Lent Course 2 Praying in the name of Jesus – The Jesus Prayer. Jesus and Healing

A Lent course – for St John the Evangelist, Roslyn
Praying in the Name of Jesus
‘The Jesus Prayer’
2. Jesus and healing. Sin and Salvation.

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.
This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’
Acts of the Apostles Chapter 4 vs 8-12

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”
First – a song 

(‘Lord, I want to be a Christian’ The Proclaimers)
And so we are working from the assumption that we want to be Christians from our hearts – although with St Theresa we may well acknowledge that that desire is at best a weakly flickering candle, if not a barely smouldering wick. Whilst the Spirit may be (barely) willing, the flesh is weak. Whilst our desire might be to Love, the words of St Paul resonate “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Romans 7:18-19
Perhaps we might cavil at the word ‘evil’. After all we live in a society which locates ‘Evil’ out there. The ancient practise of scapegoating is alive and well. Societies need ‘Evil’ people in order to locate ‘Evil’ anywhere but where it resides, in us all. [A good scriptural example of this is The Gerasene demoniac. He is possessed by a Legion of demons, but when he is healed, Jesus the healer is driven from their society . . . or Jesus the scapegoat?]
We also spoke last week of Resonance. Of how God’s intention for all Creation, renewed in Jesus Christ is that it Resonates with his Life and his Love. That in and through our lives, He is perfectly revealed and made known within His Creation.
In that we recognise our predicament, we recognise that we are ‘out of tune’, ‘off key’, and we do not recognise the language of the song, as we did not to one degree or other resonate with Kate Rusby’s song. Yet, we often pray as if ‘we knew what was what’.
Here in New Zealand when someone asks how we are, we tell them ‘We are good!’ Recently I was speaking with someone who told me that their grandfather, A Christian man with a feel for these things would not take that for an answer, responding “You are not good, you are well!”, but the truth is that we are not even well. Actually if we were well we would be good. So we cry out
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”
This ancient prayer has its roots in the address of so many of those whom Jesus met – yet one might note that it is never heard on the lips of those who plot his destruction. It is the prayer of those who recognise be it ever so faintly that they are not well and that Jesus the healer is in town.
When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.
Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this man speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’
At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”?
But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’

What do we notice in this passage? What catches our attention?

Some points to consider
o The Crowd – a sign of the evil that seeks to smother Jesus throughout Mark – eg Mark 5:31. The Jesus Prayer is the prayer of the one who wants to be healed – one who may well sense the evil pressing in, and even more, perhaps within.
o Note the order of the healing. Jesus sees deeper. He is aware of our deepest needs in a way we who ‘See’ are not
o The physical healing is a Sign of his authority to forgive sins. The healing which seems to us greater is actually here a Sign. Jesus heals the man physically in order to show that he has authority to make us truly well. The early church over and again refer to Jesus as ‘The physician’, and whilst there are many recorded physical healings, as throughout the gospel account, they are referring to the deeper healing, that from Sin.

But what is the nature of this healing? With the paralytic we are aware of the physical healing, but what is the outcome of the forgiveness of sins?
o Here note the reaction of the scribes ‘Why does this man speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ . . .
 Who can? Who is able to forgive sins? Are the Scribes making a purely ‘religious’ response here? How easy is it to say ‘Your sins are forgiven you’? Rather is there not a terrible affront? Being Unable to forgive sins themselves, they separate themselves from God – ‘only God can forgive sins’
 Jesus answer – ‘that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’
We might tend to think, understandably but erroneously, that Jesus natures, human and divine, are separate. That some things he does out of his divinity, and some he does out of his humanity. So, ‘he heals out of his divinity, but walks and eats and suffers in his humanity’ – but this is because we have lost sight of the nature of our humanity – of who we are. Jesus reveals to us who we are.
o the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. Upon the Cross, God in the human Jesus is forgiving everyone for everything.
o It is natural for the Human who bears the image of God, to forgive sins – it is their true nature. So we pray ‘Our Father . . . forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’ To forgive is Divine and we are Children of God
o The Risen Christ, the first fruits of the new Creation, restores in us the Divine Image, the Divine Life in which we are to participate.
Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

Thus if we say with the Scribes ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone? in a sense we are right, but it is a dangerous half truth. For those who bear the Image of God are vessels of God’s Life. The Scribes question is a revealing of their captivity to Sin which prevents them from ‘Loving everybody from their heart’

And for us who are Christians, it is a denial of our Baptism which makes us Children of God. Having been set free from Sin we choose to allow ourselves once more to be taken captive by it

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”

In some respects our state is worse than at first. Having been set free we have allowed ourselves to be tangled up in Sin anew.

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

So quickly we jump to make this story something it is not, that is a story about the relative importance of two types of Christian life, the Active and the Contemplative. We are almost asked to decide which we will be, Marthas or Marys. But the meaning of the story does not require such a leap. Mary is paying attention to Jesus, Martha is not. Martha is distracted from Jesus. Martha is upset and worried by many things. We might see her as a figure of one who is tangled up in sin, so much so that she cannot see her own need. Yet notice how Gently Jesus rebukes her

Mary ‘listened to what he was saying’ This event is after the Transfiguration, when the voice comes from heaven ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, Listen to him’

Yes, we should have a childlike relationship with God our Father in prayer, but we can’t remember how to be children, how to be naturally Children of God. As Jesus sees into the deep need of the paralysed man, so Mary sees there is something more important than getting dinner ready. And how often a child seems oblivious to that which the parent thinks is so obvious. Homework to do, and they are captivated by butterflies :-)

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”
This week, set aside say five minutes a day – find a quiet place and say the prayer over and again – with attention. Attention to Jesus, Attention to yourself.
Whilst this is a prayer one can pray all the time, if we are going to Resonate, we need to start gently and attentively. A ‘space’ in which to do this is helpful.
It is not recommended to go beyond this for now, especially if we are starting out

Next Week: A more helpful understanding of sin. We do not know what we are doing. The Passions

Recommended Reading : The Jesus Prayer. Frederica Mathewes-Green

Lent 2 – Year B ‘The meek shall inherit the Earth – Yeah Right!’

Sermon for Lent 2 – Year B
Sunday March 1st 2015

Mark 8:31-38

The meek shall inherit the Earth
Yeah, Right!


A couple of years ago I had a dream. It was so striking that I wrote it down in my journal. In it I was in a canoe paddling up a stream. The stream, as streams do, became narrower and the water shallower, therefore the effort of paddling became greater until I grounded. Of course the obvious thing was to turn the canoe round, but the stream was too narrow

It must be said, when I ponder that dream and its meaning for me, the contemporary church also hoves into view. The stream getting narrower and shallower, perhaps a metaphor for falling numbers? And trying harder and harder . . . perhaps we need to get our bearings. To remind ourselves of one or two fundamentals . . .

1. God is not relevant to our lives

I have pondered often and long about why so many of us are at the very least hesitant about ‘sharing our faith with others’ – and the answer that came to me in the early hours of one morning this week was that we imagine the conversation in our head – a little like this.

I’m a Christian
I’m not
My faith makes a real positive difference to my life
Really? What? We have been friends for a long time. Your life and my life – they are pretty similar – indeed in many respects you might say I have a better life than you, no?
Well, yes, errm – I see what you are saying, err but I have a profound peace in my heart
Yes. Good. I’m happy for you. I find a walk on the beach does that for me. Isn’t it lovely :-)

So how are the grandchildren doing then . . .

When I say ‘God is not relevant to our lives’ I mean it. But what do I mean by ‘our lives’. I mean the lives we determine for ourselves. The life which is all about our life story – the story which people may tell of us after we die, of career and home and children and hobbies etc. etc. The lives into which we try to fit God rather like a new kitchen accessory – a Unique selling point in a house, or in this case a life

We have grown up in a culture which springs from Christendom – a world where ‘everyone was a Christian’ – God was in his heaven ‘watching over it all’, and all was well with the world. ‘God’ in this scheme was there to sort out the difficulties of our lives. Like a kindly chaplain, or a Spiritual plumber, or indeed a kindly parking attendant who found us that parking space we really needed or otherwise we’d be so stressed at that important meeting with the bank to discuss our mortgage . . . God is ‘there to look after us’. But of course, for our friend with whom we are in conversation, they pretty much manage to get along very well thank you very much without any of that, and also they have spare time on a Sunday to use as they wish . . . and of course should life’s circumstances become difficult then perhaps we don’t really need this church stuff anyway because God is there looking after us, or perhaps he isn’t and actually it doesn’t seem to really make any difference . . . after all there are lots of helpful guides to having a better life – some are religious, some aren’t . . .

2. Our lives are not relevant to God

Sorry if we find this thought troubling, but they’re really not. God does not spend every moment of his waking hours figuring out how to get our lives sorted out so that we can have the life we always dreamed of . . . indeed we may have noticed that :-) And vice versa, there is nothing we can do to ‘help God’. On the one hand the dominant expression of faith is that ‘god is up there somewhere looking over us’, and on the other, the Church seems obsessed in what Margaret of Sienna calls ‘solicitudo religioso pro Deo’ To translate roughly, ‘a blasphemous anxiety to be doing God’s work for him’. Whatever, ‘God’ is largely absent from the proceedings
Like in the canoe dream – people paddling harder and harder as the stream narrows and the water shallows. The church is busier than ever, getting the message out, endless committees, initiatives etc.etc.etc. ‘God’ becomes an ever vague shadow, out there, somewhere, perhaps??

Last week I concluded that we would do well from time to time, not to put ourselves in the disciples’ position, as they observe Jesus healing people, but rather to place ourselves in the position of those who are healed, in other words, In Jesus direct line of sight.
Well, let’s do that this week and where is Jesus looking, oh yes he’s looking at his disciples. He is telling them, quite openly that he ‘must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’

And we all know Peter’s response – And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

Now let’s just pause at this moment. Immediately before our gospel reading, Peter has declared that which God has revealed to him, not what he has figured out for himself, what God has revealed to him, That Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed one, The King of Israel . . .

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him?????!!!!!!

3. The problem is ‘Our Lives’ . . .

Jesus words seem like madness to Peter – but it is Peter who has the problem . . . turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Jesus tells Peter ‘You don’t get it! You don’t have a clue! You are the One trying to destroy my work . . . and we, like Peter have So much confidence that we do get it . . . but as I said, we cannot give a coherent account of what IT is to those amongst whom we live

The problem is ‘Our Lives’. When we listen to what Jesus says, it seems utter madness, we are there with Peter. Jesus says ‘The meek shall inherit the earth’ – and we rebuke him saying, that’s a nice sentiment Jesus, but actually its the hard work and fine accounting skills, its our genius that will get us what we want . . . and the moth and rust will corrupt and if we store it all in vaults after our deaths, the thieves will break in and steal.

I was in a church meeting a long way from here earlier this week, where the wheels of power were turning. We were planning and proposing. And someone gave a very lengthy account of a significant event in the life of the church and credited one person with all the credit and said how much we owed them by way of thanks, and no one batted an eyelid . . .
No one – myself included – said, ‘Let us pause and offer profound thanks to God without whom Nothing is possible. It was as if God didn’t even exist.’ We’d pulled it all together.

We modern westerners are So in control of Our Lives – and thus the way we run them is in direct opposition to the way of Jesus – Jesus who says ‘The meek shall inherit the Earth’; ‘do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth’, ‘unless you become like a little child’ How could a child even begin to run the church as we do??? Jesus who says For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

4. Jesus response to the problem of ‘Our Lives’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

As I was painfully reminded this last week by a friend, we miss the horror of what Jesus is saying here. The Cross has become a pretty item of jewelry – or we talk about it is terms of the sufferings that are common to all human kind, broken relationships, illness – ‘We all have our cross to bear’ we sigh. Jesus speaks to the whole people of God, who symbolised by Peter have their minds set on human things and faces them with something horrific. No one there, none of the readers of Mark’s gospel in the first 300 years will have not seen, in all likelihood Many Crosses, not hanging round people’s necks, but with people hanging on them. ‘You really don’t want to go there’, but Jesus says this is the Way.

Pontius Pilate wanting to let people know where the real power lay, didn’t always bother with wood, bit of a waste, he would nail people to the walls of Jerusalem. Everyone knew the horror of it and had seen how literally excruciating was the death of the Crucified, over hours in unendurable agony. The utter destruction of a Life – indeed bodies were left there to be devoured by wild animals and birds.  So horrifying that people could not bear to speak of it or write about it. Truly A Satanic tool.

Jesus takes Our Lives to the Cross, and we are called to follow him. Indeed this is the meaning of our Baptism – not some folk rite, so that we are in on this Chaplain God and can expect his services. Christendom neatly sidestepped the Cross and delivered up a faith of the irrelevant God, placing the human and our lives back in the centre of things. But our Lives are only the centre of things if w are In Christ, the Crucified One. We are baptised into his death so that He might be Our Life, Our All in All. As St Paul puts it in Colossians, ‘For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’  Our baptism is the End of Our Life. The end of Our agendas, the end of Our plans. The life we now live we live by faith in the Son of God. For truly Christian life to begin, Our Lives must end. He must become Our Life. The Risen one

And So we come here, we confess our Sins, that once more we have lived for ourselves and not for Him who loves us, We feed on his word which is Life giving Like honey on our lips, we respond in words irrelevant to the World, the Creed, and in his infinite Grace and Mercy, he feeds us with His Very Life.
Glory to Jesus Christ
Glory for Ever

Lent Course – Praying in the name of Jesus “The Jesus Prayer” – 1. Resonance

A Lent course – for St John the Evangelist, Roslyn

Praying in the Name of Jesus

‘The Jesus Prayer’

  1. Resonance

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.

This Jesus is

“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;

it has become the cornerstone.”

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

Acts of the Apostles Chapter 4 vs 8-12


“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”


First – a song :-)


(‘Lord, I want to be a Christian’ The Proclaimers. Coincidentally, the video link contains pictures of New Zealand)

I was out praying and walking the other morning when it came to me that this song connects so well with the Jesus prayer. For the one who desires to Love God in and through everything, this prayer is the journey we make . . . and to pray the Jesus Prayer is to make a journey. We might say that it is the prayer of the Disciple. ‘Lord, I want to be a Christian, in my heart’

  • A very simple prayer
  • A very ancient prayer
  • Not ‘just another prayer’ . . . although it may be treated as such.
    • Used by millions of Christians every day, and often all day
    • A prayer which takes us into the deep roots of our faith and our existence
  • A prayer which by Grace we may learn to ‘pray without ceasing’, Constant prayer is an essential aspect of a lively faith. Four times Paul exhorts us to this
    • ‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer’ (Romans 12:12)
    • ‘Pray at all times in the Spirit’ Eph 6:18
    • ‘Continue steadfastly in prayer’ Col 4:2
    • ‘Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus’ 1 Thess 5:17-18
    • And with Jesus ‘Stay alert! Watch and Pray that you do not enter into temptation’


But first, CONTEXT.

Whenever we dare to speak of prayer we make many assumptions. When we think about Context we may think of our own lives and culture, but to Pray is to enter a far larger world, a far greater context and leaves us with many questions.

How do we Orient ourselves within such a world?? (The verb comes from the practise of lining churches up to face East, towards Jerusalem – Orienting them)

What does it mean to pray?

Why do we pray?

To whom do we pray?

Who is it that prays?

Who am I?

What does it mean to ‘be saved’?

What is the goal of our faith?

Prayer, Faith, Salvation are words which do not belong to our everyday existence, yet we assume we know what they mean. Our answers to these questions will profoundly shape whether we merely Say the Jesus Prayer, or come to Pray the Jesus prayer.


We live in an age of disconnection and technique. We no longer think ‘everything has its place’ even in the world we can see, let alone that which is only revealed in faith, so we might think that we can just ‘use’ this prayer – without any understanding of its context. If we are alert to these things then at least a rudimentary understanding of the significance of context is necessary is we are to pray in this way . . .


It would be very easy to teach ‘The Jesus Prayer’ as a simple ‘prayer technique’. Rather like I could teach you to sing this song . . . ‘My Young Man’ Sung by Kate Rusby (Pure Records)


But truly to pray is to enter far deeper than simply ‘practising a technique . . .’ one may speak, indeed pray with the tongues of men and angels, but utterly miss the goal. This goal we may perhaps slightly better understand through considering how we approach a song like the one we have just heard


From Words to Language

From Admiration to Identification

From Repetition to Resonance

This is a song Kate wrote in memory of her Grandparents. The ‘young man’ of the title is her maternal grandfather whom she never knew, and it is as it were ‘sung by her grandmother’. Her Grandfather was a coal miner in the Yorkshire coalfields, and coal dust gave him emphysema which turned him from a strong man, to one who is in his later years cradled on the lap of his wife. Just the story itself is touching and indeed there may well be themes in it which turn it from being ‘just another song’.

For me, undoubtedly its sad beauty lies in my identification with Yorkshire, a county where I lived many years, and the sound of the Brass ensemble which Kate asked to accompany her singing. The accent of her voice, and the meek mournfulness of the Brass goes deep. (Although, we were a bit posher than that where I grew up in the country away from the coal and manufacturing culture which generated the great Brass Bands. Our village band was a Silver band J)

But of course, for all but Kate, we will all be in one degree or another mere observers – we may Admire, but our level of identification will never be total. You and I are not Kate :-)

But the Jesus Prayer is given precisely that we might enter into ever deeper Identification with Jesus. Our Life is in Him – and as strings resonate, so every fibre of our existence is given to thrill to and resonate with the Life of God made known to us in Jesus Christ – As St Paul puts it in the letter to the Colossians – ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’


We might express ‘being a Christian in my heart’ as being perfectly in tune with Christ Jesus.

If we are to pray this prayer, indeed in a sense if we are to pray meaningfully at all we need to understand at some level the roots of the deep longing which that desire to ‘be a Christian’ in my heart – why is it there? Why for example do I find that song resonates, if not because I want to be a Christian, in my heart :-)


St Augustine says these familiar words ‘You have made us for yourself, O lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’

Some of us have been unhelpfully trained in ‘instant Salvation’ – but from the first this has no place in The Tradition. Paul, again.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

Sadly, too many Christians have gone astray, because they substitute a ‘Christian’ form of Paul’s confidence before meeting Jesus for Paul’s. The outcome is that their ongoing need of Christ becomes very vague. Something happened to me in the past. I might ask him for guidance on some life decision, but . . . Jesus is seen as central to the faith in some doctrinal manner, but not the living beating heart of all we say and do and are as Christians. And tragically this culture has produced Christians who are hesitant to name God, let alone Jesus. And many false Spiritualities grow up in which Christ is not central. Put simply this is a question of ‘When Peter stand up and full of the Holy Spirit says “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” What does he mean by ‘saved’?’

Unless we understand this, we cannot lay hold of the medicine of the Jesus Prayer. As one well educated Christian said to me recently ‘praying to Jesus that he might have mercy on us – well it sounds so negative – surely we’ve moved past that?’

But for all our ‘confidence’ still that song ‘I want to be a Christian, in my heart’ may well resonate. We hear the Great Command – the Word which brings us Life ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ And feel the gap between that and the reality expressed by that disarmingly honest Saint, Theresa

‘Lord I do not Love you, I do not even want to love you, but I do want to want to love you’ Theresa of Avilla




“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”

This week, set aside say five minutes a day – find a quiet place and say the prayer over and again – with attention. Attention to Jesus, Attention to yourself.

Whilst this is a prayer one can pray all the time, if we are going to Resonate, we need to start gently and attentively. A ‘space’ in which to do this is helpful.

It is not recommended to go beyond this for now, especially if we are starting out


Next Week: Jesus and healing. Sin and Salvation. We do not know what we are doing


Recommended Reading : The Jesus Prayer. Frederica Mathewes-Green




‘Somehow I may obtain the Resurrection of the dead’ – Sermon for the evening of Sunday 15th February, 2014. Sunday next before Lent, Year B

Sermon for Evensong
Sunday next before Lent – Year B

Phil 3:7-21

‘That somehow I may attain to the resurrection of the dead’

Faith as conformity to Christ

When I was at theological college – rather a long time ago – although we had little vacation time, I remember visiting one of my old colleagues from the Catholic High School where I had previously been teaching – even Longer ago!

It had been a hard time for him and his family and as I remember they had just suffered the loss of one of their parents – either his father or father in law. Given that I was training in an institution for priests, he wanted to talk with me about this, but the one arena he was particularly interested in  – I had to admit, I had no knowledge of. He thought that when we were in training, we might be told about what happened to someone after they had died, in more than vague terms e.g. you go to face God/you go to be with your loved ones/you go to heaven/you go to the other place . . .

I had to admit that we hadn’t as it were been let in on some secret knowledge. And until very recently I must admit that I’d ever assumed there existed more than such vague elements of teaching. No details were available, and that was that. Until I stumbled upon a book by a very highly regarded scholar in the Orthodox Church, entitled ‘Life after Death’, and realised that there was a very highly developed teaching in this area which had been prevalent throughout the Church in the first few hundred years of its existence and indeed was still known and taught in fairly small circles to this day – but which continues to shape the practise of Orthodox Christians and their liturgy to this day (Of course Orthodox liturgy hasn’t really changed in any notable way for 2000 years :-) )

And I must admit that it gives a very very different view of the matter of death and what happens to YOU, that is to the Soul in the days leading up to, through and beyond death. Amongst other things giving a very well reasoned and highly material defence of the idea that Repentance is not possible post mortem – for as they say and it is obvious when you think about it, Obedience, the fruit or faith and repentance is a bodily process. One feeds the poor, one clothes the naked, one doesn’t sleep with one neighbours wife – all actions or desisting from actions in the body. So, the soul having become disembodied (in the three days following death, the Orthodox church teaches) has no vehicle for enacting obedience and this cannot repent. It is of course nothing more that the development of that old saw, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions . . .’

The author also stated something which at first sight is odd, but upon reflection is quite reasonable, that for the Christian, death is far more troubling a prospect than for the atheist or agnostic. Why? Well for those folk, whether anything ‘lies beyond’ is such a matter of subjective speculation – and indeed ‘surely it’s just like falling asleep for ever’, whereas the Christian lives their entire life knowing that there is something else coming up – something of which they have no experience.
Coincidentally, the same friend whom I went to visit posted at almost the same time as the book came into my hands, an article he’d found. It was of an imagined dialogue between two twins in the womb. One was convinced that there was something beyond – that there was a ‘Mother’ whose life sustained them, and that one day they would pass into a completely different form of existence and ‘see her’ -the other dismissed this all as nonsense :-) Which if you think about it is a striking parallel!
As more than a few saints have reminded us, preparing for our deaths is the work of a lifetime . . .

Certainly for Paul, he doesn’t look towards his death and the Resurrection of the dead,  as if it is unproblematic. Listen again to his words : For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ [I want to know] the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, [that] somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’

the language is all in the subjunctive mood – Paul is stretching towards something that he has not already grasped, as he makes clear immediately ‘Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.’

Not, note ‘Christ Jesus has made me his own, therefore I can sit back and relax – eat, drink and be merry’, no ‘I press on to make the goal [the resurrection from the dead] my own, because Christ has made me his own.’

Now I hope from this it is clear that Paul’s understanding of the Christian life, and ‘the resurrection of the dead’ is Very different from that of many people – including I might say, many within the church. On the one hand there is much shall we say ‘folk religion’ alive and well in this regard. So, for example, when my Uncle died suddenly in his 40s, I remember my aunt talking about how he was now ‘playing golf in heaven’ with one of his old friends . . . the old ‘we go to heaven when we die line. Interestingly though there are many who scoff at such things and yet display entirely the same almost casual line in regard to their death – what is called ‘easy believism’ To wit, ‘you have repented and prayed the sinners prayer – you will therefore go to be with Jesus . . .’ an approach which we must say refuses to take any note of ‘THIS life’ and its significance, and indeed leaves the door open quite literally to a host of demons.

Paul’s words here certainly must give pause for thought, yet we see within them evidence that he is engaged on this preparation – that his soul has as it were already set sail towards his eternal destination. Just as that child in the womb knows of nothing else – is very comfortable thank you – lives in a world where its comprehension is seldom troubled by the thought that ‘there may be more to life’, so too Paul had lived such a life. Our reading this evening, following on from evening prayer for last night, begins ‘Yet, whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ’. What we may ask were these gains, and the answer is – Paul up to the point of his conversion, had had a highly successful life in the terms of his own culture. His life fitted – and fitted well with his surroundings. In its own sense it was utterly Known, it was secure. He was highly advanced in learning and his birth heritage was impeccable – ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;  as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.’ In the terms of the day, he had ‘lived a good life’. Yet his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus had left all that in tatters. One minute he knew what was what, and the next  . . . well his entire understanding of things lay in tatters

Paul of course is understood as ‘the prototypical zealous convert’ – yet his zeal is marked by this deep deep sense, not that he has now ‘got it all sorted out’, rather that there is something which he must pour all of his life into. He is like the woman who lost the coin and is now engaged in sweeping the house from top to bottom to find it, or the man who finds treasure, but knows he must now sell all he owns to buy the field wherein it lies. He is to use a somewhat overused word, now on a ‘journey’ – yet he has a profound sense of his direction. Not to a knew set of ideas, he has as it were all the information he needs – his destination – yet not a place, or a particular expertise be it philosophical understanding or moral accomplishment – he is not trying to get somewhere or to complete some study so that he might be declared a master of the topic. Indeed he seems to agree that all his learning was worth nothing. No his journey is into a deeper and deeper conformity to the person of Jesus Christ

I regard [all that was] as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

To return briefly to the helpful teaching of the Orthodox Church in this regard, When we are baptised into Christ’s body the Church – there is as it were two things that happen – first we are washed clean of all that kept us from God, and secondly the image of God is renewed in us. That image is as it were a seed – a seed planted in a garden which has been carefully prepared by the cleansing action of the Holy Spirit. The image, yes, but not yet ‘the likeness’ of God. As a babe carries all the potential to grow up fully into the likeness of a human being, so the one baptised is a babe of God, given the gift of growing up into His likeness.

So we can imagine Paul ‘pressing onward’ seeking to take hold of – to fully indwell this fulness of Life which is his inheritance as Christ has taken hold of him . . .

in the end of course these things are mysteriously veiled. As we have read Mark’s gospel these past weeks we cannot have failed to note how Jesus often tells people not to say who he is – he refuses to perform miracles to prove himself – his transfiguration of which we heard this morning happens only before the eyes of Peter, James and John and as we go into Lent we will be reminded that he will not take the Satanic path of ‘proving himself’ before the crowds. Only the humble Eye of Faith will be granted to see his truth. As Isaiah says, the beauty of Jesus does not reveal itself to the casual eye – there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness. Paul’s preaching is of Christ Crucified – there is nothing to attract in that. And so Paul himself finds himself similarly marred in appearance as his labours for Christ take their toll – yet within a light grows ever stronger.

And it is not just this growth into the life of Christ which refuses to reveal itself. We cannot see beyond – although the Orthodox teaching contains powerful hints which are not without foundation, it is always put in terms of allegory and types and hints. YEs there is more but the experience of it, none can reveal – yet what Paul makes eminently clear to us is that in the light of all that Christ has done for us, in Faith we must needs press on to live more fully into Christ – for He is the Risen one. The Only Sign that is given is that of Jonah. Christ alone is the one whom God has raised from the dead, and it is only insofar as we are conformed to him, that we might know the Resurrection of the Dead.

That journey into ever deeper conformity with Christ is the Christian Life – it is the Way of faith.

Transfiguration – The Word became flesh and we have seen his Glory

Sermon for Sunday next before Lent – Transfiguration

Mark 9:2-9

‘And the Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us . . . and we have seen his Glory.  Glory as of the Father’s only begotten, Full of Grace and Truth’

και ο λογοσ σαρξ εγενετο και εσκηνωσεν εν ημιν, και εθεασαμεθα την δοξαν αυτου, δοξαν ωσ μονογενουσ παρα πατροσ, πληρησ χαριτοσ και αληθειασ.

Just the other evening we had a most wonderful experience in our Baptism preparation class, when one of the youngsters excitedly made a very deep connection between what we had been talking about and the story of our faith.

She suddenly exclaimed ‘Jesus was buried and raised in a Garden!!’ and as she did so, her face lit up and glowed in the way it only can when we have come to see something of Christ and his truth deep within us. Of course, it may be that for many of us, the Deep Significance of this is veiled for us. I know it was for me for many years. It was for example only six years ago, after I had been ordained ten years and was supposed to be at least moderately advanced in my understanding of our faith – I remember the excitement of the discovery – that I first saw the significance of Mary’s mistaking the risen Jesus for the gardener . . . For after all the Creation is a story which focusses on a Garden, and here is the New Creation, and as in the First Garden, The LORD placed a man ‘to till and to keep’ . . . well I’ll allow you to fill in the blanks :-)

As we explored Why so many of us are so lacking in these insights, we were reminded that for all we have ‘Moses and the prophets’ we do not know the story anywhere near as well as those first Christians did. From time to time, people will speak about unearthing deep truths like this, as if they were hidden away, but for those first Christians, that was not really the case. They would have made the connection instantaneously – they would read about Jesus being buried and raised in the garden and would have known of what John spoke. Why?? Because they carried the story with them wherever they went.

A young Jewish child would attend what we might call Torah School, indeed this is true of many Jews to this day. From the age of about 4-8 they would learn Torah, that is all the first five books of the Scriptures, by heart. Then they would go to another school, so that by the age of about 12 – they would know the whole Tanakh, The Law and the Prophets – by heart . . . 1

So for example in that chilling tale of The Rich Man and Lazarus, when the Rich Man is burning in Hell, because he ignored his brother, and asked ‘Father Abraham’ to send a messenger to his brothers warning them, Abraham replies ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They should listen to them’ They have Moses and the Prophets – they have committed the Tanakh, all of that which we call Old Testament to heart. They KNOW this stuff, they KNOW they must love their neighbour as themself, they KNOW that the LORD will require an account for how they have been obedient. He as good as shrugs his shoulders – ‘they Know this stuff already – they’ll either obey or not’ Insofar as their is any fatalism in our faith, it is not with respect to the Will of God – it is with respect to our response.

So it is with the Transfiguration of Jesus upon the Mount. It’s meaning is plain if we know the Story. But if we are not familiar then of course it will seem very strange. If our imaginations are soaked in Tanakh – then some things as it were hit us in the text. For example Peter’s babbling . . . we tend I think to suppose that what he says has little or no significance, after all ‘He did not know what to say, for they were terrified’, but the more we immerse ourselves in the story, the more it gets into us, the more we see that nothing is as it were insignificant in the gospels. Like the garden in which Jesus was buried, nothing is incidental. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Why dwellings?? Here we must admit that we are very poorly served by those who translate the Scriptures for us. If those who translate the Scriptures are not attentive to nuances in the text, if they are merely trying to ‘get the language more up to date’, then we have a problem. Literally Peter says ‘Let us make three tabernacles (σκηνασ,) . . .’ We assume that Peter, babbling away is talking about let’s stay here permanently – but out of his mouth, unbeknownst to him comes the words, ‘let us make three tabernacles . . ‘ And immediately the early Christians who were let us always remember, Jewish, will Get it! Tabernacles!!

Every year they celebrated the feast of tabernacles. This is recorded explicitly in John’s gospel, and implicitly here in Mark and also in Luke and Matthew in the story of the transfiguration. This was the feast where all the people came to Jerusalem and made for themselves ‘tabernacles’, booths or huts made from branches and lived in them, in large part to remember when they had lived in tents in the Wilderness . . . and God had dwelt in their midst. Except of course at this point, in the presence of the Glory, the Shekinah of God they are terrified. They have not known the Presence of God like this since his Glpry filled the Temple under Solomon, or when like a pillar of cloud by night, or fire by day The LORD had dwelt in the midst of his people.

And then, Moses and Elijah. Again Jewish listeners don’t need any translation. The Torah, the first five books of the Scriptures – the books of Moses – and next The Prophets, which for Jewish readers included and includes all what we would call ‘the historical books’, in the midst of them was the Great prophet Eli-Jah – literally, The LORD is God, whom they were waiting for the appearance of before the coming of the Messiah. The Law and the Prophets – embodied, taking on flesh in Moses and Elijah, and in the midst of them??

Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.

We note that Peter is there – we hear his inspired babbling, but there also is John . . . The one who will write these words . . . The Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us and we have seen his Glory . . . This is no metaphysical speculation. John was there upon the mountain – he saw the Law and the prophets embodied in Moses and Elijah, and ‘Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

The Word made flesh . . . and we have seen his Glory . . . down through the years, the children of Israel had had the Law and the Prophets, and constantly the word came ‘listen to them’ To Listen to Hear is to Obey. They Knew the Law and the Prophets, but had not been faithful and obedient. Now comes Obedient Israel in the person of the Son of God, made flesh – fulfilling in himself The Law and the Prophets . . . and in the church’s year we hear this story now to prepare ourselves for Lent, to see and to follow the obedient one into the wilderness once more, to as it were Enflesh that story of the people of God in the wilderness, but this time in Obedience as he makes his way to the Cross and the burial in the grave in the Garden from which he will be raised  . . .

One final point as we gather here at the Lord’s table. We might still be wondering how those Jewish children stick at their memorising – well the teachers knew a thing or two about human nature :-) Before they are old enough for Torah school, children have little wooden blocks with the Hebrew letters on them, and their parents or teachers put honey on the blocks . . . reminding them quietly as they do what any child would do, ‘Your Word is like honey on my lips’ . . . or perhaps as we might put it as we come to the Sacrament, ‘Oh taste and see that the LORD is good’

May the LORD in his love and mercy give us such a hunger for the Life of His Son, a deep desire to hear and obey, to truly listen to The Word made flesh, to take it deep into ourselves – and may he open our eyes as he did for one of our younger brethren just the other night, to behold his Glory. And may we as we feast on the Obedient one, be drawn deeper into lives of Love and faithfulness, ever more reflecting That Glory