Saturday, 27 December 2014

Holy Family Feast 28th December 2014

The child Jesus grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him. Luke 2.40
So very much is contained in that last sentence of today’s Gospel, the 40th verse of Luke’s second chapter.

When God became man it didn’t mean human perfection landing just like that. Rather there is a growth into maturity as there is for every one of us, a physical, mental and even – we are talking of God in human flesh - a spiritual maturing.

The child Jesus grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

Jesus grew and matured as all of us grow and mature within a family, the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Christians differ about whether there were other family members. There are references to his brothers and sisters but in the terminology of the day these could have been cousins. I stick with the age old tradition of the eastern and western church, some Protestants apart, that Mary was ever a virgin. Set apart for her divine motherhood with Joseph her most chaste spouse the Lord’s Mother is evidently alone on Good Friday when Our Lord tends for her by entrusting her to his beloved disciple, John. We also presume from that incident as well the death of St Joseph in Jesus’ lifetime.

Back to the Gospel story we shall read again at Candlemas this is about the only story about Jesus between his birth and the commencement  of his saving mission around his 30th year. Traditionally that is said to have lasted 33 years which is the number of rings we make on the church bell before services.

Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, grew, became strong and filled with wisdom within the Holy Family. The first words he uttered to his heavenly Father would have been caught from the devotion of his holy Mother who was his teacher with St Joseph. We imagine this extraordinary threesome, immortalised in the art of the nativity, growing up together, not just their prayer but their humour. Reading Our Lord’s teaching we can’t but imagine the Holy Family as, yes, a school but also one of sound recreation and good humour.

We too get formed as human beings within families though nowadays they take different shapes and sizes. Families are built from sexual intercourse which is a union of life giving love in two senses: the life-giving to husband and wife of genital union and its overflowing in procreation. In Christian teaching the unitive and procreative aspects are inseparable overall. This explains Christian opposition to artificial sexual unions beyond friendship and creating new life outside the warm sexual union of male and female in lifelong commitment . The Church of England allows artificial means of birth control only as the servant of the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage, neither of which should be denied overall in the exercise of the union of life-giving love which is sexual intercourse.

Teaching marriage and family from the example of the Holy Family is a bit of a challenge since, as we say every Sunday in the Creed, there’s no sexual union there but conception by the Holy Spirit excluding Joseph. In so many other ways, though, the Holy Family is our teacher. Jesus’ mental development linked to conversation with his mother and Joseph, along, as we see later in this chapter of St Luke, with the teachers and holy men found in Temple and synagogue. These he astonished through his grasp of spiritual matters as he listened to them and asked them questions.

Lastly the Holy Family is an economic unit, so to speak, a school of work, which the Gospels touch on several times. They mention Our Lord as the carpenter’s son presumably formed up within that trade. Many of us in Church this morning owe both our vocations as Christians and the business we follow or followed partly to the inspiration of our parents. I think I took more after my mother, a teacher, than my father, a bank manager, but I would not be who I am without Elsie and Greg as no doubt each of you wouldn’t be who you are without your parents. I hope with me you give thanks and pray for them be they in this world or the next.

The child Jesus grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
Jesus never left the fellowship of the Holy Family and nor do we. Mary and Joseph feature in every Eucharistic prayer I offer and thinking of my death I think of their welcome. In the Hail Mary used by many Anglicans, the words are on the rack at the back of Church, we ask her prayers now and at the hour of our death.

As Jesus matured so do we, with, in and through him and within the company of Mary, Joseph and all the saints. He was as the Carol says born to raise the sons of earth. The Son of God became Son of Man in company with a human family so that the children of men might become the children of God in company with that holy family and all good folk made perfect.

With humility before Jesus true God and true Man and confidence in his divine power we are formed through our prayer, our families and our work until in Paul’s words from Ephesians 4:13 all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Midnight Mass & 8am 2014

Tonight in an instant God’s constant love is revealed.

Your all-powerful word leapt from heaven, from the royal throne into the midst of the land that was doomed. Wisdom 18 verse 15

When a tree is felled in an instant we see the constant bark circles.

When Jesus is born we see what’s been true for all ages. There is a God who made us and so loves us he reverses our doom to fit us for glory.

In an instant tonight angels sing because God’s constant love is revealed.

We live between the instant and the constant.

The Christmas marketplace has devices that promise the world in an instant, at the press of a button or at the click of a mouse.

Instantly I can be in touch with 350 villagers through Facebook, though it has to be said what I advertise gets ‘liked’ by a handful.

Christianity has wisdom about the instant and the constant since we are about the intersection of time and eternity.

To live my life, which is instant by instant, moment by moment, I need the framework of what’s constant – my faith, marriage, family, home, village, nation, world.

Each instant of my life is best lived in the light of eternity. If I try to crowd too many tasks into my life it gets doomed and loses appeal both to me and to those in my sphere.

Through prayer, dwelling for some time in God’s constant love, I find the instants of my life bearing more fruit.

The other day though I had such a lot of people to visit I couldn’t schedule them but prayed and set off – and there they all were, almost waiting for me to come round!

Yet other days I have allowed the constants in my life to get eclipsed by the instant gratification of social media and the like. It’s all very well tweeting stuff in an instant, lazing indulgently over the paper, and putting the better side of your life forward on Facebook but that flow of instants can betray my here and now constant allegiances.

To live each moment in the constant light of eternal love is to be loosened from over preoccupation with stuff I think needs doing and it makes me available to those near to me here and now.

We live between the instant and the constant.

Your all-powerful word leapt from heaven, from the royal throne into the midst of the land that was doomed.

A few days ago Anne and I went to Birling Gap at the end of the Seven Sisters on the South Downs. Things had changed since we last visited with some cliffs and buildings gone due to erosion by the sea. On a stormy day we watched huge breakers striking the cliffs and thought of the constant erosion of that doomed land.

Tonight we celebrate a constant power far greater than that afflicting the doomed settlement of Birling Gap.

Wide, wide as the ocean, high as the heavens above. Deep, deep as the deepest sea is my Saviour’s love.

That constant love has in an instant, through the incarnation, made transformation of this doomed earth starting with you and me.

That love is beside those parents in Pakistan whose children were murdered last week.
It is expressed in hearts torn across the earth on their behalf and the political resolve to counter the extremism behind their killing.

As we take in instant by instant the 24-7 news cover woe betide us if our hearts get hardened to the doom of others and lose that constant godly concern in the flow of instant communication.

Your all-powerful word leapt from heaven, from the royal throne into the midst of the land that was doomed.

The child whose birth we celebrate tonight became famous as a teacher and miracle worker. There are many things people rightfully say about Jesus but there are two truths captured in this scripture which, if you miss you’ve actually missed what’s good news about Christianity. They are that this child is God come among us his word leaping from heaven and secondly that Jesus came into the midst of the land that was doomed to save sinners.

Tonight, in an instant, God’s constant love is shown in the birth of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.

May all our instants, all our moments be lived mindful of constant love wide as the ocean and high as the heavens above so that the peace in our hearts makes us good news to all around us.

For those here or abroad who bear the anguish of living in a doomed land we pray Jesus Emmanuel be in their moments of sadness and use us to bless them. We bend the knee before your altar this Christmas night for Wide, wide as the ocean, high as the heavens above. Deep, deep as the deepest sea is my Saviour’s love.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Living a simpler Christian life (4) A four part sermon series looking at the Jesus Prayer

The Jesus Prayer in your mind keeps before your every circumstance that key question: ‘What would Jesus do?’

As I stand by people: the farmer frustrated by the weather, the lady with so much to say it’s hard to get a word in, the sullen youth, the burdened church officer, the lonely old lady - all of these I engage with, while trying to let the Jesus Prayer run in me, and not my own thoughts, so any words I utter will have the Lord’s weight. 

The formal use of the Jesus Prayer in the first hour of the day effects something of a cleansing of my psyche. It sets me going for continuous use of the Prayer and, as a tithe of my day time, puts my later hours more fully in the Lord’s hands. When I fail to commit to that early prayer I seem set up later to confuse what's most important for me with what’s merely pressing upon me as urgent.

The future is, like the past, a mental construct which besieges our spirit in the form of anxiety. Of course I am bound to be concerned so as to best provide for things ahead of me, my family or the work of my church but Jesus makes clear in the Gospels that those who follow him are to live without anxiety. Repeating the Jesus Prayer brings me into his joyful freedom, which exists hour by hour and refuses to be locked down by useless fears.

The Jesus Prayer has woven itself through me, around me and into me so that I cannot but witness to it as a timely device from the Lord that centres, simplifies and energises his disciples. There’s a sense in me that I did not choose this Prayer but that it chose me and did so as part of the Lord’s call for me to work towards a life of unceasing prayer.

I cannot be the ultimate judge but the decision to accept God’s invitation given through prayer, people and circumstances to use the Jesus Prayer seems to have indeed centred and so simplified and energised my life.

Thoroughly biblical, carried forward by the faith of the Church through the centuries, the Jesus Prayer stands as unique gift and task. Its attractiveness lies in the way it states simple Christianity and seems to carry within it the momentum of the Spirit, as well as the way it serves believers struggling to integrate minds and hearts, so that their will can be enfolded by that of Jesus Christ.

In suggesting that the Prayer has the momentum of the Spirit I am thinking of St Paul’s advice that ‘No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’. (1 Corinthians 12:3b).  Another evidence for the momentum of the Spirit is my experience, and that of others, in seeing how the discipline of repetition is accompanied by many occasions when the Prayer keeps going even when, as in sleep, the human will to pray has failed. As with the Holy Spirit, who prays within believers, it could be said of the Jesus Prayer that it ‘helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought’. (Cf Romans 8:26)

All prayer is through, with and in Jesus Christ, Son of God and the world’s merciful Saviour. Praying the Jesus Prayer is about being caught up with all things, as well as yourself lifting up all things, into God’s merciful love. Just as in the Eucharist we offer Christ’s Sacrifice as well as our own since our life is hidden in him (Colossians 3:3b), when we pray the Jesus Prayer it is the whole Christ, head and members, offering the whole Christ for the glory of God and the transformation of the universe.

Prayer and Eucharist, individual and Christian community, locality and cosmos, will and Holy Spirit inspiration, past and future - all find a centre in the discipline and gift of the Jesus Prayer.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Advent 3 8am 14th December 2014

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ who shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead

Those words we are about to affirm in the Nicene Creed sum up the teaching of Advent, or at least the first part of the season since from next weekend we revert from looking forward to looking back to recall the first coming in the days immediately before Christmas.

In many ways Advent is the last more than the first of Christian seasons since Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection are to be completed when he comes again with glory to judge both the quick (the living) and the dead

What do we make of this doctrine central to Advent?

I would put it like this.

God has invested in the human race.  One day he’ll get a return on that investment. 

We get a glimpse of the judgement and fulfilment of all things in the book of Revelation Chapter 11:15 where in a text you often hear from me we read: The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever

To believe in the judgement of the living and the dead is to believe that the rule of evil and injustice in this world will be trumped by God at Christ’s return. 

Jesus Christ who came, died and rose is to complete his great and saving purpose.  Christ had died!  Christ is risen!  Christ will come again! 

This is Christian faith and it assures us that evil’s triumph in this world will be short lived.  God will turn the wrath of man to his praise.  This is why God invested in the human race by sending Jesus to draw the sting of evil upon the Cross

How can judgement be possible? people ask. Can there really be a final catalogue of wrongdoing? 

Surely there can, Christian faith replies.  As surely as a computer memory contains a million records, the memory of God is established.  To Him all hearts are open and all desires known.  By his sharing in our nature and his boundless compassion Jesus Christ is well appointed to judge the living and the dead. 

Did he not welcome and put the best slant on thieves and prostitutes, always ready to treat people as better than they were? 

How though could God inflict pain? 

Our minds argue against judgement because they think they know best. 

Actually God knows best in the end. 

When we look into the eyes of Christ at his Return there will be pain, but an if the cap fits wear it sort of pain. 

Hell will be our choice. 

Our wrong actions are an affront to God but he has given us a remedy. 

As the video of my life is prepared for showing on judgement day Christ has power to edit out the unacceptable points if I give them to him.  

Mercy can triumph over judgement if we will allow Christ a place in our hearts!

Advent is supremely a call to ongoing repentance towards God as we expressed the other year in our Advent series: repent, believe, ask, receive

At every eucharist that’s the pattern set forth as a reminder. We confess our sins and put faith in the word of God.

We ask for the Holy Spirit to come down upon bread and wine and we receive Christ’s body and blood.

We do so mindful of those words from St Paul used as an alternative at the breaking of bread I leave with you for reflection: 

Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Living a simpler Christian life (3) A four part sermon series looking at the Jesus Prayer

The simplification of prayer is something we can barely achieve ourselves. It is something that is given to us at various junctions. In that respect I would commend to you obtaining a spiritual director, easily attained by a phone call to the diocesan office who’ll provide you two local names for you to follow up. Some of us get spiritual direction when we go to confession before major Feasts and that opportunity is before us this afternoon as part of the Advent healing service.

As a spiritual director myself I’m privileged to accompany a number of people on their journey of discipleship and this gives me insight into the rich variety of aids to Christian devotion beyond the basics of reading your Bible and attending the eucharist. The Jesus Prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ is an aid to prayer that I have commended over the years but although I said it on occasion it had not grasped me until I received it as a gift from God seven years ago.

I am telling my story about the Jesus Prayer this Advent because our thoughts determine our lives and they are influenced by where and how we direct them. Whether we like it or not there is a battle on for minds all around us. That conflict has power to engage or deflate our spirits depending on our vigilance on that battlefield as well as the power of our spiritual weaponry. It has been my experience over the last seven years that taking my thoughts ‘captive for Christ’ is greatly assisted by the practice of praying the Jesus Prayer. Some thoughts that formerly preoccupied me are hardly able to gain purchase through the shield I am given in unceasing prayer. In God’s presence moreover, or even in God’s mention, there is a joy that in contrast does gain purchase as well as spreading out to others.

The young man on the bus seemed particularly cheerful. We were on a pilgrimage in Jordan. Johann and I were fellow passengers with Christians of different denominations to a number of biblical sites but there was also space to meet one another and learn more about how we kept close to Christ. Johann’s faith journey had been from Swedish Lutheran to Syrian Orthodox and in the course of that journey he had learned to say the Jesus Prayer. Over the week of our pilgrimage I learned something from him of how purposeful repetition of this prayer could bring you to ride on God’s waves of love to attain more of the momentum of the Holy Spirit.

It became clear to me that Johann’s enthusiasm for the Lord was nourished by his commitment to pray unceasingly and I had never met anyone so young who had accepted that invitation from Jesus.  Our common desire to build our lives on the faith of the Church through the ages led to an openness between us in which my own rather cerebral insights were exchanged for his practical hints about praying the Jesus Prayer.

Comparing notes with Johann I established that the Jesus Prayer was unlike other devotions that could be taken and left at will. This devotional practice was an invitation from the active faith and prayer of the Church through the ages to leave a lot more of myself behind and to seek God more seriously. 

I recognised it came down to how I was living my life. Yes I celebrated and attended the Eucharist, said the daily prayers obligatory for a priest, interceded, went on pilgrimage and so on - but! That ‘but’ was about lack of cohesion and integration and it reflected failure to make Jesus Lord of my life and ‘take every thought captive to obey Christ’. (2 Corinthians 4:5b) There was an awful lot of John Twisleton in the gaps between my worship and prayer - was I up to addressing this afresh using the Jesus Prayer? I felt I was and I wouldn’t be speaking to you now otherwise!

How then do you say the Jesus Prayer?

The first necessary clarification is that this prayer is said in both formal and free settings, which is of course part of its very power. Simple, memorable and short it is a form of words that can be made part of one’s formal devotional time whilst being offered in freer fashion as you get on with life outside set prayer times.

I have an Oratory or prayer room in the Rectory where I spend the first hour of the day. Half of that time I use for reciting the Jesus Prayer and in the other half say liturgical Morning Prayer, which includes psalms and scripture readings, and make intercession for my family, for the parish and for the world.  I start my daily prayer by repeating  the Jesus prayer under my breath continuously for half an hour. Whilst seated I tend to breathe in for ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God’ and breathe out for ‘have mercy on me, a sinner’ which means saying 10 prayers a minute or 300 over the half hour prayer time. This advice from Bishop Kallistos Ware helped me get going, ‘When you first embark on the Jesus Prayer, do not worry too much about expelling thoughts and mental pictures... let your strategy be positive, not negative. Call to mind, not what is to be excluded, but what is to be included. Do not think about your thoughts and how to shed them; think about Jesus’.

It makes sense that prayer should be neither gabbled nor offered in too intense a manner. To help focus the body’s engagement in the exercise prayer ropes of 25, 50 or 100 woollen beads are available. Kept in a pocket these are also good reminders to engage in the free use of the prayer during the day. I’ve got some at the back for a fiver from Crawley Down monastery.

In a recent booklet Bruce Batstone describes how he says the Jesus Prayer in his set prayer time. 'To pray the prayer I find that it is best to sit or kneel in a place where you are comfortable and try to relax. Focus your attention on your breathing, and as you breath in say the words 'Jesus Christ, Son of God' and as you breath out 'have mercy on me a sinner'. Do this gently and you will find that your breathing will slow. If you use a rope, touch a knot as you say each prayer.' Batstone addresses how best you deal with distracting thoughts, recommending you attach your mind to the words you are repeating in prayer and recall your physical grasp of the prayer rope. He also makes it clear 'these words are more than a mantra, they are an evocation of the name of Jesus and he is present with us as we pray.'

‘Rejoice always’, Saint Paul says, ‘pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you’. The Jesus Prayer is a proven servant of building such a positive and prayerful attitude by which we can rise above the heaviness of our human condition into the joy of the Lord. 

Into that joy, the joy of Sunday eucharist, we are now drawn through the magnetism of word and sacrament taking the Lord at his word.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Living a simpler Christian life (2) 30th November 2014 A four part sermon series looking at the Jesus Prayer

Some time back I spent part of Sunday afternoon at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. One of the advantages of living close to London in Horsted Keynes is that just as my parishioners commute to work I as parish priest can commute from my village to recreation. It fascinates me on occasion to join in debates that stretch my brain cells. Atheists, Christians, Muslims, Marxists all engage in Hyde Park as part of the freedom of expression that is distinctive of our democratic culture.   Issues in debate that week included the army’s removal of the Egyptian president and the perceived incapacity of Islamic leaders to form broad coalitions of interest. 

As I left the strident debate one of the more engaging characters I’d met took me to one side and confided he was a Coptic Christian from Egypt and had appreciated my contribution. Suddenly the intellectual discussion took back stage to a personal encounter with a believer under persecution. I walked on through Hyde Park to attend a church service with him on my heart.  As I walked, the Jesus Prayer was, as ever, my companion, settling my mind, centring me on God and his love for the Sunday crowds picnicking around me, preparing me for the sung evening prayer I was due to attend at a Church in Knightsbridge.

My experience in Hyde Park demonstrates the way my mind burns with ideas to be debated internally and externally, a debating that needs again and again to give way to something more profound. Just as meeting that Egyptian Christian had an impact on me over and above the intellectual debate about his country’s politics, so my personal encounter with God is brought about by the Jesus Prayer as it takes me deeper than purely mental reflection. Such reflection can be highly distracting so that an over active mind has been compared variously to a cloud of mosquitoes buzzing round or to a colony of monkeys leaping from tree to tree.  The discipline of reciting the Jesus Prayer provides what I am calling a simpler mentality, in other words one that sees the periodic clearing of the mind with useless thoughts put to one side and a centring on what actually matters here and now.

On my Sunday afternoon walk I moved from thinking and debating to interceding and worshipping through the unfolding of events. Those events had included an important personal encounter, which got me praying for someone at the sharp end of things. The encounter was a trigger for intercession in which my default recitation of the Jesus Prayer came to the surface, replacing and so silencing my thoughts, so that my heart could rest more on God and neighbour. When I arrived before the altar of the Knightsbridge Church, I had people on my heart to bring before God for blessing.

In the Orthodox anthology of spiritual writers St John of Karpathos gives this advice: ‘Long labour in prayer and considerable time are needed for a man with a mind which never cools to acquire a new heaven of the heart where Christ dwells, as the Apostle says: “Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you..?” (2 Corinthians 13:5)  I particularly appreciated this advice when I read it, being ‘a man with a mind which never cools’ seeking ‘to acquire that heaven of the heart’ which has Christ’s indwelling.   In the Jesus Prayer I have found a check to useless cerebral activity that helps circumstances of the present moment to break into my psyche, warm my heart and help it move, however untidily, towards the heart of God.

The repeating of the prayer is not the ‘vain repetition’ condemned by Jesus in Matthew 6:7. Rather it is a warding off of vain mental preoccupation, once the Jesus Prayer is given permission by the will to surface from its default interior cogitation. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’: the phrase takes hold of us and does away with negativity.  Containing the Saviour’s name, it’s something redeeming as there is a close association of name and person in biblical understanding. 

For the Jews of the Old Testament knowing someone’s name brought you close to all they are about and the name of Jesus, for Christians, stands for entry into the heart of God himself. Invoking the name of Jesus places me in God’s presence and opens my heart to his energy as I voice inside of myself an ongoing desire to surrender myself to God’s mercy.  This is a very powerful dynamic so that recalling the holy name of Jesus seems very often to bring God’s power into play within my situation.

The release of the mind into the heart is key to holy living as it helps our thoughts and indeed our wills to submit to the work that God has for us and, through us, for a needy world. Repeating the Jesus Prayer is a means to this end, although it’s a costly exercise because it involves continual use of the mind to repeat it, which generates some natural resistance and sometimes a literal pain in the head! The internal flow of our thoughts is impossible to control fully but there are ways of disengaging ourselves and rising above that flow of which the Jesus Prayer is a great servant.

I know a business man who was sent on a course of Buddhist meditation to improve his performance in the workplace. The commercial world tends to focus on Buddhism as expert in healthy spiritual practice as far as its teaching on mindfulness is concerned. A fellow priest worked out that there were more people enrolled annually on Buddhist meditation courses in Brighton than attended parish churches.

In my view it is quite extraordinary how people are giving authority for spiritual expertise to eastern religions over against Christianity (which is arguably itself an eastern religion) and this was one of my prompts to write about the Jesus Prayer which is one among many gifts we can offer from the treasury of Christian devotion to engage with those seeking to build their interior life in the materialistic culture we inhabit. Like other forms of eastern devotion it involves a repeated prayer phrase which has the effect of focussing and simplifying the mind’s operation.

In his book on the Jesus Prayer Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward writes: ‘The phrases of the Jesus Prayer give the top of our mind something to be occupied with, so that the rest of the mind can be open to the deeper feeling that lies underneath. This is what those who have used the prayer have called putting the mind in the heart. The words occupy our surface being at the same time as they communicate with the depths in us’.

This is an excellent description of the simpler mentality we are introduced to whereby the mind is given holy distraction so as to allow prayer from the depth of our being. 

In this eucharist such prayer is nurtured by the gift of word and sacrament presented to us. These gifts are enhanced by corporate silence in which we own the gifts and the Lord who is the Giver. Let us attend to him now, reaching down from the superficial attention of our minds into that place inside of us we call the heart where God dwells and would dwell more fully.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Living a simpler Christian life (1) 16th November 2014 A four part sermon series looking at the Jesus Prayer

Words from the end of today’s second reading from 1 Thessalonians Chapter 5v11: God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

How can I live a simpler Christian life?

Is there a summary of faith that’s clear, memorable and portable?  A biblical aid to praying at all times?  A means of Holy Spirit empowerment to bypass a distracted mind? Is there an instrument of Jesus Christ useful to carrying his worship into life and vice versa?

The Jesus Prayer of Eastern Orthodoxy, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ is such an instrument. Thoroughly biblical, carried forward by the faith of the church through the centuries, it stands as unique gift and task.

Over the next six weeks I will be sharing four sermons on the Jesus Prayer, it’s simple good news and capacity to empower with practical guidance on how to welcome and use it along with encouragement to attain the simplicity of life it offers.

I have come to believe there’s nothing new in Christianity, just the need to enter the day by day newness of Jesus. In this sermon series I’ll look at how that newness has refreshed me through reciting ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ so as to realise in my life the biblical injunction to pray at all times.

The Jesus Prayer is inhabited by Jesus who is an effective reminder that God is love and has mercy on us frail mortals.  It is a prayer discipline that states the simple good news of Christianity, provides Holy Spirit empowerment to bypass distracted minds, links worship and life and resonates with the faith and prayer of the church through the ages.

I want to think with you about the good news basic to the Jesus Prayer and show how the spiritual discipline of continuously saying it, which is found in Orthodox Christianity, builds from its biblical base. We’ll then change gear to look at how the simplification to anxiety and mental distraction that many people seek in Buddhist type mindfulness exercises can be found in the Jesus Prayer as a ‘God-given mantra’. We’ll end with practical advice about saying the Jesus Prayer, how it helps in relating worship to life and in building up the integrity of Christian believers.

I had known of the Jesus Prayer for thirty years before I welcomed it as the gift and task it is to help us ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  As a priest leading worship, attending to people’s joys and sorrows and the stresses and strains of church administration  I have found the Jesus Prayer an invaluable aid and this is because of the simple message it holds before me that God loves me and all that is, minute by minute, day by day and for all eternity. 

In the early years of the Church, when there was heavy persecution, if a Christian met a stranger in the road, he sometimes drew one arc of a simple fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew they were in safe company. The early Christians used the secret sign of the fish because the Greek word for fish ‘icthus’ was   an acronym for ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour’, the earliest creed and the shortest statement of Christian faith. The Jesus Prayer is a short expansion of that personal creed which is expressed by St Paul, for example, when he says: ‘I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’(Galatians 2:20b).

‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God’ implies the historical figure of Jesus is universal Lord and Son of God. Behind that statement is the implication that the invisible God has in one human life at one time and place made himself visible, supremely upon the Cross, showing us his love to be witnessed to every generation.

God who made all and loves all desires to claim all - starting with the human race made in his image.  The first clause of the Jesus Prayer affirms the good news Jesus brings to our lives, news that we come from God, we belong to God and we go to God. ‘The eternal God is our refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms’ (Deuteronomy 33:27 NIV)

It’s that faith I expressed when, for example the other day I was in the gym.  ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ I repeated on the rowing machine. Time in the gym helps get me out of my mind into my body and that was especially welcome as I’d lacked exercise that day. I’d been sitting around at prayer, with the family or the computer, the school head, a bereaved family, home communicants and a troubled parent as well as putting my mind to celebrating the eucharist, burying cremated remains and finishing the weekly news sheet. 

Gym time helps our bodily well being. It can also be deep thinking time, though this can turn into anxious mental preoccupation, which is why I think many people wear headphones to engage their minds as they exercise their bodies. No headphones today, I thought, but a conscious coming back into the Lord’s presence.  As I recovered the Jesus Prayer again it flowed with the rowing movement just as its pace fits to the natural rhythm of breathing in and out.

As the prayer centred me I became aware again of God’s love present alongside me in Jesus, of a dispelling of negative preoccupation and an outward focussing upon all those exercising around me.  The Lord used my recovered discipline of continuous recitation to turn me out of myself in loving intercession towards my neighbours which was expressed later on in some friendly greetings and one conversation with a young man intrigued about why some of his friends had started attending a neighbouring church that was full of young people. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God’ I repeat the Jesus Prayer under my breath, and find myself emphasising the second phrase ‘have mercy on me a sinner’.

The phrase ‘have mercy on me a sinner’ in the Jesus Prayer echoes both heartfelt prayers to Jesus in the Gospels and a phrase that recurs in Christian worship: kyrie eleison, literally ‘O Lord take pity on me’

The Greek verb eleeo used in many prayers to Jesus in the Gospels and in the kyrie eleison of Christian worship ‘signifies, in general, to feel sympathy with the misery of another, and especially sympathy manifested in action’. The New Testament revelation in Jesus Christ is of ‘God who is rich in mercy’. (Ephesians 2:4) who in the words of today’s epistle has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

To show mercy is to treat others as better than they are. In the Jesus Prayer we are not so much asking the Lord repeatedly to demonstrate mercy to us but affirming and celebrating that quality and allowing it to brush off on us and make us more fully his instruments of forbearance.

The great thinker Simone Weil writes ‘that two great forces rule the universe: gravity and grace. Gravity causes one body to attract other bodies so that it continually enlarges by absorbing more and more of the universe into itself. Something like this same force operates in human beings. We too want to expand, to acquire, to swell in significance. …Emotionally, Weil concluded, we humans operate by laws as fixed as Newton’s. “All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception.” Most of us remain trapped in the gravitational field of self-love, and thus we “fill up the fissures through which grace might pass.”’ 

The choice to live for God is a choice to live under grace and mercy and not under compulsion. It is an ongoing choice which the Jesus Prayer can facilitate. The beauty of the age old Jesus Prayer is its being a continual reminder both of God’s mercy towards me and of my call to imitate it in my dealings towards others and towards myself. It is a reminder true to the action we are part of this morning in the eucharist as we see that mercy before us in Christ’s body broken and his blood poured forth.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

All Saints Festival 'Now and not yet' 2nd November 2014


The story goes a little girl was with her family in a party being shown round a cathedral. As the guide was explaining a historic tomb nearby, the girl was staring at a great stained glass window through which the summer sun was streaming, bathing the cathedral floor in colour.  As the group was about to move on she asked the guide in a shrill clear voice, ‘Who are those people in the pretty window?’ ‘Those are the saints, ‘the man replied. That night as she was undressing for bed she told her mother, ‘I know who the saints are.’ ‘Do you dear?’ replied her mother. ‘Who are they?’ ‘They’re the people who let the light shine through.’  Do you want to be a saint? Let’s give God before the whole company of heaven the sins that stop his light shining through us.


Christianity is now and not yet.

We Christians have eternal life but we look forward to everlasting life.

To know the Lord is to have eternal life, life that right now tastes of heaven and that’ll last beyond earthly life so there’s a ‘not yet’ about it.

Beloved, we are God’s children now; St John says in our second reading. What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

What’s now is we’re God’s children. What’s to come is heaven when we shall see God. What’s in between now and then is hope and purification to let his light through us, as the little girl put it.

That first reading from the book of Revelation isn’t just about the not yet but the now. The vision of St John the Divine was first given to Christians facing martyrdom for their faith. It speaks into the pain of their and our ‘now’ of what is ‘not yet’ but will be, namely God’s final overcoming of the sufferings we bear.

The Gospel reading with its list of beatitudes from the lips of our Saviour is exactly about the now and the not yet. Those like us who realise they are spiritual have-nots with no righteousness of their own so they hunger and thirst for God are to see him, be comforted by him, inherit heaven and attain the full potential of a child of God.

There’s a now and a not yet about our faith.

Last Sunday’s presentation on George Herbert led me into an interesting conversation. One member shared her struggle with the Prayer of Humble Access which says we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under God’s table. We are worthy, and have been made so by grace, the member rightly said. Yet, as George Herbert and the liturgy affirm, we need to know our need of that grace get on our knees so to speak to receive it on or under the table.

God has a sameness to us – we are made in his image to become his children – but he has a difference from us as almighty, holy and everlasting God. He calls us now to accept his Son Jesus and so be made his children but all who have this hope in [Christ] purify themselves, just as [Christ] is pure.
On All Saints day we recall how each Christian is a saint, literally one set apart to be different with God’s holiness, but how only some are evidently so. The Saints with days in our church calendar and images in our church windows are women and men who evidently became so in their lifetimes which may not yet be the case for you and me.

This morning we have a reminder of how for people of Christian faith what’s now is in creative tension with what’s to be

Whenever I come into St Giles the first thing I do before I take my place to pray is go down on one knee towards the Aumbry where the consecrated Bread of the eucharist is stored and the everlasting light burns. That practice is to mark God’s objective presence before me. It doesn’t deny God’s subjective presence within me but that that, is less certain to me than God’s objective presence where he’s said he’ll always be. As Queen Elizabeth the First once said. Christ was the Word that spake it; He took the bread and brake it; And what that Word did make it; I do believe and take it. The Spirit within me is God’s presence now, if you like, in creative tension with his presence before me, the not yet, the Communion to be, or the word of God in scripture or beauty of creation around me that has his ‘come forward’ invitation

Our first reading from the great seventh chapter of the Revelation to John has a number of verses we use in worship and scholars believe were used in the earliest worship of Christians, so that the vision of heaven - the great ‘not yet’ - marries with earthly worship in the here and now.  Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb we say, as also. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! 

The invitation to Holy Communion today is a direct quotation from the book of Revelation only Chapter 19 verse 9  Blessed are those who are called to his supper.

The now and a not yet of our faith are made very evident at this service for the supper of the Lord we share now is like the cinema trailer ‘a preview of a forthcoming attraction’ namely the supper of Jesus, the Lamb of God on that day when we will be one with a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

Those so gathered will be lost in one-anotherness in the way of Saints capital S. We saints little s are one with them even now, being drawn by God into fuller self-forgetfulness. As we ponder the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of Christianity there’s no more comforting doctrine than that of the communion of saints. If we feel here at St Giles - as we did especially as James shared last week - an overflowing of spiritual riches from one another as earthly saints how much more, today’s Feast announces, do we sense, in the poverty of our spirits, the continually overflowing  richness of those already made perfect.

We are the church militant marching on to what is not yet. They are the church triumphant awaiting us, ready to welcome us. For them we can change the pronoun and tense of the second reading and say they are like him and they see him as he is. They are different to us with God’s own difference but remain the same as us with his sameness, as human beings in his image and likeness.

Now we stand with their sameness and a sameness to God but now, unlike them, we also kneel so to speak as those knowing our need of grace to become as they are since all who have this hope in God purify themselves, just as he is pure.

God is in us subjectively but he is before us objectively, in word and sacrament and the holy lives of those around us on earth and in heaven. Most loving Father, grant that your beloved Son whom I, an earthly wayfarer, am now to receive in his sacramental guise, may fit me to be part of his mystical body and one day give me sight of his face and let me gaze upon him for all eternity; who is God, living and reigning with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.