Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Some prayers from the Orthodox tradition

Heavenly King
O heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who is in all places and dwells in all things, the Treasury of blessing and the Giver of life. Come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save, O gracious One, our souls. Amen

Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

The Jesus Prayer
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”


Lenten Prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian
O Lord and Master of my life,
Do not give to me the spirit of laziness, faintheartedness, lust for power, and idle talk.
But give to me, Your servant, the spirit of purity, humility, patience and love.
O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother or sister,
for blessed are You unto ages of ages. Amen.

The great Canon of St Andrew the Great (read on Wednesday before Easter)

Easter Canon
Christ is risen from the dead! Death has destroyed death, and to those who were in the grave, Life has been given.


Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow
O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You.
You alone know what are my true needs.
You love me more than I myself know how to love.
Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me.
I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation.
I can only wait on You.
Visit and help me, for the sake of Your great mercy.
Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up.
I worship in silence Your holy will and Your unsearchable ways.
I offer myself as a sacrifice to You.
I have no other desire than to seek to fulfil Your will.
Teach me to pray. Pray You Yourself in me. Amen

Thursday, 23 March 2017

A different kind of religion

Philippians 3.1-11

I went on a website which asks what, in a secular world, takes the place of religion today?

Among other things, people mentioned: political affiliation, health foods, fitness, motorbikes, gaming, music (specifically, the Beatles and One Direction!), social media. The big one was Sport.

But I guess our 'religion' can also be all those things in which we put our confidence, things such as status, success, hard work, money, our moral standing, education, fitness, family etc.

Paul, the writer of Philippians, was clearly immensely able. He had a brilliant mind, the equivalent of a top Oxbridge or Harvard graduate. And he had all the credentials that would have given him great status in the society in which he lived.

In Philippians 3, Paul speaks about some of the things in which he could have put his confidence:
He had been through the right rituals
He was of the very best family
His doctrine was utterly sound.
He was committed, zealous and he worked hard.
And he was morally upright. He kept the law, certainly on the surface.

But, Paul says, he was prepared to treat all of that as rubbish.
In fact, the word he uses is much stronger .. he treats those things as c**p


There are two reasons:

1. The things that secular religion offers are nothing in comparison to what God offers.

They are nothing in comparison to the relationship which God offers us.
'The surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord' (3.8)
Knowing Jesus; knowing him and his presence and guidance and comfort and strength and peace is a far greater experience than anything this world can offer. And I do hope that you have occasionally had glimpses of that.

They are nothing in comparison to the righteousness which God offers us.
'The righteousness that comes from faith' (3.9)
Righteousness is a word that covers so much in the bible. If knowing Jesus is something personal and experiential, righteousness is something that is much more objective. It is about the forgiveness that God has given us. It is about how he adopts us as his children, places us in the fellowship of the church, and gives us the Spirit. The righteousness that God gives promises us fulfilment, deep fellowship (Paul speaks of how he 'longs' to be with the Philippian Christians [1.8; 4.1]), glimpses of joy and the hope of glory.

They are nothing in comparison to the resurrection power which God offers us.
'I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection' (3.10)
This is ultimate power. It is bigger than death.
And we see glimpses of this power when the life of God breaks into death situations.
- when a person becomes a Christian; when a sinner who is cut off from God turns to God and repents. I was recently visiting a church which has a very special ministry to people who are homeless, many of whom have drug and alcohol dependency issues. In the period of 5 years, they have seen 60 baptisms. People meet Christ, discover a love for him and his word, and find strength in their struggle to become free. That is the resurrection power of God.
- when we see the supernatural power of God. I think of a couple of recent miraculous healings in our own church; of our retreat a couple of years ago when a person who struggled to see was suddenly, for a short while, able to see completely clearly.
And this is the power which will, when we die, bring life to our physically dead bodies.

2. Paul treats these things as garbage, because the things that secular religion offer take us away from God. 

We end up living for them, putting our trust in them, and not living for God and putting our trust in him. We live for false gods and we put our trust in our status, morality, our hard work, our religious rituals.

If we are to receive the love of God, we need to be prepared to give up our false gods and our false ways. We need to die to them. That is why Paul calls us to become like Jesus in his death.

In v10, Paul speaks about 'the fellowship of sharing in his [Christ's] sufferings'.
He is not saying that we are put right with God by virtue of what we suffer.
That would simply be substituting justification by suffering for justification by works.
Rather, he is saying that we know the sharing of his suffering when we become like him in his death.
Jesus has already suffered, His suffering is sufficient for us.
But we share in that suffering when we are prepared to die to ourselves, to our false gods and to throw ourselves completely on his love for us and on what he has done for us.

When we are dead, there is nothing that we can live for and nothing that we can depend on.
When we are dead, those things that we depend on for our glory become meaningless: sport, music, gaming, politics, motorbikes, career, family.
When we are dead our achievements and identity and successes and failures mean nothing.
And when we are dead, all we can do is depend on the mercy and power of God to bring us back to life.

Baptism is a symbol of this death and resurrection.
As I went under the water, or as I was washed with the water of baptism, so I was united to Jesus in his death. I died to myself. I died to the things that I have treated as gods; I died to my ambitions, successes and failures, status and identity. I died to my religious efforts. I shared in the sufferings of Christ by becoming like him in his death.
But as I come up out of the water, I come up alive, as a new person, with the risen Christ.

It is important that you have been baptised. Jesus commands it.
But it does not matter when you were baptised or how you were baptised (that would again be putting our trust in rituals).
What does matter is that we are living that baptism now; that we are living as people who are learning daily, each moment of our lives, what it means to die to ourselves, to put our trust in Jesus and to be brought alive again by the power of God.

That is why Paul is so angry with people who are trying to persuade those who have put their trust in Jesus to go back to putting their trust in religious rituals.
It is why he is prepared and able to treat the things that he had lived for and all the things that he had depended on as rubbish.

He knows that this world has nothing in comparison to the relationship, righteousness and resurrection power that God can offer us.
And he knows that it is only by dying to ourselves that we will discover both real life here and now, and life then, in the final resurrection of the dead.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

How do we really know God loves us?

There can be many reasons why we might doubt whether God loves us.

We struggle with sin. Paul speaks about that in Romans 8.1-8. How could God possibly love somebody who messes it up so often?

We suffer. Paul speaks about ‘the sufferings of this present age’ in vv18-25. How can God love us when dreadful things happen?

Our prayer life is pathetic. In vv26-27 Paul writes of how weak we are in our prayer. We don’t know how to pray or what to pray for.

And our love for God is so feeble. We may have moments when we declare our love for him, and our desire to serve him, but most of the time we live as if God does not exist.

It is in the face of this, that Paul writes these amazing verses. If Romans 8 is the Himalayas of the Bible, verses 28-39 are its Everest

And Paul declares

1.      The certainty of our call
He writes, ‘For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son’.

We get very uptight about the idea of predestination. For us it is part of the philosophical debate between advocates of determinism and free will. We say that if we are predestined, then does that not mean that God predestines some to heaven and some to hell; and if God predestines some to hell how can one speak of a God of justice or a God of love? Don’t we end up with the God of Islam, who sends some to salvation and some to damnation, and all we can do is submit to his inscrutable will.

But the bible teaches two things that are, according to our reason, logically incompatible. It teaches that God foreknows and predestines. But it also teaches that God is absolutely just and that we have full freedom and responsibility for our decisions and our actions. And rather than seeing predestination and freewill as two he-men fighting a bitter battle which will only end when one of them disappears in a puff of logic, we are instead to see them as two friends who we can turn to at different times.
And the bible turns to freewill when it is urging us to repent or to make a decision to serve Christ; and it turns to predestination when we’re beginning to get puffed up and think that we have saved  ourselves or, as in this case, when we start to worry whether God really does love us.

Listen, says Paul,
Do you have even the tiniest sense of the call of God on your life?
Do you have even the smallest awareness of the love of God?
Do you have the teensiest sense of gratitude to God for his mercy and forgiveness?
Do you have just a tiny inclination to serve God?
Do you have a microscopic dot of love for God?
.. then God has set his hand on you.

And if you now look at yourself and don’t see those things, and you think, 'I am cut off from God', and as a result you are now mortified, then please do not despair. God has not given up on you. He is at work in you. He is calling you.

But if you don’t have those things, and you could not care less ..

I do not worry for atheists who are angry with God. That usually means God is at work in them and they are fighting against him.
Far more serious is the situation of agnostics who couldn’t care less, or of those who profess to be Christians but have grown ice-cold to the things of God.

But the good news is this: predestination means that if we have a flicker of a flame of love for God, then nothing can snatch us away from the purposes of God for us. We will be justified and glorified. We will become like Christ. 

I was talking last week with someone about doubt. He is in a dreadful situation. He is paralysed up to the neck and he soon will lose the ability to speak. So perhaps it is not surprising that we were speaking about doubt. But what Paul is saying is that even our doubt cannot take us away from Jesus. We can doubt God and long for God at the same time. If God knows you, then you are predestined to become like Jesus Christ in his glory. Nothing can stop that.

2.      Paul speaks of the certainty that all will be well
‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose’ (v28)

Mother Julian of Norwich in her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ wrote,
“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.
But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'

I think that is God applying the truth of v28 to the heart of Mother Julian. ‘All things work together for good’.
And what are those ‘all things’?
I think that they are the things mentioned in v35ff, things that come because there is sin in the world: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, slaughter.

The point is that we can have the conviction that if we have a spark of love for God, then even if we suffer dreadfully, we have the promise that all things will work for good.

Sufferings will come. Paul has made this clear earlier in this chapter.  
But here he writes that those sufferings will eventually work for good.

It is easy to be glib about this.
This is not speaking about rewards in the visible world while we are physically alive.
It is not saying that we hurt today so we will be happy tomorrow.
Job may have had all his stuff returned to him at the very end of the book, but even if that had not happened the book would still have had a happy ending, because Job had got his deepest wish. He had met with God.

As we grow older, sufferings can multiply. We get pains here and pains there. Things are stripped away from us. We are unable to drive and lose our freedom (I’m holding out for driverless cars!); bangs and bashes and falls hurt more; we don’t heal as easily. Growing older can be a real bummer, as someone said to me. And some people want to opt out: ‘let me take the pill’, they say.

But that is not the Christian approach.
Paul is saying in Romans that the sufferings themselves can be used by God
And Paul is saying that our suffering here is nothing compared to the future glory that awaits us.

I think women often get this easier than men. In v22 Paul writes of the groans of this present creation as being like a woman in labour. There is the pain, intense pain, but then there is, God willing, the joy.

3.      Paul speaks of the conviction that nobody can bring any charge against God’s elect (v33)
God is not against us. God isn’t up there looking for us to slip up, so that he can throw the book at us. God is for us. God is on our side.
And we know that because he has given us his Son. And if he gives us his own eternal Son, then he is going to give us everything else: his love, life, freedom, beauty, holiness, peace, joy and glory.

So when you begin to wonder whether your love for God is too small, your sin too great, your prayer too feeble or if you feel you are worthless, remember what God has given for us.
And remember that it is God who justifies. It is God who declares that because of Jesus you are forgiven, accepted by him, a son or daughter of God.
And remember that it is Jesus Christ himself, the eternal Son of God, who is praying for us.

We say to people, ‘Pray for me’. Christians in the Orthodox or Roman Catholic tradition may turn to the saints departed and say to them ‘Pray for me’. But actually we don’t need either – although it really is good for us to humble ourselves and express our need before each other – because Jesus, who died for us is now alive and he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he knows our real needs. And he is praying for us.

So please don’t let the ‘unworthy’ thoughts control you.
Yes, it is good to realise that we are unworthy and sinful. But remember that you are first and foremost beloved of God; that he is on your side, that he has declared you forgiven and accepted, his son and daughter; and that Jesus himself is praying for you.

4.      Paul speaks of the certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God (v39)
There is nothing in life or in death; in this the seen visible word, or in that the unseen invisible world; nothing now, nothing then which can separate us from the love of God.

It doesn’t matter where we go, what tragedies befall us, whether we experience multiple bereavements, chronic or acute pain, terminal illness, failure, shame and ridicule; It doesn’t matter whether we are ridiculed, imprisoned or even murdered. In fact, Paul writes, we are conquerors through these things. 
Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

I appreciate that it is easy to say that and far harder to live that.
In one sense the whole of our Christian discipleship is about learning to let that truth move from our head to our heart, so that a fact that we believe in becomes an experience that we live.
So we need to ask Jesus, through his Spirit, to apply that truth to our heart: nothing can separate us from the love of God.

These verses begin by speaking about 'those who love God' (v28).
That love is a response to all that God has done for us.
But if I am anything to go by, then we know that our love for Him is pitiful.
But the passage ends up speaking not of our love for God, but of his love for us. 'Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord' (v39)
And it is that love on which we take our stand.