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A Negative Definition
L. R. Tarsitano—Saint Andrew's Church, Savannah
The Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity—November 7, 1999
"For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things" (Philippians 3:18-19).

In this octave of All Saints’ Day, on one of eight days when we consider every year what it means to be called to be the "saints" of God, we would do well to heed this "negative definition" from St. Paul. One of the best ways to know "what a saint is" is to know "what a saint is not."

I think that it was the Renaissance artist Michelangelo who explained that when he worked in marble, he didn’t so much try to carve an image as to take away any of the stone that did not belong to it. In logic, this is called the "via negativa" or "negative way," a method of excluding what is not true, in order to arrive at what is true. 

We find a very simple application of this method in the old game "Twenty Questions." The goal is to identify an object in the mind of one of the players with the fewest number of questions. When one of the other players asks, "Is it bigger than a bread box?" and the answer is "no," then he knows that he can exclude all smaller objects and must find the answer among all larger objects. 

In a much more serious way, we derive most of our language about God using this method. When God told Moses in the "positive way" (the "via postiva"), "I AM WHO I AM," that did not stop our thinking about God. We creep up on what it must be like to be God by a process of negation, removing from our minds anything that does not look like God as he reveals himself in the Bible. And so we ask, "Does God have an end?" When we see that God has revealed in the Scriptures that he has no end, we say that God is "infinite." Or we might ask, "Is there anything that God cannot do?" When the Scriptures tell us "no," then we say that God is "omnipotent." 

We might also ask, "If God is omnipotent, does this mean that he will do anything imaginable, including moral evil?" And we read in the Scriptures that God is "all good," so we know that the answer is, "No, a good God will always do, and only do, what is good and right." Thus, even when God punishes mankind for its sins, a punishment that the human race often experiences as "evil," we know that God is only doing good by standing up for the rightness of his own divine will and is quite properly calling mankind back from sin to obey that will.

It’s likely that mankind, if we had remained obedient long enough in the Garden of Eden, where God himself walked in the cool of the evening (see Gen. 3:8), would have known God and everything that God created in the most positive manner possible. We would not have become "gods" (since that, remember, was the devil’s tempting offer to Eve), but we would have known God as creatures made in his own image and likeness. We were created to know God positively, and to love him and to serve him positively, in a communion of eternal life. It follows, too, that God made us to know ourselves positively, from within our communion with him. 

When we fell into sin, however, we not only lost our communion with God and our eternal life in him—we lost most of our positive capacity to know God or anything else. The first question of the "negative way" was, "What is God not?" And the first illuminating answer was, "God is not to be trifled with."

The restoration of our positive knowledge is a work of grace, bit by bit as we are saved by the Blood of Christ and restored to our true nature and calling by the grace of the indwelling Holy Ghost. This process of restoration that follows God’s gift of new life in Jesus Christ is called in the Bible our "sanctification," our being made holy, so that as the "saints" (the holy ones of God) we can have eternal life with God again as his redeemed and adopted children of grace. 

But this process of sanctification is not completed until the redemption of our bodies on the last day (see Romans 8). And, thus, our knowledge will not be completely restored to its divinely given positive abilities until the end of the world. As St. Paul says about that time, "then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Cor. 13:12). Then all the redeemed will know God and each other in the positive way that God knows us now.

In the meantime, however, if we are to follow our calling to become the saints of God (all of whom are celebrated on All Saints’ Day, whether living or dead), then we must make use of such tools for knowing God, right from wrong, and ourselves as a merciful God gives us. These tools include the "negative way," exemplified by the "negative definition" that the Holy Ghost enabled St. Paul to write, so that we would know "who is not a saint."

Who is not a saint? Any person who "minds earthly things" is not a saint. Why is such a person not a saint? Because his God is not the God in heaven who made him, but his own appetites and desires—his "belly." What is the result of not being a saint? The life of such a person is marked by "shame," when it could have shared in the glory of God. But doesn’t everybody go to heaven, no matter what? No, those who are not saints are not fit for heaven. They do not belong there, and they will not go there. Their "end is destruction"—an eternity in hell, separated from God and the saints, never knowing anything again in a positive way.

St. Paul’s negative definition tells us that sainthood is a serious business, much more serious, for example, than being recognized by the Church on earth as "holy." It is a good thing, of course, that God’s Church should hold up certain men and women as good examples of what it means to be a Christian, a saint of God. But on the other hand, what really matters, is what God knows so positively—the content of our hearts.

The greatest saints are probably the "plodders." These are men and women who find it difficult to resist their sinful desires, but who fight every day of their lives to keep their bellies from becoming their god. These may have to repent a hundred times a day, having fallen into temptations that other people seem to avoid with ease. Nevertheless, they throw themselves on God’s mercy; they claim nothing for themselves, but ask the Father in heaven to remember nothing about them at all but the Blood that Jesus Christ has shed for them. 

In the end, because they know no glory but that of Christ crucified for their sins, they may be the most glorious of all. They remember what this morning’s collect tells us, that God is not only our "refuge and strength," but also "the author of all godliness." They render up to God, then, anything that is good in their lives, worshipping him for the least good thing that they do or think or know, recognizing it as a gift of divine intervention and supernatural aid. 

And the final thing for us to remember, as this year’s octave of All Saints’ draws to a close, is that, no matter how easily godliness may seem to us to come to anybody else, in his or her own way every saint is a "plodder." All saints struggle to obey. All saints struggle to know God positively, as well as negatively. All saints struggle to know themselves as God knows that they can become with the help of his grace. 

And so we honor one another, strugglers and plodders all, on All Saints’ Day. We do this, not by praising ourselves, but by praising the God who gives us the grace to struggle and plod. This may not seem exciting, but it is much like the cross that Jesus Christ dragged up a hill on Good Friday. Since the fall, there is a certain amount of negative business that must first be accomplished, that the positive love and grace of God may shine in the world and give a life that will endure forever.

Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation. If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please credit St. Andrew’s Church and Dr. Tarsitano.