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.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

All Souls Day 2014

All Souls Day is about names written on hearts.

Each year the Church encourages us to name aloud those who remain in our hearts but have passed beyond this world.

So in a minute or two we’ll read the list of our dear dead naming them aloud before God.

This year thanks to J Gumbrill and Freeman Brothers who employ Kevin Scott of Chapel Lane our war memorial has been renovated free of charge and we’re to bless that renovation at the end of this service.

The 33 names of those who died in World War One whose centenary we’re now marking shine out afresh on our village war memorial.

They are in black set on grey granite.

That blackness, like the blackness of the vestments on this day of the departed, reflects the sadness of lives sometimes wrenched from the earth and the many broken hearts our loved ones passed from this world have left behind.

In the first passage of scripture chosen for this memorial eucharist St Paul speaks tenderly of people on his heart, the absent friends he has in the Church he founded in Corinth.

Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? He writes. You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

This afternoon we too have tablets of stone in mind, the graves of loved ones and the village memorial stone. We come also with names written on tablets of human hearts. Surely our dear dead live on in our hearts, and those of the war dead live on in the hearts of our community for which they laid down their lives.

Paul goes on to speak of the confidence we should place in God. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ towards God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Christianity isn’t having all the answers. It’s having the humility to admit you don’t have answers over things like death but you do have confidence in One who does. That lends you a solid competence.

A Christian is a far sighted one. Someone adventurous. One whose confidence in the victory of Jesus over death spurs them on. One who presses competently through the false boundaries of unbelief, sin, apathy, fear, sickness and, last of all, death, towards the gift of God in Jesus Christ.

To be a Christian is to be opposed to nostalgia in the sense of wanting to stop the flow of time and change. Christian faith is a forward journey with an eternal perspective that welcomes the challenges and surprises of life with Spirit given creativity since Jesus Christ is ever new.

If you live your life not content with a boring sameness but with what is other than, or apart from, yourself, this fascination draws you forward day by day into the possibilities of God which exceed your imagining.

If you centre in love on what is other than yourself you get prepared to face what is the ultimate strange ‘other’ – I mean death. We come to see death as nothing more than the frame of our earthly life.

A frame is the picture’s friend. It shows it off. Without the defining of our life’s duration in time the span of our life would stretch into an infinite void. Without being born and dying we would be ageless beings. No one would be older or younger than anyone or anyone’s parent or child – we would be no one at all!

Who I am in my inner self is what matters ultimately. This is a product not just of heredity and environment but of my own free choices - to love or not to love. By growing love in my life I make of myself, with the Lord’s help, a being stronger than death.

Paul reminds us, returning to the passage, and his words reach beyond the first century Corinthians to twenty first century Sussex, that something has indeed happened to change the way we see death, and its something linked to the coming, the teaching, the suffering, the death and the rising of Jesus now ever present by his Spirit

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  

That freedom came first from the stone rolled away from Christ’s tomb and it flows down the centuries and across the continents into hearts that welcome the risen Lord Jesus.

It is the name of Jesus that makes sense of all other names from history including those held in our hearts today we will shortly be commending. Lifting them to the Lord at All Souls Day’s memorial eucharist will be transformative for them and for us.

As the large Easter Candle brought into the sanctuary for the day of the departed reminds us, there is one human alone who is immortal and his invitation stands as much before us as it does before our dear dead.

It is the invitation to move nearer to him.

As our passage concludes And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

As part of our prayer today we have opportunity to light candles for our departed loved ones from the Easter Candle and place them in the sand tray. As we do so we are saying Jesus from your risen glory give your light to my loved one who has passed into death’s dark vale.

Give them eternal rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.

The Lord who welcomes them welcomes us this afternoon, as we heard in the brief yet eloquent invitation he gives us in our Gospel reading which I make my last word to you:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.  Matthew 11:28-30