Comprehension for the Sake of Truth

Sermon preached on the Feast of Richard Hooker, Priest (1600)
November 3, 2010

Being a Christian today is not easy. On days when you or I might be tempted to forget that truth we have only to look to The Christian Century or scan the headlines of Religion Online to be reminded of the conflicts that divide our churches: sex abuse scandals, the blessing of same sex unions, disputes over property ownership, disagreements concerning the appropriate response or non-response to illegal immigration and immigration reform – just some of today’s “big” issues that threaten the unity of the Church. And, in many places, there are also congregations that struggle daily with issues which, while they may not make national headlines, are just as painful for those involved. Some of these issues might feel “silly” or “unimportant” – the equivalent of our domestic disputes over the right way and the wrong way to load the dishwasher or which way to put a new roll of toilet paper on the dispenser. But, underlying these seemingly inane conflicts are often much deeper issues – issues we may not even know how to name – deeper issues that can cause hurt and pain, anger and frustration within a congregation for years to come.
Being a Christian today is not easy. And, if history is any indication, there have been relatively few times – if any – in which Christians have had an easy go of things. The Feast of Richard Hooker which we celebrate today leads us back some 400 plus years to another painfully divisive time in the life of our Church.

Richard Hooker, a priest and theologian, served the church under Queen Elizabeth I. The church of this era was riddled with controversies and divisions. Some of you may recall a bit of this history: Roman Catholic until approximately 1534 when Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the church in England, the church became even more Protestant under the reign of Edward VI’s Regency Council only to return to Roman Catholicism under Mary I – so-called “Bloody Mary” for her burning at the stake of nearly 300 religious dissenters – and ultimately a return to a kind of Protestantism in 1558 under Queen Elizabeth I. This religious flip-flopping in a period of just 3 decades left the country largely divided and left most lay persons greatly confused. On the one hand were the Romanists or Papists – supporters of Queen Mary; on the other hand, the Puritans, Genevans, or Separatists – all of whom had been largely influenced by the Protestant reformers on the continent.

This is the chaotic religious and theological backdrop in which Richard Hooker found himself when approached by Archbishop Whitgift and Queen Elizabeth “to describe the emerging Elizabethan settlement to the warring Puritan and Roman parties."[1] A settlement which Elizabeth and her parliament believed and intended to be a middle way – the via media which is the basis for our Episcopal tradition even today.

But even the tumultuous Reformation did not mark the beginning of challenges to the unity of the Christian Church. Today’s epistle reading from Paul’s 1st letter to the believers in Corinth, is his response to some of the painful divisions emerging in their community.

Like most of the early churches, the Corinthian believers struggled with differences between the Gentile converts and the Jewish believers – issues over circumcision and non-circumcision, dietary restrictions, and marriage to non-believers. But, an even bigger problem in Corinth - and the primary issue which Paul addresses in this letter – is the emergence of a relatively small group of wealthy believers who began to use their wealth as a claim to power and privilege over and against the other believers. To be clear, their wealth was not the issue; after all, the community relied on their generosity for the provision of the bread and the wine and their very homes as places to gather for prayer and table fellowship. But it apparently did not take very long before corruption set in. Paul writes in chapter 11 of this letter to the Corinthians,

“When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!”[2]  
What follows in Paul’s letter is a reminder of the way things ought to be, a description of the way in which the community ought to gather in the name of Christ.[3]

So it would seem, there has never been an easy time to be a Christian. The challenge in any age seems, at least in part, to be the necessity of living in the world and living into the kingdom of God at one and the same time. J. Paul Sampley, Pauline scholar at Boston University School of Theology, refers to this as the “already and not yet” of God’s reign. You and I are daily reminded of the “not yet” – a glance at the evening news, many of the interactions at our places of work, and sadly, yes, even in our churches – all highlighting the culture of the “not yet” – a culture ruled by the wisdom of humans. It is a culture where the majority rules, where might makes right, where individual wealth and status and power frequently become corrupt and trump any notion of the common good. The chant of the “not yet” world is “I’m number one! I’m number one! I’m number one!” and the voices of numbers two and three and so on down the line, are drowned out by the roaring of the crowd. This is the world that Christians have lived in since the coming of Jesus. It is the world in which the Corinthians struggled to be faithful followers of Christ in the early 1st century, the world in which the English Church and government struggled to be faithful followers of Christ in the 16th century, and the world in which you and I continue to struggle to be faithful followers of Christ in the 21st century.

But there is another way. Paul offers a reminder of this alternative way to the Church in Corinth, a reminder that remains true for us today. And that way can be found, not by pursuing the wisdom of humans, but by pursuing the wisdom of God. Paul writes

“we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory . . . these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God . . . .”[4]  
Paul continues,

“Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”[5]  
Even though we live in the “not yet” of God’s reign, in the brokenness of the world with all its hurts, the Spirit can and does reveal God’s wisdom to us, allowing us to choose the path we will follow. Dr. Sampley frames the choice this way: “one can walk according to human standards (1 Cor. 3:3), that is, in the old age or world. Alternatively, one can walk or conduct one’s life according to the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:25).”[6]  For the believers in Corinth, Paul expresses his concern that they are slipping “back to their old behavior”; that is, the types of behaviors one might expect from those who have not received the spirit of wisdom. And so Paul reminds the believers that the “already” of God’s reign, as it pertains to the community of faith, “rests in their being in Christ, in their life of faith.”[7]  God’s reign is already present through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the believers already participate in this new way through the prayers and the breaking of the bread.

Paul tells the believers – those in Corinth and you and I, by virtue of our baptisms – that we already “have the mind of Christ” – a bold statement indeed! But Paul asserts that when we allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit, we are already united in the same mind. This means, that we know what is going on around us; we know what matters – that is what is of primary importance to new life in Christ; and, we are then able to choose to live in accord with God’s purposes for us.[8] It sounds so simple. And yet, the very fact that our denominations and individual congregations continue to experience conflict suggests that the application of this simple instruction is no easy task – and, as we’ve already seen, it has never been an easy task.

Richard Hooker addressed the challenge in his cultural context through his multi-volume classic of Anglicanism, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. How effectively he navigated the troubled waters of his time is evidenced by the words in our opening collect today:

“O God of truth and peace, who raised up your servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.”
This is no matter of simply saying “can’t we all just get along; can’t we just agree to disagree.” No. “. . . [N]ot as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.” Richard Hooker scholar, Michael Russell, points out that the word “comprehension” here

“does not mean the passive inclusion of everyone under one big tent simply tolerating each other. . . [but] rather . . . the effort to dig beneath the battling points of view to find the deep structure of truths that actually unites all the parties.”[9]  
While this language offers a helpful way forward, I would suggest a variation for our post-modern context: having the willingness to listen beneath and behind and through the anger, the frustration, the loud silences, hurts, confusion and pain until the deep structure of unity in Christ might be revealed in our communities. You and I live in a spirit-poor world – a world that bubbles over with just example after example of the “not yet” of God’s reign. To this spirit-poor world, we are uniquely positioned to proclaim spiritual richness, uniquely positioned to practice spiritual richness as we stop and listen to one another and, more importantly, as we stop and listen for God’s Wisdom as it is revealed to us – yes, even today - by the Holy Spirit “for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”[10]

Today, as we break the bread together, we are called to remember that this table and this meal are but a foretaste of the heavenly banquet which “God has prepared for those who love him” and an example of the “already” of God’s reign that holds ultimate power over every instance of the “not yet” we might encounter and in which we might participate.[11] You and I, my brothers and sisters in Christ, already “have the mind of Christ.”[12]

[1] Michael B. Russell, Hooker’s Blueprint, p. 1.
[2] I Corinthians 11:20-22.
[3] I Corinthians 11:23b-26.
[4] I Corinthians 2:7, 10.
[5] I Corinthians 2:15-16.
[6] J. Paul Sampley, Walking between the Times: Paul’s Moral Reasoning, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991), p. 15.
[7] Ibid., p. 19.
[8] J. Paul Sampley, "The First Letter to the Corinthians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 821-2.
[9] Russell, p. 1.
[10] I Corinthians 2:10b.
[11] I Corinthians 2:9b.
[12] I Corinthians 2:16b.