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

Sermon for 4th Sunday after Epiphany – Year B – 2014. “Responsibilities before Rights”

Sermon for 4th Sunday in Epiphany – Year B – 2014

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Life together – Responsibilities – not Rights

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come,
but woe to anyone by whom they come!
It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.

On more than one occasion, I’ve come close to being killed in the Scottish mountains, but it was probably the first occasion that sticks most forcibly in my mind. In the days long before OSH I was part of a school party climbing in the Cuillin Hills – the most technically demanding ‘walking’ territory in the UK. It was just Easter and large parts of the hill were covered in snow and ice. On a day with no views, our guide had led us to the highest point on the Island, the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, and we had just begun to descend by ‘The Great Stone Chute’ – a 1000’ scree filled gully, that was on this occasion full of snow in the upper reaches. The previous day, with a couple of friends we’d climbed such a gully and so I had few if any fears . . .


Only two of us in the party were wearing crampons. So everyone else dutifully took their axes and started the very slow and laborious business of kicking steps in order to descend. I was one of the two with crampons. I had no idea how to use them, but it seemed straightforward enough, after all they dug well into the ice and my friend with the other set also thought so, as he (somewhat more experienced than I) set off at a fair trot down the gully. I wasn’t sure. But it was too tempting . . . so I set off after him, and after about three of four paces slipped. Covered in waterproof gear as I was, this was for about three or four seconds a far more fun way to descend, until I realised that I was accelerating at an alarming rate. I’m not sure how far I fell. All I know is that something in my head kicked in – In my minds eye, I saw the instruction manual I’d read on Ice axe breaking (I kid you not! This WAS before OSH 🙂 ), and performed a perfect self arrest. Our guide when he got down to me, was I guess mighty relieved, not least as he told me later because as a member of the mountain rescue team, he’d recovered the body of a man from that same place just the previous week, who’d been unable to stop . . .

And of course, reading St Paul’s junctures regarding eating meat ‘sacrificed to idols’, this incident leapt to mind . . . OK, so I might need to fill in one or two gaps 🙂

Right at the beginning of our shared story, in the early chapters of Genesis, a question is asked which reveals the depths of our human predicament. Cain asks God, ‘Am I my brothers keeper?’ In the time of Jesus, human’s being rather sophisticated and advanced in their deceits, the question has evolved, progressed, and it is now – ‘Who is my neighbour?’

Cain’s question can be rephrased, ‘Am I responsible for the life of my brother?’. The question of the Rabbis, foolishly assuming we all know the answer to the first question in ‘Yes of course you are!’ sought to evade responsibility by asking ‘Yes. But Who counts as my brother? my neighbour?’ This was how rabbis worked. You asked a question and they answered with a question. It’s something we find Jesus doing all the time. At least they accepted in principle that one bore responsibility for the life of their brother . . . which is perhaps more than can be said for our age.

Back to that cold mountain. First thing to note. No-one suggested that my friend was careless of MY safety when he, with far greater experience and knowledge started almost to run down the gully . . . it must be said that my method of descent was somewhat faster ultimately 🙂 This in itself was somewhat of an indictment of the day as the first rule of mountaineering is that we do need to look out for the other. If for example you are roped together crossing a sharp ridge and our companion falls to one side of the ridge, you must throw yourself off the other side, thereby saving both of your lives . . .

The questions – ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ ‘Who is my neighbour?’ are indicative of our desire, having freed ourselves from God, to disconnect ourselves from one another. We most certainly don’t really consider the metaphor of a party of people roped together along a treacherous ridge to be a metaphor for life in general, let alone the life of the church.

But let us say we take as Truth, that we Are responsible for the physical aspects of the lives of one another. That we shall have to give an account of our feeding of those who are hungry, etc. Surely we’re not responsible for the state of their souls???

As I said last week, The Protestant Reformation, though in many regards well intended, was an exercise in thrashing around in the dark and did as much if not more harm than good, thus is the effect of most if not all human attempts to ‘put things right’. One of the big negatives was that it gave the impression that this Salvation Life was in essence a matter of individual beliefs, not Shared Life in and through which we are Saved, that is ‘caught up into the Life of God through Jesus Christ’. And of course, because it became a matter of belief, it was disembodied and the idea of a Soul became less and less significant.

We know how it is with souls in this day and age. We kind of assume we’ve got one, but our interest in them goes little further than posts on Facebook regarding the likelihood that animals have them as well. The idea that it is something which we should attend to – seems somewhat alien (after all, how many have been brought up in the church being taught how to attend to the sate of their soul??). The idea that we are as responsible for the state of another’s Soul!

My long term Spiritual Director was an immensely wise woman. One of the very first to be ordained a priest in the Church of England. One day talking about her own experience, she recounted her latest session with her own Spiritual Director, another woman. Christine, in discussing the trials and tribulations of parish life had said, ‘Well, at least I’m not responsible for their Salvation!!’ To which her Director came back to her quick as a flash ‘Whatever gave you that idea!!!’

Paul, unlike us, does not understand the human condition in individualistic terms. He knows that his life is with his brother. That we are all mutually and totally interdependent. This is why he is so strong in his letter to the church in Corinth on their factionalism – on their lack of sacrificial love for one another – their lack of concern for one another that they will happily make sure they are well fed and take no heed to their brother or sister who is not. And those who have no concern for the effect their actions has on the soul of the other. The Corinthians were so full of their own self importance, this message of freedom in Christ, that they imagined they were free to live utterly as they saw fit – without any thought for the soul of their brother.

As we come to it, we meet the matter of meat sacrificed to idols where Paul sets out the problem. For a devout Jew, and indeed for other God fearers, idols were to be fled! and to eat meat sacrificed to them . . . was to participate in the life of the idol. But Paul had come with this message of freedom in Christ, telling them that idols were nothing at all. And so SOME amongst the Corinthians happily ate meat even though they knew it had been used in these pagan sacrifices. And one suspects rather mocked ‘the weaker brethren’ who had doubts. Some ate with a clear conscience, but others, could not, but were being persuaded to . . . and St Paul once more, as last week shocks us. LAst week he said ‘Why not rather be wronged? If you take offence you have already lost!!’ This week he tells the Corinthians – you who are so Wise in your own eyes, You must restrain yourselves for the sake of the conscience of the other. If you are genuinely so knowledgeable, then you know that Humility is the path that you must walk, self denial for the sake of the weaker brethren. True Knowledge is revealed in laying down our lives for one another

Listen once more – I paraphrase
“Since some have become so used to thinking about idols as real,  until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8“Food will not bring us close to God.” {You say} [It is true] We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. [As Jesus our Lord said – Woe to any who give such occasion!!] 10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? {They are not fully persuaded, so they partake in what they still think of as sinful action, because you are so bold} And then his language is strong “So because you are so determined to do it Your way, because you are puffed up with your knowledge, those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.  And, when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

And if we find this a strange way to think, perhaps it is because we have lost sight of our own souls, and those of those amongst whom we live. Paul puts it so very strongly, If by my eating meat, my brother’s conscience is defiled, I will never eat meat again.

Which brings us finally to the consecration of Bishop Phillip North as Suffragan bishop in what would have been my Diocese back in England. Most if not all of us are aware of the consecration this week of Rev Libby Lane, the first female bishop in the Church of England. A joyous occasion and I with many others am delighted – not least my friend Dave whom we’ve met on screen, and who will soon have the joy of the inevitable ‘first pastoral interview’ with his new bishop 🙂 BUT there are still some who cannot in good conscience accept this – and so the Archbishop of York who has presided at Libby’s consecration, has asked that none of the Bishops who laid hands on her lay hands on Philip North, for I assume, the sake of his conscience. Sentamu did this I understand without consulting Fr north,, whom I know is a most godly and gentle man – for which he is being excoriated. And before we all leap to our Knowledgeable barricades in defence of The Truth – screaming ‘to hell with his conscience’, as some do over this and other matters in the church, let us pause.

Really? To hell with his conscience? Surely this can only be said by someone whose conscience has been itself killed off? As I said, we think nothing of our souls in this day. For those who say, his conscience doesn’t come into it, surely you would not yourself go against YOUR conscience??? ‘Ah!! one replies – but in this I am right!! I AM RIGHT!
As St Paul says, knowledge puffeth up . . . and so the blogosphere is full of indignation. St Paul says, those who claim to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge – that is the knowledge of their own soul that leads them into the path of humble love . . . Paul himself is convinced in his own mind that eating meat sacrificed to an idol in not a sin, but for the sake of those who do not possess that knowledge he is prepared never to eat meat again, so seriously does he take his responsibility for the soul, that is the eternal life of his brother. He knows what Jesus says about those who lead little ones, the weak, into sin. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around their neck – probably crying as they went.YES, BUT I WAS RIGHT!!!

My friends knowledge of how to use crampons had almost led to my death, as I, silencing the voice that said, that doesn’t look safe, set off in pursuit – killing off the small voice, nearly killed me. When we begin to understand a little the sinful motions of our own heart, we also learn great gentleness with those with whom we disagree, even if seriously.

St Paul once more – finally with a helpful test. He says of conscience I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.

Our hope in truth is not that we are Right but that God is. As I once said, perhaps the most frightening moment of my life was not falling down a mountain, but when my spiritual director carefully helped me to confess that ‘I would prefer that I am right and God is wrong’. It was as if the earth had opened up under me.

It is a sign of our plight that this is true of so many . . . ‘I wouldn’t want to worship a God who didn’t tell me how right I am’

Lord have mercy on us all