The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Trinity XIV 2005

by Fr. Carl
Cathedral of the Annunication Ottawa

How many of us here are afraid to die? I suspect that most of us would not be entirely honest if we didn’t admit to at least some fear of death, not least because there is the component of the unknown. Fear of the unknown. I was reminded of this in today’s Collect by the phrase, “that we may obtain that which Thou dost promise.” And what does Almighty and everlasting God promise to us? Everlasting life. Insofar as any of us is able to completely trust God – and of course all of us should – then we should also take Him at His word – which means that we should not be afraid of death, rather we should live in “hope of everlasting life.”

I was further reminded of this as I was reading something that Bishop Wilkinson forwarded me for light reading. It is the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II on “The Bishop, Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World.” Very early in the over 50 page long document is a subsection entitled, “A hope founded on Christ,” and it states in part, “It is in fact the task of every Bishop to proclaim hope to the world, hope based on the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: a hope ‘which…. awaits the riches of the glory of God (Eph. 1:18), which surpasses anything that the human heart has ever conceived (1 Cor. 2:9), and to which the sufferings of the present cannot be compared’ (Rom. 8:18)….The Bishop is the prophet, witness and servant of this hope, especially where a culture of ‘the here and now’ leaves no room for openness to transcendence. Where hope is absent, faith itself is called into question….the Bishop stands in the midst of the Church as a vigilant sentinel, a courageous prophet, a credible witness and a faithful servant of Christ, ‘our hope and glory’ (Col. 1:27), thanks to Whom ‘death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying nor pain any more’ (Rev. 21:4).”

End of sermon? Well, it certainly could be, and I suspect it would leave each of us something about which to think. However, two related things mitigate against my just taking the easy way out:
• earlier this year, prior to summer break, we completed a study of 1 and 2 Thessalonians in which the issue of the death of believers figures prominently, including one passage that presents a rather significant diversion for a large number of western Christians of the past century and a half;
• I overheard one of our parishioners waxing eloquently about that very passage just a few weeks ago, but not in the orthodox understanding that we reviewed at Bible study.

Therefore, it is topical in the sense that any of us might be confronted with this by other Christians, where it would be helpful if we had some idea of the subject. This happens to be one of those recent inventions of part of the western Church that has pushed opposing factions even further apart. Indeed it bears mentioning here that the both the original and current proponents of these innovations are frankly vicious in their attitude towards particularly the Roman Catholic Church, but also any other denomination that holds to the tradition of the Church as we do. Therefore, although our practice here is to attempt to avoid criticizing other denominations, this particular issue is not exclusively denominational, and it digresses seriously enough from orthodox teaching that it is my duty to reveal it to you as objectively as possible.

“What are you speaking about Fr. Carl?” Well, the term bandied about, and as described in 1 Thess. 4: 16-17, which reads (RSV), “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord,” the term is the Rapture. Perhaps you’ve heard of the enormously popular (some 60 million copies sold) “Left Behind” series of books? They are about the Rapture.

Is this episode as described in 1 Thessalonians not to be believed? No, not at all. But that’s not the problem that has arisen around the whole Rapture phenomenon. It is no longer just a relatively simple insertion by St. Paul into one of his letters to a group in Thessalonica who were under a mistaken understanding of his teaching that he had done among them just weeks or months before. Their misunderstanding, by the way, being that they thought that none of them was going to die before the Lord’s return – which had led to various problems in a very short period of time: thus St. Paul’s letters to them. His first letter to them served three primary purposes: to commend their faithfulness while providing much encouragement; to exhort them to holy living, including not ignoring their daily chores while waiting for the imminent return of the Lord; and, related to that, to correct misunderstandings about the Second Coming, including a clarification that yes, some of them would in fact die before Jesus’ return, but not to fret, whether alive or dead, all would receive the reward of everlasting life – the hope with which we began today’s musings, and that which God promises. The vision of some who were alive being carried up into the clouds was not the basis for any doctrine in the early or medieval or even the reformed part of the Church, perhaps because in the very next verses, St. Paul reminds his readers that nobody knows when this will happen, so we should spend our time focused on praying, building up each other, doing good and so on – in other words, just what Jesus Himself taught.

The Rapture phenomenon, which has taken on mammothly, mythical proportions snuck into the Church in the early 1800’s, but really got its first big push from John Nelson Darby in 1830, the very same disaffected Anglican clergyman who was the founder of the Plymouth Brethren.

In my reading, I was not able to discern why Mr. Darby found it necessary to take the verses about the vision and create what he did, complete with terms, foreign to many Christians, but buzz words for others. Dispensationalism: the belief that God works in history in various dispensations, or historical eras. We’ve certainly heard of the word millennium; and in this case, there was a belief system with roots in the early church called Millenarianism. This held that there would be a thousand year period preceding the Second Coming of Christ during which He would reign on earth in a kingdom of His saints, and at its conclusion take them with Him into heaven. It was short lived, beginning as largely a Gnostic phenomenon, though interestingly the Gnostics turned their backs on it before a few well-known early Christians. In checking the relevant writings of those well-known names in the early Church, it becomes clear that they were often just musing about it in correspondences or defences against heretics, not as an official doctrine of the Church. Millenarianism was never held in the universal Church as an article of faith based on Apostolic traditions. But it came roaring back with alarmingly different twists in the mind of Mr. Darby. And of course, as with so many other deviations of the past few centuries, these groups have managed to glean these new beliefs or doctrines from the pages of Holy Scripture that were put together by the early Church, who themselves had no inkling of these novel beliefs, or in this case, placed no doctrinal importance on it. To thus turn around and condemn the very Church that put together the books from which these inventors have created such novelties is, for me at least, is just beyond comprehension.

The followers of Darby’s thinking are still with us today, and they all hold to some form of premillenial dispensationalism with a pretribulation rapture - your $20 terms for the day . But before we review them, it does bear mentioning that, on the surface, dispensationalists and traditional Christianity appear to agree about the Second Coming, a future Antichrist, and an impending trial and time of apostasy. And, in fact, common beliefs about aspects of these teachings do exist. But, as noteworthy as these agreements are, the differences between premillennial dispensationalism and traditional doctrine are even more striking:
• The first dispensationalist premise is that Jesus Christ failed to establish the kingdom for the Jews during His first coming. Dispensationalists believe that Christ offered a material and earthly kingdom, but the Jews rejected Him– failing to take into account His own Mother, Peter, John, Andrew, and so on, who were all Jews, not to mention the 3,000 Jewish converts on the Day of Pentecost.
• This supposed failure by our Lord leads to the second premise that the Church is a “parenthetical” insert into history. Put another way, the Church was created out of necessity when the Jews rejected Christ.
• The third premise, so vital to dispensationalism, is the existence of two people of God: the Jews (the “earthly” people) and the Christians (the “heavenly” people).
• Which brings us to something called the pre-tribulation rapture – the very verses in 1 Thess. 4 being the main proof text – no matter how out of context they are taken. This event is necessary because the heavenly people (Christians, and of course only dispensationalist Christians, the over 1 billion Roman Catholics are known as the “Whore of Babylon,” not to mention all of the rest of the orthodox and catholic groups who also are all condemned) must eventually be taken from the earthly stage so that the prophetic timeline can be “restarted” and God’s work with the earthly people (Jews) resumed. That work will involve seven years of tribulation, which dispensationalists believe will be a period of God’s chastisement on the Jewish people, resulting in the vast majority of Jews being killed, but also in the conversion of those remaining.
• This then brings us to the term “premillenial dispensationalism” which teaches that the “Rapture” and the Second Coming are two events separated by a time of tribulation and that there will be a future millennial reign of Christ on earth.

How does this all net out? The Rapture and the "Left Behind" theology of dispensationalism are popular and influential, but seriously flawed. They may make for a fun read or an entertaining flick, but shouldn't be the basis of how we read the Bible, watch the news, or consider the future. The Church has always allowed for some speculation, but also has wisely encouraged us, based on the direct teaching of not only St. Paul in the very verses following the “rapture,” but more importantly, the teaching of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to pursue holiness and a Christ-like life, not doom-and-gloom scenarios and speculations about escaping impending tribulation. And we do believe that Jesus, God Incarnate did not fail, but rather that He did all that He came to do, that the Old Convenant was in fact fulfilled in the new, not that He has to come back in some sort of Coming 1a prior to the Second Coming so that He can finish establishing the New Covenant, that His Church was not a patch-up response to this supposed failure, but that It was purposely established as His visible witness until His return when all, both living and dead, will be judged Still, when we look at how other materialistic and/or self-centred inventions have captured the imagination of so many western Christians, the appeal of the pretribulational Rapture is understandable. The idea that those living today are “the generation” who will see Christ’s return is attractive and intoxicating. It’s no surprise that many people are prepared to gobble up a theory that tells them that they won’t have to die. Such promises of escape from suffering, illness, pain, and potential martyrdom are tempting, but they aren’t an option for Christians who truly have absorbed the gist of the Bible and our Lord’s teaching. Each of us will endure suffering of some sort, as St. Paul concludes today’s Epistle reading, “for every man shall bear his own burden,” and the Church will, one day, have to endure a final, great trial. The pretribulation Rapture, dispensationalism, and the Left Behind books, in the end, are long on promises but short on biblical, historical, and theological evidence.

Some of us may also be aware of Hal Lindsay, whose book “The Late Great Planet Earth” sold some 40 million copies. He was into the Rapture thing as well; alas his “bet-your-bottom-dollar” prediction was that the Rapture was going to happen in the 1980’s. Tim LaHaye of the “Left Behind” series is similarly convinced that the Rapture is absolutely going to happen in this generation. Fr. Peter just experienced this mindset as he was gathering helpers for one of the charities in which he is involved – one of the prospective helpers backed out because “we are in the end days, so what’s the point.” That mindset, as mentioned, was one of the primary reasons St. Paul wrote his letters to the Church in Thessalonica. “Plus ça change…”

So, when we are asked if we believe in “the Rapture,” how shall we respond? We must keep in mind the aforementioned vicious anti-catholic mindset of these people – among other things they claim that the Church killed “at least 40 million people during the Dark Ages,” that the Rapture is a biblical and orthodox belief, that the early Church fathers believed in the Rapture and the millennial kingdom on earth and such. None of these suppositions is correct – the estimate of “at least 40 million killed during the dark ages” is high by, oh, some 39.9 million, for example.

I suppose that we could tell them the joke that Nicky Gumble does on the current ALPA tapes. I last told this a few years ago on Advent II, Bible Sunday in making the point that sola scriptura in these latter days has really become “sola only the parts of scriptura that I like,” which is extremely topical for our musings today as well. Let me see if I can do this again without stumbling:
“I was standing the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge admiring the view when another tourist walked up beside me to do the same. I heard him say quietly as he took in the view, ‘What an awesome God.’ I turned to him and said, ‘Are you a Christian?’

“He said, ‘Yes, I’m a Christian.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ We shook hands.

“I said, ‘Are you liberal or a fundamental Christian?’ He said, ‘I’m a fundamental Christian.’ I said, ‘So am I;’ and we smiled and nodded at each other.

“I said, ‘Are you a covenant or dispensational, fundamental Christian?’ He said, ‘I’m a dispensational, fundamental Christian.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ And we slapped one another on the back.

“I said, ‘Are you an early Acts, mid Acts or late Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian?’ He said, ‘I’m a mid Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ And we agreed to exchange Christmas cards each year.

“I said, ‘Are you an Acts 9 or Acts 13, mid Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian?’ He said, ‘I’m an Acts 9, mid Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ And we hugged one another, right there on the bridge.

“I said, ‘Are you a pre-trib. or post-trib. Acts 9, mid Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian?’ He said, ‘I’m a pre-trib., Acts 9, mid Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ And we agreed to exchange our kids for the summer.

“I said, ‘Are you a 12-in or 12-out, pre-trib., Acts 9, mid Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian?’ He said, ‘I’m a 12-in, pre-trib., Acts 9, mid Acts, dispensational, fundamental Christian.’ I said, ‘You heretic!’ And I pushed him off the bridge.”

While that actually could be considered as a serious answer, in that it points out just how deeply the post-Reformation mindset has fallen into not being able to see the forest for the trees, it may not satisfy. We must also recognize that followers of the current Rapture speculations are not likely to be prepared to discuss the topic with any appeal to the consistent beliefs of the Church throughout history. Therefore, perhaps a better answer would be to respond that we, following the specific exhortation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and St. Paul in that very same letter to the Church in Thessalonica, choose to spend our time differently; rather than fussing about end-time speculations, we are trying to do what Jesus said: to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength; and our neighbours as ourselves, living holy and blameless lives insofar as in us lies. “Tomorrow will take care for itself; sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.”

Am I afraid of death? No, but not because I expect to be “raptured,” rather because I trust God to fulfil His promise to all who put their faith in Him.



by Fr. Peter
Cathedral of the Annunciation

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.

The writers of the synoptic gospels all include this summary of the law, as we know it. There is a slight difference between them, in that Matthew and Mark attribute the words directly to Jesus, while Luke, whose version we read today, reports them as coming from the lawyer.

This apparent discrepancy was tackled by Joseph Dillersberger, a German theologian, in his 1939 commentary on St. Luke. The clue, Dillersberger explained, is in Mark 12:32-33, in which verses the lawyer repeats what Jesus had just said. In addition, St. Luke wrote from a different perspective. He was not so much concerned with which commandment was greatest, but more with Christ’s teaching on the love of our neighbour. So, Luke alone goes on to relate the great parable of the good Samaritan.

It was, of course, Jesus, in His infinite wisdom and compassion who linked the two, widely separated, Old Testament passages in the summary of the law. The first, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, etc. is written in Deuteronomy 6:5, while the second, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, is found in Leviticus 19:18.

The wording used by our Lord, as recorded in Matthew and Mark, suggests at least a difference in the quality of love we are commanded to show God, on the one hand and our neighbour on the other. In particular, He distinguishes the commandment to love God as, the first and great commandment.

St. Luke records Jesus specifically addressing the issue of who our neighbour is and how we are to love that neighbour. Jesus was attacking the deeply entrenched position of the Jews that only a fellow countryman was a neighbour and that it was acceptable to neglect and even to hate all others. One topic which this could lead us into is the vast gulf between Christianity and Mohammedanism, but I am not going there today.

I suspect that most of you know and understand the parable of the good Samaritan very well, so I am going to focus more today on the first of these commandments, which, on the face of it is much more demanding of us.

In fact, it is much more demanding, because it really requires us to love God in a manner approaching as closely as possible the way in which He loves us and that is a very different kind of love from the love we have for ourselves and for our neighbour. If we do truly love God, as instructed by Jesus in the great commandment, we inevitably fall into obedience with respect to the second commandment. We simply cannot love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength without loving our neighbour, or indeed, all of God’s creation.

I have a card at home on which an anonymous author wrote,

I asked Jesus, “How much do you love me”
“This much”, He replied,
and He stretched out His arms
and He died.

Jesus died on the cross for our redemption. His incarnation, His life and His death are the ultimate expression of Divine Love; of God’s Love for us. The Cross is at the centre of that Love. The Cross is at the centre of the Gospel. Redemption is the essential Gospel message.

It should be obvious then, that a Cross centred love is very special indeed, and it must be encountered in the humble acknowledgement that we can never fully comprehend it. The very nature of the redemptive act upon the cross is way too far outside our comfort zone for that. It places this love we are discussing a vast distance from modern ideas of a warm and fuzzy love.

Jesus said, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. John 12:32. He spoke of the death He would die and His words are a constant reminder that the Cross is always there before us. We cannot ignore it and we cannot ignore the Love which radiates from it. It is the Cross and that incandescent Love which empowers us to Love God. The love we return to the Almighty is a flickering candle in comparison, but we can at least mean it wholeheartedly by earnestly desiring and striving to obey Christ’s commandment.

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.

Empowerment begins with the grace of humility. Jesus went to the Cross in utter submission to the will of the Father. We can only love God with all our heart when we have cried to Him to erase all traces of pride from our heart. We are born to glorify God, which is what gives meaning to our lives, but we cannot live to His glory when we are in the way. God must be in charge of our lives in order for His glory to shine through in them.

The more we can give our hearts to Him, the more we will feel His Love and the more we will be enabled to love Him. This alone takes us out of warm and fuzzy love land, but the rest of the commandment takes us even further.

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy soul.

We are created in God’s image and whilst it is wrong to dismiss the body in this, it is most true in the soul. On this subject, I spent some time with Dr. Francis Hall’s Dogmatic Theology, Vol. V, Creation and Man.

Now, understanding Dr. Hall can be a little like trying to comprehend the very origins of the universe. It can make your eyes water and produce a serious headache, especially if you are not blessed with a Churchillian vocabulary and a thoroughly disciplined logical thought process.

However, I believe the good doctor comes down on the side of creationism in the matter of the soul, that is, a belief that God places the soul in each new human life at the moment of conception. No other attempt to deal with the soul actually works.

That being so, the soul is a very distinct element of the Divine residing within each of us. It is that part of us which grows more God like in the lifelong, Holy Spirit led, process of sanctification. That we are participants in that process is quite a responsibility and one which is discharged by obedience to this commandment. In growing more God like, we become by definition more united with and filled with the Love of God.

Filling us, the Love of God must necessarily flow from us because it cannot be contained in a human vessel. Then we can indeed obey the second great commandment and love our neighbour as Jesus wants us to.

Once again, we are liberated and empowered in this matter by the Cross.

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy mind.

Upon the Cross, Jesus Christ’s will was truly united with the will of God the Father. There is our example and there is our goal. Such unity comes through the Grace of God, but we have to desire it with every fibre of our being. We must fill our minds with the Gospel and glory of Jesus, striving to keep them focused upon God. Satan can never reach us through our souls, but he can and does assault us through our minds, sometimes gaining enough control to swamp, but never extinguish, the divine spark of the soul.

In loving God with all our minds, we keep our minds as safe as possible from satan. We know the redemption Jesus provided on the Cross and we glorify Jesus by turning our thoughts to the Cross when temptation strikes.

Our mind is the most wayward part of our fabric and it is there, on that battleground that we most need God, in His mercy, to grant us strength. It is there that we seek the help of the Holy Spirit to sustain us. The beauty of what Jesus teaches is that obedience to Him creates a real barrier against sin.

So it is, that in our minds we make our conscious effort to love God, returning the Love he shows us upon the Cross and given the power to do so by our Lord’s perfect sacrifice upon that Cross.

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy strength.

This makes it physical. This destroys any possibility of being a couch potato when it comes to loving God. Christianity is not a spectator sport, but the very definition of participation.

God wants our bodies and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a call to action. This component of His commandment makes clear the extent to which we are called upon to act.

The Cross states in stark terms the outer limits of where we may be called upon to go. Just as the Cross glorifies Jesus Christ, it summons us to be ready to glorify God also.

The day I set about preparing this sermon, I opened up my email and there was a message from David Kilgour, MP for Edmonton. David forwarded to me a report of an interview with Chinese Christians. I want to read you the first few paragraphs. They speak volumes to me and I hope they do to you as well.

The interview was wrapping up when a reporter with the International Mission Board asked a prominent leader in the rapidly expanding Chinese house church movement how American Christians could pray for house churches in China. “Stop praying for persecution in China to end,” he responded, “for it is through persecution that the church has grown.”

“What astounding faith!” I thought when I heard the story. However, my admiration of his faith was quickly tempered by what he said next.

“We, in fact, are praying that the American church might taste the same persecution,” he said, “so revival would come to the American church like we have seen in China.”

Suffering, pain, the Cross.

That is where loving God with all our strength leads us.

That is where living our lives to the glory of God takes us.

If we are not prepared to go there, we do not love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength.

And the Cross is reduced in our lives to a mere shape.

Two pieces of wood nailed together, bereft of Redemption’s glory.

But if we are prepared to go there, with God’s help, we will come to glorify God and to love Him with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength. And we will become a blessing to our neighbour, loving him as we are commanded by Jesus Christ to do. We may even show a little of Jesus to our neighbour and, with God’s help, lead him into the body of Christ.

Peter Jardine+
Trinity 13, 2005

Trinity XII 2005

by Fr. Carl
Cathedral of the Annunciation

Today we heard read one of Bp. Mercer’s favourite Collects. It seems that the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer also thought it important, as a variation of it appears at the end of the Service of Holy Communion as one of the Collects that may be said following the Eucharist, or by a Deacon if only the Liturgy of the Word has been read in the absence of a Priest or Bishop to celebrate the Eucharist. If you would all open your Prayer Books to page 236, the location of today’s Collect, please then follow along as I read the Collect on page 88 that expresses much the same:

“Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking: We beseech thee to have compassion on our infirmities; and those things, which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, vouchsafe to give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

We here might also recall one of Bishop Mercer’s sermons from last fall. Remembrance Sunday fell on Trinity 23, the Collect for which implores God to hear our prayers. Bp. Robert reminded us of three essentially important facts that we should recognize as we pray, relating specifically to intercessory prayer: prayer is not telling God something that He doesn’t already know; prayer is not bending God to our wills; prayer does not empower or enable God. It would be difficult not to recognize the obvious link between the Bishop’s musings and the Collect for today, and the post-Communion Collect that I read.

In listening to the good Bishop, one might ask, “Well then, what use is prayer?” Of course, as he was often wont to do, he was planting a seed in our minds, encouraging us to do some thinking, to acknowledge that, while on one hand God is not our cosmic bellhop, neither on the other hand are we to ignore prayer as a useless exercise. First, the Bishop made the point that if his observations might suggest that prayer is not easily understood, we might also acknowledge that we can hardly understand the Trinity either, but we most certainly believe it. His exact words were, “To understand prayer, you must first understand the Trinity. You will never understand the Trinity. Therefore you will never understand prayer.”

Happily, he didn’t leave us hanging there. He went on to make the very important point that the highest purpose of prayer, some might argue the only proper purpose, is to share in the love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. His concluding words were, “When you pray, ‘God bless Susie’, the will of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is expressed in your heart, mind and voice. You are not intervening between God and Susie on Susie’s behalf. The Trinity loves Susie, knows more about Susie, understands Susie, better than you ever could. Because Jesus has united you with His humanity, and taken you up into the Trinity, a little of the Trinity’s love for Susie is now in you. ‘I am the Ground of thy beseeching.’ Prayer is not your attempt to get God involved. Prayer is the result of God involving you in Himself.”

Why am I repeating all of this? Well, it certainly is topical as it relates to today’s Collect and our former Bishop’s acknowledgement of its importance. And it is also certainly topical when we ponder the world about us, both sacred and profane – churched and unchurched.

It doesn’t come as any particular surprise to any of us, I suspect, that the unchurched are very often motivated by greed. How often can we observe the mantra, “What’s in it for me?” Clearly that is very far from the lofty ideal of prayer of which the Bishop reminded us – to become absorbed into, annihilated in the love of the Trinity, which is entirely a love that gives. There is no sentiment of, “What’s in it for me” in the Divine Love.

And inside the Church; are our motivations always so pure? Perhaps our prayer life is exemplary, driven only by a desire to see God’s will in all things, to pray for the good of others within the perfect will of the Trinity for them, to become a small reflection of the Divine Love, never presuming to tell God what to do or to suspect that He is unaware of something.

I was prompted to think of the type and quality of prayer life early last week by a number of things:
• the first Lesson at Mattins on Monday (Monday, by the way, we commemorated John Mason Neale, translator and/or composer of the words of over 70 of the hymns in our Hymnal, including having translated our first hymn today), the first Lesson was from 2 Chronicles 15, which in part read, (RSV) “The Lord is with you, while you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will be found by you, but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you.” In one short verse we have encapsulated one of the most important messages in the Old Testament, both for individuals, and for entire nations. Many have often wondered at the seemingly endless episodes of Israel’s prosperity waxing and waning as they were either at peace or at war. This short verse succinctly distils all of that into a short but weighty explanation and exhortation. The wars in which the Jews were often engaged were real enough, but through the words of the Lord, spoken here by Azariah, we are to understand that all of that symbolized the struggle, the war within each human soul. “What’s in it for me?” Ultimately, nought that is happy unless we have been truly seeking God.
• that, coupled with today’s Epistle reading, particularly the statement, “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,” prompted me to think forward to the time of Jesus, when the most zealous of the Jews, the Pharisees, had managed to create over 600 rules that must be observed to the letter, according to their teaching, or damnation was pretty much guaranteed. Of course, as we know from a few episodes with Jesus, the Pharisees were very much indeed consumed with the letter, often missing very badly the Spirit. To be focussed on a massive check list of do’s and don’ts would certainly be a significant distraction from the sort of prayer that seeks unity with God.
• then on Tuesday evening, the first Lesson at Evensong provided another brilliant encapsulation, this time, a bridge between the early Old Covenant mindset of animal sacrifice as a way to be right with God, and the later understanding of personal spirituality. God, through the prophet Micah, says (RSV), “‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Once again, a reminder that there is nothing better than for us to become immersed in God, to be annihilated in the Divine Love of the Holy Trinity.

Fair enough, but once again, in the world today, both within and without the Church, aside from the “What’s in it for me?” syndrome, let us consider aspects of being Christians outside of our prayer life. Most disconcerting I feel, is that, through almost certainly a complex combination of factors, people’s thinking has become dulled. We might even call it the, “What’s the big deal?” syndrome. This has penetrated all aspects of our life in western society, from human morality (witness the ready acceptance of murdering our unborn children and the inevitably unfortunate consequences that are going to result from the destruction of our understanding of family to name two on a large scale) to just plain politeness and decency on the part of individuals (what ever happened to men removing their hats when they enter a building as a show of respect?). “What’s the big deal, as long as it’s not (apparently) hurting me or anyone else?”

Sometimes the combination of our general lack of thoughtful interest, coupled with a “no holds barred” attitude on the part of others, can point towards some rather frightening conclusions.

On Monday, my first day back from vacation, I was catching up on reading email correspondence, and in a message from American Life League President Judie Brown I read: “We live in a world that is upside down, yet far too few people seem to care. And that troubles me. We go along, doing what we do, never stopping to question the media reports that suggest this topsy-turvy reality is the proper direction for culture, our nation and our very lives. Here's what I mean. Did you know that there are great apes and chimpanzees that will shortly be walking around with human brain cells in their little craniums? There was a time when ethical research scientists told the public that such a vision of "Planet of the Apes" would never happen. Not so, says a group of academics assembled by Johns Hopkins University. Oh, not to worry, these little human-apes won't be passing through the subway turnstiles any time soon, but watch out. When scientists start telling us that something they are thinking about could never be done without the strictest of guidelines, it a sure-fire bet that they are already wondering where to get started. There are far too many scientists who think if something can be done, it should be done — ethical considerations notwithstanding.”

That prompted me to think of other far more trivial episodes, but nonetheless telling in themselves, of those, not only outside the Church but also within. What sort of episodes, aside from the thinking about which Judie raises an alarm, “if something can be done, it should be,” even if that means rejecting the clearly revealed will of God?
• we might think especially of those situations that prompted our very existence – rejection of God’s authority as regards the Sacraments, “Because we are enlightened and know a better way,” and, “What’s the big deal? We’re not hurting anyone.”
• society’s moral standards are increasingly not those of the Church. Sometimes, not only new members, but even lifelong Christians, upon being made aware of God’s will vs. society’s latest fad, are unwilling to accept God’s will, often coupled with a shrug and a statement to the effect, “If it’s not hurting anyone, then I’m going to go with the flow, regardless of what God says.” Of course, “hurt” in this sense seems to apply only to obvious physical trauma; psychological, or even worse, spiritual damage seem to be of little concern.
• and some might say, even more trivial, but also telling nonetheless are those situations where someone is being trained for whatever duty around the Church: altar guild, servers, even candidates for Holy Orders. Upon being instructed how something, based on good logical reasons, is to be done, they go away and promptly establish a habit of doing it differently. This is often not terribly important, but there are very many things in which the physical acts or even the arrangement of things in the Church are highly symbolic to the extent that if done or arranged improperly might indicate a lack of care. Perhaps we should pretend that we are in the military: when we are instructed the proper way to salute, we make quite certain that we comply upon risk of being put on report. We are God’s army; let us try to salute properly. This last point of lack of attention to readiness and decency in the church is also topical in that yesterday was the Feast of St. Hippolytus, Doctor and Bishop, who was martyred in the year 235 AD. Among various of his writings, the best known work is a refutation of various Gnostic heresies. But he also wrote a commentary on the book of Daniel, and attributed to him is a work called The Apostolic Tradition, which complained that public worship was getting very sloppy, and explained in detail how church services ought to be conducted, and were conducted back in the Good Old Days. Hmm, have things really changed all that much?

Having said all of that, one might very correctly observe that there is always the danger of Pharisaism – being consumed with observance of rules. Bishop Mercer also delivered a wonderfully convicting sermon on that topic, observing that it is so very easy to be a Pharisee. Fair enough observation, but might we also recognize that there are proper ways to do things and not so proper. If we learn and practise the proper way, then it becomes second nature; we do it automatically, giving no further regard to observance of petty rules.

After all, the whole purpose of this exercise that we call Church, is not to be consumed by trivialities, offering burnt offerings, and calves, and rams, and rivers of oil, yea even our first-born. “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” in a life of prayer that seeks nothing but God Himself.