6 November, 2016 – Third Sunday before Advent – Year C
More than once in my years here we have had a local person from Mirfield start to work here and being rather nervous about it. Then as he or she gradually got used to the people and the entertaining goings-on here, that person came to love it and was reluctant to leave. I can remember one temporary nurse who said appreciatively “I never knew it was like this”.
In the centuries covered by the Old Testament we see a similar thing going on in the relationship between the people of Israel and God. There is a growing sense of God’s uniqueness and majesty; also God’s mercy, fullness and tenderness. Hand-in-hand with this there is a growing appreciation of the dignity of the human being. Jesus is the heir of a tradition which received some of its finest expression in Isaiah and in the book of Job. The more dignified that the picture of human beings becomes, the greater is the apprehension of the wonder and majesty and loving-kindness of God. With Jesus you add to that the fact of the incarnation – that this God of such majesty and of such boundless love actually became one of us – and what you end up with is a picture of every human being, rich or poor, strong or weak, as being of such great dignity that we are destined ultimately be taken by God to himself.
In this context the position of the Sadducees in today’s Gospel reading can only seem pathetic. Their God can’t give us eternal life – for they don’t believe in the resurrection. Because of that their picture of human beings is less than glorious and their picture of God is quite frankly boring. Who would want to give their life for such a God? They wouldn’t be barmy anyway, if he wasn’t able to resurrect them.
One thing which human beings need to be saved from again and again is reducing our picture of God. When we reduce our picture of God, our picture of human beings is reduced as well.
Coming to this weekend, you might have seen an article has appeared in the Church Times which quotes me on prayer. A young lady had interviewed me very well on the phone and she had to prune down all I said into a short space and so the article is a bit over-simplified. What I really wanted to say – but it wouldn’t have been very polite – is that in the Church today we are in danger of living with a puny vision of what it is to be a human being and that is hand-in hand with a puny vision of God. Not in all parts of the church but it’s certainly around. It’s around not least because the church has become weak on prayer.
Many people struggle with prayer – they might say to themselves “what shall I do today? Say the Lord’s prayer perhaps – say a prayer out of my book of prayers – remember some people who need praying for but then so often I struggle for it to be real”. Many people might say this ad many don’t really manage to pray every day, or even every other day. There are many clergy who really struggle; to live a life of prayer which will actually keep them going.
I have tried quite a lot of experiments in parishes to encourage members of congregations to pray every day, praying the prayers of the Church, so that there is a sense of praying not alone but with others. I wouldn’t say the success rate has been meagre but there is no way in which my efforts have has set a fire going. I come more and more to feel that it’s not enough to encourage one another to pray every day. There’s more to it than that. It seems to me that there is a quartet of things that used to be second-nature for Christians – certainly in the Church of England – but very widely they are disappearing or have already been lost from sight. The quartet would be this:
- Worship as the absolute foundation and bedrock of our Christian life – not any old worship but the liturgy of the church.
- My personal prayer, springing out of the worship.
- A sense of the Church. When we pray we are never alone – we are praying with people all over the world, on Earth and in heaven. So it’s not so much me trying to pray, as me being taken up into the great song of the church which rises to God’s throne day and night. A sense of the church.
- A sense in our bones of the tradition, the Christian repertoire of wisdom and prayer going back 2000 years.
This might sound a bit complicated but it isn’t at all. It’s not rocket science. Throughout the ages Christians at every level have taken it for granted without thinking about it. Going right back, this quartet of things is there right through the new Testament. Think of the episode where the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray and he gives them the Lord’s Prayer.
- The phrases of the Our Father all come from Jewish worship – they are traditional expressions for the worship in Temple and the synagogue and the Psalms. So that’s number 1: worship
- Jesus intends it as something to pray when you pray on your own. It is personal prayer springing out of worship.
- There is a sense of the Church. Jesus delivers it to the group of his disciples – he has been slowly forming them into a group with a strong sense of belonging. This is the Church in its earliest form. The Lord’s Prayer is in the plural – Our Father, give us this day our daily bread. It is filled with a sense of the Church, the People of God.
- Behind it stands a great tradition. Prayers like the Lord’s Prayer are there in the Jewish tradition before Jesus. This tradition is in the bones of the disciples – it’s just there.
In this little incident all those four things are unselfconsciously there – simply, innately known. You can find many other examples in the New Testament, showing the same four things, whether it’s, say, the Transfiguration, the feeding of the 5000, or the Last Supper.
If we are to be a Church which prays we need to find a way of returning to a state where these four things are simply in our bones – we don’t need to think about them. They are just sitting happily there below our conscious level and coming into operation without any effort.
Sometimes we need nudging from behind and there is a fifth consideration to add to the other four that could nudge us – it’s about this: simply to look at our world. To look at the terrible state it’s in. This is a world which needs a strong Church. If the Church were strong, it could be a great force for good. The Church will be strong when it’s a praying church. So we need to get praying.
All human beings have the immense dignity of being made in the image of God. We must beware of slipping into a picture of ourselves and of God which is banal and ineffectual, like that of the Sadducees, because all we are then is a Church that is half-dead. God is not a God of the dead but of the living. A living Church will be a praying church.