Archives for posts with tag: richard hooker

Sermon for Evensong on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 8th July 2018

[Jeremiah 20:1-11], Romans 14:1-17

‘You are what you eat’. I’ve always smiled at this passage, where St Paul seems to put himself in the position of the alpha male, a rugby playing, beef eating hearty, who might be inclined to be a bit sniffy about his younger brother, who is a vegetarian, for some unaccountable reason. Proper chaps don’t eat vegetables. Indeed some proper chaps take this to considerable extremes and avoid greens together. They stick to steak and chips only. Well, of course, this is not a case of St Paul micromanaging what the disciples in Rome should be eating.

In the Jewish tradition, of course, there are things which, for religious reasons, observant Jews are not allowed to eat. Pork, for example. And before we talk about the religious reasons for avoiding certain foods I would point out that some of the old Jewish food rules are sensible on medical and public health grounds as well. Pork goes off quickly in Middle Eastern temperatures.

Paul is referring to people who choose either to eat or to not eat foods because they believe that God has forbidden them to eat them or positively ordered them to eat them. Think of the manna in the desert, divine food which God recommended. Panis angelicus, the bread of angels.

And of course the ultimate spiritual food is the Lord’s Supper, where we ‘feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving’. It’s not a form of cannibalism, as the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals, 15.44) may have hinted. There seems to have been an urban myth that the Christians had an initiation ceremony which involved child sacrifice and cannibalism, amazing as it sounds to us.

Holy Communion, eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ, is not literal but sacramental, an ‘outward and visible sign of an inner spiritual grace’. It’s a really clear example of doing something ‘to the Lord’, for the Lord, or with the Lord in mind. It depends for its power on the faith of the person eating and drinking at the Lord’s Supper. The beginning of this passage in Romans is clearly talking about this.

Depending how strong your faith is, you can eat anything, or, if you are a doubtful, more sceptical type, ‘another, who is weak’, can only eat ‘herbs’, or vegetables. I wonder if the word ‘herbs’ is one of those old English usages which have got into American English – they talk about ‘Erbs’ [sic] in a context which suggests to me that they mean more than just rosemary sage and thyme.

St Paul is saying that whatever we do, whatever we take to eat, whatever we choose, we do it ‘to the Lord’. This ‘to’ does not mean the same as when we do something ‘to’ someone. It’s more like ‘for’. We do it for the Lord. Another translation offers the idea that we do something ‘with the Lord in mind’, which I think gives a good idea of what St Paul meant.

For example, ‘He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord’. In other words, if someone thinks that a particular day is special, for religious reasons, it means that he has the Lord in mind in deciding whether to make that day a special day or not. All this chapter in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans is an eloquent plea that Christians should be tolerant of each other’s views.

‘Regarding’ a day, thinking a particular day is special in some way, could, for example, be relevant to the question of Sunday trading. Do you think that it is Sunday that is the Sabbath, and that if we had been to Waitrose today, (preferably just after the 10 o’clock service, as half of St Andrew’s and this congregation seem to do), we would have been breaking one of the Ten Commandments, to keep the Sabbath holy?

There’s quite a good case for saying that we wouldn’t have been. Because, Sunday isn’t necessarily the Sabbath. If you’re Jewish for example, Saturday is the Sabbath. The point about having a Sabbath day is to give a day of rest rather than to specify which particular day in the week is the day off. If we are Jewish it is Saturday, but if we are Christian it is usually Sunday.

But if you have to work on Sunday, there is no reason why you shouldn’t take another day off instead. Godfrey, for example, like a lot of vicars, takes Fridays off. What St Paul is saying is that none of this actually matters much, except that we should not condemn each other for our own particular preferences. We should not ‘judge thy brother’ – or sister, indeed – because all these little differences are of no real consequence, when you think that we will eventually all stand before the judgement seat of Christ.

At various stages in Christian history theologians have debated what the ‘important’ things to believe in are, and what are αδιάφορα, Greek for ‘things that don’t make a difference’ – which is almost what the word sounds like even to us: all you need to know is that α- as in αδιάφορα is a negative: ‘not’ διαφορά, in this context, things that make a difference.

There have been several times in the history of the church when there has been controversy about what is αδιάφορα and what is important.

At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther had a falling-out with Philipp Melanchthon over the importance of ‘justification by faith’ as opposed to gaining salvation by doing good works – or celebrating elaborate masses.

Then again the Puritans, in the Westminster Confession of faith (1646), asserted the rule that only things which were in the Bible were important – ‘sola scriptura’, only scripture, counted. That’s still basically the URC and Baptist position. Church structures, hierarchy and liturgical formulae weren’t as important. There is a distinction between true worship itself and what were called ‘circumstances of worship’, the Biblical essentials on the one hand and the way the worship was organised, not so important, αδιάφορα even, on the other. The Puritan position was summed up in this:

In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (commonly translated as “in necessary things unity; in uncertain things liberty; in all things charity”). The guiding principle was a line from Romans 14, after the passage which we had as our lesson tonight, v.19:

Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.

That’s sometimes used as an introduction to the Peace.

Then came the Anglican ‘latitudinarians’, who were even more relaxed about what mattered. ‘The latitudinarian Anglicans of the 17th century built on Richard Hooker‘s position in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Hooker (1554–1600) argues that what God cares about is the moral state of the individual soul. Aspects such as church leadership are “things indifferent“.’ [Wikipedia, accessed at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latitudinarian]

You will also find an echo of the same issues at the beginning of your little blue Prayer Books, in the section called ‘Of Ceremonies’. Page x at the front of the book. Again, this is about what we need to do in order to offer appropriate worship to God. Should it be elaborate services with great torrents of flowery words, dressed up with beautiful music sung by accomplished, perhaps professional, choirs – or should it be stripped-back, plain words, no music – or maybe simple amateur ‘worship songs’?

This brings us up with a bit of a jolt to what we do today. What is essential to the worship here at St Mary’s? Remember that this morning we had a special event in our church life: we admitted five young ones to be able to receive Holy Communion before they’re confirmed.

What looks important to them? What does it mean to them to worship the Lord? I think that St Paul set the tone pretty well all those years ago, maybe only 30 years after Jesus was crucified, when he counselled the Roman Christians not to look down on each other because some things were important to some of them and other things to others.

So – what’s important to us, here, at St Mary’s? What can we see other Christian friends doing differently? I mean, we make quite a thing about our doing things in a distinctively different, traditional way here. But how much is at the heart of our faith, and how much just our taste, our preference?

I think I can suggest that one way one would argue would be that we don’t water things down. The little ones this morning went through a proper communion service with some grownup words in. We think they will be more likely to think deeply about the service if they’ve had to look up some words. Their parents didn’t think there was anything babyish either. Our approach is not to water things down. God isn’t an easy thing. Immortal, invisible.

And when we have been exposed to God’s grace, when we have come to the Lord in prayer, in the way we do, can you tell? Does it make a difference to our lives? Do we ‘repent’?

Put it another way. We aim to eat the red meat of worship and witness here at St Mary’s. Full fat. But we mustn’t look down on the friends who only take the vegetarian, decaf option. Which are you?

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Sermon for Mattins at The Chapel of Ease, Westhumble, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 10th March 2013

2 Corinthians 5:19 – ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them…’

Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent, sometimes known as Rose Sunday or Refreshment Sunday. More recently it has become Mothering Sunday. The good news is that Refreshment Sunday is a break in the austerity of Lent; a nice time to make a fuss of one’s mother, and to see the children giving Mum a nice day, perhaps a lie in with some tea in bed, or some nice flowers, just something to show that we treasure our mothers.

Unfortunately, however, if we think of motherhood as central to the family, family relations are not in very good shape in the world today. There are too many people whose marriage has broken down, perhaps because a partner has left with somebody else.

There are too many cases of child abuse. We are wrestling, in the church at large, with many problems of human sexuality. Our friends in the Catholic Church are reeling from scandals, most recently involving Cardinal O’Brien. It does seem inappropriate just blithely to celebrate motherhood and the family without engaging with some of the challenges which family life has to face today.

There is something very shocking about cases like Jimmy Saville and Cardinal O’Brien. It is very shocking if public figures, people who set themselves up as examples, or who preach morality, turn out not to be worthy of their fame or respect. Jimmy Saville is supposed to have perpetrated over 200 sex crimes, and although we don’t know what Cardinal O’Brien is supposed to have done in any detail, he admits that he did not do what he preached.

Last week we had the story in St John’s gospel of the woman ‘taken in adultery’. If you just think of the basic scenario: somehow she had been caught in bed with someone who was not her husband; and if you stop at that point, that is a serious matter. If we lament the fact that so many marriages fail, and that so many children and families suffer unhappiness, pain and poverty as a result, we have to pause and say that the woman – and of course the man with her – were doing what causes all that. They were not doing what they should have been doing.

Although it may be rather unfashionable to talk in these terms, it seems to me that all these things – abuse of children, adultery, being a sexual predator, abusing a position of authority, are all species of sin. What makes these things sinful, as opposed to being just bad or criminal or immoral, is that they drive a wedge between us and God. The word for ‘sin’ in Greek is ´αμαρτια, which means literally, ‘missing the mark’. You will remember the famous passage in St Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 7, where Paul expresses his frustration and anger at his sinful nature.

He says, ‘For I know that nothing good lodges in me – in my unspiritual nature, I mean – for though the will to do good is there, the deed is not. The good which I want to do, I fail to do. But what I do is the wrong, which is against my will. And if what I do is against my will, clearly it is no longer I who am the agent, but sin which has its lodging in me.’ [Romans 7:18-20, NEB]

To a greater or lesser extent we do sinful things because of human frailty. We do sinful things, even despite knowing what the right thing to do is. When you see all the evil that is around us, it is very daunting. What does it mean? Are we submerging under a tide of immorality and godlessness?

Let’s read again what St Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians. ‘God …. hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them…’ [v. 18-19]

‘Not imputing their trespasses unto them.’ No longer blaming them. Contrast with that the story of the Old Testament, say in Jeremiah, for example. The prophets of the Old Testament had to battle with constant tension between God and his chosen people.

Jeremiah says, ‘Hast thou utterly rejected Judah? hath thy soul lothed Zion? why hast thou smitten us, and there is no healing for us? we looked for peace, and there is no good; and for the time of healing, and behold trouble! We acknowledge, O Lord, our wickedness, and the iniquity of our fathers: for we have sinned against thee.’ [Jeremiah 14:19-20]

That’s a very different message from the one that we find in St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. St Paul is all about reconciliation. The interesting thing is that the word in Greek that is translated as ‘reconciliation’ (καταλλαγη) originally meant ‘exchange’, almost ‘a trade’, substituting one thing for another. It is also the word used to translate ‘atonement’, as in the Jewish festival of Atonement.

We say that Jesus’ sacrifice, his death, ‘atoned’, made ‘atonement’ for, our sin, made up for it, paid the price for it, in some way. He ‘redeemed’ us, he paid a ransom for us. I have always found it tough to think in terms of a blood sacrifice, that Jesus’ death on the cross was in some way a blood sacrifice. This passage in 2 Corinthians shows us another way of understanding the idea of atonement. Jesus’ sacrifice, Jesus’ death, reconciles us with God.

Richard Hooker, the great Reformation theologian, said, about this passage, ‘Let it be counted folly or frenzy or whatsoever, it is our wisdom and our comfort. We care for no knowledge in the world but this, that man has sinned and God has suffered; that God has made himself the sin of men and that men are made the righteousness of God.’ Richard Hooker, A Discourse of Justification, http://tinyurl.com/dxfvxzq

It’s a sort of a swap, an exchange: reconciliation. Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible called ‘The Message’, which is perhaps a commentary and a translation rolled into one, expresses this passage in 2 Corinthians as follows. ‘All this comes from God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins.’

This is the clue to the Christian revolution, that God is not vengeful, he is loving. God knows that we are imperfect, and that we do bad things. The woman taken in adultery didn’t intend to hurt anybody, but was just prey to an animal passion. Even St Paul, doing the things that he hated, was still subject to the influence of sin.

We should remember this when we are confronted by people who have done truly dreadful things – the killers of little Jamie Bulger came into the news again this week, for example; and of course we can think again of Jimmy Saville and others who seem to have allowed their baser instincts to get the better of them.

Jesus said to the woman, ‘Has no-one condemned you? She answered, ‘No-one, sir.’ Jesus said, ‘Nor do I condemn you’. Jesus’ message is, to put it another way, we should hate the sin, but have compassion for the sinner. This is a message of forgiveness, of redemption, the very opposite of hopelessness and bleakness. It is a happy message. It is a message for Refreshment Sunday: Mothering Sunday. There is light at the end of the tunnel. There is a rosy glow. Rose Sunday looks forward to the dawning of the Sun of Righteousness – as Homer put it, ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ – on Easter morning.