Reflections on Social Media

I have just come back on to social media after a forty day “fast” from it. I use the quotation marks because let’s not kid ourselves that this was particularly taxing; although it was more challenging than I expected. The point of this, as I explained before, was to get some perspective on the place social media had come to have in my life, in order to engage with it better. I would love to hear from others who have been doing this too; but here are some reflections to, hopefully, kick off a discussion.

1. Social Media is not simply evil. One of the things that was obvious to me was that I missed out on some good things, and on being able to use social media for some good things. I didn’t go into this thinking social media was simply wicked; but I think this is important to say. There are some genuinely good things about Facebook, for example – the connections it enables with people not otherwise connected. So far so not rocket science.

2. But, Social Media is also not “neutral”. One of the dominant myths in our day is the myth of technological neutrality – that technology is simply a tool lying neutral in our hands that we can put to whatever purpose we choose. This, however, is false. Social Media programs are tools designed by human beings – sinful ones – with a variety of better or worse purposes in mind. Like all technology, social media is infused with human intentionality from the very beginning. This makes it foolish to expect it to be neutral, and that myth will only blind us to the subtle ways in which we are being moved by this technology. It also hides the fact that the very use of social media also commits you to a whole range of things before you’ve even begun. The most important of these may be to do with our attitudes towards knowledge – our feelings about what we ought to know about and have opinions about.

3. Social Media has an impact on our attention. One of the interesting things I discovered early on was that I probably hadn’t been “wasting” heaps of time on social media (although see below). I didn’t find myself having lots of free time. I suspect the case was more that social media was filling gaps. Yet I did come to feel that this had another impact. Early on in the fast I felt a need to check Facebook and Twitter that I had to resist. This brought home to me that Social Media can be very intrusive even if we don’t have, say “push notifications”. Because we quickly internalise the need to receive notifications. Our desires become, in a way, part of the program. This need to check disappeared, however, within about two weeks. I suddenly realised I didn’t feel the need to check it anymore. I found this refreshing. We can indeed change the place Facebook has in our lives, and it doesn’t take that much will power. The biggest difference I found that this made had to do with attention. As time went on, I actually found I was able to attend to things better. I did not expect this to happen, but I actually read and listened to more substantial stuff than usual during the last weeks of the fast. This suggested to me that social media was in fact having an impact on my ability to pay attention to things.

4. Social Media can very easily create a distorted outlook. One thing that did become apparent was the potential distortions that come from having information and ideas pushed at me by sources I have selected. Media people speak about “echo chambers” – that is, a situation where groups essentially speak amongst themselves and don’t cross over much with other perspectives. I think Facebook is especially prone to this: to just creating a situation where I am only hearing from a certain set of people and I am only speaking to them. This ought to be a source of concern.

5. We need to think about what appeals to us about social media. There are, I believe, some potentially good things and good ways to use social media. It seems to me, however, that there are also some more ambiguous reasons we find it attractive. Two stand out to me. First, I think we are attracted to the idea of knowing what is going on. This is, I think, often what we mean when we speak about “being connected” – we like knowing what is going on. I think we should stop and think about this. Why does this appeal to us? Is it actually a good thing to want? The reason I think we need to be careful here is that the Bible has a more complex attitude towards knowledge. Knowledge is not necessarily a good thing – or at least, our sinful nature means that we very often fail to let it be good. Knowledge puffs up, says the Bible. Knowledge is only good insofar as it fuels and facilitates love. My question about this felt need to know, then, is, does this desire to know exceed our capacity to love, and if so, should we pursue it?

The second more ambiguous appeal of social media is this: I think social media can appeal to us because of its capacity to fill voids of time. As I said above, I think social media was largely filling gaps during my day. This, however, is worth noticing. For why do I have these gaps, and why do I need to fill them. Sometimes, perhaps, there’s no problem – waiting for a bus, whatever. But at other times I think social media allows us to distract ourselves from the fact of larger gaps. I remember one or two afternoons over the past month when I suddenly found myself sitting at my desk with – how embarrassing! – not much to do. I was shocked! In each case, after a bit of procrastinating, which made me feel awkward and guilty, I ended up doing something really useful that I hadn’t thought of before. I found myself wondering whether I would have been able to do this if I had been on social media. I think it is just as possible that I could have just spent some time on Facebook and so missed the chance to have that initially frustrating, but ultimately very fruitful, experience of having space with which to choose what to do. If you are reading this thinking, that could never happen to me because I am so busy, please know that this is what I would have said too. But that is my point. we may simply be unaware of how social media use is distorting our awareness of time.

So what have I decided? I will go back on social media, because I think there are good things about it. But I’m going to go back on in a different way. I don’t want to slide back into checking all the time. I think the only way forward is discipline about time use. So, if I’m a bit less contactable than I used to be – that’s why.

 

The incarnation and modern idolatry

Idolatry lies at the heart of the Bible’s account of human sinfulness. As such, it frequently seems that the task of discerning modern forms of idolatry is important for Gospel mission. However, sometimes this can be a tricky business; because, frankly, modern forms of idolatry look so different from those the Bible describes. Isaiah could ridicule those who worship a block of wood, because he saw people bowing before wooden statues. We, however, often have to go through complex hermeneutical moves to explain how someone’s desire for financial security in fact constitutes worship of something created.

There is no getting around this work. However, it is important also to see that this change has profound theological roots. It is, most deeply, a change wrought by the impact of the gospel of Jesus.

In the Book of Revelation, we read of how in the wake of Satan’s defeat by the coming of Christ, he is enraged and now directs his efforts through a beast that rises out of the sea (Revelation 12:13–13:1). This beast has a kind of shadowy, yet hollow, resemblance to Christ – he seems to have received a mortal blow and been healed (13:3). He is worshipped by the world.

I think this has important implications for our understanding of idolatry today. It should lead us to expect the idolatries of our day to take the form, not so much of supreme and transcendent deities, but of incarnate saviours. The chief characteristic of the idols we will be tempted to worship in the age of Christ will be the ability to command, or appear to command, worldly power: “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (13:4). In changing our understanding of who God is, you see, the incarnation also changes the form our idolatries tend to take.

This, it seems to me, means there is a deep wisdom in thinking in terms of categories such as “functional saviours”. Because this is the standard form idolatries will take in places where the coming of the Messiah has been made known.

A Lenten fast from social media

sermon-on-the-mount

This year, Lent begins on March 5 and finishes on Thursday April 17. I want to invite anyone who is interested to join me in fasting from social media during that period. Here’s why.

The point of fasting is to wake us up to the reality and shape of our needs and desires, and to reorder them in relation to our greatest need and best desire: God. When we fast, we deny ourselves some part of our lives, perhaps something we take for granted, in order to get things in the right perspective again and reorient ourselves to what matters – to get our loves back in proportion.

Social media has become, for many of us, an astonishingly large part of our lives. Many of us check Facebook and Twitter regularly. They have brought the lives and ideas of others into our most private spaces in new and sometimes striking ways.

My guess is that we do not yet really know how to think about this phenomenon. Obviously those who are reflective will have many thoughts about it. Yet the actual significance and importance of it is not yet clear.

And so, it may be the path of wisdom to find ways to get perspective on this newish part of our lives, so that we can discover better what is actually good and bad about this habit we have developed.

Forty days, I suspect, is long enough to get this kind of perspective. So I want to invite you to fast from Social media during this time. To not check Facebook and Twitter, to not share photos or update your status, in an act of faith in Jesus Christ and a desire to discover afresh how he is in fact what we most need.

And then, let’s share what happens – on Social media! Let’s have a discussion. Did you read more books or longer articles? Did you feel the loss? Did it change your relationships? I promise to get this discussion going, straight after Easter.

What does it mean to be “justified”?

In the course of preaching through Romans recently, I tried to articulate what being justified means. Of course, many of us know it means something like “being put right with God”. The difficult thing, it seemed to me, lies in connecting this with our regular experience of life. So here is what I said:

What does it mean to be justified?

Let me start from what may seem like a funny place. All of us have stories that we tell ourselves about our lives. That is, we have a sense of who we are that involves a kind of narrative, a story of where we’ve come from and why we are where we are now. These stories are always changing and growing, as unexpected twists emerge or we make new life choices. All the time though, we are driven by a hope, a deep desire, that things will turn out well, that the twists and turns will finally add up to a story we can be proud of. All of us hope, that is, that we will end up having lived a life that is, in some sense, a good life. Of course, we disagree completely about what a good life involves. Yet most of us, I think, would agree at least on this: that we want our lives to turn out well. Moreover, we naturally feel that this is something that matters, in some deep sense; it is something that is important. It is not a question that we can, without quite a wrench feel we could just as easily not care about. We can agree on these things even if we feel that we are failing, or have failed in life. Even if we are gripped by despair at our mistakes, and lost opportunities – even if we now feel it is impossible that our life could be a good life! – we can still recognise that what we want is for our life to turn out well.

This desire for our lives to add up to something, to have finally succeeded, is a fascinating echo of something that the Bible says is absolutely basic to being human, which is that being human means being accountable to God for your life. It is appointed for humans to die once, it says in Hebrews, and after that, the judgment (9:27). Our life is indeed a whole that has a story; and what kind of story it is does indeed matter very much. Because one day each one of us will be assessed, our lives will be examined. But the standard will not simply be our own subjective judgment. No; we will stand before the one who made us, and he will pronounce his judgment upon our life.

To be justified means nothing less than to receive a favourable verdict at this judgment. It means God’s verdict that we are in the right, that we stand vindicated, that our life has been lived as it should be, and that therefore we are deserving of eternal life.

Will God keep gumtrees?

Originally posted on Deacons and Dragons:

Ken McCormack, Eucalypt BarkWill God keep gumtrees
When he makes the world again,
Count ironbarks and wattles
Worth enough to mend?
And will I feel the wide warm light,
And hear cicadas hum,
As lazy evenings fall upon
The new Jerusalem?

A childhood here has filled my head
With creek beds, paperbarks,
Red space, and milky stars,
their colours in my heart.
So, I dream smooth stones to skip,
Long grass, and cockies’ shrieking,
Will also line the river’s banks,
And be the nations’ healing.

Perhaps it cannot be.
Groans betray the earth’s hard curse:
Dry land turns to dust and night.
Is our hope brand new day,
When we shall wake to our new life,
New trees drunk on new rain,
And all that’s dying, old and parched,
Will come to memory?

Must I learn to bear this loss,
sad cost of our sad pride,
and watch the country drift away
on…

View original 32 more words

Fellowship in his death: A sermon on the Lord’s Supper

A while ago I published this sermon on baptism. I never got round to posting the sequel, however, on the Lord’s Supper. So now, to complete my sacramental series (much shorter series as a Protestant), here it is. 

Introduction: Awkward and unhygenic?

Today we continue our series on key practices in the life of our church by looking at the practice of sharing the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion. I have had some interesting experiences with communion. I was once visiting a very small church in Cambridge while I was on holidays there. I went to take communion with the rest of the congregation – all seven of us – one of whom included an older lady who, to put it politely, was not as in control of her body as I am sure she once was. I had a moment of distress when the ebb and flow at the rail made clear to me that she would be receiving the cup just before me. And sure enough, it was not just wine that I received that morning.

It is another odd practice, the Lord’s Supper, isn’t it. As well as being a little unhygenic, it frankly creates fair amount of awkwardness as we work out how to do it, worry about it, and so on. It is a practice that, as you may be aware, can be exclusive. That is, we always stress that it’s not appropriate for just anyone and everyone to participate in this. It would be much easier if we just didn’t have it. It would make our Sunday meetings much more outsider friendly.

So what is this practice about? Why do we do it? And do we really need it? This is our interest this morning. There are lots of questions we are not going to have time for; but hopefully what we do cover will be helpful. Let us begin by asking why we do the Lord’s Supper.

§1 Why do we do the Lord’s Supper? 

The Lord’s Supper is, like baptism, a symbolic ritual action. It is a symbolic meal in which bread and wine, or wine-substitute, are given out accompanied by words that connect them with Jesus’ death.

The words we say though, also connect this meal to a particular moment in the Gospels – the last supper. When we introduce the Lord’s Supper, we deliberately recall this moment. And this is not just an Anglican thing. From the beginning, the Lord’s supper has been connected to the last supper (1 Cor 11:23).

What happend, then, at the last supper? In our first reading, from Luke 22, we saw it. It is the climax of Jesus’ mission, just before the festival of Passover, when the Jewish people celebrated how God had rescued them out of Egypt. The key symbol was a slain lamb, which had been sacrificed as a substitute so that their lives would be spared. Jesus secretly makes preparations to eat a passover meal with his disciples.

Jesus uses this secret passover meal as a way of interpretting to his disciples the meaning of his coming death. Read with me from verse 14.

When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.’ After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

Jesus essentially talks about two things: what the meal means for him, and what it means for the disciples. For him, the meal is a last meal – it is his last moment of sharing in the normal joys of food and drink and fellowship with his friends. And yet it is not actually a last meal; because he also knows and looks ahead to the time he will eat and drink in the fulfillment of the kingdom of God.

For the disciples, the meal has another meaning: the bread and the wine represent Jesus’ death for them – his body given to death for them, and his blood, poured out for them. This meal is meant to show them the meaning of what they will witness just a few hours from this time: Jesus being brutalised and murdered. It is nothing less than a sacrifice given to God so that they can be forgiven, like the passover lamb slain as a substitute to make atonement for sin. When he gives them the bread and wine to eat and drink, Jesus is showing them that he is giving his own life up so that they can live.

Can I ask you to imagine for a second what it must have been like to be there at this moment? It must have been eery. By this time the disciples were aware that something big was happening. Can you imagine passing the cup around and having a drink and then, only afterwards, as if to make it so you couldn’t avoid it, Jesus tells you that it symbolises his death!

And yet we shouldn’t overestimate how much the disciples understood. They were still in many ways deeply confused. The verses that follow show us this plainly. Straight after, verse 24, they start squabbling about who is the greatest. They might have some inklings, but they have not at all gotten hold of what this really adds up to.

In fact, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that the true significance of this moment would have become clear: as they looked back on it after seeing Jesus crucified, and meeting him alive again. It is with the benefit of hindsight that the terrible beauty of this moment would have become clear.

But here lies the significance of Jesus’ command at the heart of the supper. In verse 19 he says, “Do this in remembrance of me”. You see, Jesus’ intention was that this meal be re-enacted later on, and re-enacted with the benefit of hindsight. Jesus’ intention was that his followers, after seeing the events this meal pointed to unfold, re-enact it with new understanding.

This is what we do when we do the Lord’s Supper. In obedience to this command of Jesus, we re-enact the last supper with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what Jesus meant when he said “given for you” and “poured out for you” – he meant the cross.

§2 What does the Lord’s Supper mean?

What does this mean then? How should we think about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper? We can answer this by saying that the Lord’s Supper points in two directions: backwards, and forwards.

First, it points backwards – backwards to the death of Jesus on the cross. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial, a way of remembering. We do it in remembrance of Jesus’ death. What we are not doing, that is to say, is conducting a sacrifice. This is how the Roman Catholic church understands the Lord’s Supper, but it is wrong. There was only one sacrifice, and it was done, once and for all, never to be done again, on the cross. If we think we’re doing a sacrifice then we are saying Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice was not enough, which is blasphemy. No, what we re-enact in this meal is not Christ’s death itself, but the last supper. That’s why we do it on a table, not an altar. In the Lord’s Supper, we remember Jesus’ death on the cross by re-enacting that incredible last meal in which our Lord himself gave out bread and wine to illustrate what his death would mean. We come to his table and hear him teach us what his death means, and that it is for us.

But second, the Lord’s Supper also points forwards – forwards to the fulfillment of the last supper in the kingdom of God. This is something that is often missed, but should not be. You see, we shouldn’t forget the meaning we noticed this meal had for Jesus: it was his last meal with us, but also the promise of a new meal in God’s kingdom. So when we eat this meal, we also mourn the fact that Jesus is no longer with as as he was then, and we look forward to that time when he will be once more. We saw this at the end of our reading from Luke’s Gospel, where in verse 30 Jesus speaks of how he has conferred on his disciples a kingdom, so that they may eat and drink with him at his table there. When we share the Lord’s Supper, we also are conscious that we await a fulfillment, we look forward to the time when Jesus will be here with us again and we will eat and drink with him in fulfillment. Can I just encourage you to pause a moment and think, won’t that be great, to have him with us again? To actually share with him in celebration! I am deeply moved by that promise.

To sum up then, the Lord’s Supper points backwards and forwards. As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, writes Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:26, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We look back to Jesus’ death for us, once for all, on the cross; and we look forward to being with him again in the kingdom.

§3 What is “going on” in the Lord’s Supper?

Understanding all of this will help us clarify how we should think about what is “going on” when we share the Lord’s Supper.

Here I want us to recall what we said last week about sacraments. The Lord’s Supper, like baptism, is a “sacrament”, that is, a special kind of sign, given to us by God, which communicates his grace and shapes our response. It is not, therefore, magic; and it doesn’t work by magic. At one level, there is nothing else going on than what is plainly visible.

I stress this because the Lord’s Supper has frequently been the object of basically superstitious ideas. In particular, the mistake has often been made of thinking that the bread and wine in the supper are or somehow become literally Jesus’ body and blood. What this leads you to is an idea of the supper where the physical elements are what matters, and so if, for example, you were to spill the wine, it’s a disaster. This logic led the church in some ages to refuse to give the wine to the common people – think what they might do with it!

But this is to mistake the nature of a sacrament. A sacrament is a sign, and so not in and of itself the thing that it signifies. The bread and wine represent and point us to Jesus’ body and blood; but they are not the thing themselves. The elements acquire their special significance through their role in the symbolic action; not by being somehow physically or even spiritually transformed in themselves.

This also helps us steer away from the related mistake of thinking that the Lord’s Supper works automatically, so that as long as you take the bread and wine, you’ll be ok with God, whatever you actually think about Jesus. But this is nonsense, you see, because fundamentally the Lord’s Supper is a means of communication, and so it only “works” in our lives when the message it carries is believed and trusted, like a promise. Without trust in the death of Jesus for our sins, this meal will not help us. It is a sign that points us to something else. If you don’t follow a sign, it doesn’t take you anywhere.

But, like I did with baptism I again want to stress: this does not mean that there is nothing going on in the Lord’s Supper, nor that how we treat this meal has no consequences. On the contrary, there is something “going on” in the Lord’s Supper, something with profound consequences. What’s going on is that God’s grace is being powerfully and truly communicated through the physical symbol and words of explanation. And this is a significant thing, which you can’t expect to be a part of and it not affect you.

In our second reading, from 1 Corinthians 10, Paul describes the significance of the Lord’s Supper using the language of participation. Chapter 10 verse 14. His purpose in this section is to call the Corinthians to steer well clear of idol feasts, that is, meals of sacrficial meat held in idol temples. The danger with this is that they become, as he puts it in verse 20, “participants with demons”. What does he mean by this? People who are connected to through being identified with, demons. Why is this a danger? Not, please note, in verse 19, because the meat in itself has become something other than meat! No, but because this kind of action, that is, sharing in an idol feast, has a meaning: you become a sharer, a participant, in the table – you become linked to it. And this is unacceptable for Christians, says Paul, because they are sharers in the Lord’s table. See in verse 16: Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

This symbolic action, you see, is powerful. Not because something unseen happens to the bread and wine; but because symbols are powerful, because this action communicates the grace of God such that sharing in it means something real.

§4 What does this mean for how we should do it? 

How, then, should we share in this meal? How should we come to it and take part in it?

The basic answer is, not carelessly. We should not come to this table thinking it is a small thing, or not thinking at all. Rather, we should come with respect for what this act signifies. We should come to it with thankfulness, humility, and repentance. Above all we must not be arrogant, nor unwilling to turn our back on our sin.

In 1 Corinthians 11, just after the passages we have looked at, Paul stresses the importance of these things. It’s a bit of a weird passage for us; but we need to hear it. Verse 27: Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.

Now, there’s lots to talk about here; (and again I invite you to the question time next week after church.) But what’s the logic here? Has Paul gone back to a kind of magical idea of the supper. No he hasn’t. The logic, I think, is more like this: God’s mercy must change us. It must bring about in us a response of repentance and thankfulness. If it doesn’t, something has gone awry. Therefore, there is something deeply wrong with sharing in the Lord’s Supper – the purpose of which is to unveil the reality of God’s grace in a profoundly intimate way – without allowing your heart to be moved towards God. That kind of hardness of heart before God’s mercy can be deadly.

What, then, does it look like to come in a “worthy manner”? Let me tell you first what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean being sinless. There is no one sinless except Jesus; and the whole point of the Lord’s Supper is that we are sinners who need forgiveness. So don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to stay away because you’re not perfect. If you were perfect you wouldn’t need it. No the Lord’s Supper isn’t for perfect people, it’s for penitent people. People, that is, who are willing to humble themselves and allow God’s grace to change them.

The point of the liturgy we say before the Lord’s supper is to help us with this. We pray prayers of confession and preparation in order to approach the table with the right attitude. These words are not just motions we have to go through; they are meant to lead us to the attitude of penitence that is appropriate for what we are doing.

But we should not kid ourselves that all that matters is that we say some words. No, the point is that we genuinely submit ourselves to God’s grace. And this means that we need to think about other things as well, like our relationships with others. When Paul spoke about sharing in the supper unworthily, the context makes it clear that he had in mind people who were being careless with their fellow church members, who were being selfish and proud and hurtful of others in their community. In a similar way, Jesus taught that we cannot have God’s forgiveness if we are unwilling to forgive others ourselves. For this reason, in the Anglican Prayer Book, the Lord’s supper would be announced in advance so that people would have the chance to mend the grievances they had with each other before they took it.

The Lord’s Supper, you see, is a profound and intimate reminder of what our salvation cost. And what cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Let me encourage you to take this call to self-examination seriously, to pray the prayers of preparation, and to come to the table with an attitude of humility and repentance.

§5 Why do we need the Lord’s Supper? 

You may be feeling that this is all pretty serious. And after all these serious warnings, is it really worth it? Maybe we’re better off kind of avoiding this practice. There’s no doubt that what the Lord’s supper is about, what it signifies and confronts us with, is actually pretty disturbing. But you see, if we choose to just look elsewhere, what we’re actually avoiding is reality.

In the Lord’s supper, you see, the true dimensions of life are unveiled. This practice confronts us with the ultimate realities of the world: of death and judgment, forgiveness and grace. And these are the things which are, finally, the things that matter. We can avoid these things if we want, for now; but ultimately we will have to deal with them. The Lord’s Supper is an uncomfortable practice because it prevents us from living life superficially; it stops us closing our eyes. Yet that is also exactly why we need it. God has given us this practice to enable us to face and to engage with the deep, deep realities of the universe.

And we are able to face them, because at the heart of the Lord’s supper is grace. If it were anything else, we could only run and hide. But what this meal shows us is that at the heart of the deep things of life, of our relationship with God, is his grace to us, his mercy in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord’s supper is a word of assurance to us, to each of us. It is the assurance that God’s grace is for me, and for you, that it extends to you, that Jesus died for you. When you come to communion, you see, Jesus is welcoming you to his table; and just like he did at the last supper, he gives you bread and wine and says, “this is my body, given for you” and “this is my blood, poured out for many”. It is Jesus’ own assurance that his death is for you, and his promise that one day you will eat and drink with him in the fulfillment of the kingdom. This meal is a gift for each of us, to assure us that Christ’s work was done for us. This is the food that sustains our faith.

§6 What does the Lord’s Supper say about us as a community?

Let us conclude by considering briefly, as we did last week with baptism, what this practice says about us as a community.

Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, writes Paul, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We are a community that lives by and in the death of Jesus. That’s what the Lord’s Supper shows us. Communities exist by holding things in common, sharing together in things, whether they be a love of a football team, a common nationality or history, a shared place. A Christian community is joined together by our sharing, our fellowship, in the death of Jesus. When we share the Lord’s supper, this is what we demonstrate: that the thing that unites this church is Jesus’ death on the cross.

This means many things for our life together. But let me highlight three things that seem to me to be especially important. It means we are utterly committed to forgiveness; we are not afraid to suffer; and we are thrilled by the promise of the future.

First, we are utterly committed to forgiveness. As a community defined by the death of Jesus, we believe in forgiveness. And we don’t just believe in it, we are obsessed with it. It is a deep, deep, value and conviction for us. We believe we will each need forgiveness from each other, and we believe we must give it to each other. For God has forgiven us. We don’t think forgiveness is easy – we don’t think it is simple. No; the death of Jesus teaches us very clearly that forgiveness is extraordinarily costly and painful. But that is what we are utterly, completely, committed to and invested in. A church should not be a place where the wrongs we do each other are ignored. Nor should it be a place where they have the last word. The Lord’s supper assures us that they do not have the last word with God.

Second, we are not afraid to suffer. A community that lives by the death of Jesus cannot be surprised by suffering, and should not be afraid to meet it. We know that this is what following Christ will involve in this time. Sometimes, it might mean suffering outright hostility and even violence, like our brothers and sisters in Egypt are experiencing at the moment. That’s hardly ever the case in Australia though. But it almost certainly will mean the struggles and pains that come from seeking to be obedient in the face of the limits and brokenness of life in this world – the pains of loss, sickness, difficulty, hardship. And as a community it will almost certainly mean facing painful challenges and threats. We should not be afraid to suffer in these ways, and to share in them with others. The Lord’s supper reminds us that this is the way of Jesus.

And finally, we are a community thrilled by the promise of the future. In the Lord’s supper we proclaim his death until he comes. We live in expectation, in hope; and it fills us with delight. The promise of his return, and being with him again, eating and drinking in the fulfillment of the kingdom. This is what we know lies before us. And so we must not despair when things are grim. And we cannot help a current of cheerfulness that runs through all our life together, even if things are not going so well in one way or another. This is why we sing, and why we enjoy life together where we can. Because the Lord’s supper promises us that fasting will turn to feasting, that our bridegroom will return, and we will be with him again.

Andrew Errington

St Stephen’s church, Newtown

25 August, 2013

Learning to pray with the Master – A sermon on the Lord’s Prayer

 

Introduction

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been taking some time together to think about prayer. We’ve been reading some of the great prayers in the Bible in order to try to grow in our understanding of prayer and our doing of it, so that we can have prayers and be people shaped by God.

I wonder what this has been like for you. Have you enjoyed having your attention drawn to prayer? Maybe some of us have; but I bet others of us haven’t. Because prayer is something we so often seem to struggle with. Prayer is a much more difficult thing than it seems. It seems easy – you don’t need any special equipment or knowledge or location or anything. And yet we very often just don’t do it. We find other things to do. We feel it is not the right time. We get distracted. For some of us, I know, this struggle with prayer is actually a deeply troubling thing in our lives. For others of us, it possibly should be.

Today/tonight we come to the end of the series, at least for now. But what we’re looking at today/tonight is something a little different. It’s a set prayer, that is, a form of words designed to be repeated.

For many people – maybe for many of you – this is a bit awkward. There is something that makes people today a bit uncomfortable about prayer that just follows a pattern or repeats set words. It can seem somehow inauthentic, or perhaps just not reflective enough of me as an individual. We are so conscious of how easily this kind of thing can be just a hollow ritual. Wouldn’t it be better if things were a bit more spontaneous?

The thing is, though, it does seem that Jesus intended the prayer he gave the disciples – the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer – to be used, repeated. The disciples come to Jesus, Luke’s Gospel tells us, one time after he had finished praying. They, like us, struggled with prayer. They wanted to know Jesus’ secret. They ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And in response Jesus doesn’t just give them a bunch of guidelines, he gives them an actual prayer, for them to use: “When you pray, say this…” he says. The fact that we have it in two versions in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, in which the exact words are slightly different, doesn’t change the fact that it is basically the same prayer. (Although it does stop us from thinking that these are somehow magic words that you have to get exactly right for them to work.)

So let’s have a think together about this prayer Jesus gave his disciples, and us, and how it might help us. We’re going to think first about the prayer itself and what it teaches us, and second, about why Jesus might have given us this teaching in the form that he did, that is, why he gave us a prayer to use, and not just, say, some guidelines.

 

§1

First, then, let’s have a look at the Lord’s Prayer. What does it teach us about how we should pray? Let’s notice three things. As we go, I’ll work mainly from the version in Matthew’s gospel, which is the one more often used.

i. First, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us the basis on which we may pray to God. Our Father in heaven, it begins, or in Luke just Father. We pray to God as Father, and we may pray because He is our Father. This is an amazing thing and we mustn’t miss it. It’s not at all a common way of speaking of God in the Old Testament. It is there, but it’s not common. Because of course to call God Father is incredibly intimate. What right do we have to address God with such boldness and intimacy?

Actually, on our own we have no such right. We have no right to God’s attention, to his fatherly care and love. Because on our own we stand before him as sinners before the holy Lord. But of course, and this is part of the point of the Lord’s Prayer, we do not stand on our own. We stand with Jesus. Jesus, the one and only true and perfectly faithful Son of God the Father, the only one who truly has a right to address God in this way. Jesus has given those who believe in him the right to become children of God, to be adopted into his family alongside him as brothers and sisters. Through his death to take away our sins and his resurrection to new life, Jesus has allowed us to share, by faith, in his own relationship to God the Father. And so in prayer we approach God not as fearful slaves, but as beloved children coming to their Father. We can pray like this only because of God’s mercy; but because of God’s mercy in Jesus, this is how we really can pray.

One further comment here: notice that we pray to God as our Father. Not, that is, just my Father. God is never interested in me alone. He is interested in me; but he is also interested in others. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray as part of a community, a family.

ii. Second thing to notice: the Lord’s prayer teaches us to ask for what truly matters. In Matthew’s version, the first three things we are taught to pray for, to ask for, are these: Hallowed be your name (1), Your kingdom come (2), Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (3).

These are, I bet, not the first things we would think to pray for if we were on our own. Because we forget, you see, that the world does not in fact revolve around us, but around God, and that what matters most is not our honour, but his; not our kingdoms, but his; not our purposes, but his.

When we pray that God’s name might be hallowed, we are praying that God would be glorified, that the whole of creation would recognise who he is and worship him as he deserves, that God would be revered, respected, honoured. This is not a prayer to be prayed lightly. It reminds us that there is only one Lord, and that everyone ought to worship him, and that it is a catastrophe, a dark stain on creation, that our families, friends, and neighbours do not do so.

Jesus tells us to pray, too for the coming of God’s kingdom and, in Matthew, for the doing of God’s will on earth as in heaven. This, again, is a prayer that most of the time we probably don’t really want to pray. Because of course it’s a prayer for God to act and to change things here. It’s a prayer for him to reveal his Son Jesus as the king in glory, and to bring an end to sin and evil. Sometimes, when things are not going well for us or when we’re hurting, perhaps we will feel the goodness of this prayer. But often it will be deeply confronting. Because to pray this is to be forced out of contentment with how things are here and now. It’s to ask for life as it now stands to pass away, to be overcome by God’s kingdom. To pray this prayer is to learn to want something more than life here and now, even at its finest. It is to refuse to be mesmerised by the possibilities present existence offers for enjoyment and satisfaction.

The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to lift our eyes, and to ask first, however much of a wrench it may be to do it, for what truly matters: for the glory of God and the coming of his kingdom.

iii. Third thing to notice about this prayer: it teaches us to pray for what we really need. We pray for three things for ourselves: bread, forgiveness, and deliverance. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. Bread, forgiveness, deliverance.

If you were writing this part of the prayer, I wonder what you would have put in. Certainly more than bread. Maybe security would be a better starting point. Maybe even, dare we ask, the freedom to keep enjoying the prosperity we do at the moment. Isn’t it fair to ask God for that? But this is not a prayer for bonds and boats and biscotti – just bread. What we need to live. We’re asking God just to keep sustaining us.

And then it so quickly moves on from our material concerns to the other things we need. We ask, first, for forgiveness of our debts. This is a great reminder, I think, that we never come to God as people who have moved past needing his mercy. It is so easy to forget that. It is so easy to start feeling good about yourself, especially if we have been blessed with work we’re doing well or friends and family who tell us that we’re wonderful. But Jesus says we must always pray for forgiveness.

And it’s not just a weak, shallow forgiveness we need, either, a forgiveness that is just a kind of idea, a theory, a nice story we tell ourselves. No, the forgiveness we need to pray for is the forgiveness that actually changes the way we live, that transforms our lives. As we also have forgiven our debtors. Those are very scary words aren’t they. But you see what they do is remind us that the forgiveness we need from God is as real, and as tortured, as the forgiveness we offer others. This part of the Lord’s Prayer makes it impossible to prayer this prayer properly and it just be a religious exercise. What we really need, this prayer teaches us, is the kind of real, shocking forgiveness from God that makes you forgive others.

And also deliverance. This last bit is the weirdest for us. But it is important. We are taught that as much, in fact more than our daily bread and all the things that preoccupy us, what we really need is to be saved from the powers of evil. What this prayer reminds us, you see, is that the greatest threat to us, the greatest risk we face each day, is sin, is getting overcome by evil. We are called to pray to be spared temptation and delivered from the snares of the devil. Do you feel this way about sin and evil? Do you have this kind of awareness of its danger? I think that very often we have a much more cavalier attitude to sin. We don’t flee from temptation, we flirt with it. We trust that we’ll be able to handle it and stop ourselves going too far. We flood our eyes with images of sex and violence, and our ears with words of cruelty and ludeness and darkness, and then flatter ourselves that we are “engaging with the world”. Jesus teaches us to ask God to lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.

 

§2

Well this is what Jesus tells the disciples to pray for; and there is a lot to think about. But on top of this I think we should also pause to reflect on another question: why does Jesus teach us these things in the form that he does, that is by giving us a prayer to use? Why does he do this rather than just, say, giving a bunch of instructions like, say, “well, first-off you want to think about location. It’s important to be comfortable, but not so much that you’ll fall asleep. Then, you want to start with praising God. Do that for four or five minutes and then move on to confession.” In other places Jesus does give instructions about prayer and perhaps that’s what the disciples had expected. So why here does he also, and as his first response, give an actual prayer for them to use and practice?

You know, I’m not sure; but I have a hunch. My hunch is this: you can’t learn to pray just by learning the theory, you have to learn by doing it. Prayer, that is, is something learnt by practice, a skill you can only learn in the doing of it, like learning a skill with your hands, such learning to play a musical instrument or knit. It’s something that comes by practice and by apprenticeship over time. It’s a craft, a know-how and you learn by practicing under the direction of a tutor.

You see, there’s lots of things where it’s easy to know the theory of how to do something and still be a long way from actually being able to do it. We all probably know examples of this from our work. It’s one thing to know what to do; it’s another thing to be able to do it. Some years ago I worked at Campos coffee for a little while. When I arrived there I came with my barista certificate proudly in hand. I had done a two hour course and now knew how to make coffee. But of course, I didn’t at all. I knew the theory, but I hadn’t learnt it in my muscles and my bones. When I was there, apprentice baristas did six months of steaming milk for take-aways before they moved onto shots. Because really knowing how to do it wasn’t about knowing in theory – the theory takes about two minutes to explain – it was about getting it into your hands.

I think Jesus knew that prayer was like this. That you learnt to pray by doing your apprenticeship, and by getting the movements into your body, so to speak. And so he gave his disciples a way to get going.

Of course, the great danger with skills learnt like this is to develop bad habits. If you’re learning an instrument and you get bad tuition early on and just plug away with the wrong posture, or the wrong mouth position, or the wrong breathing, then those habits get harder and harder to break. I remember when I was younger and learnt the saxophone, I changed tutors after two years or so and had to go back to square one, because I’d been playing the wrong way.

But this is why the Lord’s Prayer is so helpful. Because this prayer can function as a standard, a pattern for prayer that teaches us the right habits. It’s as if Jesus shows us an exercise and says, “start by doing this.” He gives us a pattern to work with that will set us on the right track, a model that will help us develop the right rhythms. The Lord’s Prayer is not a lecture on how to pray; it is an apprenticeship, a way for us to learn to pray right by practice, to build the right habits and develop the right skills.

 

§3

I hope all this is giving you a new enthusiasm for the practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer. But before we get there, let me just point us to one more thing. Which is that what Jesus is teaching his disciples in teaching them this prayer is far more than just how to pray; he’s teaching them how to live. Because of course, as we’ve already seen, what this prayer shapes is not just your prayers, but your whole attitude towards life, your whole outlook and approach in the world.

As we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we learn much more than just how to pray: we learn who we are – that we are God’s children in Christ, debtors before him yet beloved and redeemed nonetheless; we learn where we are – that we stand alongside others, in a community that matters and amongst people we are called to love and forgive; and most of all we learn what time it is – that we live in anticipation of the coming of God’s kingdom, and that the time we have now is filled with challenge and opportunity and demands our attention.

I think it’s for this reason that in Matthew’s Gospel the Lord’s Prayer stands at the very centre of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ most famous piece of moral teaching: because the Lord’s Prayer is an apprencticeship not just in prayer, but in life, in living by the Spirit in this world in the light of the kingdom. This prayer is right at the heart of Christian discipleship, of learning to live in the way the Master teaches us.

 

Conclusion

So in conclusion, can I invite you to take up this prayer and use it. There are perfectly good reasons to be anxious about set prayers and religious rituals. But we should not throw out this prayer. Because this prayer is a gift to us. It’s not magic of course. It will only do us any good if we mean what we say. But it is a gift.

And we must not let our anxieties about authenticity and individuality stop us. There is of course a place in the spiritual life for individuality. God made us different and he loves that. But there is also a lot of commonality. “Those God foreknew,” says Paul in Romans, “he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (8:29). Conformed! To be a Christian is to become more like Jesus, and that’s the same for all of us. That doesn’t mean we will all be the same in every way; but we are growing in many common ways. If we are not interested in being like Jesus, then we are not interested in being Christians.

And so I do want to urge you to take up this prayer and use it. We use it in church and will continue to do so. But I want to urge you to use it yourself too. For it is a tool Jesus has given us to practice our discipleship, to build and shape our prayers and our lives in the way he has shown us.

And so I want to conclude with a challenge that in our age, where we idolise authenticity and spontaneity, seems to me to be deeply counter-cultural. The challenge is this: make a commitment to pray the Lord’s Prayer every day for the rest of this year; and maybe if that works out ok, every day for the rest of your life. Why not? Why not build this habit into your life so that it moulds you and shapes you? You’ll have to work, of course, to stop it becoming stale, to keep meaning it, to keep it being a prayer and not just an exercise. But that’s not impossible. You’ll need to not make rash promises because there’ll be days you miss or forget. But why not make it your ambition? Being a Christian is always and only ever being an apprentice, a disciples. Why not let Jesus’ prayer mould your prayer, and your heart, deeply and richly? I bet there is nothing we can do so simply that will have such a profound impact on our spiritual lives for good. Lord Jesus, teach us to pray.

 

Andrew Errington

St Stephen’s Newtown

26 January, 2014

Lo how a rose e’er blooming

This is one of my favourite carols. Thought I’d post it as we head towards advent.

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!