November 3 NOTES FOR REFLECTION All Saints Sunday
Texts: Daniel 7: 1-3, 15-18; Ephesians 1:9-23*; Luke 6:20-31
[* The Lectionary prescribes verses 11-23; but to me the critical verses are 9 and 10, which give context and meaning to all that follows: in fact, I would contend that they are among the most important verses in our Scriptures.]
Theme: If we take our lead from the gospel passage, we can't go past "Plain Speaking", remembering that, according to Luke, what we know from Matthew as the Sermon on the Mount actually took place "on a level place" (verse 17). However, for those who do not share my love of puns and other word-plays, something more grown-up may be "The Kingdom Comes". This would fit well with both lessons, and with the spirit of the gospel passage; and it will also recognise that this Sunday and the next succeeding three are sometimes collectively referred to as "The Kingdom Season". While some forms of "Christian Triumphalism" can be as cringe-making as jingoistic nationalism, it is good to be reminded that God's great story does have a happy ending!
Introduction. We start with one of Daniel's mysterious visions, to the endless fascination of some of us, and the acute discomfort of the rest of us. The key message comes in verse 18, which assures us that whatever kingdoms and empires might rise and fall in the coming centuries on earth, the people of faith will share in the only kingdom that ultimately matters, the eternal kingdom of God. This is reinforced by the wonderful "vision" of St Paul in our second lesson, as he reveals God's creative plan, his purpose or will, that he has been unfolding from the Big Bang onwards and will be ultimately fulfilled when "all things" come together in the Body of Christ. In the meantime, we are called to cooperate in this divine work, to be co-workers with God (we might even say co-creators with God); and we live out this great vocation by absorbing and accepting the teaching of Christ, the kernel of which we find in passages such as the one we have in our gospel reading.
Background. I was recently invited to offer a series of teaching "on prayer". When I began to think about what material I might use for this series I was about to turn to my book-shelves when a sudden thought struck me; wouldn't a better first step be to pray? So I sat in my "prayer chair" and tried to open myself to whatever may come to me. What came to me was a question that I had never thought of before: what is the nature of the world in which we are to do our praying? And hot on its heels came a supplementary question: how should the nature of the world inform our prayer? What emerged from all that was a Quiet Day of reflection on those questions, followed by a four-part series examining the classic four "categories" of prayer (adoration/praise, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication/petition/intercession) in the light of our reflections on the Quiet Day. This week's readings offer another opportunity to consider these issues; indeed, the reading from Ephesians (along with extracts from Romans 8 and Colossians 3, together forming St Paul's so-called "cosmic texts") were central to our reflections on the Quiet Day.
In a nutshell, the thought that struck me powerfully as I started my own work on these issues was that the form and content of our prayers are so closely linked with our cosmology that many of our difficulties in our prayer life arise because we have not up-dated our cosmology. The picture we have traditionally drawn of the world from the bible is rather like a theatre in which we play out the drama of life. It is a very static image; God has built the whole thing, and all that matters now is the divine-human relationship. We now know, of course, that the universe is very different. Yes, it had a definite beginning (as the author of Genesis brilliantly perceived), but the creative process was not completed before we arrived on the scene, and has not yet been completed. It is continuing. So far it has taken about 13.7 billion years, and shows no signs of finishing anytime soon. Scientists call that process evolution: we call it the process by which God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year. (Try singing that great hymn to yourself as you read slowly through this magnificent passage from Ephesians, and see what you think.)
The static view of the universe can lead our prayer into the dangerous world of magic, as the great Evelyn Underhill never tired of pointing out. We prayed that God would intervene – just this once – to change the script, or the scenery or something in the theatre on which we were strutting our stuff at any one time. Every prayer can seem to be asking for a miracle – a personal exemption from the way things usually are and would be unless we can somehow persuade God to do us a favour. God as a benign form of Dr Strangelove can easily follow from that form of prayer infected by that type of cosmology. But once we substitute for that static view the dynamic view of the universe in the process of being created according to God's "good purpose" (as St Paul puts it) we find that our prayers become aligned with that purpose. In short, our prayer can be summed up in that very familiar petition: "your kingdom come, your will be done". The emphasis shifts from asking God to intervene (and perhaps what we really mean is "interfere") in the ways of the world, to asking that his will be done whatever obstacles may be presently holding it back.
So far, so good; but there is one more important thing here, I think. If we are to be co-workers or co-creators with God we are surely called to do more than pray for the "success" of God's work - "to pray ringside", to borrow a phrase from Ring Lardner, "may be a nice idea but a good left hook wins more points". Someone has said that whatever we pray for, we must be willing to be at least part of the answer to our prayer. More elegantly, and more usefully given this week's gospel passage, Richard Rohr says this:
We mend and renew the world by strengthening inside ourselves what we seek outside ourselves, and not by demanding it of others or trying to force it on others.
He goes on to give some specific examples: the one that most struck a chord with me was this:
If the world seems desperate, let go of your own despair.
Daniel. Is there any book in the whole of the Old Testament more deserving of being consigned to the flames than this one? Well, perhaps we shouldn't blame the book itself; perhaps we should consign those who wage endless and pointless arguments about its authorship that should be burnt at the stake (metaphorically speaking, of course). But, really! Does it matter if the book was indeed written by the prophet around the time of Cyrus' invasion of Babylonia, or it was written by someone else around the time of the Maccabees 400 years later? It seems it does to ardent conservatives who want to emphasise what are claimed to be extraordinarily accurate historical predictions; and likewise to equally ardent liberals who wish to dismiss the possibility of prophetic foresight as super-natural nonsense. Who cares? The theme – indeed, the whole point of the book – is the Sovereignty of God, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. Remember Nebuchadnezzar, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Adolf Hitler, and even Ian Smith in Rhodesia? Remember all those Pharaohs, Kings, Queens, Presidents, Prime Ministers, and their much-decorated military commanders? All, in the broad sweep of history, gone by lunchtime. Only one Kingdom is eternal. That's the message of this book and it remains the message of Scripture through to the Book of Revelation: "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah", as the chorus sang in response to the seventh angel's trumpet voluntary (11:15).
Taking It Personally.
· Read verses 6:28 and 7:1. A new reign brings uncertainty for Daniel. Perhaps his fearful dreams reflect that. Have you had times of change and uncertainty that have frightened you – are you facing such circumstances at the moment?
· In general, do you take your dreams seriously, or dismiss them without another thought? Can you recall a dream that proved helpful to you in some way?
· Remembering the fraught political times and circumstances in which Daniel is said to have had his visions and dreams, how valuable would the reassurance in verse 18 have been to him?
· Do you find the idea of God working his purpose out helpful in times of crisis when everything seems to be going wrong?
Ephesians. I've always rather liked the old story about the labourer on a building site somewhere, with trowel in one hand and a small piece of stone in the other. Some local dignitary was visiting the site and said to the man, "And you, my good man, what are you doing?" "I, Sir," replied the labourer, "am building a cathedral". Whether or not St Paul wrote this letter, I neither know nor care. Whoever wrote it had the same breadth of vision as the labourer building the cathedral. Within a few decades of the death of Jesus of Nazareth someone had discerned that God's plan was, and always had been, and continues to be, to bring the whole of creation together in his transformed Body. It is against this background – this understanding of the world as it is – that the author goes on to pray for the people at Ephesus. And what does he pray for them? Not health, food, shelter, freedom from persecution or disaster. But for spiritual understanding – not the sort of understanding that may be achieved by thinking – by "nutting things out", as we might put it – but the sort of understanding that comes through the eyes of the heart, enlightenment, to use a somewhat dangerous word. To grasp the vision is to be swept up in it, to want to work for it, and hope for it, and pray for it to the end of our days – one small piece at a time.
Taking it Personally.
- This is surely a passage to be read over and over again, slowly, phrase by phrase, word by word, drinking it in, until our innermost being becomes saturated with it. Try it: if you are looking for a richer spiritual life, this is the drink for you!
- Pause regularly to offer prayers of thanksgiving and praise.
- Ask God to show you how you can better fulfil your calling, each day, to be his co-worker in building his eternal kingdom according to his good pleasure.
- Use verses 17 to 19 as a template for your prayers of intercession for family and friends, and for members of your local congregation.
Luke. How often have you heard someone say of religion, "Oh, we don't need all that churchy stuff – all that doctrine and carry-on. It's all very simple, really – it just boils down to the golden rule. That's what Jesus was really on about, eh?" Next time you might like to respond; "Ah, you're thinking of Luke 6:26, I think. So when was the last time you did to your enemies what you would have them do to you?" But first, recognise that we are sometimes just as guilty of a blind misrepresentation of Jesus' teaching. How many times have we been urged from the pulpit to love one another, compared to the number of times we have been urged from the same place to love our enemies? How many times have we been exhorted to be generous to the poor compared to the number of times we have been encouraged to embrace poverty for ourselves? How many times have we been encouraged to lend without seeking to recover the loan, or to respond to a thief by giving him something more? How many times have the churches advocated pacifism, and taken up the cause of conscientious objectors? If we want a world free of war, should we not start by refusing to fight?
Taking It Personally.
- A passage for self-examination and confession. How well do your attitudes, beliefs and practices accord with Christ's teaching, rather than society's norms?
- Do times of misfortune, illness or setbacks tend to strengthen your faith or weaken it?
- When you are offended by someone, do you pray for them? Does that make any difference to the way you feel about them?