Lord, teach us to pray

Another sermon, soon I will be focusing on the Church of England’s General Synod election…  First, and very briefly, what is prayer?  Then, who does the praying?  And then, what do we pray for?  (Bible passages Genesis 18:20-32, and Luke 11:1-13)

What is prayer?  A list of requests?  Like little children are taught?  “God bless mummy and daddy…?”  Remember the prayer clock we used as one way of explaining the different kinds of prayer there are – to encourage us to pray for at least an hour a day?  (I am pleased that several years after making them, our Morden prayer clock is still ticking away on the wall of several of our congregation’s homes).  There are lots of different kinds of prayer.  I said this part of the sermon would be very brief.  Let’s summarise the answer as:  Asking, and Listening.   As we have heard the two readings for today, it is these other two questions about prayer that I want to focus on:  To whom do we pray?  And, who does the praying?

To whom do we pray?  It is to God, as Father.  God as mother too?  Yes, the spirit of God sometimes, the wisdom of God in the Old Testament, is referred to as female.  But I’m not going to get into the sexism debate.  When Jesus was asked about husbands and wives in heaven, he said there is no marriage in heaven.  And so as not to get side-tracked, for the sake of this sermon, please assume Father means parent.

More to the point, there is a clear respect, honour that is expected in the phrase Our father in heaven.  Back to the fifth commandment that God gave to Moses: Respect, honour your Father and your mother.  Literally, to make heavy, weighty.  This is heavy language, a relationship not to be taken flippantly.  How soon these days, children learn to think they can correct their parents, challenge them.  Daughters correcting their fathers especially, usually by the time they are three, some even only two years old.  By the time they are seven, most parents these days have lost it.  Fortunately for me, I took my children off to the Middle East for a few years where respect for parents lasts a little longer than here in the west.

I was interested to read yesterday how Conrad Black, one-time owner of the Daily Telegraph, and worth around £100 million, but imprisoned 3 years ago in America for allegedly dodgy dealings, and was previously a very arrogant person – he was standing before the bail judge on Friday with his head bowed, saying repeatedly “yes, your honour…” seemingly a very different attitude to before his prison term.  We probably give deference to our doctor – he/she should know what they are talking about.  I hope children here are polite to older people, to their class teacher, and even more so to their head teacher.  I could go on.

As well as respect, it is to Our Father that we pray.  Not my Father, but we recognise as we come to prayer, that we are part of God’s family.  This is so important, and what so many Christians these days seem to forget.  Against the background of family breaking down as a social unit, so Christians think of themselves more and more in isolation from other Christians, and meeting together as part of God’s family becomes less important.

The first part of the Lord’s prayer is concerned for the things of God – “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven…”  Today, I am going to jump straight over these very proper requests that Jesus tells us to make, and to come to the second half of the prayer, where it seems to become more personal.  And yet of course, it isn’t.

Here too, everything is concerned with the fulfilment of God’s purposes (and note how it stays plural, there is still no ‘me’ here).  This should be the focus of our lives.  No me, rather, us.

‘Give us this day our bread for tomorrow.’ At this point in the prayer some people sigh with relief. Here at last, they think, is something practical. At last we can have something for ourselves. And then we can expand on it and make a list of all the things we would like for ourselves, and call them ‘our daily bread’ and hope that we will get them.

But of course, Jesus has told us that we do not need to pray for such things (Matthew 6.32). There He said, and in this context, ‘do not be anxious about what you shall eat’, and then He criticises the Gentiles for being anxious about ‘these things’, which refers to what they eat and drink. Would He then in this prayer tell us to ask for food, contrary to all that He has said otherwise? And if He now does tell us to ask for food, what about clothing as well? se are equally important.  The fact is that in the whole passage Jesus is taking our thoughts away from such earthly things. He is stressing heavenly provision.  The whole passage gives the impression that we do not need to pray for earthly things because (like any father would) our Father will provide them without our asking, and all we have to do is say ‘thank You’.

And some would then say, ‘Yes, that is what it is. We are saying, ‘Thank you’ and expressing our dependence. And that is why they like to translate the Greek word ‘daily’. But that is not the impression gained from the whole of the chapter. The impression gained from the whole chapter is that it is concentrating on seeking ‘heavenly’ things, such as heavenly treasure (6.20), God not mammon (6.24), while accepting our food and clothing as and when supplied by God (6.25-31).  Dr Kenneth Bailey is sure, that we should translate the Aramaic word, not as today, but as ‘tomorrow’.  Jesus is telling to pray for tomorrow’s bread.

So, what does Jesus mean by ‘Tomorrow’s bread’? The idea of ‘Tomorrow’ certainly came to be connected with the great Tomorrow, the last days as connected with the Messiah. The Jews were constantly looking forward to the great ‘Tomorrow’. And it seems quite likely then that Jesus was teaching them to pray for the bread of the last days, for the bread of that time when the chosen of God would eat at Messiah’s table, for He wanted them to know that it was imminent, and that that bread was available to His people even now, because the Messiah had come. He wanted them to think in terms of being part of the great Tomorrow in being with Him, and that that was why He had come, in order to feed people today with the Bread of the great Tomorrow.

Bread is in fact very much connected with ‘the last days’, a phrase which in the New Testament includes the life and ministry of Jesus. And we must remember that to the disciples He had brought in these ‘last days’ (Acts 2.17). The ‘end of the ages’ was here (1 Corinthians 10.11). And in the last days the belief was that the Messiah would give bread from Heaven, as Moses had (compare John 6.31-32 in the context of the feeding of the crowds with bread). And that is why Jesus referred to Himself as ‘the bread of life’ (John 6.35). He said that He had come to bring God’s bread to His people even now. He had come as God’s Bread from Heaven.

I mentioned Dr Ken Bailey, who inspired so much of my Middle East ministry, including the Good Shepherd window in the new Muscat church.  Another Kenneth, my old friend Bishop Cragg, suggests that instead of saying ‘give us this day our daily bread’ we should pray, give us today Messiah’s bread.  If we can pray that, then we have surely learned the heart of prayer.

And what about forgiveness, that Jesus’ prayer focuses much on?  Well, I havn’t spoken at all about our first reading, that strange tale of Abraham pleading with God for the city of Sodom.  Here, a Russion icon from the early 1400’s, by someone called Andrey Rublev.  He painted it to represent the three angels that visited Abraham, to warn him of Sodom’s impending destruction, Andrey Rublev called it the visitation.  In the Genesis account that came before the passage we heard read, one angel speaks as if he is God – some commentators suggest that it was actually the pre-existent Jesus.  Many suggest that Rublev’s icon depicts the Trinity, although Russian Orthodox church is sure that it does not!

The point being, that in the Genesis story of ch. 19, we have an amazing example of someone, Abraham in this case, praying fervently to God, as if to change his mind, revealing a God of mercy and compassion.  In his prayer for Sodom, Abraham learned more about the God he was in relationship with.  Three chapters on, Genesis 22, and Abraham learned more about his God, who rescued Isaac and provided an alternative sacrifice for sin.  And that of course, is the shadow of the real forgiveness that is to be offered to humankind, through the cross of Jesus, the perfect life laid down.

I have run out of time.  I hope you have enough for now to chew on – to provide grist for the mill of your prayers.  Forget the ‘me’ in prayer, its ‘we’, ‘Our Father’.  Remember the respect that is due, as we listen in prayer, as well as in what we ask for.  Above all, remember to pray for tomorrow’s bread, Messiah’s bread – as we allow the power of the cross of the Messiah to have its full impact on our lives, and to bring us into relationship with the God who has created us to enjoy that relationship, for ever.

If only in England….

Last night a confirmation service, for eight teenagers and six adults, at Emmanuel, Morden – one of the four churches in my team.  Recently retired Bishop David Atkinson presided, he did us proud, despite my telling him that the last Bishop David I served with was David Jenkins….  It was a service full of hope for the future.

Thinking about evangelism, I came across this article by Edmond Chua, Christian Post (USA) correspondent.  It was under the title:  BISHOP EXPECTS HALF OF NIGERIANS TO BE EVANGELISED.  As a student teacher in Nigeria in 1964, I saw and was inspired by, the church growth I experienced there, based on Christian love.  Pictured – the new Archbishop of Nigeria, Nicholas Orogodo Okoh.

“Just after the First World War, an Anglican diocese was established in Lagos in Nigeria. Ninety-one years later, it has become the largest active Protestant church body in the world.  Much of the growth of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, however, occurred during the last two decades.  From 24 dioceses in 1988, the church has grown to 156 dioceses. Every Sunday, the Church of Nigeria gathers 20 million people in worship of Jesus Christ.   The 22-year period of the dramatic growth of the Church of Nigeria coincides with the terms of the last two primates, or heads of the church.  What happened?

To find out, The Christian Post spoke with the immediate past primate of the Church of Nigeria over the phone.  According to the Rt. Rev. Peter Jasper Akinola, it all started when bishops stopped thinking of themselves as bishops in the conventional sense. Previously, the bishop was addressed as “His Lordship.” He mainly occupied the position of the office, had everything done for him, attended meetings, decided mission strategies, and graced ceremonies.  “Today, every bishop (in the Church of Nigeria) is first and foremost an evangelist,” said Akinola. “And from that, other things follow.”

The Church of Nigeria entered a period of rapid growth when it started creating “missionary dioceses.” This involves appointing and dispatching bishops to areas with a weak Anglican presence. These bishops are to form full-fledged dioceses within a five-year period. The bishop-missionaries brought the Anglican presence to “every nook and cranny of the country,” Akinola expressed. The emphasis on using episcopal leadership in advancing the missionary cause is clear from statistics.

Akinola became the 46th bishop of the Church of Nigeria in 1979. Today there are 167 bishops in the church. Akinola himself practiced the principle that the bishop is a missionary.  He was assigned in the early 1980s to create an Anglican presence in the then new capital, Abuja, which was about to be built. From nothing, the bishop created a diocese that today comprises 55 parishes.  Was the dramatic growth of the Church of Nigeria largely due to the good leadership of its primates?  Akinola responded, “Without a leader, how much can we really accomplish?”

“When a leader is focused, when a leader is determined, when a leader is genuine, when a leader is being led by God, I am sure that good things will result,” he said. “But when a leader does not give attention to these matters or has a different agenda, of course the fellowship will be affected.”  Akinola acknowledged that much of the growth has been due to the good leadership of the church.  “But it is one thing to lead, it is another thing for what you do to be led by God,” said the retired primate. “So for me again it is certainly God’s mighty blessings upon our leadership that is responsible for our achievements.”

Explaining the missionary focus of the church, Akinola stated, “We believe very strongly that when a church ceases to evangelize and to plant new churches, it will not have the right to exist.  “The reason why this church is left in the world is to reach out and to be the salt to our world, be the light to our world and to make Christ known to the world.”  The leadership of the Church of Nigeria takes the Great Commandment and Great Commission seriously, the bishop expressed.  It is the mission to the lost that forms the “bedrock” of the activities and programs of the church, he said.  The Great Commandment is the call to love God with the whole being and to love the neighbor as self.  After He resurrected, Jesus gave His disciples the Great Commission to dedicate their lives to making disciples of others.

Despite its largeness, Akinola sees the Church of Nigeria growing to half the population of the country. Nigeria has over 150 million people.  “My successor is a firebrand in the area of evangelism and orthodoxy,” he said.  Nicholas Orogodo Okoh was elected in September 2009 to succeed Akinola as the fourth primate.

The Church of England’s future

I celebrated no less than four ordinations last weekend.  My brother Paul Anthony (or Tony), age 75 was ordained priest by the retiring bishop of Salisbury, Dr David Stancliffe (Paul/Tony pictured on the front of the Church Times, lying face down);

my son-in-law Dr Jason Roach was ordained deacon by the bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres (pictured on the front of the Church of England Newspaper – on p9 he is pictured holding the Bishop’s crook, read into that what you will); William Rogers was made a deacon at Southwark, an ordinand from Morden parish; and Clive Beasley-Long was made a deacon at Guildford, from the neighbouring parish of St Peters St Helier, with whom we work closely.

Area Bishop Stephen Conway had the cheek to say to Tony “don’t overdo it, I want you good for ten years.”  What’s this time-limited ordination, even if your diocesan is retiring?  Our role model is 97-year old Kenneth Cragg – still writing regularly!

But, more to the point of my last blog, what are these purple shoes doing next to my brother’s head?  I can only assume that this lady has episcopal ambitions; did last night’s General Synod vote bring them any closer?  Not necessarily.

In the end ‘traditionalists’ (I prefer orthodox) supported the final motion, passed by a large majority.  The matter now goes to Diocesan Synods (and Deaneries?) to decide what sort of provision should be made for orthodox parishes and clergy.  It then comes back to a new General Synod in 2012 to vote on, with any amendments proposed by Diocesan Synods.  It will be passed, or rejected then.

Women Bishops?

As the media hurries to bury the Church of England, there is much that is wrong in today’s reporting.  The General Synod vote yesterday was of course only on a possible amendment – to a main motion that is not voted on until tomorrow, Monday.  I will be surprised now if we do move forward with the ordination of women as Bishops at this time.

Were we to do so, without the legal safeguards needed for those who cannot accept women as bishops, then certainly we would disintegrate.  My personal view remains as it was in the early 1980’s, when as a relatively young General Synod member, I voted for a motion along the lines: “there is no theological objection to the ordination of women.”  However, when it comes to Bishops, I believe there is one very strong practical reason why the time is not yet – which is, to maintain as far as possible the unity of the world church, at a crucial moment of world history.

My Middle East experience of working with Orthodox and Catholic church leaders, is that we would be utterly reckless if we distance ourselves further from them, at a time when we should be seeking greater unity, to maximise the potential of our mission under Christ.

More, after the main vote tomorrow.

July 4th American Independence Day

A happy Independence Day to any American friends who may be virtually visiting.

If you are visiting in the light of recent Church of England controversies, to find out if, on behalf of the parish of Morden, Surrey,  I am about to declare independence from the diocese of Southwark, the answer is no!

I do not believe today’s Daily Telegraph report, that the large majority of the diocese would want to back a new bishop who undermines heterosexual marriage as the only form of God-given sexual expression, within which children can be safely nurtured.  If Dean Colin Slee wants to walk with the Episcopal Church of America in breaking from the large majority of the Anglican communion, then that is up to him.  But I’m sure that several cathedral canons will walk with the orthodox church, together with the majority of Southwark parishioners and clergy.

An edited article has been published (July 2nd) in the Church of England Newspaper, under the heading: The challenge facing Southwark.  It appeared in its original form in the Anglican Mainstream website (July 1st).  It focused on the meeting tomorrow and Tuesday of the Crown Nominations Commission.  It follows a Times letter of two weeks ago, referred to in my last blog – a sermon.

Whether I put any other sermons up here remains to be seen.  Meanwhile, time to get on with the priorities for today – services at which my daughter Katy and son-in-law Mat are leading….