A couple of weeks ago, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao clashed in the boxing ring with no less than four welterweight boxing titles on the line. By many, the match was titled the “Fight of the Century.” It turned out to be a real snoozer, decided after a full twelve rounds, with lock-ups and defensive work as the order of the day. Anyone who called Mayweather-Pacquiao the fight of the century surely never saw Sugar Ray Leonard go toe-to-toe with Marvelous Marvin Hagler thirty years ago, or Mike Tyson fight anyone in the 1980s, or Ali-Frazer, or Joe Louis batter Max Schmelling. Those were fights. And not a one of them could lay a candle to the battle I’ll call the “Fight of the Millennium.” That’s the first millennium, to be exact. And the battle didn’t take place in a boxing ring. Rather, it occurred at a church council in A.D. 418.
In one corner was Pelagius, a monk from Britain who was as big as an ox and just as imposing. Pelagius was already 3-0. He’d beaten two heresy charges in the year 415, and the very next year Pelagius’ opponents called for yet another rematch, this time in Rome with the Pope himself as referee and judge. Again, Pelagius kept his opponents on the ropes and emerged victorious.
In the other corner was Augustine, who was himself formidable. Originally from North Africa, Augustine had a checkered early life. He caroused; he engaged in petty theft and other mischief; he’d practiced some unorthodox theological punching styles. But when he finally found some discipline with the right trainer in Saint Ambrose, Augustine became a powerhouse. He challenged one opponent after another, and each time the fight ended in a theological knockout. He pummeled the Manicheans. He vanquished the Donatists.
And then, in North Africa in the year 418, the fight we might call “Carnage in Carthage” took place: Augustine vs. Pelagius, mano a mano. But what, you may ask, was the fight about? There were no title belts on the line. Pelagius had not insulted Augustine’s mother, so far as we know. (Although, given Augustine’s relationship with his mom, that actually might have led to a fistfight!) The Carnage in Carthage was all about human will and the will of God.
We’ll come back to that epic battle, but first, let’s switch gears and consider what our friends the eleven disciples are up to in the Acts reading today. I say “eleven” disciples, because at this point Judas, who betrayed Jesus, has hanged himself in despair and died. The eleven remaining disciples are seeking Judas’ replacement. Ultimately, they put names in a hat and cast lots to see who will take on the role of the twelfth. In other words, they let God decide.
Most often when this passage is preached, the punch line is some bumper sticker theology such as, “Let go and let God,” meaning a radical acknowledgement that God is in control, and that we should give all things over to him, to move us through the world according to his purposes. Sometimes this idea is coupled with the passage from Matthew 6, where Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”
Our brothers and sisters in the Christian Science movement follow this idea to the extreme, when they disavow medical care in favor of prayer and the will of God whenever they are ill. Former NPR correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty tells her own story of finally giving up her theology of “giving it all over to God.” She says:
“[Once] I was sick—sick with stomach flu, a fever and chills…I had been raised a Christian Scientist, and at the age of thirty-four…I had never visited the doctor, never taken a vitamin, never popped an aspirin, much less flu medicine. At that moment [though], what flashed through my mind’s eye like a blinking neon sign was Tylenol, Tylenol, Tylenol.” Hagerty popped the pills, and she soon felt a lot better.[i]
We understand her impulse. Everything in our being rebels against the notion of turning things over to God, of failing to prepare, or remedy, or strive by sheer effort to keep life on an even keel. These things feel like giving up. A “picking ourselves up by our own bootstraps” approach is our preferred way in the world. Consequently, we are unlikely to recognize that this approach to life can be just as radically dangerous as the Christian Scientist foregoing Tylenol when she has the flu.
It was, in fact, Judas’ approach. In all things, he took matters into his own hands, planning with meticulous care, aligning everything according to the neat columns in the ledger of his mind. One suspects that, from the moment he met Jesus (if not before), Judas had a clear idea of where this Messiah-thing should go. As evidence, Judas alone among the twelve criticized Jesus’ actions to his face.[ii] And when Judas finally decided that Jesus was headed down the wrong path, he really took things into his own hands. Judas hijacked the whole affair. He colluded with the Jewish authorities and betrayed his teacher.
We see how that turned out for Judas. Even if we want to grant Judas the best intentions; even if we are willing to concede that Judas wanted to free Israel from Roman domination in his own way; Judas’ management of things, his taking things into his own hands, was a disaster for him.
What, then, to do? Do we micromanage our lives, trusting in ourselves to make good and right choices, or do we simply allow life to happen to and around us in hope that God will direct things from on high? It seems that neither “I’ll handle it” nor “Let go and let God” are very helpful mantras for living.
This brings us back to the epic battle between Pelagius and Augustine. To some extent, this distinction was at the crux of their theological sparring match about our will and God’s will. History has passed their fight down to us with the caricature that Pelagius espoused the “I’ll handle it” mentality, while Augustine wanted to “Let go and let God.” Pelagius worried that Augustine’s “let go” view would lead to moral complacency, to slothful and passive Christians who take no responsibility for what happens in the world. At the same time, Augustine feared that Pelagius’ “bootstraps” view would mask the self-serving and corruption that always lurk in the background of human effort.
Today’s story from Acts, though, provides a more nuanced insight. Considered closely, the remaining eleven disciples don’t merely “let go and let God.” First, they confer; they consider qualifications; they narrow down the pool of candidates, selecting the two names that will be placed in nomination to be the new twelfth disciple. They strive, always in prayer and faith, and only then do the eleven turn things over to God, acknowledging that they have done all they can do and must ultimately rely on God for the best outcome. We might say that the disciples cooperate with God’s grace.
Does any of this matter? Well, yes. It matters at each and every moment of our lives. Whether we’re facing health issues of our own or with those we love; whether we’re talking about international conflict and humanitarian aid or race relations and policing power in the inner city; whether we are building a spirituality center or feeding the homeless at the Beacon; the way in which we understand the cooperation of our own will with God’s will is crucial. To an extent, both Pelagius and Augustine were right. If we merely “Let go and let God,” we will lapse into complacency and passivity at the need and injustice we see around us. And to be sure, if we falsely believe that we can accomplish good and transformative change through our own effort apart from God, we will lapse into despair when human actions invariably disappoint us and our efforts inevitably fail.
Understanding how we cooperate with God’s grace requires further reflection upon Jesus’ words about the birds of the air in Matthew. The worry about worldly things against which Jesus counsels in this passage does not mean we shouldn’t care about our wellbeing, and it certainly doesn’t mean we should be passive in the world in hopes that God will swoop in and make all things well. It refers, rather, to the character of our care. Jesus counsels the practice, known in Christian faith as well as in all others, of worldly detachment. It is a letting go of the anxiety that stems from our clinging to the things of this life. We continue to labor for justice; we avail ourselves of advanced medical care when we are ill; we work for the betterment of this world (including our own lives); but we do all of these things remembering that it is not our world. Nothing in it—including ourselves—belongs to us. It is all God’s, including even our own prayerful striving for the good. Yes, it is to be tended by us fiercely and with love, but also in the knowledge that we will always, inevitably reach the end of our ability and energy, at which time we must, like the disciples, release our efforts to the God of love, in faith that God will complete what we, in this life, cannot.
Today the disciples pray, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.” I would add to that prayer, “Instill in our hearts passion for justice, strength for the fight, and courage to strive with might for all good things. And finally, grant us the grace to know when to release our cares to you, the maker and redeemer of all.”
[i] Hagerty, Barbara Bradley. Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, pp. 1-2.
[ii] See John 12:1-8.