The Lord’s Prayer

Praying_Hands

 Luke 11. 1-13)

When I was about 16, my grandmother had a stroke, and came to live with us for a while. Because our house was fairly small, she had to sleep in the same bedroom as me. One night, I was woken up by the sound of her voice. As I listened, I realised that she was repeating the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again, in her sleep.

I was surprised. My grandma was not a churchgoer when I knew her, and I had never heard her say a prayer before. Yet, in this time of illness, what came from the depths of her memory to meet her need was the Lord’s Prayer.

I would imagine that some of you may have had similar experiences – of people returning to these familiar words at times of stress, fear, pain or approaching death. When I take services in residential homes, even if people can no longer sing the hymns, or make the responses, most of them will still join in the traditional words of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s that deeply embedded in their memory.

They are, I would think, the words repeated most often by Christians – the only prayer used at virtually every Christian service (and even used twice in Evensong and Matins according to the Book of Common Prayer! ) – the one prayer that all Christians can say together.

In the Gospel today, we have one version of how the words of the Lord’s Prayer were taught to the disciples: Luke says it was in response to a specific request: “Lord, teach us how to pray”. In Matthew’s Gospel, it comes as part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus prefaces it with a warning against showy and repetitive prayers.

What, I wonder, was our Lord’s intention when he taught these word to his followers? Did he mean them to become a fixed format, repeated down the generations, to become the prayer of his church? Or were they, as many think, meant not as a fixed prayer, but as a pattern for prayer.

One problem with the Lord’s Prayer is that we use it so often, it is so familiar to us, that it can easily become the sort of prayer that Jesus warned his disciples against in the Matthew passage: “vain repetition” as the King James Bible puts it, or “meaningless words” as the Good News Bible translates. You know how it is when you drive a familiar route, with your mind on something else – you do it on autopilot. It’s easy to do the same with the Lord’s Prayer. You repeat it without actually hearing what you are saying; you come to the end and realise with a jolt that your lips have been repeating the phrases automatically, and that although you’ve said the prayer, you haven’t actually prayed it at all: mouth in gear, brain and heart in neutral!

How then can we overcome the problem of familiarity with the Lord’s Prayer and bring it alive for ourselves again?

One way is to read these passages, in Luke 11 and Matthew 6, where the prayer first occurs. Each of the evangelists presents the situation slightly differently, and the contexts give the prayer different emphases. They also have quite a few differences in the words of the prayer. Matthew speaks about forgiving debts and debtors; Luke about sins. In the phrase about daily bread, Matthew uses the Greek form of the command ‘give’ which is used for something that happens once; Luke uses the form for something that is to keep on happening, and adds the words ‘each day’, whereas Matthew only has ‘today’. So, we can see Matthew taking things day by day (since he wrote for a community that expected the Lord to return soon ) and Luke takes a longer perspective (since, perhaps, his community no longer expected an early Parousia.)

It is also good to read as many different translations as you can, to pick up all the different nuances of the prayer. Different translators help you to find new insights into the prayer. It is particularly useful with the Lord’s Prayer, where there are difficulties in translating some parts. For instance the Greek word ‘ in the petition about bread is found nowhere else in ancient Greek literature, so we can only guess what it means. It is usually translated ‘daily’ but it could mean ‘sufficient’ or ‘necessary’, ‘for today’ or ‘for tomorrow’.

You might even find it useful to read the Lord’s Prayer in a foreign language! You don’t have to be an expert in the language to do so – after all you know the translation off by heart! But if you understand even a little of the language, the different words, the slight difference of emphasis in another tongue might bring a new depth of meaning to the prayer for you. Just an example: many, many years ago, I picked up  versions of all four  gospels  in French from the chapel at Lyons Airport. In Matthew,  the petition about daily bread was written ‘Donne nous aujourdhui le pain qu’il nous faut’: literally, ‘give us today the bread which is necessary to us,’ which picks up one of the possible alternative meanings of the original Greek.

Although the process of liturgical revision has its down side, in that there are now several versions of the Lord’s Prayer in English, so that you can no longer assume that when you say ‘We will now say the Lord’s Prayer together’ everyone will recite the same phrases, it has brought the benefit that we can now choose from three or four liturgical versions of the prayer, as well as the versions in Luke and Matthew, if we want it in a different form.

And there are also unofficial translations, which bring the petitions up to date – like this one from Jim Cotter:

Eternal Spirit, Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love-Maker,


Source of all that is and shall be,


Father and Mother of us all,

Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The Hallowing of your name echo through the universe!


The way of your Justice be followed by the peoples of the world!


Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!


Your Commonwealth of Peace and Freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!


With the bread that we need for today, feed us.


In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.


In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.


From trials too great to endure, spare us.


From the grip of all that is evil, free us.


For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,


now and for ever. Amen.

A second way that you might find new depths of meaning in the Lord’s Prayer is to move as you say it. Many years ago, I took a youth group away for the weekend, and we spent part of out time exploring how to worship through dance. I worked out a dance version of the Lord’s Prayer to a folk setting of the communion service I had on tape, and I learned that to express the prayer with my whole body gives it a depth of meaning that it doesn’t have when I just say the words.

Perhaps the idea of ‘dancing a prayer’ fills you with horror. It is certainly an unusual thing to do in our religious culture, which is so word and brain fixated, that we have been encouraged to worship God from the neck upwards and forget the rest of our body. But if you read your Bible, and particularly the Psalms, you will find there a long tradition of worshipping God not just with words and music, but also with dance.

But perhaps you feel your body is no longer up to moving to music. In that case, move just your head and arms. Rosemary Budd, in her book ‘Moving Prayer,’ has several suggestions of simple movements that can be added to the Lord’s Prayer, as an aid to a deeper devotional life. And if you obey Jesus’ instructions about prayer in Matthew’s Gospel, and go into a room by yourself and shut the door when you pray, there’s no need for you to feel self-conscious about moving your body as you pray. Nobody will be watching!

A third way of getting more out of the Lord’s Prayer is to use it as, perhaps, Jesus intended, as a pattern for prayer rather than a complete prayer in itself. So you take each phrase separately, think about its meaning, and allow other prayers to arise from it. ‘Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name’ may lead you into praising God’s holiness and loving care for us, or into intercessions for the conversion of a particular person, or for mission to a particular part of the world. ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’ might lead to prayers for political situations. ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ might lead to confession, and ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’ to asking for God’s help in reconciling yourself to those whom you feel have wronged you – and so on.

You might find it helpful to read a book or a blog about the Lord’s Prayer by an expert theologian, to help you tease out the real meanings of the petitions, especially those that are difficult to translate adequately, like “lead us not into temptation’. One good book on the subject is William Barclay’s ‘The Plain Man looks at the Lord’s Prayer’ – which can be used by the plain woman just as well. When the Lord’s Prayer was used as the centrepiece of the Week of Prayer leading up to Pentecost this year, there was a lot written about it online.

‘This is how you should pray’ said Jesus, and instead of giving us a lengthy treatise on prayer, he gave us ten short, easily remembered phrases – his prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, and the pattern for all our prayers. It is a prayer which puts God at the centre, and which lays before God our present, past and future lives. It is a prayer which is so simple that we can pray it unconsciously, yet which is so deep that we can come to it again and again, and find new meaning in it. As we continue to use the words which our Lord taught us, as we use our minds and our voices and our bodies to explore its depths, may it bring us ever closer to him.

 

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In Christ there is no ‘Them’ and ‘Us’

IMGP1314(Gal.3, 23-29; Luke 8, 26-39

On Tuesday last week, I took a primary school assembly, and these were my visual aids: Stan, the banana and Olly the orange. I used them to tell the story of the Good Samaritan.

 

Before I began the story telling, I spoke about how people divide themselves into groups that hate each other, often over silly things, like which school you go to, or what football team you support; and I was sad to see that when I mentioned football teams, some of the older children were already making gestures and mouthing the names of their favourite teams. Before they were in their teens, they were dividing into rival camps, of the kind that led to one group of football fans beating a member of another group into a coma this last week.

 

But when I got to the point in the story where Stan, having been beaten up by other bananas, and ignored by all the important bananas who passed by, was approached by Olly, and Olly was standing there wondering aloud whether he should risk helping a member of the banana group who hated oranges, a child from Reception called out “Of course he should help!”

Children don’t naturally dislike and fear people who are different from them. They have to be taught to do it by grown-ups.

 

The message of the assembly was that we are all the beloved children of God, and the differences between us have no meaning in God’s eyes. It is a message which adults find it hard to hear, and even harder to put into action, even if they are ‘baptized into Christ’. Every human group is inclined to divide their fellow human beings into ‘them’ and ‘us’, with all the dreadful consequences of that.

 

But, in Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. We are all one, we are all children of God.

 

In his letter to the Galatians, chapter 3, verses 26-28, we hear St Paul at his best, interpreting the message of Jesus under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:

26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ; 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

He is saying “in Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’”.

Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female were the major divisions in Paul’s society. Paul, Peter, Mary Magdalene, and all the disciples were Jewish, like Jesus. They would have been taught as they grew up that the Gentiles, non-Jews, were wicked and unclean, outside God’s love, and no Jew should have anything to do with them. But Jesus overturned that teaching, and as we heard in today’s Gospel, went into Gentile territory and offered healing and salvation to suffering Gentiles, and even commissioned them to spread the good news. It took the disciples time to follow suit, as we see in the Epistles and Acts, but eventually Jews and Gentiles were accepted into the Church on equal terms.

 

Slaves, usually captives from foreign wars, or children, sold by their families to pay off debts, had no rights, could be bought and sold and mistreated at the whim of their owners. They were not considered to be people. But Jesus healed slaves, Paul urged they be treated humanely, and slaves became full members of the early Church.

 

Women (like children) had no more rights than slaves, were the property of a man – either their father or their husband – could be mistreated, sold, and could not give evidence in a court of law. Yet, Jesus treated them with courtesy, healed them, and sent them to share the gospel, and never ordered them to be silent; and the evidence from Acts and the Epistles is that they were honoured leaders of congregations, preachers and evangelists in the Early Church.

In Christ, there was no ‘them’ and ‘us’.

In his commentary on the Gospel story that we heard today, Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, observed that the Gospel writers often used demon possession to speak of the disordered powers that affect both people and communities. In this story the demons, which called themselves ‘Legion’ would be understood as standing for the evil influences of the Roman occupation on individuals and communities. John quotes the theologian Walter Wink, who says that Paul believed all earthly powers are created and set in place by God with a good purpose, but almost inevitably, they turn from their God-willed function and become demonic,  self-serving, and worshipping the idols of wealth and war, power and oppression, and that these systems become self-perpetuating.

 

One of the ways in which the powers maintain their systems of domination, is by creating boundaries, and rigidly classifying who is in and who is out, who can be counted as ‘us’ and who is to be treated as ‘them’. The tragedy of the Christian Church, and of Christendom, the societies that looked to Christianity for guidance, is that they adopted those strategies too.

In the early Church, Jews and Gentiles were equal, but as the Church became more Gentile, the Jews became targeted as an ‘out group.’ They were blamed for the death of Christ, there were numerous pogroms and expulsions, and even the horror of the Holocaust didn’t open the eyes of Western society to the anti-Semitism in its midst. When I came to live here I was shocked to learn that Jews were not allowed to be members of our most prestigious local golf club, because to me Jews were not a threatening minority, they were people with faces and names, my friends at school and my husband’s partners at work.

In Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’

It took nearly eighteen centuries for the Church and Western society to realise that slavery was incompatible with the Christian faith. But the fear of people of colour lingered on into the late 20th century, and even now we tolerate slavery in parts of the world with which we trade, and some fear people whose skin colour is different from ours, and whose ancestors our ancestors wronged.

But, in Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’

It took longer for the male-dominated power systems of society and church to accept that discrimination against women was not the Christian way. Only in the later part of the 20th century was equality reached to some extent in society, and the Church is still struggling. The Church of England reached a sort of qualified equality when women were allowed to become bishops about 18 months ago, but we still can’t say honestly in the church with regard to gender, ‘In Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’’.

 

And the principalities and powers of Church and society have found new divisions to shore up their power, new categories of ‘them’ onto whom we are encouraged to direct our fear and anger, in order to distract ourselves from our own inadequacies and failures. We have been so painfully reminded of the demonic consequences of that in the last weeks and days.

 

One group which often carries the burden of being the ‘out group’ and the nameless threat in political discourse today is that of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. They are talked of as a swarm or a horde as if they were insects or ravening animals. The realities of their lives – the terror and threats from which they are escaping – are minimised and some are dismissed as ‘economic migrants’. I can’t think of them in that way. The refugees I knew came from another generation, escaping the Holocaust, but they have names – A. and G. and H. The immigrants I know in this generation also have names – my much loved daughters in law, B. and K. the people who keep our local shops, and the care assistants in the residential homes I visit.

Today, in our collections of goods, food and money for World Refugee Day, we have a chance to speak up against the categorisation of refugees and immigrants as ‘them’; to remember, as Ban Ki-moon said “Refugees are people like you and me. They led ordinary lives before becoming displaced, and their biggest dream is to be able to live normally again. Let us recall our common humanity, celebrate tolerance, and open our hearts to refugees everywhere”.

Let us both say and live “In Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’”, no refugee or native citizen.

Another ‘out group’ for society and the Church is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. There has been progress towards equal rites for LGBTI people in society, but also recently an increasingly nasty backlash. The Anglican Communion at the moment is deeply divided over the issue, and LGBTI Anglicans feel marginalised and excluded. Hate speech against gays and categorising them as sinful leads to things like the horrific homophobic attack which took place last Saturday evening at the Pulse Club in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were killed and 53 injured, simply because they were in club for LGBTI people.victims-pulse-orlando-shooting

People tend to talk about LGBTI people as ‘the gay mafia’ as if they were a large threatening mass. But I can’t think of them that way. The gay people I know, loving, faithful couples, have names: A. and D., D. and R., EJ. and S., R. and S., L. and A., G. and S.; so now do the people killed in Orlando; and I know them all to be beloved children of God.

In Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’, no gay or straight.

In some of the debate about the EU referendum, there has been a tendency to create another ‘out-group’, ‘Europe’ which is blamed for all the problems that Britain is encountering as a nation at the moment. This ‘Europe’ is conceived as a nameless and faceless unelected bureaucracy, which is out to take our money or our fish, and undermine our NHS or our way of life.   But for me, ‘Europe’ is not nameless or faceless. Europe is I., the pen-friend I have had since my teenage years; S. and V.and K., the husband and children of one of my cousins; S., about to marry my nephew; the people I have stayed with and met on many holidays in Europe over the years. Conversation that demonises Europe seems to me to be toxic, and that poisonous talk  contributed, I am sure, to the senseless and horrific murder of the MP Jo Cox on Thursday, by someone who is said to have shouted ‘Britain First’ as he shot and stabbed her. She was a person who spent her life working to help the poor, refugees, women, the dispossessed, the excluded, all those often categorised as ‘them’.

But in Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’, no European and British.

Jesus stepped bravely into the territory of the Gentile, the madman, the demon possessed and brought healing and peace. Can we who claim to follow him do the same?

Can we give up the hate speech against those who are different from us, and speak up against those who use it, whoever and wherever they are?

Can we oppose everything that categorises and demonises people and treats them as threatening groups without names and faces?

Can we say, with Paul, “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, refugee or citizen, gay or straight, European or Briton.

In Christ there is no ‘them’ or us’ for all of us are one in Christ Jesus?”

And can we, please, as people baptized into Christ, live it?

 

 

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Retelling the Story.

widow of Nain

( 1 Kings 17, 17-24; Luke 7, 11-17)

 

Those of you who like stage musicals will know that many of them are based on classical plays or stories: ‘Kiss Me Kate’ is based around Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’, ‘My Fair Lady’ on Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘Les Miserables’ on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. Sometimes the original story is updated, to a contemporary setting, as in ‘West Side Story’ where the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet become the Puerto Rican Jets and working class white Sharks of 1950s New York. No matter what the setting, the impact of a good story remains.

In our two Bible readings this morning, we see something of the same process at work.

There are obvious parallels between the story of the raising of the dead son of the widow of Zarapheth by the prophet Elijah and the raising of the dead son of the widow of Nain by Jesus. The stories depict the same scenario, and even some of the details and language are identical in the two accounts. As so often, the Gospel writers use a story from one of the great figures from Israel’s past and rewrite it to convey a message about Jesus and his person and his mission.

The widow of Zarapheth was not a Jew. She was a Gentile, from the coastal region of Sidon. Elijah was told by God to seek refuge with her from the anger of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, after he had asked God to send a drought on Israel as a punishment for their wickedness. He met the widow by the town gate and asked her for water and food. Although she had barely enough for one last meal for herself and her son, the widow gave it up to feed Elijah, and in return God provided enough meal and oil to keep the three of them fed during the time the drought lasted.

Having taken the risk and trusted Israel’s God to look after her, the loss of her son was all the more bitter. His death was not just the loss of a family member, it was the loss of her financial security and her personal safety. As a widow, she had no place in society, no one to defend her and no financial security apart from him. She saw God as a cruel judge, who was punishing her for her sins by his death. When Elijah restores her son to her, he also restores her faith in Israel’s God as a god of love and mercy.

The writer of Luke’s Gospel appears to have had a particular interest in the prophet Elijah. A number of incidents that are unique to his gospel recall incidents from Elijah’s ministry. Another significant parallel is that Elijah was taken up into heaven and had no earthly tomb, and that his spirit then descended upon his disciple Elisha; In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to heaven after his death and resurrection and then sends down the Holy Spirit upon his disciples.

All the Gospel writers feature the ministry of John the Baptist, and see him as the prophet whose coming would herald the messianic age. Some seem to see John as Elijah. But Luke has passages which seem to identify Jesus with Elijah, especially in chapter 4, when, after he is rejected by the people of Nazareth, he refers to Elijah’s stay with the widow of Zarapheth, implying that his ministry will be welcomed by the Gentiles like her and rejected by his fellow Jews. The mission to the Gentiles was a particular interest of Luke’s.

The story of the widow of Nain and the resurrection of her son is found only in Luke’s Gospel. The story comes immediately after Jesus has healed the Roman centurion’s servant. The centurion, a rich Gentile, who is sympathetic to the Jewish faith and has built a synagogue for them, expresses faith in Jesus, and his servant is healed from a distance. Jesus emphasises the contrast between him and the lack of faith from his own people by saying “I have never found faith like this, not even in Israel”.

Now Jesus turns to help a member of the ‘anawim’ the faithful Jewish poor who feature so often in Luke’s Gospel as the true believers. He meets the funeral procession at the town gate (a direct parallel with Elijah who met the widow in that same place). After the miracle, he gives the son back to his mother – another direct parallel.

But there are differences between the two stories, and these are intended to demonstrate that Jesus is not just a great prophet (as the crowd proclaims) but something much greater. There is no request from the widow of Nain for help. Jesus interrupts the funeral procession, drawn to help by simple human sympathy, sympathy not just for the human tragedy, but, as so often in Luke’s Gospel, for those in facing economic desperation. He touches the coffin to stop the procession – thereby rendering himself ceremonially unclean. Whereas Elijah throws himself on the dead boy three times, and cries to God to heal him, Jesus revives him with a simple command “Young man, get up”. His healing power comes from within himself, not from outside. To those who believe, he is so obviously much more than a great prophet; he is, as Luke calls him, the Lord.

Immediately after this, Luke tells us that messengers came from John the Baptist, asking whether Jesus was the person John said was coming. His answer was that the blind and deaf had been healed, the lame walked, and the dead has been raised to life. The miracles of the preceding verses are thus an illustration of this ministry. Then he tells his disciples that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven will be greater than John.

The miracles in which people are raised from the dead are probably the most difficult for modern Christians to deal with. But, as the Dean of St Albans reminds us in his book ‘Meaning in the Miracles’ the question of what did or did not happen is an unanswerable and and therefore fruitless question. The real and useful question is what the stories are intended to convey tell us.

In re-telling a story about Elijah, Luke is reminding us that God was at work through Elijah, as he was through all of Israel’s history. He is reminding us that God is a god of mercy and compassion, with a special care for the poor and defenceless. In retelling the story of the raising of a widow’s son, Luke is reminding us that greater faith is sometimes found outside the faith community than inside it. In showing Jesus performing the same miracle by a simple word of command, he is telling us that Jesus is a far greater miracle worker even than Elijah. In restoring her son to the widow he gives her back her future – as he gives back the future to everyone who believes in him.

All the resurrection miracles in the New Testament look forward to the greatest resurrection miracle of all, that of Jesus himself. The widow’s son is raised to physical life, but he will die again. What the resurrection of Jesus promises is resurrection to eternal life – to a future not just in this world, but for all eternity.

Physical death, like physical handicap, in biblical writings can be a symbol for spiritual malaise. We are spiritually dead when we are in the power of sin, or in thrall to the material things of life. It is only through faith that we can be raised from spiritual death to eternal life. And that is the most important resurrection.

The stories in the New Testament of Jesus performing miracles were told to strengthen the faith of those who heard them. They showed Jesus as not just a prophet of words, but as a prophet of actions – and as he told the messengers from John the Baptist, the Kingdom of God was being ushered in by those actions. Our job, as the present day disciples of Jesus, is to inspire and strengthen faith in those to whom we speak. We can do that by re-telling the stories of God at work in the world, as the gospel writers did and particularly by telling our own stories of the difference our faith makes to our lives.

We probably won’t have tales of people being raised from physical death to share, but many of us will have stories of individuals and communities whose lives have been redeemed from economic, moral and spiritual death, and who have been given back their future by people working with them in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the service of the Kingdom of God.

And those are stories which are worth re-telling again and again.

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Outside In!

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Ordinary 9. Proper 4C         Galatians 1, 1-12; Luke 7, 1-10

 

 

Whenever there is a terrorist outrage in the UK, there is a reaction, sad to say, against the community that the terrorists are believed to belong to.

 

Three years ago there were a number of demonstrations against Islam in reaction to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich. There was a march through the centre of London on Bank Holiday Monday organised by the English Defence League and also in Newcastle on Saturday and York on Sunday. These came after 10 mosques around the country had been subject to arson or graffiti attacks and there had been a further 193 anti-Muslim incidents reported to the police.

 

AnsarRobinson-thumb-500xauto-3293In Newcastle, a prominent Muslim political and social commentator, Mo Ansar, confronted the EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, but at the end of their discussion was photographed with a smile on his face, being hugged by the person whose policies he opposes. For this he was criticised both by Muslims and by anti-fascists, for compromising with the promoters of prejudice and evil.

When the leaders of a mosque in York learnt that the EDL march was targeting their York-mosque---tea-protest-008mosque, they decided to organise an open day. Helped by members of other faith communities, they served tea and cakes to the marchers, invited them into the mosque for discussions, and played an impromptu game of football with some of them. The Archbishop of York praised them for meeting anger and hatred with peace and warmth.

 

In each of these two incidents, those who followed a faith refused to treat non-believers, even those who oppressed and harassed them as ‘outsiders’ or ‘enemies’. They opened themselves up to them and invited them to become, in some sense, ‘insiders’.

 

This is the message that we are meant to hear from our Bible readings today.

 

In the reading from the letter to the Galatians, we hear one half of a correspondence between Paul and the church he established in Galatia, a church which consisted largely of Gentiles.

GalatiaMap

After he had left Galatia, it seems that some Jewish Christians visited the churches, and insisted that, before they could truly become Christians, the pagan converts had to subject themselves to Jewish ceremonial law. In the case of male converts this included being circumcised. This appalled Paul, who taught that everyone was equally welcome into the Christian community by the grace of God in Christ, regardless of their previous background, and that no action was needed from converts apart from an acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord. Hence his condemnation of the actions of the Jewish Christians as ‘perverting the Gospel of Christ’.

 

Does anyone nowadays, I wonder, pervert the Gospel of Christ, but setting entry conditions for membership or holding office which Christ would not have set?

 

The challenge to treat all people as insiders in the name of Jesus is brought out most strongly in the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant, which we heard in today’s Gospel. This was clearly an important story to the early Christian community; there are slightly different versions of it in three of the four gospels (Matthew and John, as well as Luke).

 

The centurion was in more than one way an outsider for Jesus and his companions. He was a Gentile; entering his house, eating with him, having any physical contact with him or his possessions would have rendered an observant Jew ceremonially unclean.

 

Then, he was a Roman soldier, a representative of the hated enemy that was occupying the sacred land of the Jews. There had been a large military presence in Galilee since the uprising that followed the death of Herod the Great in Jesus’ early childhood; an uprising that led to savage reprisals and multiple crucifixions, events that were still raw in the memory of many of Jesus’ fellow Galileans. The rebellion centred on Sepphoris, four miles north of Jesus’s home town of Nazareth. After the rebellion was crushed, Sepphoris was razed to the ground and its inhabitants taken into slavery. Roman legions remained in the area to deter any further rebellion, and the centurion was part of this army of occupation; it is possible the slave was a Jewish child, taken into slavery after the rebellion.

 

Any Zealot would have taken the first opportunity to kill the centurion. Many religious Jews would have seen him as a representative of the ‘principalities and powers’ against which the faithful believers should struggle.

 

Lastly, the anxiety and effort which the centurion expended over the healing of his slave implies that the relationship between them was more than that of master and servant. There was affection, maybe love. This was something that was quite accepted in Roman society; but the Jews saw such homosexual relationships as evidence of the depravity of Roman society and its alliance with evil.

 

And yet the centurion did not act like an outsider. He did not keep the usual distance between occupier and occupied. He did not automatically treat every member of the subject people as a potential terrorist.

 

It is possible that he was a “God-fearer’, a Gentile who was attracted to the ethical teaching of Judaism, but who would not go the whole way and become a convert. Luke reports he had paid for the construction of the synagogue, and he was friendly enough with the elders to ask them to approach Jesus on his behalf. He was sensitive to Jewish religious beliefs – although he wrapped it up in comparisons between his own authority and that of Jesus, his second message was designed to avoid placing Jesus in the position of becoming unclean by entering a Gentile house.

 

And although he was a member of the occupying power, he asked for help from a Jewish holy man. He treated him with respect, using the honourable title ‘Lord’. This was an amazing act of humility – equivalent to a colonial official in the British Empire asking for help from a native traditional healer.

 

The Roman centurion didn’t act like an outsider – and Jesus didn’t treat him like one. He responded immediately to his request, and seems to have been prepared, as on other occasions, to risk making himself ritually unclean to help. Finally, he commended the ‘outsider’s’ faith as being greater than that of any insider.

 

This story anticipates the inclusion of Gentiles inside the community of the redeemed that we read about in Paul’s letters and the book of Acts. It highlights the irony that the Jewish leaders failed to recognise the authority of Jesus, by showing a Gentile outsider did, and was commended for it. In the end, the healing of the servant was not important. The important thing is the greater healing proclaimed in this miracle: the healing of the divisions between the favoured believers and a hated and excluded group, who are now included.

 

The Roman centurion would still be considered an outsider by some in our society today: he would still be the wrong religion, the wrong nationality, the wrong sexuality.

Our world today seems to revel in dividing itself into hostile groups based on many different characteristics. We love to label people according to their race, colour, religion, gender, sexuality, country of origin, location within the country, political affiliation, and so on and so on; and give that as a reason to justify competition, conflict and exclusion. And even locally, even within one faith, we can separate ourselves from others on the basis of differences of interpretation of faith and churchmanship.

 

Today the scriptures challenge us to reject the worldly way of building up our own ‘insider’ identity by hostility to those we label ‘outsiders’, both in faith communities, in our neighbourhoods and in our politics. It tells us that, to the God revealed in Jesus, there are no outsiders. God is the God of all people and all creation, both those who worship as we do, and those who don’t, those who identify themselves as believers and those who don’t. We can reject these divisions in the way we think and talk about those who are different from us: emphasising the ways they are like us, rather than their difference and strangeness. We can do it in practical ways: meeting their basic needs, for food, for medical care, for housing and security; in other words, doing to them as we would have them do to us.

The scriptures we have heard urge us to build a society based on invitation and hospitality, not separation and hostility, on inclusion and healing, not exclusion and conflict. Our Spirit inspired mission, following the example of Jesus, is to turn the world outside in, to invite the outsider in and offer acceptance and healing, knowing that in the all encompassing love of God, there are no outsiders.

 

h/t Progressive Redneck Preacher

We all give God the Blues

 

 

 

 

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Metaphors for God

Trinity

(Proverbs 8,1-4 &22-31; Romans 5,1-5; John 16, 12-15)

Today we mark the one major festival in the Church’s year which celebrates a doctrine, rather than an event or a person.

Belief in God as Trinity is one of the cornerstones of our faith – yet it is something that most preachers find it difficult to preach about. So much so that JHR, a previous Vicar of mine, later a Bishop, once told me ‘the wise preacher always arranges to be away on holiday on Trinity Sunday’; and someone on Twitter advised the preacher on Trinity Sunday  heresykitten

Why are preachers so reluctant to preach on Trinity Sunday? Because it is almost impossible to do so without explaining it in a way that has been denounced as heretical at some time in church history. Belief in the Trinity is set out in the three Creeds – the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and most comprehensively, in the Athanasian Creed (which Anglicans are supposed to recite on Trinity Sunday, but rarely do nowadays!) But these creeds are felt to be too complicated for ordinary folk in the pews to understand.

So preachers resort to metaphors to try to explain it more simply. I’m sure we’ve all heard them at some time or other: God the Trinity is like a shamrock, one plant with three Trinity Shamrockleaves;

God the Trinity is like a person who plays different roles in their life (mother, daughter,sister), but is the same person;

God the Trinity is like water, which can exist as solid, liquid and gas but is still H20;

3forms

 

 

God the Trinity is like an egg, shell, yolk and white, which together make up a complete egg;

UnknownGod the Trinity is like an electric cable,which consists of positive, negative and earth cable; and so on.

 

But all of these fall into the trap of committing one heresy or another. If you can find it, there is a funny cartoon film on the internet called “St Patrick’s Bad Analogies” in which St Patrick tries to draw simple analogies to explain the Trinity to two Irish peasants, only to be told they are all heretical; so he gives up and quotes the Athanasian Creed to them instead!

So how did we end up with a central doctrine so difficult to explain? The doctrine of the Trinity was something that developed slowly, out of the experience of the first disciples. As they reflected on their life with Jesus, and as they lived on after the Resurrection, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, they came to realise that both Jesus and the Spirit shared the character of the God of Israel they had been taught about in the Torah, and in the prophets like Isaiah. So all three spoke to them of ‘God’. As the New Testament was written, its authors drew on images from the Hebrew Scriptures (and later also from contemporary Greek philosophy) to try to express their experiences. For example, Proverbs speaks of Wisdom, as something which is of God and from God, but is somehow distinct from God, working alongside God in the creation of the world. Wisdom came to be identified in Christian thought with Jesus, especially in John’s Gospel as the Logos or Word; and with the Holy Spirit.

Though a developed doctrine of the Trinity is nowhere spelt out in the New Testament, there are hints of it. In his epistles, Paul speaks of being “in Christ’ as the same as being restored to the image of God, lost in the Fall. He also writes as if the experience of the Spirit is inseparable from the experience of the Father or of Christ. So Father, Son and Spirit are one. In John’s Gospel, written towards end of the first century, the writer reflects the experience of the apostles – that what the Spirit teaches follows on from what Jesus has already taught them about the Father.This recognition of a divine unity of teaching, action and purpose runs through all the New Testament writings. It was not problematic for those first believers, even though they came from a monotheistic background.

It was only when the Christian faith moved out into the Graeco-Roman world, and people who didn’t know the historical Jesus began to speculate on how exactly Jesus and the Spirit could be God; and exactly when Jesus became God; and which bits of him were divine and which bits human; and whether there was a hierarchy of divinity within the Godhead; and when philosophers began to try to define exact answers to these questions, and to insist that everyone had to believe the same things, that the doctrine of the Trinity became problematic. Which is not surprising, because such questions are unanswerable, especially several hundred years after the event.

The doctrine of the Trinity uses a metaphor to try to encapsulate the disciples’ experience of God, which is also the experience of those who lived the faith after them. Jesus taught his followers to call God ‘Abba’ – Daddy. The New Testament writers followed his lead, and used the metaphor of ‘father’ and ‘son’ to describe the relationship between Jesus and God. They were as similar to each other as family members often are – yet were different beings. The same ‘Spirit’ or breath breathed through them, and was part of them both.

The Greek speaking fathers of the church used the term ‘hypostasis’ which means being or manifestation, or underlying reality to refer to each part of God the Trinity. When the creeds and other theological documents were translated into Latin, the word used was ‘persona’, which originally meant a mask worn by an actor, and then came to mean the role played by an actor. Translated into English, the word became ‘person’, which means a human being. Hence our tendency to imagine the Trinity as three people, or two people and a bird. This can be a severe limitation on our concept of God, who is beyond all our imagination, and not to be limited by human concepts of what a person is and can do.

It is important to emphasise that the language we use about the Trinity is metaphorical. Metaphors point beyond themselves to something that is difficult to understand. That is why to explain the Trinity (a metaphor about God) with other metaphors simply makes a bigger muddle. A metaphor is not an explanation, it is something which helps us to explore, which cannot grasp the whole truth, but which encourages us to keep engaging with the mystery.

But metaphors are limited. The metaphor of the Trinity imagines God as three – persons, identities, modes of being or whatever. But the Bible, and Christian spiritual writings since speak of God in many more ways than just Father, Son, Spirit, or even Creator, Redeemer, Comforter. In the Old Testament, God is much more than creator; other names for the divine include, Lord, King, Shield, Rock, Shepherd, Redeemer, Light to the Nations, The Most High. Jesus is is not just Son; he is Saviour, Bridegroom, High Priest, Bread of Life, Head, Teacher. The Spirit also has many names and roles. The Trinity is just a shorthand for the multitude of ways that Godself is revealed to us and the infinite number of ways through which we may come to know God.

There is also a tendency for people to confuse the metaphor with the reality. So, because we speak of two of the persons of the Trinity as Father and Son, some people imagine that they can only be spoken of in masculine terms, and represented by males. To speak of God or Jesus as Mother, and feeding us with milk from herself, makes some people uncomfortable, as does referring to any part of the Trinity as ‘she’. But God is not a being, and so is beyond gender, so it should not do.

Perhaps it might be better not to use words, but to use pictures or diagrams. In some churches you will find triangles, representing the Trinity. I like the Rublev icon, known as the Hospitality of Abraham, which represents the Trinity as three androgynous figures, gazing at each other; but it perhaps falls into the trap of making God seem like three human persons.

Rublev_OT_TrinityAnother representation I find it helpful to meditate on is this ancient Irish symbol, where a continuous line unites the three parts, without ever ending.Irish Trinity

 

The Greek fathers spoke of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity as ‘perichoresis’ or indwelling – a relationship of perfect unity of will and harmony of action. Some modern scholars have proposed a social doctrine of the Trinity, which reflects perichoresis, in that the unity of the Trinity consists in loving relationships. This implies that the doctrine of the Trinity is really all about relationships: the relationships within the Godhead and the relationships between the divine and the human. Within the Godhead there is difference (reflected by the theological language about ‘persons’) but a perfect unity. It speaks against the individualism of our culture and for the importance to human flourishing of life in community.

So, perhaps we are just called to accept that the Trinity is part of the mystery that is God, and simply to live it. And that means working out how to reflect, in our individual and church lives, a God who reveals the divine through the Spirit, through the life of Jesus and through the created world.

If we are to live in accordance with our belief in God who is a Trinity of perfect love, unity and co-operation, then we need to find a way of being church that reflects God’s love unity and co-operation. Since we are not divine, we will not be able to mirror exactly the unity of the Godhead. Since we are human, we will never be able be able to understand the infinite mystery of God’s being. Since we are finite corporate beings, living in different environments and with different personalities, we will all experience God in different ways, and will tend to think that our way of knowing God is best.

Trinity Sunday is a yearly reminder to us that if we want to be true to our faith in our lives and our church, then we need to minimise the differences between us and other Christians and concentrate on the relationship with God we share, a relationship of love, of self-sacrifice, of unity of purpose.

If we concentrate on that, then perhaps neither the complicated theological arguments about the doctrine of the Trinity, nor the inadequate metaphors which try to help us understand the doctrine need worry us too much.

 

 

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Pentecost for Introverts?

 

How-Introverts-Can-Succeed-and-Be-Leaders-in-the-Workplace

Pentecost 2016. Yr C

Acts 2, 1-21; John 14, 8-17 & 25-27

 

 

Do you see yourself as more of an introvert or an extravert?

 

Those of us who have been on lots of diocesan courses will almost certainly have taken

a Myers-Briggs personality test at some time, and ended up with a label consisting of an series of letters, telling us whether we are introverted or extraverted, thinkers or feelers, judgers or perceivers, and rely most on our senses or intuition. And if you go online, you can find lots of lots of do it yourself tests (like https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test ) which will give you a series of questions to determine much the same thing.

images

But you probably have a fair idea where you are on the introversion/extroversion spectrum from your own experience. You know if you’re the first up when the karaoke machine is switched on, or dread being asked to perform in public? You know whether you like going to noisy parties, or prefer a quiet celebration with a few people you know well; you know whether you need to be alone often to recharge your batteries, or feel lonely and insecure if you haven’t got people around you; you know whether you find it easy to make new friends, or tend to stick to the friends you’ve known most of your life.

party

I suspect that Luke, who wrote the Gospel featured in the lectionary this year, and also wrote the Book of Acts from which our first reading came, was more of an extravert than an introvert. His account of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is full of noise, activity and interaction.

 

The Holy Spirit comes upon the followers of Jesus as an irresistible, terrifying force; it is experienced as a driving wind, as tongues of flame. The whole group begins to speak aloud, all at the same time, all in different languages. When they rush outside to share their experiences, they are so loud that people assume they have been drinking, even though it’s early in the morning.

 

In Luke’s account the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples comes 50 days after Easter, on the Feast of Pentecost. This was a festival which marked the end of the spring harvest in the Jewish calendar, and was associated with the renewal of the covenant with God. In Luke’s account the coming of the Holy Spirit is promised at the Ascension, and it is a gift of power. His account links the coming of the Spirit with new life, unity and renewal. As the people from all those difficult to pronounce places hear the disciples speaking in their own languages, the divisions symbolised by the Tower of Babel are healed. All human limitations are overcome. In his speech to the people, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel, who prophesied that when the Spirit was poured out, daughters as well as sons would prophesy, young and old would see visions and dream dreams, and slaves as well as free citizens would be empowered. Peter’s speech implies that when the Spirit is given, God’s Kingdom is coming.

 

The writer of John’s Gospel comes across as much more introverted. In his account, the gift of the Spirit is promised in Jesus’ farewell discourses to his disciples during the Last Supper; and the Spirit is given to the disciples on the evening of Easter Day, when the risen Christ appears to them in the Upper Room. There is no noise or strange happenings in his account Jesus simply breathes the Spirit into them, as God breathed life into Adam.

 

This is the Spirit coming as a ‘still small voice of calm’ rather than with a fanfare of trumpets.

John gives the Spirit the name Paraclete, which is translated into English in various ways: Advocate, Counsellor, Helper, and in the English of the Prayer Book, Comforter. These words speak of  God’s nurturing and strengthening presence. The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, and will teach the disciples about God, just as Jesus has taught them. At the end of  today’s Gospel reading, Jesus promises that the greatest gift of the Spirit will be peace, a peace which the world cannot give, which will free his disciples from worry and fear.

 

In John, the Spirit also brings the gift of unity, but it is supremely the unity between God, Jesus, and those who follow Jesus. The Spirit is a gift from the Father, and has the character of the Father, just as Jesus has. It brings power, but it is the power to continue the work that Jesus has begun, and to keep the commandments which Jesus has given.

 

But the Spirit also separates. Just as the world is about to reject Jesus, so the world cannot receive the Holy Spirit. By implication, when the Spirit lives within Jesus’ disciples and inspires their actions, it will separate them from the prevailing culture, and from the values which govern the actions of the powerful in the world, and mean that the world is likely to reject them too.

 

During the last week, from the Sunday after Ascension to Pentecost, we in the Church of England have been asked by the Archbishops to join in a time of prayer for renewed confidence among church members in sharing their faith. I must admit, as I read the publicity material for this week, my heart sank.

 

Talk of “all of us having confidence to share the Gospel” and “Praying for the Holy Spirit to come upon us in a renewed way, that we may witness to Jesus Christ” painted pictures in my mind of people coming to my door with pamphlets and tracts, or Bibles with passages highlighted in different colours; and of street preachers, shouting at passers by about the terrors that await them unless they change their ways. Fine for real extraverts, but not really my style!

 

But what the publicity for the Week of Prayer has done is to prompt me to look more deeply at the Lord’s Prayer, and to read commentaries on it and poetry inspired by it, and to see how it can be interpreted in a new and radical way. And that can be done in a quiet and contemplative way.

 

Many of those commentaries reminded me that the Lord’s Prayer is not about me and my relationship with God, but about us and our relationship. We ask God to give us not me our daily bread, and we ask God to forgive us our sins, and to save us from temptation and evil.

 

It reminded me that praying for God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done is not simply about changing my way of living or about me signing up to certain beliefs, it is about everybody else in the world, and especially those on the edge of society; it is not just about religious belief, it is about peace and justice and equality for all

 

It also reminded me that the gift of the Holy Spirit was not  something new that was given to those first disciples, whether on Easter Day or Pentecost. Pentecost is about the recognition that the Spirit of God has been active in the world since its beginning, outside religious organisations as much as within them; and what we pray for at Pentecost is that we may recognise the Spirit in us and other people, already  at work in our world, and join our efforts with the Spirit’s efforts to create the Kingdom and do God’s will on earth.

 

And as I thought about further about this, and about introversion and extraversion, I was reminded of some words attributed to St Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary use words.”

Yes, we can work to bring in God’s Kingdom or spread the Gospel in extravert ways, through large scale mission events, like those being advertised as ‘beacon events’ to end the week of prayer today; or we can work for justice and equality through demonstrations and marches. But equally, we can work quietly to bring people to a new awareness of what Jesus taught; and can demonstrate what it means in our lives and our own context through  the way we live. We don’t all have to build the kingdom noisily: some of us can grow the kingdom, seed by seed, sheep by sheep. All of us  relying on the gifts of the Spirit that empower and inspire the introvert as well as those that appeal to the extravert.

 

I finish with a poem, published for this Week of Prayer by Malcolm Guite, which reveals the challenge of both Pentecost and the Lord’s Prayer:

 

Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth

Can we imagine what we’re asking for?

When all we know and all we think we’re worth

As vanity might vanish, disappear,

Fading before the splendours you reveal:

The beggars crowned with glory, all the meek

Exalted even as the mighty fall,

And everywhere the triumph of the weak.

 

 

And we, who have been first, will be the last

And queue for mercy like the refugees

Whom only moments earlier we passed

By on the other side. For now the seas

That separated are no more. The Sun

Is risen like justice, and his will is done.

 

 

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Lord’s Prayer Prayers.

 

 

Bidding: Thy Kingdom Come

Response: Thy will be done

 Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name………….

O God of love, Creator of all that is, Ground of our Being, we praise you for all that we have been given: our lives, our loving relationships, our beautiful world and the vision of heaven you showed us through the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

 

Help us to know that you are close to us in times of joy and in times of trouble, that heaven is not far away but around us and within us. Help us in this congregation, and in all your Church, to share your heavenly presence with those we meet, through worship, through prayer, through loving service, and through action for peace and justice, and so draw all people into community with you.

 

Bidding: Thy Kingdom Come

Response: Thy will be done

 

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven……….

God, your kingship is not like any earthly king’s, for you come among us as one who serves. Help us to serve you and each other as Christ taught us to. Teach us to keep your kingdom values in the forefront of our minds when we vote, when we read our newspapers and when we express our opinions on political and social matters. May we put our own interests to one side, and consider what will help to build your heavenly kingdom on earth.

 

We pray for the values of your kingdom to inspire not only us, but also the leaders of the nations, and our local communities, especially those recently elected to serve on local councils and as mayors and police commissioners. Through people like them and people like us, may

 

Bidding: Thy Kingdom Come

Response: Thy will be done

 

Give us this day our daily bread…………….

Give us each day what we need, and teach us to limit what we demand to what we really need. Help us to live more simply, that others may have their basic needs met.

 

We pray for those who work to meet the basic needs of your people, in this country and overseas. For aid agencies, food banks, credit unions, and those who campaign for freedom, peace, equality and justice.

 

We pray for those who meet the daily needs of people for health, for peace of mind, housing and companionship. May they know they are working to bring in your kingdom. In a moment of silence we pray for those we know are in need, especially those who are named on our notice sheet:…….. Teach us to share in the work of providing for everyone.

 

Bidding: Thy Kingdom Come

Response: Thy will be done

 

 

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us………

Loving God, through Jesus we know we are loved and forgiven, no matter who we are or what we may have done. Help us to receive that forgiveness, and so be ready to forgive and accept others who have hurt and wronged us. Help us to admit when we are wrong, as individuals, as communities, as countries, and help us to rebuild relationships which have gone wrong. Teach us not to hang on to the hurts of the past, but to transform them into openings for new life

Bidding: Thy Kingdom Come

Response: Thy will be done

 

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil……….

God of justice, sometimes it is hard to do your will, and we encounter opposition or indifference. Help us to persevere, and not give in to the temptation to take the easy way and follow the crowd. Give us the courage to keep faith when things are difficult, and strengthen us with your love. Be with those who face persecution, loss of employment, estrangement from families and even death for the sake of your kingdom, especially in parts of Africa, the Middle East, China and the Indian sub-continent.

 

Bidding: Thy Kingdom Come

Response: Thy will be done

 

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory………….

Lord, we thank you for the people of the past who have lived your kingdom values, revealed the power of your love and the glory of heaven on earth. We thank you especially for those we love but see no longer; for those who guided us on the path of faith; and for your saints, particularly Mother Julian of Norwich, whose feast day we celebrate today.

Like her, may we know ourselves enfolded in your love, and keep the faith that all will be well,

for ever and ever.   Amen.

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