donatists, as they came to be known. This came with some financial implications as tax exemption for clergy and Imperial gifts to churches went to churches in line with Caecilian, not Donatus. The Donatists refused to cave in on principle and seven years later, the Emperor granted tolerance to the Donatist party.
The controversy did not die away and it was egged on by nationalist tendencies. The Donatist were North Africans, the native Berbers who had a natural distrust and disdain for things Roman. The church catholic in Carthage was led by Caecilian and consisted largely of Romans colonists. Over time, the Donatist churches grew and appointed more Bishops and set up overlapping systems of church administration. By 340, many Donatists were caught up in a fanatical sect of Donatism, which sought violent means to overthrow the rest of the church, which they now saw as apostate. The fanatical Donatist, who called themselves circumcellions actively sought a martyrs death in defense of the true faith.
This whole problem was brewing in the background when Aurelius Augustinus was born to a pagan father and Christian mother in the North African town of Tagaste in 354. Augustine’s mother prayed fervently for the conversion of her husband and son and eventually saw her prayers answered. In the meantime, Augustine showed promise as a student and was given the best education the Roman Empire had to offer. This meant that by age 17, Augustine was studying in the great Latin city of North Africa—Carthage.
As a student of rhetoric, Augustine was singularly unimpressed with the Bible. His leanings as a student led him to becoming first a Manichean, and later a Neoplatonist. More than anything, Augustine was a spiritual seeker. Taking a teaching position in Milan, Italy, Augustine was converted to Christianity through the preaching of renowned Rhetoritician and Christian Bishop, Ambrose of Milan. He dedicated his life to the defense and consolidation of the Christian faith. Possibly due to asthma, Augustine moved back to North Africa and was made Bishop of Hippo against his will on his return in 395. Once back in North Africa (Hippo is in modern day Algeria) Augustine was challenged by a church divided for decades by the Donatist controversy.
Augustine emphasized that Christians too are sinful. Augustine did not see the church as an enclave of saints, but as a corpus permixtum, a mixed body of saint and sinner alike. One main text for Augustine in this regard is our Gospel reading for this evening. The wheat and the tares for Augustine did not represent the wheat of the church growing among the weeds of the world, but both weeds and wheat are within the church as well as without. For the church to try to separate out the sinners from its midst is wrong. The judgment as to who is weeds and who is wheat is for God to make at the end of time. Augustine said that this could be seen in the two church factions. The Donatists had in their number no fewer Christians given to drunkenness and fighting than found in the church catholic. As a mixed body themselves, the Donatists had no claim to moral purity.
Augustine said the church is to be holy, but the holiness is not from the righteousness of Christians. The holiness which is the church’s is God’s holiness. The church is made holy through Christ’s holiness and the final perfection will not come until the end of time.
Augustine then turned his theological insights to the sacraments themselves. Augustine said that the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the holiness of the priest or bishop. If it did, one would have to constantly wonder whether they were really baptized or whether Christ was truly present in the Eucharist. For Augustine, the holiness of the sacraments rests in God’s holiness and their validity rests in God’s faithfulness. There was no need for rebaptism or reordination. God had been faithful in those sacraments, even if some of them had been administered by sinners.
Augustine declared that both the traditores and those who divided the church were sinners in need of repentance. To hand over Christian books to avoid persecution had been wrong and the people who did so needed to repent and seek forgiveness. Likewise those who divided the church by claiming to be the only righteous ones were also wrong and needed to ask for forgiveness. How could the Donatists claim to love God and neighbor, while cutting themselves off from their neighboring Christians? Augustine saw schism as being opposed to love. Rather than dividing the Christians, Augustine thought Christians should trust God to care for God’s church until the Day of Judgment.
Augustine’s arguments carried the day. No, he did not win over all the Donatists, but he did succeed in bringing more unity. He also swayed the church to see that the holiness of the church is not because its members are holy, but because God is holy. And since Augustine’s day, the church catholic dropped its worries over the validity of sacraments, trusting God’s faithfulness to stand in the gap when people sinned.
Augustine was a realist who knew that many in the church were not truly converted, not truly living lives God called them to. He wrote of the church that “many sheep are without and many wolves are within.” Yet Augustine was willing to live in the tension of a mixed body of saints and sinners because he held love to the supreme virtue of the Christian life. A Christian’s whole life is to find meaning in that greatest love, the love God showed the world through the person of Jesus Christ. He wanted that love to bind him with other members of the church even though those others members might be in error. Augustine was clear that judgment was coming, wheat would be separated from the weeds, but Augustine was not the owner of the garden and he would not be that judge.
 Throughout this sermon, I rely on information gleaned from the following sources: The Story of Christianity: Volume I by Justo Gonzalez; Christian Theology: An introduction by Alister McGrath; Theological Turning Points: Major issues in Christian thought by Donald McKim, and The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Third Edition.
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