Thursday, May 24, 2007

Prayer, friendship and Christian Unity

Reading this post at one of my favourite blogsites reminds me of the sermon I preached last Sunday. I've gone off posting sermons on the blog - it's a bit like drinking left-over beer the morning after - and these days my sermons tend just to be a list of bullet points anyhow - but writing this one up into something coherent might have some merit (and I can make some things even clearer in the rendition). Click full post for text.

In our gospel reading this morning we have the climax of Jesus' teaching at the Last Supper (John 17.20-end) and it takes the form of a prayer. I'd like to begin my remarks this morning by repeating some general points about prayer, because it is something that I get asked about a lot.

The first point to make about prayer is that it is about a relationship, the relationship that you have between you and God. As with any relationship it requires time if it isn't to wither, and the more time that you give to it, the deeper the relationship will become. What keeps the relationship going is communication, and communication needs to be a two way thing. If you had a relationship with someone who spent all their time talking and never listening to a word you said then that relationship would need some fairly fundamental repair work if it was going to have a future. The same thing applies to your relationship with God - you need to spend at least half the time listening, even more than 50% if you think that what God has to say is more important than what you have to say.

The second thing that I would emphasise is honesty. There is absolutely no point in offering up a piety which isn't rooted in your own heart. If what you really desire is a bright red Ferrari, or to win the lottery, it is absolutely pointless to spend your prayer time asking for world peace or an end to hunger. God isn't deceived by this - the only person being deceived is yourself. So if you want a red Ferrari - pray for a red Ferrari! The whole point about prayer is that it is a process of learning to be honest with ourselves - and therefore to become more intimately acquainted with our deepest desires. For as Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God - and nothing else will satisfy us. Prayer is the way in which we learn this truth about ourselves, as we journey inwards and find God within.

A further aspect about prayer - about listening to God - is bound up with the notion of obedience and submission. Now this is difficult. It isn't something to be attempted half-heartedly, for it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. It is terribly difficult to follow God's will - much easier to follow our own - and we know this because even Jesus found it hard. Think of Gethsemane, when Jesus was sweating blood because it was so difficult. Yet it is very much the point of prayer - of conforming our will to God's will.

And when we can do this - on those occasions that we do manage to do this - then our prayers are rewarded and we develop a fundamental trust in God and his purposes for us and for the world. The thing is, God is in charge and his purposes will be accomplished. When we spend time in prayer; when we nurture our relationship with Him and listen to His will for us; when we finally start to see that God is God - then we receive a gift, the peace which this world cannot give. We don't have to take all the burdens of the world upon our shoulders; we can simply get on with being obedient, and leaving the big questions to Him.

My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore.

So why am I talking about prayer today? Well, my fundamental point will become clear in a moment, but surely if ever someone's prayer is going to be answered, surely Jesus' prayer will be? And what is Jesus praying for?

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.

Jesus is praying that all who believe in him might be one, that there might be Christian unity, and that this unity is not simply the witness to the glory of Christian truth, but that this unity is how Christ is within us - that it is how we share in the life of the Trinity.

Surely some mistake? How can Jesus' prayer have been answered, when we just look around us at the ways that Christians accuse each other and break with each other?

Let's return to what prayer is about. It is about developing a relationship, and it is about submitting our will to God's will. That is, it is not about our feelings but about aligning our desires and choices with God's desires and choices. For God's will shall be accomplished, and we either fall in with that or we resist it.

And do we believe that Jesus' will was aligned with that of the Father? And if so, is Jesus' prayer answered or not?

It seems to me that it is answered; put differently, it means that Christian Unity - when we are all one and the glory of the gospel is manifested to the world - is not something that we have to achieve or accomplish, it is something that we have to discover. It already exists. It is simply that the desires of our sinful and fallen world do a very good job of obscuring that reality from our vision.

The truth is that our salvation, our unity, this is not an individualistic thing. It is not a case of all signing up to the same doctrinal basis of faith, or all agreeing on the same form of words. That is the unity of a Nuremberg rally; it is not the unity of the Trinity. We are made in the image of God - and that image is fundamentally personal and relational - in other words our identity as human beings is found first and foremost through our relationships with one another.

So how then are we to discover this Christian Unity which is Christ's bequest to us? I think there is a simple word which sums it up: friendship. No longer do I call you servants but I call you friends, for I have made everything known to you. It is through the pursuit of friendship that we discover our unity as Christians - a unity which is embedded much more deeply within us than our own self-image, for it is an essential aspect of being made in the image of God. Friendship with other Christians is, then, our duty and our joy.

Of course, another way of describing a friend is companion - the one with whom we break bread. I am sympathetic to the idea that sharing communion is not the final sign of the achievement of unity, but the principal way in which that unity is revealed. Yet that is a discussion all of its own.

I believe that friendship is the fundamental theological category - and imperative! - needed for exploring Christian unity. That is, it is precisely through forming friendships with others, not friendships with a hidden agenda, seeking to convert or dominate, but a friendship modelled on the pattern of Christ himself - without judgement, without condemnation, with love, with acceptance - it is this friendship, the gradual deepening awareness one with another, it is this which allows us to discover our unity, and which allows us to participate in the difference and unity of the Trinity.

I believe that friendship stands to Christian unity in the way that prayer stands to our relationship with God, and that they are the virtues which correspond to our keeping the two great commandments. Prayer is how we love God; friendship is how we love our neighbour; and it is through the pursuit of these two things that Christ's image is revealed in us. So let us commit ourselves anew to prayer, to friendship, and to the breaking of bread. Amen.

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