St Mary the Virgin, Diss. The Ninth Sunday after Trinity 2018 (Proper 12)
Ephesians 3:14-End, John 6.1-21.
May I speak in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I wonder how you feel about prayer? For some of us, it may be a life-giving habit, while for others it can be an awkward moment of silence where the sound of the traffic outside suddenly seems particularly noticeable. Some people seem to love the silence, while others want to speak out loud or paint or hold small pebbles in their hand. Prayer can be a tricky thing to talk about, daunting, maybe, to ask about. And if someone were to ask us what prayer is or how to pray we might find that we have an instinctive idea which turns out to be surprisingly difficult to find the right words for.
In my experience, people often say that prayer is a mixture of two things. Talking to and hearing from God.
It sounds simple, yet it can sometimes seem so hard.
Growing up as the child of a Vicar, you might expect that praying would come naturally to me. But my experience of prayer has been that it is a discipline, something which has to be actively chosen. I used to go on Christian Summer Camps and those would be the spiritual highlight of my years, but any enthusiasm for faith that I gained would slowly fade until midwinter when I would realise that I hadn’t prayed much in ages.
In 2011 I started my Theology degree at the London School of Theology, and it was the first time that I had spent more than a week or ten days with lots of other Christians my own age. I began to compare myself, and my perception of my faith, to them and, to be honest, I felt like something of a fraud. I didn’t feel ‘holy enough’. And so I decided that I would pray every night before going to bed. And that’s what I did. Every night, without fail, for first a week, and then a month and then two months. As time went by I began to feel frustrated. I didn’t see any of the things I prayed for happening in my life or in my friends’ lives. It felt as though I was just mumbling at the ceiling while I lay in bed. One Monday night I had had enough. I prayed and told God that clearly, he’s not interested in my prayers and so, while I’ll still pray when I go to church and with other people, this would be my last time praying before I go to bed.
Tuesday morning came and I went to Chapel for the weekly service. After chapel, we would all walk to lunch. I was just looking at the menu pinned to the wall outside when I heard someone say my name. I turned and saw Brendal, a wonderfully enthusiastic pentecostal lady who, to be honest, I didn’t quite know what to make of. She explained to me that last night she’d had a dream, and she’d seen me praying by my bed. And she said that God had told her “You must tell Samuel that he is not to stop praying because I do hear his prayers”. To say that I was bowled over would be an understatement. It was quite impossible for this to be a lucky guess or a mistake – it had to be a message from God saying to keep on praying! And I’ve since become convinced that this message does not mean that I, Samuel, now Revd Samuel standing before you now, am some kind of magical or special prayer. Not at all. Rather I am convinced that this is a testimony that God hears all of our prayers, even, and especially when we don’t feel like he does.
So what’s the deal with ‘prayer’?
Yes, we might say that we talk to God and that we listen to God in prayer. I think that while true, this is not the complete picture and it’s a picture which cannot be conveyed properly through finding ‘the right words’.
There is an elusive, mysterious ‘something’ which cannot be grasped by clever words but only lived through a constant and faithful choosing to pray.
We see a glimpse of this in our Gospel reading today, when Jesus, seeing that the crowd were ready to make him king by force, retreats up onto the mountain.
He goes alone and returns to his disciples later. We know from the gospels that Jesus often went off by himself into the hills and onto the mountains to pray. He chooses to do this this time having just fed the five thousand, the crowd began to say that he was the prophet who is to come into the world, so let’s make him king! It could have been tempting to get swept up in the drama and energy of the situation but instead Jesus keeps his focus on his heavenly father by heading up the mountain.
Because even Jesus, the son of God, prays.
So too does St Paul. It’s safe to say that some people have mixed feelings about Paul, and that in places he can seem, let’s say, controversial. In fact in the Autumn, our discover groups will be exploring Paul and his letters to understand him better.
Now, I don’t know how you feel about Paul but I wonder: have you ever thought about how Paul would feel about you?
Our reading today makes this very clear because here we have Paul praying for the church, first in Ephesus and then for all generations for ever and ever! We may feel that Paul was a long time ago and that he’s in a different context and that he can be overly complicated but here he lays it all on the line and prays for us across the ages – and what a prayer it is.
The prayer starts, “For this reason”, well what reason? Just before this prayer, Paul is explaining that his mission is to help us to understand the mystery of Christ so that through the Church the wisdom of God in all its richness might be made known.
Because of Paul’s desire that we might all grow to understand more clearly the mystery of faith, he prays this prayer for us:
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.”
This is what Paul wants for each of us!
That we might be Strengthened with Power.
That Christ might Dwell in our hearts,
That we might be Grounded in Love.
Paul wants these things for us with such passion! He wants us to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge. Think about that, he’s saying: I want you to know the love which is greater than you can possibly know! There’s two kinds of knowing, you can know of or about something, or you can know something – and Paul says I want you to know the Love that Jesus has for you which is far greater than all of the facts, or quotes, or sermons you might hear about that love.
This love isn’t just greater than we can wrap our heads around, it doesn’t stop there because Paul continues to describe Jesus as the one who ‘by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine’.
Jesus is God, the Lord of all creation. By his power he called reality itself out of nothing into existence, it’s by his will that the stars were flung into the canvass of space, that life began here on earth and people, human beings of every size, shape, and race came into being – people whom he loves so much that he became human and dwelt among us. Seeking the joy of our becoming Children and Friends of God he endured suffering and death upon the Cross before being resurrected as an eternally living promise of love.
He is able to accomplish abundantly more than we can imagine!
And he does this through his power at work within us; the Holy Spirit, who makes Christ to dwell in our hearts, and by his presence there strengthens us in our inner being and roots us in love.
The power of the Holy Spirit was seen first when the Father raised Jesus from the dead and is seen today through the healing, growth and transformation of our own personal lives.
I believe that it is the presence of the Holy Spirit, with and in us, which is the key to that ‘elusive something’ which happens in prayer, and that for our lives to develop from where we are to where we want to be we need to chose to pray, to choose to encounter Jesus, again and again.
Even for disciples who have followed Jesus for a long time, this can seem intimidating. Yet in our Gospel reading we had heard Jesus say to the disciples one of my favourite things:
“It is I, do not be afraid.”
In a short while, we shall be receiving Holy Communion together, and I invite you to come forwards. Eat the bread, and drink the wine, or come simply for a blessing – and hear Jesus say to you, “It is I. Do not be afraid.”
So come, we are all on a journey through life together.
For it to go well, it has to be a journey of prayer,
a journey walking with Jesus,
And it’s going to be better than we could possibly imagine.
To him be glory in the church, to all generations forever and ever.
This was my first sermon as an ordained deacon in the Church of England, at the Benefice Service of the Diss Team Ministry in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Diss on the 29th July 2018.