Sermon given at Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity 2022

Do not take yourself too seriously, but take the faith extremely seriously.

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence

Sunday, 17th July 2022 at 3.00 PM

Isn’t boasting unattractive? Right up there in the list of social bores is the boaster who cannot stop alluding to how wealthy, powerful, intelligent, successful they are. The boaster is frequently the target of comedy sketches, only perhaps to be outdone by the obsequious supporter or enabler of such boasting. A central part of the Christian ethical tradition is that what you have never trumps who you are, and what you accumulate can never mask or reveal your character. Even the very concept of achievement is not a straightforward one for Christians. ‘Store up for yourself treasure in Heaven’, Jesus warns us.

The longest inscription in first century Corinth was a long paean of praise to Junia Theodora. Junia Theodora was a great benefactor and patron: and these qualities mattered very much within the social hierarchy of the first century even more than they do in our own. St Paul’s two letters to the Corinthian Christian community, a portion of the first of which we heard read as today’s second lesson, are written in part to address the complex reality of social and ethical change in that Roman colony where there was an important, growing Christian community. What kind of impact would the Gospel, ‘handed on’ to the Corinthians, necessarily have on their way of life? How would the Gospel interrogate social norms and basic practices? What would it do to the relationship between wealthy and not-so-wealthy, and how would that effect questions of status, perception, civic pride and Roman notions of liberty?

There are rather complex answers to most of these questions, and I don’t intend to oversimplify them today, apart from to suggest that the sea-change was immense and that much of it turned on the question of personal social responsibility for one’s brothers and sisters in the light of the practice of the Gospel.

The passage we heard read this afternoon, is the central section of Chapter Four, slightly divorced from its broader context. Here, Paul is almost engaged in a kind of rhetoric, not – as he says one verse later – to shame the Corinthians, but rather to admonish. There is a certain kind of self-satisfaction and boastfulness at play in Corinth which is undermining of the Christian message. ‘Already’ they have what they want! ‘Already’ they are rich. They are – according to their own perception – strong, honourable, wise. Paul sets up quite a contrast. If these are the metrics of success, then he, Apollos, and presumably his other co-workers, are ‘fools for Christ’, and in any case there is an important moral difference to be made here about success and the end – the telos – of a life, of life in Christ.

In the Eastern Christian world, there is a tradition of the so-called Holy Fool – the salos, in Greek – which has been repeatedly connected in particular with Russian and other Slavic Orthodoxy. Being a ‘fool for Christ’ was frequently regarded as a particular kind of holiness, with both personal and social ramifications. On a personal level, it was often linked with characteristics of ascetism, self-denial, sometimes life as a hermit, others demonstrating actions that seemed crazy or risky. The social ramifications were sometimes profound The most famous holy fool in sixteenth century Moscow, Basil the Blessed, or Basil Fool for Christ, to whom Saint Basil's Cathedral in Red Square is dedicated, frequently went unclothed. His life story is an amalgamation of all the classical tales about holy fools: he walked about naked, he rampaged through merchants’ stalls, smashing pots and dishes, and, essentially, he would admonish the tsar (Ivan the Terrible) for his cruelty. There is a sort-of secular parallel in the court jesters or fools found elsewhere in the late medieval and early modern periods – think of Will Sommers, Henry VIII’s jester, or Jane Foole, jester to Queen Mary and Queen Catherine Parr. In addition to their ability to make rulers laugh, these individuals (perhaps often beset with what would now be recognised medical conditions) were allowed to poke fun at the powerful, to criticise extravagance and highlight contradiction, and in some ways speak truth to power. But these were rarely explicitly religious figures. Theirs was not a mark of personal sanctity. The Holy Fool acted as a kind of texture to the world, a counterpoint, a sort of corrective rhetoric enfleshed on the edges of respectability. A voice, if you like, at least in part from another world, a reminder that the contemporary is not the ultimate, and that worldly power or influence is only as lasting as our mortality. And that is similar to what St Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians. He is expanding the canvas beyond the cultural spread of the ancient Roman world or the imagination of anyone within his hearing. If the category of ‘benefactor’, the title given to the memorialised Junia, was a mark of real distinction, the role of the wise one – the philosopher – was even greater. Wisdom, wealth, influence, strength: these were exceptional categories worthy of celebration and honour. But the contemporary is not the ultimate, and in Paul’s preaching of the Gospel, and in his establishment of Churches, he sets out an ultimate vision of life lived in Christ, in which to be condemned as ‘the rubbish of the world’ is a badge of honour if it is the mark of a disciple. This is a counterpoint to the world’s texture.

One of the dangers with this kind of preaching is that it can set up a kind of removal-from-the-world dynamic, where Christianity becomes an enclosed community, hermetically sealed from the supposed rot. That is not the Gospel. But the Gospel is about transformation of the real. There are social implications of Christ’s death and resurrection about human dignity, reconciliation, a priority for those excluded. Whilst in the West, we do not have Holy Fools to remind us of the Gospel’s social counterpoint, we do have prophetic voices, many of them uncomfortable. They belong in the Church as part of the Church’s good health. When they are excluded, the whole Body is at risk. And the health of the Body of Christ, how it relates to the world around, to the culture in which it is set, is a permanent question which needs to be addressed with care and wisdom in every generation.

So, in social terms, do not take yourself too seriously, but take the faith extremely seriously. And in communal terms, the Body of Christ is a blueprint for a restored humanity. Writing about the Eucharist in this week’s Tablet, the great Dominican theologian Timothy Radcliffe remarks ‘The Eucharist is not a gathering of nice people who sing songs and feel good. It is an outrageous expression of hope in defiance of everything that could destroy it.’

If that’s foolishness, count me in.