Tag Archives: Prayer

19 May – Not a politically correct God

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Easter 5

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
John 13:31-35

In a sentence:
God does not merely call us to love, but makes that love possible

The whole of the New Testament is written against the background of an unflinching belief in the resurrection of Jesus, not simply as a thing which was now ‘believed’ but as a thing which made a difference to the way we live and experience each other and the world. ‘Jesus is risen’ is code for ‘the world is now a whole other new place”.

The book of Acts, from which we hear quite a bit each year after Easter, looks like a history of what happened next after Easter. Yet, more than this, it is history as an account of the kind of thing which would necessarily take place if it were the case that Jesus was risen from the dead.

We can see the difference between a mere historical account of what happens next and the theological, resurrection-informed experience of what happened in the details of our reading this morning – in particular in the unexpected way in which Peter defends what happened in the house of Cornelius.

The crisis is that Peter seems to have transgressed the hard boundary between Jew and Gentile: ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?From the moral and ethical outlook of modern liberal western society it looks as if what Peter has done is ‘obviously’ the right thing. Most of us today hold that everyone should be treated equally, have the same rights, not be put down or otherwise mistreated, and so on.

Yet Peter does not offer a moral argument for his actions along these lines. Instead, he accounts for his actions by ‘blaming’ God. Speaking of his vision of being commanded to eat unclean foods, he quotes God:  ‘What I have made clean you must not declare profane.’ The reason for the breaking down of this barrier – that between Jew and Gentile – is not liberal ethics but divine command. Peter doesn’t know about the ‘brotherhood of man’ or any such thing; ‘God made me do it’ is the reason he gives for doing what we would consider simply to be the clear moral choice.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the moral ideals we have about everyone being equally human to everyone else. It is just that that is not what our text is about. The Cornelius incident is about what was thought to be a God-imposed distinction between Jew and Gentile now being overcome by God. And so the resolution of the dispute back in Jerusalem is not, ‘Ah, yes, of course the Gentiles are people too! How foolish of us!’ Rather, the Jewish Christians turn to the praise of God saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

In the election of Abraham and Sarah as patriarch and matriarch of the people of God there is actually nothing to suggest that God’s love for this people means God’s hatred or exclusion of all other peoples. In fact, just the opposite is found in the covenant with Abraham: ‘through you will all peoples be blessed’ (Or, ‘will all peoples bless themselves’, depending on the translation.)  But there had developed a very sharp distinction in the minds of the Jews by the time of Jesus, so that Peter could say to the Gentile Cornelius, ‘Even you yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile’ (Acts 10.28).

This distinction had taken on God-proportions, and its violation was understood to have consequences for a person’s standing before God (in terms of ritual cleanness). It doesn’t go too far to say that, for pious Jews of the time, God required of them their self-isolation from Gentiles – it had become to be understood to be divinely instituted. And so it would have felt to Peter that God was changing God’s own rule here: God was contradicting what had being held, and held for the sake of God.

And now we can see how this is an event which has to do with the resurrection of Jesus, and so with the power of God, and not simply with human ethics. For it was for God’s sake – as an act of piety – that Jesus was executed, because he was perceived to be a threat to the religious and political safety of the people. The resurrection, then, is God standing against God, God in heaven contradicting the God in our hearts, revealing that the two are not the same and that we are serving the wrong one.

When God pours out the Holy Spirit on the household of Cornelius the resurrection happens again: God raises the dead. Only, those who are raised are not just Cornelius but Peter and, later, the other believers back in Jerusalem. These are raised in the sense we know from Saint Paul, who describes this God as the one who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which did not exist. What ‘did not exist’ for Peter and the other Jewish Christians was that God’s work in Christ had anything to do with the Gentiles, for how could it? ‘It is unlawful for a Jew to associate with Gentiles…’

But now that Christ clearly did have something to do with the

Gentiles, a new beginning met with a new understanding and the dead were raised, eyes were opened, and God was glorified.

If we take away from the story of Peter and Cornelius only the message that God loves everyone and so we ought to too, then we render the story irrelevant because it tells us nothing most of us don’t already know. Perhaps more problematically, this seems to imply that such love is actually possible – that we ought to be ‘able’ to love each other, and so to usher in the kingdom.

But the Jewish Christians back in Jerusalem praise God for what Cornelius experienced, and we must take this with utter seriousness. The implication is not simply that we should be loving and accepting of each other but that such love and acceptance begins as a work of God.

This being the case, we might also note that the rather modern notion of ‘love and acceptance’ doesn’t really fit the story, or isn’t rich enough for the story. For the Gentiles are not given a mere welcome but a repentance: ‘… God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’ (11.18). The love of God is that the loved are now free, or even ‘allowed’, to change. Their humanity is indeed recognised but so also its deficiencies; God’s ‘love’ is here the possibility of repentance, and not of mere ‘inclusion’.

So neither the Jews nor the Gentiles are the ‘good guys’ here, or the victims. Borrowing again from Paul, all have fallen short of the glory of God. This is the accusation, the ‘bad news’ of the gospel.

But the important thing is that the accusation is a diminishing echo which sounds after the ‘big bang’ – the moment of creation – the act of resurrecting grace which stands Peter and Cornelius and all they represent on an equal footing of being loved, forgiven and accepted by God.

And so it is, as we sang in our opening hymn, that we pray that we might love, and see whatever love we might manage as an answer to prayer – the acts of today’s apostles, working out the logic of the resurrection of Jesus, to the glory of God.

For the benefit of all God’s people, may this prayer be ever on our lips, and find its answer in the faithfulness of the God who keeps his promises by making it possible for us to love one another.


Illuminating Faith – The Spirit in the Desert

‘The Spirit in the Desert’ is the title of a series of talks by Rowan Williams, available on YouTube. This IF study is an unofficial guide through those talks. The talks can be complemented by Willams’ book on the theme (‘Silence and Honey Cakes’), which is recommended supplementary reading.

The studies introduce the thought of the early Christian ‘desert fathers’, and invite modern believers to be more aware of their own calling to be Christians in the place they find themselves, with the people with whom they’ve been placed.

The series requires minimal preparation by group members – you can just turn up and listen to the audio – and would serve well as a Lenten study, or at any other time of the year.

llluminating Faith studies are occasionally edited for corrections and other minor adjustments. The version date is incorporated into the file name of the download – check that you’ve got the most recent version!

9 September – On being careful what you pray for

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Pentecost 16

1 John 5:14-21
Psalm 146
Mark 7:24-37

In a sentence:
We pray for those things for which the church gives thanks

There is to be a lot – again – going on in our reading today. While I’ll focus on just one aspect of the passage, I suspect that the point drawn from that illuminates the other seemingly problematic and challenging assertions John makes here. I’ll leave the work of finding that illumination to the hearers and readers of what I do say!

* * * *

Conventional wisdom has it that we ought to be careful what we pray for, lest we actually get it.

The point here – not often made explicit – is that we don’t know what to pray for, that we don’t see clearly enough our confusions about our needs, and so we shoot prayer off in the wrong direction.

What, then, should we pray for, keeping in mind that our answer must be a specifically Christian one, springing from of what we know about the God who deals with us in Jesus? John helps us with this in our final text from his first letter today: pray for those things which are ‘according to God’s will’.

Immediately, of course, the question arises, What then does God will? Again, John helps: we have heard over and over in our meandering through the letter that God wills only one thing which might be expressed in two ways: that we believe that Jesus is the Son, that we love one another.

Put differently, God wills reconciliation, for this is the substance of God’s work in Jesus and of the life of love we are to live. We pray for reconciliation because reconciliation is what God does, what God gives. Praying for something which God does not give – the answer to the exam question, the parking spot in front of the bank or even, perhaps, the long and happy life – is not prayer in the Christian sense.

It is God’s will that the world be reconciled to God and to itself, and it is this for which we are to pray. The absence of such Godly reconciliation is seen in human hubris and selfishness; it is seen in the fear of our creaturely mortality and the denial of the life of the body; it is seen in the borders and the ‘-isms’ which drive us apart. To pray according to the will of God is to pray that those things be taken away which divide us from God, from each other, and from peace with ourselves.

Prayer is, then, ultimately not prayer that this or that thing happen or not happen – it is not a kind of spiritual technology for getting things done. Prayer is our stand against sin and its divisive effect. (In passing, we might note that John moves directly from the affirmation about prayer to praying for sinners).

More specifically, Christian prayer is prayer that we never despair, that we never collapse into action or attitude which expresses that, in the end, not the God who raises the dead but some other is Go – perhaps Death itself. The sin against which we pray is not naughtiness; it is the false perception of who really is God, and so the wrong conviction about where hope really lies. The final verse of John’s letter, ‘Keep yourselves from idols,’ seems to hang rather strangely from nothing in the text unless we see that it is as much a remark about what prayer is, as it is about who we are to pray to.

We can never know in advance precisely what prayer for reconciliation sound like, for it springs from a particular situation. Yet the basic orientation of a Christian’s prayer is given in the established prayers of the church. Specifically, if we want to know what to pray for, we look to what it is for which the church gives thanks. This is because when the church gives thanks as the church, it does so in its priestly function in the world. The church responds on behalf of the world to what God gives to the world: the promise and ongoing work towards the reconciliation of all things with God.

The thanksgiving prayer of the church sits at the centre of its liturgy – at least its theological centre, even if it might be the first prayer in a particular liturgy. This prayer ‘controls’ the other prayers of the service, which either lead up to the thanksgiving, or follow from it. In our liturgy here at MtE, thanksgiving features principally in the ‘great prayer’ of the Eucharist (‘the Eucharist’ means, from Greek, ‘the Thanksgiving’).  This prayer gives an account of gift of creation and the gift of salvation.

The familiar Great Prayer from Uniting in Worship – heard often enough here and in other Uniting Churches – runs like this:

Thanks and praise, glory and honour are rightly yours,
our Lord and God,
for you alone are worthy.

In time beyond our dreaming
you brought forth life out of darkness,
and in the love of Christ your Son
you set man and woman at the heart of your creation.
We thank you that you called a covenant people
to be a light to the nations.
Through Moses you taught us to love your law,
and in the prophets you cried out for justice.

In the fullness of your mercy
you became one with us in Jesus Christ,
who gave himself up for us on the cross.
You make us alive together with him,
that we may rejoice in his presence
and share his peace.

By water and the Spirit
you open the kingdom to all who believe,
and welcome us to your table:
for by grace we are saved, through faith.

This might be said in any number of ways but the point today is not to thanksgiving it itself. Rather, we are to see in it the clue as to what we are to pray for – those things which the prayer declares God gives. We are to pray that the thanksgiving of the Great Prayer be truly our thanksgiving, that our lives be lived in the assurance of that reconciliation with God, with ourselves and in ourselves that the prayer names.

We will all, at times, be poor, sick, hurt, disappointed, oppressed, afraid or guilty. The words we say in our prayer will be expressed in these terms, although we may not receive what we asked for in the terms we asked, because brokenness does not define wholeness.

The basic prayer of the church on behalf of the world is that God be ours, and we be God’s: your kingdom come, your will be done – earth be heaven. Another biblical writer in the family of John put the object of prayer this way: that the home of God be among mortals,
that he will dwell with them;
that they be his peoples,
and God himself be with them;
that he wipe every tear from their eyes; that Death will be no more; nor mourning or crying or pain (c.f. Revelation 21.3f).

Whatever it is which causes us to turn to God in prayer, this is the substance of what we pray for, and it is no mean prayer.

The guarantee of God’s response to this prayer is that it is God’s own desire that it be so, and that God gives us what he desires for us.

Let us, then, meet God’s desire with our own, and pray as he wills, that all which God has to give us will indeed be ours.

LitBit Commentary – Bruce Barber on Prayer 1

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LitBit: What then is the difference between any old prayer and truly Christian prayer? In a sentence it is this – the general concept of prayer is a response to human emptiness, human need, our lack of one thing or another; Christian prayer, on the other hand, is a response to fullness: the richness and abundance that is the life and being of God which waits to take expression in the world. Depressing emptiness on the one hand, anticipatory fullness on the other.


Bruce Barber


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Illuminating Faith – The Lord’s Prayer – Prayer for those who can no longer pray

Bruce Barber’s The Lord’s Prayer is an introduction to this Prayer – and to Christian prayer generally – as specifically Christian prayer. After framing the problem of prayer for the modern mind – believers and non-believers alike – Barber unpacks the Prayer line by line, drawing out its specifically Christian nuances. The study is supported by guiding questions and is suitable for personal or small group use; it could be comfortably be covered in a 4 to 6 week study series, although returning to the material again and again will be rewarding.

llluminating Faith studies are occasionally edited for corrections and other minor adjustments. The version date is incorporated into the file name of the download – check that you’ve got the most recent version!

LitBit Commentary – Rowan Williams on Prayer 5

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LitBit: Very near the heart of Christian prayer is getting over the idea that God is somewhere a very, very long way off, so that we have to shout very loudly to be heard. On the contrary: God has decided to be an intimate friend and he has decided to make us part of his family, and we always pray on that basis.

Rowan Williams, Being Christian p.66


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BasisBits – Paragraph 11: Scholarly Interpreters


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The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God’s living Word. In particular the Uniting Church enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and gives thanks for the knowledge of God’s ways with humanity which are open to an informed faith. The Uniting Church lives within a world-wide fellowship of Churches in which it will learn to sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought. Within that fellowship the Uniting Church also stands in relation to contemporary societies in ways which will help it to understand its own nature and mission. The Uniting Church thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr. It prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.

From Paragraph 11 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

LitBit Commentary – Alexander Schmemann on Prayer

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We pray in Christ, and he, through his Holy Spirit, prays in us, who are gathered in his name. “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Galatians 4.6). We can add nothing to this prayer, but according to his will, according to his love, we have become members of his body, we are one with him and have participation in his protection and intercession for the world.

Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist, p.54


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LitBit Commentary – James Torrance on Worship 3

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“As the head of all things, by whom and for whom all things were created, [Christ] makes his Body, and calls us to be a royal priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices.  He calls us that we might be identified with him by the Spirit, not only in his communion with the Father, but also in his great priestly work and ministry of intercession, that our prayers on earth might be the echo of his prayers in heaven.  Whatever else our worship is, it is our liturgical amen to the worship of Christ.”

James Torrance, Worship, Community and the triune God of Grace, p.2


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