SJF • Proper 16a • Tobias Haller BSG
How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Thomas Aquinas was one of the most brilliant minds of his generation. He is also considered by many to be the greatest systematic theologian ever to have written. Theology is, as another great theologian, Saint Anslem, said, “faith seeking understanding.” But a systematic theologian is not just someone who wants simply understanding guided by faith, or who sketches out a few articles, or writes a few books. A systematic theologian wants to cover all the bases.
And Thomas Aquinas very nearly did it. His great work was called Summa Theologica, which could be loosely translated as “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about God and just about Everything Else”! In its thirty-eight treatises, thousands of articles, tens of thousands of responses to every conceivable objection, Thomas Aquinas set out to systematize all of knowledge in his search for God.
This great work remains unfinished, however. Oh, Thomas didn’t die before completing it. On the contrary, he stopped work on it at the very height of his productivity.
Why? Well, one day in early December 1273, Thomas, who was a Dominican priest, was celebrating the Holy Eucharist. And by the way, a Dominican in this case isn’t somebody from the Dominican Republic, but a member of the order of Saint Dominic — an order founded specifically for the purpose of preaching and study — and Thomas Aquinas was one of the best.
Well, that early December day Thomas was celebrating the Eucharist, and in the midst of the service, he stopped cold — or perhaps I should say, stopped warm. For something he couldn’t describe — even with his remarkable ability to categorize and elucidate — something happened to him in the midst of that holy sacrament, something so amazing it completely overpowered him. He caught a glimpse of the infinite God he had tried so hard to pin down, and he decided never to write again. Hisfaithful secretary tried to encourage him to take up the work again, to bring his monumental work to completion. How much more might he perfect it in light of his recent experience! But Thomas replied, “I can do no more. Such things have been revealed to me that all I have written now seems to me to be like so much straw.”
Like his namesake, Thomas the Apostle, Thomas Aquinas saw something that made all of his questions fall apart, as he fell to his knees in adoration of his Lord and his God. The one who had spent most of his life picking things apart, dividing them up into categories and organizing them into systems, confronted the One before whose utter unity and singularity all his systematic complexity collapsed like a house of straw.
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Paul wrote to the Romans, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?” Who has known? Thomas tried to know the mind of the Lord, and what the Lord showed him that cold December morning, made him realize he didn’t know anything at all! Everything he thought he knew turned out to be so much mattress stuffing, the labor of his life turned into dust.
But don’t misunderstand this story. Thomas wasn’t unhappy about this development. On the contrary, he treasured it. Because, in addition to his effort to know God, Thomas had also devoted himself to another effort, an effort to love God.
In addition to the dense philosophical argumentation of his theological works, Thomas also wrote poetry, spiritual poetry in the form of love-songs to God. Nowadays the pages of the Summa Theologica are rarely opened outside the walls of seminaries and philosophy departments — in fact, between Fordham University and Saint James Parish, I’d be willing to venture that Thomas Aquinas’ name is spoken more in this little corner of the Bronx than almost anywhere else! But the love-songs, ah, the love songs Thomas wrote are still sung in churches all around the world. Five of them are included in our own EpiscopalHymnal, and we’ll be singing one of them at the offertory today. These hymns attempt to capture that longing for the invisible, incomprehensible divinity who lies invitingly beyond our reach, beyond our grasp — but not beyond our love and worship.
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We do not know what Thomas saw during the Holy Eucharist that December day, but I’d be willing to venture that God rewarded this faithful seeker more because of his love than his intellect; rewarded him with a glimpse of the unseen verity he had so long humbly adored. It was Thomas the lover, not Thomas the theologian, who finally caught a glimpse of his beloved Lord, and one look was enough to do him in. He saw his Lord in the very bread and wine he had lifted up day by day. It was in the Holy Eucharist that the weak human intellect, and weaker human senses of taste, touch, and vision, were overwhelmed by the outpoured Love of God, the veil was parted, and Thomas beheld that Love, however briefly, face-to-face.
And so can we. We cannot all be theologians, at least not systematic ones. And, thank God, we needn’t be; we aren’t expected to. But we can all love God. What is more, we can share in this holy mystery, this precious gift of the Holy Eucharist, in which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ assures us that he is present. Here at this earthly altar we taste heavenly food, as Jesus gives us his Body and Blood, this spiritual food and drink of new and unending life in him.
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Years ago, when I was beginning to consider giving up my career in the theater to serve the church, an actor friend of mine told me he thought I was making a terrible mistake. He was an agnostic, a rather badly burned ex-Roman Catholic who had lived through the worst of a very restrictive upbringing. He didn’t believe in God — but did believe in flying saucers. He thought humanity was created and guided by space aliens, for some reason known only to them. He was always full of the latest news on sightings of space ships, as proof of the existence of the aliens he believed in instead of God. One day I told him I really didn’tput much stock in the whole theory of aliens, and he said, “O.K., then, when was the last time Jesus appeared?” Almost at once I said, “Last Sunday morning, on the altar at Trinity Episcopal Church!” So perhaps it is fitting that he finally got a recurring role
in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I ended up here!
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Whether space aliens have been here or not, I trust that Jesus has been here, and is here, and will be here, till even this type and shadow ends and ceremonies cease, and we behold the glory unabated, face to face. That is the truth, if we are prepared, with loving hearts, to accept it. Jesus comes to us today, hidden with, in and under bread and wine. We are granted a glimpse of Christ’s presence, a glimpse granted to those who love him, to those who seek him, and who seeking, loving, find.
I would like to end this sermon with the words of Thomas Aquinas, the words of one of his love songs to God written about eight years before his life-changing experience of 1273. The song ends like this:
Jesus, whom now hidden, I by faith behold,
what my soul doth long for, that thy word foretold:
face to face thy splendor, I at last shall see,
in the glorious vision, blessed Lord, of thee.
Never give up looking for God — who has never given up on you. Seek, and love, and you shall find.+