Sermon for 10th Sunday after Pentecost – OT17 Year C, 2016
From Death to Life
‘when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.’ Col 2:13-14
The scene was a big Jewish wedding. As always at all weddings there was laughter and joy and of course speeches. After a while the room fell silent as the elderly rabbi stood to his feet to offer his wisdom – addressing the young ‘happy couple’ he said ‘my children, in life, three things happen – we are born, we get married and we die . . well you have been born and today you have been married, so all that is left . . .’ 🙂
I actually told this ‘joke’ at Rose and Andy’s wedding – my point there being that in the midst of a world drunk on speed and increasing acceleration, they were in grave danger of missing out on the profound sacramental depth of marriage, its full meaning as life whizzed by and they only skimmed the surface – for marriage is a profound sacrament of heaven and Earth, of Jesus and his Church.
But I might have also told it for another related reason, for unless we understand marriage as a way of dying, then we entirely miss its given meaning. Marriage as given has nothing to do with self actualisation, as indeed the Good News of Jesus, has nothing to do with self actualisation. In marriage the two become one, and so two lives end and one new one begins. ‘you are born, you are married and you die,’ and thus the door to rebirth, to new birth is opened.
Marriage in this sense bears the mark of true Christian sacramentality – being joined with Christ is the end of our life as the world knows it. Christian Life begins with Death. Jesus takes our old life to the cross, and calls on all who would be his disciples to follow him. So at the beginning, we are baptised into the death of Jesus that we might know His Life, for only in dying do we know the life Jesus has to offer us. A life about which we hear little or nothing, but it Is the Gospel. Life from Death.
The gospels are full of this imagery – Peter and the disciples abandon their nets, Mary her pots and pans. The old story that led inevitably to death has been broken by Jesus, and following him we discover eternal life, the Kingdom of God breaking in. Not into the life that we are so familia r with, but as a new life. Not life after our bodily death, but New Life Now. The Life of God – the Life of the Holy Spirit, the Life that has no beginning or end, the Life that will not be taken away, that will not be taken away from Mary, and that will not be taken away from all those who leave their life behind to follow Jesus – a Life of utter dependence upon Jesus. A life we can only know if either all our resources run out, or if hearing the call of Jesus we abandon our nets and learn to live in complete dependency upon him – and thus a Life rooted in prayer, a life in which prayer is its moment by moment breath – the Life of the Holy Spirit.
As I said last week – Luke takes us purposively through first the parable of the Good Samaritan – which shows us that Life is not an abstract matter of pondering ‘who is my neighbour?’ but one of dealing with that which confronts us, and then in the story of Mary and Martha, learning that the One who radically confronts us, filling our vision if we could but see is Jesus. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the levite do not set aside their plans, their life – the Samaritan Sees the man in the ditch and abandons his plans, so Mary Sees Jesus and drops everything, leaving her metaphorical nets . . . and in the next chapter we learn the foundation and moment by moment source of this new life, Prayer – and the Holy Spirit.
The disciples having left all to follow him are confronted with their utter dependence upon Jesus and ask him, ‘Teach us to pray . . .’ As Stanley Hauerwas notes this very request should be ours. Not in the sense, ‘teach us how to pray’ the world is awash with techniques but people pray less than ever, just as it is awash with unread bibles. No the problem is we don’t know how, we just don’t pray. ‘Teach us to pray!!’
In our culture where for so many of us our existence seems to be so secure, a world utterly dominated by human agency – not knowing what it is to be hungry, or naked, or homeless – prayer has all but died and that within the church. Clergy do not pray the office, grace all but abandoned even in supposedly Christian homes . . . we face untold challenges in the Diocese and no one is called to ‘devote themselves to pray’, hammering on the door of heaven, rather we’re trying to ‘fix it with coffee cups’. We are flogging the dead horse – and keep on flogging it, for surely We can fix this. Almost all of us live in a world dominated by human agency, prayer is at best a formality before a meeting, in other words is no prayer at all. Because in so much of what we call life our own agency seems to suffice, we cannot begin to imagine that that which we seek, the Resurrection of the Church, isn’t down to us
Jesus in teaching us to pray hurls us out of a life dominated by human agency and into one in which God is all and in all. ‘Father’ – in dying to our life, we are drawn into Jesus Life and thus his relationship with God. Only Jesus the only begotten Son can in truth can call God ‘Father’ – it is through that dying in Baptism that we are included in Christ and so become his children also. ‘Unless you become like a little child you shall not enter the Kingdom of heaven’ And So like little children our Parent is our all – ‘Father! Hallowed be your name’ – You are Our Life! You fill our vision – And like a little child we cannot imagine anything other than that which our parent desires is Good! ‘Your Kingdom Come, Your Will be done!!’
As God’s children we enter baptised into Jesus Death, abandoning ourselves to the Goodness of God we pray the Gethsemane prayer, ‘not my will but thine’. As part of Christ’s body, we enter into the prayer of Mary our mother, the prayer of the Church ‘let it be to me, according to your word’. We have no agenda of our own, but purely the Kingdom of God, the Will of God – that is our life now. You are our life.
And so it is in marriage – the woman and the man are asked separately ‘will you take them to be your spouse, will you love, honour comfort and protect and be faithful to them only’ Will you make your husband, will you make your wife the purpose of your life? Giving up on your own programmes??
So, God took his people to himself – He gave himself to her – there was nothing he did not do for her, but she did not give herself to him – she went off and found other lovers – other places in which to put her security. She didn’t want the life of her husband – as all too often the Church does not want the life of Jesus. But God does not abandon us to our self will – He sends his prophet Hosea to drastically re-enact this story of faithlessness. ‘Go marry a prostitute Hosea . . .’ God doesn’t make life easy for his prophets . . . as the story unwinds we learn that Israel has said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’ I will chase after everything that makes me secure . . . I will abandon, God my husband’
She abandons her Life to chase after that which seems more secure . . . why pray ‘give us this day our daily bread’ when there are other ways of obtaining bread . . . Why give thanks to God for every breath of life when we secure life for ourselves? The call ‘Teach us to pray’ is as much a call ‘Help my unbelief!! I spend most of my days getting on as if you are not there – Teach us to pray, Teach us to believe that God Is our Father and that in our giving ourselves over to him he will richly provide . . . that all these things, what we will eat and drink and wear, will be added to you as well . . .
Give us this day our daily bread is such a counter cultural prayer, not least because in our culture, one so different to life as it has been for most people, even to this day, few if any know what it is to have no choice but to pray for bread, few if any have no idea where the next meal is coming from – and thus so few have known the utter Joy of the Kingdom expressed when God provides. So the faith of the Church is largely anaemic and joyless . . . for it is no life or faith at all. We must ask ourselves ‘if God did not exist, if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, in what ways would our lives be any different to that which they are?’
That which we call life, God calls death. That is made more than plain in that taxes apart, the one thing we can be sure of is death, it is the one thing which we all have in common. So clearly our problem is that we need an entirely different life – God’s Life, Eternal Life. But in precisely the same way that our death is certain and that we can do nothing to add even an hour to our span – we can do nothing to bring about the Eternal Life in our life and in the life of our church except through asking God. We face something we are powerless to do anything about, being dead in our sins . . . ‘but God’ shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ – or as Paul puts it in Colossians – ‘when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses’ Do we know this Life from death in our own experience?? Do we know what it is to be without hope in this world and to discover that Life from God, given to us in Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit? Give us bread, Give us Life!!
This Life is a Life made possible by forgiveness. When Peter announces this new life at Pentecost he says – turn back to GOd! (Repent!) Die to life son your own terms and follow Jesus (be baptised in his name) so that your sins may be forgiven. This Life starts with forgiveness – it is rooted in it and so We have the temerity to pray – forgive us as we forgive This is the prayer of the child who imitates their parent – the child who sees the parent forgiving everyone for everything and wants to get in on this life of the Father – ‘forgive us father, as we forgive all who sin against us’ If we love the Father who forgives – if we delight in Him, then his delight is our delight – Forgiveness is a Joy
But still we are loathe to pray – so Jesus shows us how irrational it is not to, if we say that we believe. ‘You know how it is, if someone comes late to your house asking for bread for they have unexpected guests . . .’ perhaps we don’t – we have grown up in a culture where asking for anything is a sign of weakness, a failure to stand on our own to feet – but in the time of Jesus, things were far more insecure than they are in our culture – people were more used to asking for they had no other choice. The irony of a culture which has forgotten God is that the human is more than ever forgotten.
But in the time of Jesus ministry, human agency hasn’t totally taken over – so he uses these examples to prod his hearers into prayer – but prayer for what?? We’ve already been told to pray for two essentials of life – for as we cannot live without bread, so also we cannot live without forgiveness – literally – we are dead if we are not forgiven.
What is left to pray for? – Jesus calls us to the boldest of prayers – ‘you know how, even though you are evil you don’t give your children nasty surprises when they ask you fro bread or a fish – even you don’t do that!! How much more will the Father give the greatest Gift to those who ask him? How much more will the Father give his very Life – his eternal Life -the Gift of the Holy Spirit . . .
As marriage is a life long discipline of dying to self – so the Christian Life of which it is a sacrament, is one of dying to the life we make for ourself – it is a lifelong discipline of only doing what we see the Father doing, it is a life long discipline of living in dependence upon God the Father – that is living in Jesus’ relationship with God into which we are baptised. It is a lifelong discipline of living by The Holy Spirit, by the very life of God
As I remarked a few weeks back, in a community with which I am closely associated, God has been doing wonderful things. Blind people receiving their sight, the lame walking, the deaf hearing and those at the very point of death being completely healed. The mending of broken bones so commonplace its hardly noted. Roy Godwin, who with his life Daphne was called to Ffald-y-Brenin several years ago now, said recently ‘After we’d been there several months, wondering what on earth we were doing there we cried out to God, saying ‘Lord we have no idea what to do!!’ and at that point God stepped in. And the flood of God’s agency poured out. Come Holy Spirit!! When will we also learn to pray? Learn to be God’s Children? Know that apart from him we have nothing – when will we cry out to God for that Life out of death – the gift of the Holy spirit – poured out on all those who have joined themselves to the crucified one?
For the sake of the Diocese, for the sake of this church, ‘Lord teach us to pray!’ And teach us to persistently ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit. His Life springing up from our death – for will not the Father give the Holy Spirit to all those who ask him?