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.