February 25, 2007
(Romans 10.8b-13; Luke 4, 1-13)
When the ICET ( International Commission on English Texts) were working to translate the services of the Church into modern English, one of the phrases which caused them most difficulty was the penultimate petition of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation’.
Part of the difficulty stems from the possible meaning of the original Greek of the text in Matthew and Luke, and even of the Hebrew behind it. For instance, the Greek verb translated ‘lead’ could mean taking in an active sense, to lead by going before, or simply to announce. And depending on the understanding of the Hebrew behind this clause, again it could active, meaning to cause something to happen; or permissive, to allow something to happen. So, the Syriac version of the New Testament translates this “Do not make us enter into temptation”.
Again, the preposition ‘eis’ and its Hebrew original could imply simply ‘into’ or ‘as far as’ but, more strongly ‘to be placed under the power of’. So, one translation could be “Do not allow us to fall under the power of temptation” that is, be overwhelmed by it.
However, the word which gave the translators most difficulty was the word translated ‘temptation’. The Greek original is found rarely in secular Greek, but very often in Biblical Greek, both in the New Testament and in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, with a variety of meanings. It can mean simply an attempt; it can mean a test in the sense of testing a metal or testing somebody’s competence or conviction ( and in this sense it is often used of God testing human beings). It can mean a malicious attempt to trick someone, and is used in that way of the attempts of the Scribes and Pharisees to catch Jesus out by asking him trick questions. It can be used to mean the seduction into sin which is the usual modern meaning of ‘temptation’ and is used in that sense in the New Testament to describe Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert. It can mean a trial or ordeal. It can mean to tempt God.
In all of these meanings, the form of noun used implies a continuing process, not a one-off event. But our understanding of what is implied by this petition is altered by how we understand the Greek behind it.
However, some interpretations of the text are more difficult for us to accept, not because of they don’t translate the original Greek correctly, but because they run counter to our beliefs about the nature of God, or of human beings.
For instance, we believe that God is good, and wills happiness and good for human beings. So how can we even think that God would deliberately seduce us into sin or put us under the power of evil?
Secondly, it is nonsense to pray that we won’t be tempted, because temptation is part and parcel of the human condition. God gave us free will – but there would be no point in having free will if there were no circumstances in which we were tempted to choose to sin. It is a mark of being a real human being that we can be tempted to do wrong – and that is why the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is important: it shows that Jesus was, as Hebrews says, “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are”. ( Heb. 4.15) The one difference is, as Hebrews goes on to say, “yet without sinning”.
So, if we are not asking God not ever to put us into a situation where we are tempted, and we cannot conceive of God deliberately trying to make us commit sin, what are we asking in this petition?
The various modern translations of the New Testament have used a variety of phrases, most of them designed to express the hope that God will not test us beyond what we can cope with, or allow us to be overwhelmed by temptation.
The Good News Bible has “Do not bring us to hard testing” and the New English Bible “Do not bring us to the test”. The Jerusalem Bible has “Do not put us to the test” and the NRSV “Do not bring us to the time of trial”.
Most of the denominations have used a variation on that last phrase in their modern language services, and pray: “Save us from the time of trial”. You will find this version in the Methodist, the URC, and the Roman Catholic services, and in those of other Anglican churches, such as the New Zealand Church. After lengthy debates in General Synod, the Church of England could not agree to use the internationally agreed text, and we kept “Lead us not into temptation” in our modern language Lord’s Prayer as well as in our traditional language one. For my personal prayers, I much prefer Jim Cotter’s free modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer, which has: “In times of temptation and test, strengthen us; from trials too great to endure, spare us; from the grip of all that is evil, free us.”
When we pray this petition, we are asking God to be with us as we face the everyday temptations of human life. We are asking for divine protection when we face situations where the urge to sin becomes overwhelming. We are asking for divine guidance when the prompting of our own nature, or the urging of others bring us to situations where we may be tempted to flirt with sin. We are asking God not to abandon us when our faith, or our bodies are under assault.
When we do face these situations ( as all of us will) the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us how God can answer this petition in the Lord’s Prayer. We do not have to take this story literally. Jesus may have had an experience like this when he spent time in the desert after his baptism by John, but since he was alone, and the conversations went on inside his head, how would anyone else have known the details? Mark has the simple statement that ‘he was tempted by Satan’; it is only Matthew and Luke who provide details of the threefold temptations. But these are temptations which Jesus would have faced during his whole ministry, as they are temptations which face any of us who try to bring others into the Kingdom of God. So it is perfectly possible to see the story of the time in the wilderness as a word picture of the temptations of ministry for Jesus and for ourselves.
The first is the temptation to bring people into faith by providing for their material needs alone. Perhaps there are secondary temptations also; to provide the basic necessities of life, but only to those of ‘our’ faith; or the temptation, which is so prevalent in our society, to believe that the accumulation of goods will bring happiness. Jesus answers this by affirming the supreme importance of the spiritual – the Word of God – rather than the material – bread.
The second temptation is to use political power, including force, to bring people to faith. We can all think of examples of Christians giving in to this temptation throughout our history – from the way the final texts of the Creeds were arrived at, to the Crusades, and the wars of religion that so disfigured Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Jesus rejects this by quoting from Deuteronomy a verse that insists that worship must be given to God, because of God’s character, and not in response to political power or force, which in this case are seen as works of the Devil.
Finally there is the temptation to bring about faith by demonstrations of God’s miraculous power, which is, in effect, to tempt God. Again, we can all think of times when churches have tried to prove that they have the one true faith by appeals to signs and wonders, or miraculous cures to which they alone have access. Jesus again quotes from the Hebrew scriptures which forbid testing out God’s support in this way, and during his ministry he refused to provide signs ‘to order’.
Jesus was saved in his time of trial, and delivered from evil because of his close relationship with God, and his total reliance on God’s love and support. It was a relationship that was founded on his deep knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Jewish tradition, his constant reference to God through prayer, and his submission to God’s will in humility. As we face the tests of our lives, these same resources and this same relationship can save us from temptation and deliver us from evil.
(A good background to this and other petitions in The Lord’s Prayer can be found in William Barclay’s book ‘The Plain Man Looks at the Lord’s Prayer’ Fount pb 1964. Jim Cotters version of The Lord’s Prayer can be found in his book ‘Prayer at Night’ 1983 and at http://www.firstparish.org/cms/content/view/452/45/ where you can also find an exegesis of the whole Lord’s Prayer)
February 19, 2007
Tonight I am to lead a session in our Diocese’s lay training course on “God, suffering and death”. When I was first phoned and asked to do it, I misunderstood the subject. I thought it was “God’s Suffering and Death” which didn’t make sense, since God cannot die. So I suggested I rename it “Christ’s Suffering and Death” since I thought I would be leading a session on the Passion. It was only when I received written instructions for the evening that I realised I had misunderstood the title, and what I would be encouraging the group to talk about was “What does the Cross say about suffering and death in the world? Where is God in our personal pain and loss?” – so the BIG question for believers today.
As part of my preparation, I have gone back to two sermons I preached in 2001 as part of our parish series on the big questions of the Christian Faith for today.
This is a pastiche of the hymn “All things Bright and Beautiful” by the Monty Python team, which I first read at a study day on the use of poems in preaching:
All things dull and ugly,
All creatures short and squat,
All things rude and nasty.
The Lord God made the lot.
Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom,
He made their horrid wings.
All things sick and cancerous,
All evil great and small,
All things foul and dangerous,
The Lord God made them all.
Each nasty little hornet,
Each beastly little squid;
Who made the spiky urchin,
Who made the sharks? He did.
All things scabbed and ulcerous,
All pox both great and small,
Putrid, foul and gangrenous,
The Lord God made them all.
When, in a previous parish, I wanted to publish that poem in the parish magazine, to stimulate discussion about creation and suffering, it was refused, on the grounds that it would upset people and disturb their faith.
Each time that we recite the Nicene Creed, we state that ‘We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen”. Yet many Christians, it seems, reject, consciously or unconsciously, the implication of that belief, that God is responsible for everything we experience – the bad as well as the good, the beasts as well as the beauty.
We believe in a God who is both the omnipotent creator of all things, and who is also good. And there lies the problem for faith.
How can a good God let bad things happen? The attempts to answer this question are technically known as ‘theodicy’ – the defence of God in the light of evil and suffering.
We can divide evil into two categories: moral evil, the evil that is caused by human action, or sin; and natural evil, the suffering that comes about from natural forces, like disease and death, earthquakes and floods.
The first sort of evil, human sin, was dealt with last week the sermon on the Fall. What I want to consider this week is the other sort of evil, the natural sort.
This sort of evil is probably the most powerful element in the undermining of Christian belief – which is probably why people don’t like to think about it. Charles Darwin is reported to have said: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae ( a species of wasp that lays its eggs in the paralysed bodies of other species’ caterpillars ) with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars”. Others of us, perhaps, feel the same when we watch a big cat chase and devour a gazelle, or when we see pictures of the devastation caused by the recent earthquake in India.
One solution to the problem of natural evil is to blame it, like moral evil, on human sin. This approach maintains that pain and suffering were no part of God’s original plan for the universe. So, Alistair Macgrath says in his ‘Introduction to Christianity’: “ Affirming the goodness of creation avoids the suggestion, unacceptable to most theologians, that God is responsible for evil. The destructive force of sin is not present in the world by God’s design or permission. An essential component of the Christian doctrine of sin is recognition that the world has departed from the trajectory upon which God placed it in the work of creation. It has become deflected from its intended course”.
The occasion of this deflection was Adam’s fall from grace. This created moral disorder, but also allowed an opening for demonic influence to disrupt the perfection of Eden and bring in pain and death. On the psychological level, this explanation of natural suffering seems to me to be the equivalent, at a global level, of the self-centredness of the toddler who imagines that his anger is capable of destroying what he hates. On the scientific level, this explanation is unacceptable, since we know that the causes of natural suffering predate the emergence of the human species. We know from things like the fossils of dinosaurs which show they suffered from painful arthritis, that created life has always been characterized by suffering, disease, struggle and death. There is no discontinuity in natural history, no golden age from which creation has declined.
Another explanation for pain and disease, as it affects human beings, is that it is a punishment for wrongdoing. We hear this argument quite often in the Bible, and it is the situation that lies behind the Book of Job. Some truth can be seen in this approach, since human wrongdoing can exacerbate natural evil, for instance when we pollute the environment with known carcinogens, or build in known earthquake areas, like the San Andreas fault line. However, its shortcoming, as Job protests, is that pain and suffering so often come upon those who are innocent of wrongdoing. The book of Job gives no solution to the problem: it simply ends with Job being reduced to silence by the encounter with God, and then a rather fairy-tale ending where Job is restored to his former health and prosperity. Both this solution and the Fall theodicy also suffer from the defect that they leave God responsible for the deliberate creation of evil.
Another explanation for evil, ‘instrumental theodicy’ says that suffering and evil are necessary if human beings are to develop virtues. This theodicy is expressed in a poem by C L Drawbridge, entitled ‘Pain’.
The cry of man’s anguish went up unto God,
Lord, take away pain!
The shadow that darkens the world thou hast made; the close coiling chain
That strangles the heart; the burden that weighs
On the wings that would soar.
Lord, take away pain from the world Thou hast made, That it love thee the more.
Then answered the Lord to the world He had made,
“Shall I take away Pain,
And with it the power of the soul to endure,
Made strong by the strain?
Shall I take away pity, that knits heart to heart,
And sacrifice high?
Will you lose all your heroes, that lift from the flame white brows to the sky?
Shall I take away love that redeems with a price,
And smiles through the loss?
Can you spare from the lives that would cling unto mine, the Christ on his cross?”
There is validity in this approach, that sees a world of suffering and evil as “ a vale of soulmaking “ ( in Keats’s phrase); but it suffers from the limitations that it still leaves God as directly responsible for evil, and as a sort of ‘cosmic sadist’ outside the suffering world, using pain and disease to ‘test’ people, who are often destroyed, rather than ennobled, by the process.
Various theologians have attempted a solution by redefining what is meant by God’s omnipotence. So, Anselm says that God cannot do anything that is inconsistent with the divine nature – so God cannot lie or commit sin. And William of Ockham elaborates this in saying that God has to be reliable, and in making certain choices has limited the divine ability to make other choices. He distinguishes between the absolute power of God ( what was possible before the world was created ) and the ordained power of God ( what is possible once the world is created, if God is to be consistent).
This idea of divine self-limitation, from the 14th century, has become important in modern theology. One strand of this is ‘process theology’, which stems from the recognition that reality is not static and unchanging, but dynamic, characterised by becoming, change, event. What is in process has to have a freedom to develop and be influenced by surroundings. So Teilhard de Chardin identifies God with the background of order within the process, but who allows creation the freedom to develop in its own way. Causation is not to be identified with coercion; God can only act by influence and persuasion within the limits of the process Godself has decreed, and will not intervene to prevent famine or disease or death.
This freedom has to be allowed to inanimate matter as well as to animate. Now it may seem nonsensical to say this – to say that, for instance, the tectonic plates, whose movements cause earthquakes, have free will. Here our scientific understanding of the way the world is comes into play. The more we understand about the way the world has evolved, the more we understand how everything is interrelated, how animate beings emerged from the inanimate ( the characters emerging from the scenery, as John Polkinhorne puts it) the more we see that the created order is a package deal. We may think that if we had been in charge we would have done better, created a world of beauty without the beasts; but science says that is not possible.
The conditions which allowed animal and human life to develop on the earth also allow earthquakes and volcanoes. The same biochemical processes that allow cells to mutate, making evolution of human beings with free consciousness possible, also allow them to become cancerous and create tumours. This is the ‘free process defence’ which is analogous to the ‘free will defence’ of human evil. God does not directly will earthquakes or cancer, but allows both to happen in a world given the gift of being itself. It is the inescapable cost of a creation allowed to be other than God, free of tight control.
All this may provide an intellectually satisfying answer to the why and how of natural evil; but it does not meet the emotional need to protest against undeserved suffering, and to hold God to account for it. We find the idea of a God who is outside the process morally repugnant. Which is where Christology comes in. Christian doctrine says that we believe that Christ, the Logos, is God’s agent in creation, and that God is as Jesus reveals God to us.
The assertion that Christ is the agent of creation ties up with the discoveries of the science of ecology, that somehow sacrifice seems to be built into the process of creation. The whole process began with the death of burnt out stars, creating the elements which are the building blocks of life. The process continues with one species preying on another, with some species dying out so that others may evolve. The whole process is costly, but necessary.
But for God to be transcendentally above the whole process is morally unconvincing. But the doctrine of the incarnation says that God is not. If God is revealed by Christ, it is a god who shares our struggles and our suffering, who is within the process – a God who dies. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “ Only a suffering God will do”. So, through Christ, we now have an understanding of God who has emptied Godself, and of God’s creative activity as continuously in operation, struggling to bring life and beauty out of violence and pain.
In this sort of theology, the proper response to suffering is not to explain it away, or to blame it onto God, or the Devil or Adam and Eve, but to struggle against it in the name of love and beauty and truth if it can be overcome. This is the principle behind Liberation theology and the theology of protest. But if sacrifice is unavoidable then like Jesus in Gethsemane, we must face it, accept it, look it in the eye and go through it in the faith that God’s love and beauty will ultimately triumph.
So, the proper question to ask of a loving God is not ‘where does suffering come from?’ but ‘Where does it lead’. And the answer is to resurrection, to the renewal of the created order that is pictured in Genesis and in Revelation – to the situation where the love and beauty of God who is the Ground of our Being has overcome all evil and suffering, even Satan himself.
The situation described in a final poem, by James Stephens, called
The fullness of time.
On a rusty iron throne
Past the furthest star of space
I saw Satan sit alone.
Old and haggard was his face;
For his work was done, and he
Rested in eternity.
And to him from out the sun
Came his father and his friend,
Saying, now the work is done
Enmity is at an end:
And he guided Satan to
Paradises that he knew.
Gabriel without a frown,
Uriel without a spear,
Raphael came singing down
Welcoming their ancient peer,
And they seated him beside
One who had been crucified.
In the beginning was a golden cosmic egg of fire, which contained the universal spirit. The spirit took the form of the first man Purusha. The gods sacrificed Purusha, and from his body created the cosmos and human beings in their castes. The Creator god, Brahman, slept within a lotus flower floating on the waters of chaos. When he awoke, he set about creation. At first he made many mistakes, and from ignorance created the demons and the beings of darkness. The cosmos thus created lasts 4320 earth years, gradually seeing a deterioration in morals. The God Vishnu, the preserver, intervenes periodically to put things right, but at the end of each cosmic era, the god Shiva destroys the universe, and everything, gods included is dissolved, a new Brahman is born and the cycle of creation begins again.
That is a summary of a Hindu creation story.
All cultures have creation stories, derived from their observation of the world, interpreted according to their beliefs about how the world works, both physically and spiritually.
In our culture, we tend to operate with a combination of two creation stories: a scientific creation story, or rather a pseudo-scientific one, made up, for most people, of half-understood bits of scientific theories about the Big Bang and evolution, combined, to a greater or lesser extent with religious beliefs from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is that combination we are looking at this morning, to try to see what sort of creation theology it might be reasonable to hold in the light of modern knowledge.
Our creation theology is fundamental to our faith. It bears on our doctrine of God, how we understand God to operate in relation to human beings and the creation; it has implications for our understanding of sin, suffering and evil; it interacts with our understanding of the Bible and how God is revealed to us; it affects our understanding of the person of Jesus, his birth, death and resurrection; how we understand the created world has implications for our approach to miracles; it also has implications for ethics, how we decide what is right and what is wrong; finally, how we think about the creation of the world has implications for how we think the world will come to an end – what in theological language is known as eschatology.
In our society, creation theory is often presented as a straight choice between ‘science’ and ‘religion’. By the scientific theory is meant a vague alliance between theories from physics of a world which began with the big bang, and which operates according to fixed and unchanging laws and a biology based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, completely random natural selection by survival of the fittest. All this, it is said, is fact, proved by the observations of astro-physicists and palaeontologists.
On the religious side is often meant an acceptance of chapter 1 of Genesis ( and sometimes chapter 2, though it is not often acknowledged that there are two different accounts ) as a literal, historical description of the creation of the world during 6 days in 4004 BC, or a sort of divinely guaranteed scientific textbook of the mechanism of creation. To it’s supporters, this is fact, revealed by God through the Bible; to it’s detractors it is just ‘faith’ with no factual basis.
However, it is not as simple as that! All creation stories, including scientific ones, are just that – stories, theories deduced from observations of the physical universe. Whether it was the Big Bang or the creation of the Garden of Eden, there were no human beings there at the time to observe and record what went on! Scientific theories set up a model that seems to fit the data available -but the model is always a provisional one, and is modified as new data becomes available. Models of the process of creation of the universe and the evolution of animal species change fairly frequently, as new discoveries and observations are made. For instance, in the last week or so, the analysis of a grain of crystal discovered in Australia has pushed back by about half a billion years estimates of the time at which the earth cooled sufficiently for rocks to have formed; the discovery of two giant planets in the Aquarius and Serpens constellations has changed theories about the maximum size of planets possible; and the discovery of a skeleton of an early humanoid has changed current theories about where the first humans as apart from other primates came from.
The idea of the universe as a closed system, operating according to immutable laws, is also now ‘old hat’. Observations are now challenging even Einstein’s theory of relativity. suggesting that at one time in the universe’s history, light may have moved at a faster rate than now. It is now seen that there are ‘gaps’ in the predictability of physical laws. This is called ‘chaos theory’ or ‘the butterfly effect’.
On the other hand, biblical interpretation and theologies of creation are not static, but are changing, in conversation with scientific discoveries. Some of the greatest minds of the scientific world were also religious- even if like Newton they were somewhat unorthodox, or like Galileo, they got into trouble with the religious authorities of their time. Many modern scientist theologians, like John Polkinghorne, the mathematician and physicist, and Arthur Peacocke, the biochemist, find that the study of science reinforces rather than challenges their faith. Indeed, there is considerable support for the view that science arose as a consequence of the Judaeo-Christian world view: because we believe in one creator, the world is assumed to be rational and consistent, but because the creator has free will, the world has to be observed to be understood; because the world is God’s creation, it is worthy of study, but because it is separate from the creator, we can experiment on it without impiety.
Some of the tenets of a theology of creation are philosophical assumptions – but equally so are some of the elements of a non-religious creation theory. For instance whether or not there is a creator, whether the creation has purpose or not, are equally articles of belief – they cannot be proved or disproved. For some scientists, the order and beauty of creation is evidence of design. The more we learn about the universe, says Polkinghorne, and the more we understand about the fine tuning necessary to enable the emergence of carbon based life forms, the more he believes in a guiding mind behind it. This is known as the Anthropic Principle.
However, even if we accept the assumption of a Creator, this leaves open the question of how far God is involved in the ongoing process of creation. Did God just set the whole thing going at the Big Bang, and leave it to the chance mechanisms of evolution from then on? This is technically known as Deism – the idea that the creator is uninvolved in the world.
The opposite assumption is that the whole course of history has been planned down to the tiniest detail, and that God puts a finger in the works to direct it, and to adjust things for special people from time to time.
Creation theology, you see, is not just concerned with how it all began, but also with what has been going on since. Strangely, the observations of scientists are now being used by those who believe the Biblical account of creation to oppose a purely Darwinian account of evolution. So, writers such as Philip Johnson, in his ‘testing Darwinism’ will point to gaps in the fossil record and anomalies such as the Cambrian explosion, to argue that natural selection on the macro-evolutionary scale could not have produced human beings in the time scale available; and recent discoveries about the history of human DNA seem to point to a common male and female ancestor, who could be claimed as Adam and Eve. These people would argue that the gaps and anomalies are evidence that God has intervened, as described in the Bible, to direct the creation of human beings.
Other scientists who are also religious believers, while not wishing to go down this road, would nevertheless argue that the doctrine of God’s omnipotence requires that God is free to intervene to direct the progress of Creation towards the divine purpose for it, by events such as the Virginal Conception and the Resurrection of Jesus – miracles that ‘suspend’ natural laws.
Polkinghorne believes that a better explanation for the world as it is, which is also consistent with Christian belief about the nature of God, is that ongoing creation is an interplay between chance and necessity. A fertile world needs both necessity and regularity to provide reliable conditions for life, and chance for novel developments and progress. God is faithful, so the world must be reliable – but a totally reliable world would never change. God is loving, so will give creation freedom to evolve according to its own laws with an element of chance, and humans freedom to choose – so new possibilities will evolve within the limits of the universe.
This produces a world which is in the process of creation. It is a world with ragged edges – with both good and evil inherent in it. Following such a theology of creation, we cannot hold onto the idea of a perfect creation which was then spoilt by a Fall ( but that whole area is something we will go on to consider in later sermons in this series.
But changes like this worry some people who assume that there is a Christian doctrine of creation which has been the same for all time. That is not so. Creation theology has undergone change during the Christian era, as it has been influenced by current philosophical ideas. For instance, the belief that God creates ‘ex nihilo’ (out of nothing ) is not necessarily the biblical idea, where God seems to be creating order from a pre-existent chaos; it came about to counter Gnostic ideas that the matter which God worked with was inherently evil, and the world was the product of a demiurge, and the pure soul needed to escape from it to be with God. The Christian doctrine of creation has been evolving over the past 2000 years – and will continue to do so. It draws on the descriptions of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis, but also other passages describing creation in the Psalms and Job, and by many New Testament passages, which talk about the roles of the three persons of the Trinity in creation.
It is simply not the case that the one true Biblical theology of creation has been challenged by the discoveries of 19th and 20th century science. Christian creation theology will go on changing, in conversation with the discoveries of modern science and with our reflection upon our experience of the world we live in and our encounters with God as revealed by that world. The early scientists used to say “ God has written two books for our instruction – the book of scripture and the book of nature”. St. Paul said “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made”. John Polkinghorne writes of the friendship between science and religion, because they are both involved in the search for truth.
That is what creation theology is all about, and it is perfectly possible for us to engage in such theology with intellectual honesty in the third millenium.
February 18, 2007
Every time we finish the Lord’s Prayer we say “For thine is the Kingdom the POWER and the glory ( or the modern version of the same phrase). Today we are thinking about prayer for human beings, for us, to be endowed with that power, using a passage from Ephesians 3 as our guide.
Is it wise for us to pray for power? After all, Christians have not been notably good at using power ( or at least they have not been any better at exercising it than people who don’t claim to be Christians ). Christians have used power to persecute, torture and kill people, including other Christians, who think differently from themselves. They have used power to conquer and enslave people and have destroyed cultures in the process. Christians have used power to accumulate wealth, land and resources for themselves. Christians have used power to exclude certain groups at different times from full participation in society and in the church.
However, as the Ephesians passage makes clear, what we are talking about is not power as the world understands it. The writer ( who may be Paul, but is probably not) prays that the Ephesians may be mightily strengthened in their inner being with power through the Holy Spirit. This makes it clear that what we are talking about is not physical power or economic or political power, but spiritual strength. The writer then goes on to expand on what this inner strengthening will mean – that Christ will make his home in our hearts ( kardia, which in Jewish understanding meant not just the seat of emotion, but the centre of our being which controls will and thinking as well); and that we will become, as Christ was, rooted and grounded in love. Just to emphasise the second point , the writer uses metaphors from both the natural world (roots) and the world of human activity (foundations), to show how deeply the power to love is to become part of us. And this is not a passing thing – the word used for ‘dwell’ katoikeo – means to make a permanent home in – so we are praying for the whole of our being, every aspect of our lives to grow from, to be built on the foundations of Christ’s love.
The second difference from the way the world understands power is illustrated when the writer describes the purpose of our being strengthened with God’s power. It is not for worldly gain. It is not even to make us seem more impressive in the eyes of the world. It is so that we may have the power to grasp the immensity of God – as the passage puts it, the breadth and length and height and depth. No one aspect of God is specified in the original Greek – so are we talking about God’s wisdom, God’s creative power, the scope of salvation? The most obvious answer, and the one most translators have plumped for is God’s love, because it is the love of Christ that the passage goes on to speak of next – but what the writer is praying we may have is the fullest possible understanding that a human may have of the nature of God. This nature is far beyond all normal human understanding – so what we receive we can only receive through grace. And the purpose of this supernatural gift is so that they ( and we) may truly be filled with the fullness of God.
To be filled with the fullness ( pleroma in Greek) of God is just another way of asking that we are filled with Christ. Colossians 1.19 says of Christ “In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”. So in praying for God’s power to be granted to the Ephesians, the writer is praying for them to become more and more Christ like, in every aspect of their lives.
What does this mean for us, if we should pray this prayer for ourselves?
It means we are asking for the power to surrender more and more of our being and our lives to Christ, the power to become more humble, the power to endure more suffering, the power to face persecution and death without giving in to despair or hate. It is an awesome prospect, and something which we have to undertake as a daily exercise.
It is easy to say that we have already surrendered our lives to God. But have we really done so? The prayer asks that Christ will dwell in our hearts through faith. Faith is a term that implies an agreement between two people – it implies trust. And that is how Christ comes to us – he will not go where he is not invited, he will not force his presence on us. We have to allow Christ in.
If we think of ourselves and our lives as a home, which parts of it do we invite Christ into? Is he invited in as an honoured guest – but only allowed into the parlour, kept clean and beautifully furnished to impress the outside world – but only used on Sundays? Or is he invited in as a member of the family, the universal family that takes its name from God the Father, as one of us, and allowed to root around in all the other rooms of the house – the bathroom, the bedroom, the play room, the study, the shed where we do what we really enjoy, in the attic or cellar where all the rubbish in our lives is stored? Is everything really open to him, or do we still keep some doors in the house locked against him?
When we ask Christ into our lives, this prayer reminds us, we have to invite him into every aspect of our lives. So, it demands that we examine our lives, and ask ourselves “ Is that part of my life filled with Christ?” Take a moment to consider – Is my family life, the way I treat my spouse, my parents, my children, grounded and rooted in Christ? Is my work life filled with the fullness of God? Does my worship always reflect the glory of God? Is Christ there when I shop? In my leisure activities? When I drive? When I compete?
The first disciples believed that Jesus was the Christ because they observed that every aspect of his life was governed by the Spirit of God, the Spirit of love. He was so different from any human being they had previously encountered, that they spoke of him as a new creation, a new Adam – as one who is made in the image of God, as God created us to be. The power for which Ephesians prays is the power to surrender ourselves to God as completely as Jesus did, so that we may be filled with the fullness of God, as he was.
It is only when we surrender ourselves that completely that the power of God is able to work within us, to enable us to do the great things that Jesus did, to love the unlovable, to endure the unendurable, to live a life of a quality that cannot be ended by physical death. We cannot achieve that in our own strength. We can only achieve it through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which is identical with Christ and contains the fullness of God.
Only as that new creation, with every aspect of our lives governed by the love of God, which passes all understanding, will we in the Church give glory to God though all that we do, as Christ gave glory to the Father in all that he did.
How do we surrender ourselves so completely? We do it through prayer – through self-examination, through confessions, through inviting Christ into every aspect of our lives to heal what is wrong and to inspire what is right. Evelyn Underhill tells us “Prayer is being delicately luminous with the Love of God, in which we live and move and have our being. There is a mighty movement of the Divine generosity running right through the spiritual world, using as its agents the loving and surrendered souls of human beings.”
May we pray today and every day the prayer of Ephesians 3, that we may surrender ourselves so completely to God, that he may use us to build his kingdom in ways far beyond anything that we can ask or imagine.
Maranatha – Come Lord Jesus.
February 4, 2007
As the Christian year moves on from the celebration of Candlemas last week, so the lectionary directs our minds from the events of Jesus’s birth, and the beginning of his ministry, to consideration of his 3 year ministry, and on from that to his passion and death. However, Jesus did not work alone. So today we hear Luke’s version of the calling of the first disciples, the inner circle of Simon Peter, James and John. It is a much more elaborate account than we get in Matthew or Mark, and has many similarities to the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus at the Sea of Galilee in John 21.
In the lectionary, the account of the call of the first disciples is linked with the call of the prophet Isaiah in about 740 BC. These are two very different happenings – but they are linked by the fact that the recipients of the call recognise God in the one who is calling them, and in the sense of personal inadequacy this brings.
Isaiah’s call is the more traditional theophany (appearance of God). It occurs in a holy place, the Jerusalem Temple. The God who reveals himself is wholly other – gigantic, exalted, surrounded by creatures of fire with six wings, who worship him. We recognize in this a visionary experience.
Isaiah’s reaction to this vision is terror. He bewails his own sinfulness and the sinfulness of his people.
In the Jewish tradition of the time, no-one could approach the Holy of Holies without elaborate ritual cleansing, To do otherwise was to risk death.
The divine reaction is to perform a cleansing ritual, using fire – to touch the lips of the prophet with a live coal from the altar of sacrifice. Only then is Isaiah able to respond to God’s call: “I will go! Send me!” Only then is he worthy to give voice to the words of prophecy and warning that God entrusts to him in the remainder of this chapter.
Jesus’ call to his disciples is very different. It takes place in a very ordinary scene, while everyone concerned is going about their everyday business. The fishermen are washing their nets; Jesus is teaching. He borrows one of Simon’s boats to speak from. Then Jesus does something rather strange for a carpenter. He tells experienced fishermen to push their boats out into deep water again, and let down their nets for another catch. Peter, in character, protests, but then does as he is told – and the catch is so large as to endanger the safety of everyone in the boat. It is at this point that the experience becomes a theophany, when Peter recognizes the divine in the human person of Jesus, and like Isaiah, is struck with a sense of his own sinfulness.
But, unlike the call in Isaiah, there is no cleansing ritual before this call. There is not even a baptism as a sign that all sins have been forgiven. Jesus simply tells the disciples not to be afraid, and instructs them what their future life is to be about. The absolution is implicit in that. The call is also implicit, but the fishermen respond immediately, leaving their fishing gear behind to follow him.
Isaiah’s call is to mission to his own people, the Jews. It was only centuries later that a follower of his, whom we know as Second Isaiah, realised that God was calling his people to a greater mission, to reveal God to the whole world, and conveyed it in words which were echoed by Simeon in the Nunc Dimittis which you heard last week: “It is too light a thing that you should raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations”. (Is. 49)
Luke, however was quite sure that the Christian calling was to take the good news to the whole world, to Gentiles as well as Jews. His is the only Gospel that has a ‘Part 2’, continuing the story after the resurrection to give details of how the Gospel was carried to the limits of the known world.
I don’t know whether you feel that you are have been called by God to faith or ministry. Or if you do, whether you can pinpoint a moment or a process when that call came. If so, was it like Isaiah’s call – a vision – or like the call of the first disciples, something that came from your everyday work or life?
There was a tendency in the church to value the visionary type of call over the everyday sort. But, I don’t think one sort of call is superior – I think how we are called depends to a great extent on the sort of people we are. Some people ( and I’m not one of them ) are prone to visionary experiences, so they are more likely to hear God’s call in the context of worship, or intense emotion.
Others are of a more practical disposition, and so their call is likely to come ( perhaps in a gradual way ) during the course of their everyday work. That’s certainly how my call to Reader ministry came about. In my previous parish, I spent some time as the Parish Secretary. My Vicar knew I had been trained as a teacher, so often asked me to help him prepare material for use in the church school and youth organisations. As time went on, we also worked together on other sermons, including a series on the Eucharist, which we presented one Lent. When he was ill, and unable to give one of the sermons, I had to do it instead at a Parish Eucharist. Though I had given addresses at Family Services before then, this was the first time I had ‘preached’ at a Eucharist, and that was the point at which I felt I ought to be properly authorised. So, my call was not a dramatic or particularly religious experience. But my experience as a Reader since then has confirmed to me that it was, nevertheless, a genuine call.
God calls us, I think, in the manner in which we are most likely to hear him. What we have to do is to be alert, in all circumstances, to hear God’s voice, and to respond. It will not always be a call to a major change in life-style – it may just be a challenge to continue doing what we are doing, but with a greater consciousness of the way we can serve the Kingdom as we do it. Or it may be a call to explore our faith further, and to deepen our relationship with God.
But it may be a call to do something completely different – and if so, our first reaction, like Isaiah’s, like Peter’s – may be a sense of our own inadequacy. If this is our reaction, then the Luke’s story of the call of the first disciples should be of comfort to us. The disciples left behind their nets and their boats; but Jesus’ words indicated that the skills and the experience they already had would be adapted and used in the service of the Kingdom; and so it may be with us. Our sense of our own unworthiness is a necessary prerequisite of responding to God’s call, but it is not a barrier to serving God and working with Christ.
Through the Spirit, God will equip us for whatever
he calls us to do. This is not to say that doing what God calls us to do won’t sometimes leave us feeling worn out, frustrated and failures. That’s what Peter and the other disciples felt before Jesus called them. “We’ve worked hard all night long and caught nothing”. How often do we feel like saying that to God when our new mission strategy or stewardship campaign hasn’t produced the results we hoped for? Perhaps the churches for whom Luke was writing his Gospel were going through an experience like that, and that is why his account of the calling of the disciples included this encouraging story of the miraculous catch of fishes by those who were called by Jesus to ‘fish for people’.
That catch only came because Peter responded in the way Jesus asked him to do so. In the same way, if our response to our vocation, to God’s call to us, is a willing “Nevertheless, if you say so, I will do it” then ultimately we will succeed in what God has called us to do.