Saturday, January 25, 2014

Richard of Chichester

Matthew 4:12-23
Orthopraxy – sounds like a word one might hear in the dentist’s office! It is a rather technical sounding word for what turns out to be a rather simple idea – an idea that is capable of changing how we live our lives and even how we understand what the life of faith is really all about.

Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly.
    -Richard of Chichester
This poem by Richard of Chichester, a thirteenth century bishop in England, became the basis of a song popularized in the musical Godspell, Day By Day:
Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by Day
  -Vaughn Williams

The Reverend Bill C. Caradine often used this prayer of Richard’s as a teachable moment to provide a corrective to how the post-Easter, post-enlightenment church leans too far in the direction of orthodoxy over and against the kind of orthopraxy of Jesus and the Jewish world in which he lived, died and rose again. Surely most readers will have give up with the usage of such technical words as “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy,” words Bill never used. Yet, to know the distinction between the two may be crucial to understanding what God in Jesus was all about.

At its simplest, orthodoxy is belief in right doctrine, orthopraxy is right practice. Judaism tends to value doing over believing, right practice over right doctrine, whereas Christianity has tended more in the ways of right belief and right doctrine over right practice. It is not at all clear that this dependence on orthodoxy has served Christianity at all well, and there are signs over the past 50 years or so that a major course correction may be under way. This story in Matthew 4 depicting Jesus calling his first disciples contrasted with Richard’s poem helps us to see the difference.

Bill Cardine would point to Richard’s poem and observe that this is a very western, intellectual, even scientific way of looking at things: We tend to want to know or see things more clearly before deciding whether we like or love them enough to follow or accept them. When it comes to someone like Jesus, we want to know him before we love him and follow him. It seems like such a natural progression of things. In this paradigm one might say Orthodoxy precedes Orthopraxy – belief precedes practice.

Yet, in Matthew 4 there is no hint of this whatsoever! As Bill would observe, Jesus does not stroll down to the Sea of Galilee, approach this group of fishermen, hold up a copy of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, and say something like, “Here in my had are the teachings of my people over the past two or three thousand years. Read, mark and inwardly digest these teachings, and tomorrow morning I will come back and give you a quiz on this material. If you do well enough on the quiz I will let you follow me. I want to make sure you know and believe all of this before you follow me.”

That would seem reasonable. That is pretty much still how we operate throughout western civilization and the church. Bill would then point out the obvious: Jesus simply says, “Follow me.”  There are no qualifiers, no requirements, nothing to believe, no doctrine to be understood. “Follow me,“ is all he says. And quite remarkably these fishermen drop their nets, leave their boats, and leave their families behind and follow him! Bill would further observe that Jesus does not ask the disciples if they love him until after the resurrection, after he returns from the dead. In John chapter 21, after breakfast on the shore of the same Sea of Galilee where it all begins, Jesus turns to Peter and asks, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” To which Jesus replies, “Feed my lambs.” This happens a second and third time. Both times Peter says, “Yes, Lord.” Jesus replies, “Tend my sheep….Feed my sheep.” That is, love for Jesus, and in the Bible, is about doing something, not loving, someone or something.  This doing-kind-of-love has to do with caring for others and meeting their most basic needs. For Jesus this love means following in the way of Jesus, not believing some set of propositions, doctrines and ideas about life – but rather to live life in the ways in which he lived life.  And finally Bill would state the obvious – we still do not really know Jesus, we do not see him clearly at all. Just witness the number of books and articles competing for our attention year in and year out all claiming to reveal to us the “real” Jesus. As John Shea once put it, Jesus is not through with us yet! For which we should say, “Thank goodness!”

So it is the Jesus Richard of Chichester loves who turns the entire paradigm, and the world with it, on its head – upside down: practice precedes belief. Like Peter, Andrew, James and John we are called to follow Jesus before loving him and see him more clearly. Orthopraxy not only precedes orthodoxy in Matthew chapter 4, but a thorough reading of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John suggests that orthopraxy is what it is all about. Indeed, in the fourteenth chapter of John the Jesus of orthopraxis makes the astonishing claim that those who are his disciples, those who believe in him will “do the things that I do, and greater things than these will you do.” Jesus appears to define belief as doing the things he does, and greater things than these!

Jesus calls others to follow him, not believe in him or believe some set of doctrines.
Jesus says that to love him is to love and care for others.
Jesus says to know him or see him more clearly is to result in doing the things he does, and greater things than these.  That calls for a healthy dose of orthopraxy to be sure, but he trusts that we are up to the task.

Practice precedes belief. Orthopraxy trumps orthodoxy. The Church is seriously re-thinking all of this. Once it abandons re-thinking for doing, imagine all those “greater things than these” we will begin to do. Follow him more nearly and there is nothing we cannot do! Thank you, Bill Caradine, for such a straightforward teaching. Amen.


  1. Ah yes, the old "deeds vs. creeds". Judaism teaches that it is perfectly acceptable for practice to precede internal transformation. The acceptance of the law at Mt. Sinai is comparable to accepting of Jesus - Paul saw continuity in the two gifts leading toward wholeness. Faith without works........

  2. Sorry for not first saying "thank you" Rev. Kubicek for your as usual well crafted homily. Thanks!