Sermon Archives

Sunday, July 24, 2016
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12, Year C)
The Bishop Terry Brown
Christ: The Root, The Way, The Prayer

Texts: Colossians 2:6-19 and Luke 11:1-13.

In the canon of Scripture, the Epistle to the Colossians is not thought to be from the direct hand of Paul himself but a later reflection on Paul’s theology by a faithful and thoughtful follower. The Epistle has moved from the narrowly apocalyptic and exclusive views of the earlier letters to a view of Christ (sometimes nicknamed “the Cosmic Christ”) that is present, inclusive and all-embracing, both of believers but also of all humanity and all creation. As such it is an epistle for today as we struggle with the diversity of the world, the integrity of the environment and our need to integrate so many elements into our Christian faith and life.

We read in the Epistle, “Continue to live your lives in [Christ Jesus], rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” The call is to absolute rootedness in Christ, so that all we do, all our personal relationships, our relationship with creation and the environment, our political activities, our public and private presence (including our presence on the social media) are absolutely and totally rooted “in Christ”. “In Christ” (Greek, en Christo) is Paul’s shorthand for rootedness in Christ’s presence with us (Incarnation), Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross (Atonement) and Christ’s rising from death (Resurrection). That is, of course, the Baptismal Mystery and day-by-day we are called to live more deeply into it.

This process is not simply an intellectual exercise but rather results in a Christian way of life. The great Anglo-Catholic bishop of Oxford, Charles Gore, was once asked by a London slum settlement house to give a lecture entitled “Christianity Applied to the Life of Men and Nations”. In responding, he first had to tell the audience that the very title itself displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Christianity. Christianity is not, he explained, a set of beliefs or principles or ideas applied to various world or even personal situations. Rather, he explained, Christianity is first and foremost a WAY OF LIFE and Christians are those who walk that Way. He reminded his hearers that the first name for Christians, in the Book of Acts, was “followers of the Way”. We follow the Way together, as a community, helping one another along the Way. For Paul, that is what it meant to be “in Christ”.

More strikingly, Gore went on to argue that Christianity as a Way of Life is prior to Christianity as correct doctrine, correct ethics, correct church order, correct liturgy, correct spirituality, correct conversion or any other concept that we want to say is the foundational point of Christianity. Yet often it is those subsidiary elements that we argue most about – doctrine, ethics, church order, liturgy, spirituality, or conversion.   If we live the Christian Way, in Christ, living with Christ-like love, allowing, through God’s grace, Christ’s presence, Cross and Resurrection to live in and through our lives, these other very important elements fall into place; indeed, they will change and develop as we grow in Christian experience along the Way.

To continue to reflect on the Colossians passage through this lens of being followers of the Christian Way, the passage points out we can fall off or stray off the road, “through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe”. And later in the passage, though dietary laws, observances of special days, and other practices, which today we might gloss as special forms of spirituality or spiritual discipline that we claim give us special access to God – that might be anything from Seventh Day Adventist Sabbath observance to Mormon Gnosticism to New Age crystals to privileged forms of spirituality to seeing particular politicians or political systems as the only way to God. At their best, these are but shadows of the reality, the substance, Christ.  At their worst, they are demonic and permanently keep us from returning to and following the Way.

For some years I was part of an international Anglican body called TEAC, Theological Education for the Anglican Communion, that brought together Anglican theological educators and leaders from around the Communion to try to develop some standards for Anglican theological education. When it came time to describe what it means to be an Anglican (or Episcopalian), we settled not on “Anglicanism” (or any other “ism”) as these suggest ideology, but rather on “the Anglican Way”; that is, the Anglican (or Episcopalian) Way of walking the Christian Way. Putting that walking together first, allows us to walk together both with ourselves and other Christians, despite our differences. When it came to time to title our statement on the Anglican Way, we called it “Signposts on a Common Journey”. It is a document worth reading and studying.

One result of following the Christian Way in relationship with one another is growth in the Christian life. In Christ, as the author of Colossians notes, “the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God”. We are not Puritans who see no hope of human spiritual growth and maturity because of our innate depravity. Rather we believe, as part of the great Catholic tradition, that grace perfects nature; and that as we grow in rootedness in Christ and walking along the Christian Way together, that we grow into Christian maturity, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority”.  

What do we have to assist us along the Christian Way?

Prayer, of course, is one answer and today’s Gospel gives us the Lord’s Prayer, after an unnamed disciple asks, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  Like the simple teaching to be utterly rooted in Christ, utterly committed to living the Christian Way, the prayer Jesus gives is utterly simple: recognition of the divine and reverence; submission to God’s Reign in Christ; simple sustenance; forgiveness – both to forgive and be forgiven – and preservation from utter disaster.

Because of our human needs, the temptation in prayer is always to go from simple to complex; and from complex to sometimes sheer foolishness, at worst, telling God what to do. In the Solomon Islands, where I lived and worked for many years, I once heard a Sunday intercession that went like this: “Lord, we pray for our bishops; even though they don’t do their work well, even though their family lives are messed up, even though they are corrupt with money, we pray for them; Lord, hear our prayer. Lord, we pray for the staff of our theological college; even though they drink to much and don’t teach well, we prayer for them, Lord hear our prayer” I gritted my teeth through that prayer; though he may have had heartfelt reasons for praying in such a way, it was not the way to pray. I spoke with the intercessor afterwards.

We saw a bit of the same phenomenon in prayers at a certain political convention last week; let us hope next week’s convention prayers are better.

But even in personal prayers and public intercessions, it is good to step back now and then from long lists of needs to the insight that God knows our needs and the needs of the world before we ask; and that the simple petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are sufficient. On the other end of the spectrum, I am not convinced that simple silence alone is enough, and there are important traditions of contemplative prayer and centring prayer; but our God is Word made flesh and we need to articulate in words our needs to God. And we are encouraged to ask believing what we ask will be provided.

As a child, I was a stamp collector but also a Sunday School prize-winner. I remember the day I tried to combine the two by praying for a certain set of very exotic triangular stamps from some place like Azerbaijan to appear on the mantle piece overnight. I prayed devoutly that evening but when I checked the mantle piece the next morning there were no stamps. Needless to say, that was “a learning experience”. Prayers are answered but it may be with more gifts to handle more difficult situations rather than make a problem go away. And we need to guard against the scourge of the Prosperity Gospel that ranks the quality of our faith by the material rewards and satisfaction we receive. Sometimes we may be left with only the cry of abandonment in the psalms or the cry of Jonah, “Why? How long, O Lord?”

The combination of rootedness in Christ, walking the Christian Way together, and deep and simple prayer, following the Lord’s prayer, should produce, in the end, a radical (radical, of course, comes from radix, root, like a radish) Christian life of radical love that does not exclude; radical generosity that is truly sacrificial not tokenism; radical self-emptying (kenosis) of ways of life that are not ultimately necessary for the Gospel in whatever time and place we find ourselves, that we may be better filled with Christ;  radical political action that contributes to a world of love and equality; radical friendship and intimacy – and the list goes on.

All this may sound very heavy and at times it may feel very heavy. But there is also the grace of Resurrection. Hands that are filled with possessions, or hands that are grasping something, hands that are formed into fists, are heavy hands. The same with our hearts. We are called to open hands and open hearts, that we may give, bless and receive. “His yoke is easy and his burden light”.  In the end, the lessons call us to re-examination and recommitment to the simple but radical faith of living “in Christ”, walking the Christian way of love, justice, forgiveness and compassion together, grounded in simple trusting prayer, that God my work his Resurrection in us. Thanks be to God.