Yesterday (18th October) was the feast day of St Luke the Evangelist. Luke is credited with writing both the Gospel which bears his name and its sequel, the book of Acts. Which means he wrote more than a quarter of the New Testament!
In the Epistle to the Colossians, Paul refers to Luke as “the beloved physician” (Col 4:14) and he is, amongst other things, the patron saint of physicians and surgeons (and butchers, interestingly).
The Ministry of Healing
St Luke’s Day is a good time to think about the Christian ministry of healing. I’ve known Christians who believe that God will heal each and every sickness as long as you pray with enough faith. The danger with that is that if you pray and you are not healed, not only do you still have the illness, you now have to live with the guilt of not having enough faith. The opposite danger is that we never pray for healing, or at least never pray with any expectation that the person we are praying for will be healed. (A former colleague used to say that there was only one way off the ‘Prayer for the sick’ list…) My own view is that we should pray for healing, but with humility and honesty. And allow God to answer our prayers in the way that God chooses. I believe that, in prayer, God meets us with healing love. The way in which that healing love is manifested is up to God.
All healing is from God
There is something in the way in which we are created that has healing ‘built in’. If you cut yourself, your body tends to heal. If your doctor prescribes medication and it helps, that too is healing and ultimately the gift of God, as is the skill of a surgeon. As someone once said, ‘If I get a headache, I pray to God that the pain will go away and I take two paracetamol. Whichever gets there first doesn’t really matter, I’ll take the healing’. In prayer, we are working with the healing that is ‘built in’.
October (10th) also sees World Mental Health Day, hosted by the World Federation of Mental Health. Each year, Chester Diocese hosts a day to encourage conversations about mental health which some of us have attended. In Christian circles there is a particular issue with mental health problems: people we come across in the gospels who today we would recognise as having mental health issues are identified as being victims of demonic activity. I’m not saying that there is no such thing as evil but I am saying that our understanding of how brains and minds work has come a long way, and that people who present in those ways would today be diagnosed with a mental health problem and be treated appropriately.
Our culture is getting better at acknowledging that mental wellbeing needs to be addressed just like physical wellbeing. There’s no stigma attached to having a broken leg or needing surgery or pain relief. There should be no stigma attached to having a chemical imbalance in the brain and needing medication or a talking therapy. Among younger people, in particular, there is a move to change the way we think and act about mental health, and that’s a very healthy development.
It helps to know the facts: one in four people experience a mental health problem every year. Half of them say that the associated isolation and shame is worse than the condition itself, so that’s something we can work on. At our conference, the organisers took a photograph of those who attended. One in four of us had to put a piece of paper in front of our faces so that we were not included in the picture.
What can the church do?
From time to time we hold ‘healing services’. They’re good things and can be helpful. In my view, every service should be a healing service. Every time we come to church, there should be a healing encounter with God, the Healer. At the eucharist, when we get out of our seats and come to receive from God, we should expect to receive a measure of healing – enough to send us back out into the world, better equipped to cope with our own problems and to offer healing love to others.
In church we can offer a healing space to those who are struggling. Sometimes, it’s just a place to be quiet and reflect. Occasionally, people come here just to sit quietly. (What a shame the building isn’t open throughout the week!) Sometimes it’s having someone to talk to. In my view, listening is the most underrated skill and gift. It’s underrated as a skill because listening isn’t just waiting for the other person to stop talking so that I can say what I want to say. It’s not “I know how you feel because such-and-such happened to me…” It isn’t getting information from the person so that you can give them advice. Often people want to talk, not listen to advice. Actively listening to another person, letting them talk, is a gift that is all too rare.
The tricky bit is getting it right: when does someone want to sit quietly, undisturbed; when does someone want to be actively listened to; and when does someone want nothing more than a chat, just others to acknowledge them as a human being.
We don’t advertise our Thursday morning communion as a ‘healing service’, but it is. Many of us can testify that being part of a congregation like this, sharing this activity, is healing. (So, whatever you do, don’t tell anyone else about it. Because, if you do, they’ll all want to come!)
Prayer. It’s one of those things we know Christians are supposed to do but perhaps we don’t find enough time or energy for. Or perhaps we are stuck with the same words we used as children:
“God bless mummy. God bless daddy…”
Or perhaps we think that praying is best left to the professionals: after all, that’s what vicars are for, isn’t it?
Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray. His answer was to give them the words we call the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Our Father’. Some have called this prayer ‘a summary of the whole gospel’. Others note that whatever differences of belief and practice divide us, The Lord’s Prayer is said by Christians of all traditions and denominations.
In Matthew’s gospel a slightly longer version of the prayer is given as part of Jesus’ teaching that we call the Sermon on the Mount: here the context is a warning against thinking that God is likely to be impressed by the many words we might use in prayer. Keep it simple, Jesus says, and don’t pray to impress others. It’s just between you and God.
Many who are not regular churchgoers have this prayer tucked away somewhere. Occasionally when I have been praying with someone who is quite ill and not at all communicative, I have noticed that the words of the Lord’s Prayer seem to strike a chord. Their very familiarity is a point of contact.
I’m not sure that when Jesus was asked, ‘teach us to pray’, his aim was to give us a formula to recite. After all, in the Sermon on the Mount we are told not to ‘heap up empty phrases’. Rather, I think that the Lord’s Prayer is an example of what prayer is all about. It begins by addressing God in a way that is both intimate and reverent – as ‘our Father in heaven’. Our first concern in prayer is for God’s kingdom and God’s will, before we come on to our own needs (our ‘daily bread’). Then we seek God’s forgiveness, which is tied in with our willingness to forgive others, and ask for God’s protection in the face of temptation and evil.
The Lord’s Prayer, then, is not a formula but a pattern for prayer. It’s also a useful resource to fall back on when we have no words or thoughts of our own!
In 2016, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York invited members of the Church of England to pray, “Thy kingdom come”. The invitation was offered for the period between Ascension and Pentecost that we should pray for God’s Holy Spirit to help us become better witnesses to Jesus Christ and that others might come to faith in him.
“In praying ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ we all commit to playing our part in the renewal of the nations and the transformation of communities.”
Archbishop Justin Welby
In 2017, the invitation is being re-issued. This year, Pentecost falls on Sunday 4th June. At Pentecost, we hear of God’s Spirit being poured out on the disciples, as Jesus had promised. It is the coming of the Spirit that turns them from timid followers to bold witnesses, and makes them the Church. (We sometimes call Pentecost ‘the birthday of the Church’.) This year, as well as attending a service on the day, can I ask you to set aside some time to pray? Perhaps you could do that as soon as you finish reading this! You might simply ask God to pour out his Spirit on you – in a new way, with renewed love and power. And then you might ask God to make himself known to your family, friends, and neighbours. You don’t need many words. Just the willingness to connect with ‘our Father in heaven’. You might think of a handful of people who need your prayer, that they will come to know Jesus Christ.
If you want to know more, there are resources online (‘Thy Kingdom Come‘).
May God bless you as you pray ‘Thy kingdom come’.
Sermon preached at St Cross Church, Appleton Thorn
On Sunday 24 July 2016 / Trinity 9 (Green) / Proper 12C
Listen to an audio recording of the sermon – click here.
|The readings summarised as a tweet|
|Hosea 1:2-10||Want to know what it’s like being your God? Try marrying an unfaithful woman! H’s children named prophetically. #Hosea1_2 #TweetingTheBible|
|Colossians 2:6-15||Emptiness of deceit vs the fullness of God in Christ and fullness of life in him. From death to life. #Colossians2_6 #TweetingTheBible|
|Luke 11:1-13||When you pray, say ‘Father…’. Persevere. How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit. #Luke11_1 #TweetingTheBible|
revive your Church in our day,
and make her holy, strong and faithful,
for your glory’s sake
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
The disciples ask, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’. You’d expect a religious teacher to teach prayer, as John the Baptist had done.
Jesus gives them the Lord’s prayer, not quite in the form that we are used to. The prayer is recorded in Matthew as well but Luke’s version is shorter.
Given what Jesus has to say about prayer (e.g., in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:7) you’ll know that learning a prayer off by heart and reciting it parrot fashion is not what Jesus is suggesting. Rather, he gives a pattern for prayer, an idea of what Christian prayer is.
What is Prayer?
Prayer is Relational
It comes from our relationship with God – the relationship that God has already established and offers, that God is our Father, we are his children. Prayer is addressed to ‘Father’. (Matthew has ‘Our Father’.) Given that the word Jesus uses is ‘Abba’, a term of intimacy, we begin with a certain confidence. God has made himself known to us as Father and we are invited to address God using the word that Jesus himself used, ‘Abba’. It’s the sound that a child makes, like ‘dada’, but it’s not childish because it also would be used by an adult to address his or her father.
Prayer is Reverent
…hallowed be your name.
We address God as ‘dad’, but this is no indulgent sugar daddy. This father is one whose name is ‘hallowed’, treated with respect. Matthew has ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’. This is our heavenly father, the who whose name is holy.
Prayer is about Ranking Priorities
Your kingdom come.
We pray first for God’s kingdom to come. Not ours. You are not the centre of the universe. The universe does not revolve around you. Matthew has:
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
In prayer, we align ourselves with God’s will. And you thought it was about presenting God with a shopping list!
Then, Prayer is about our Bodily Resources
Give us each day our daily bread
Given that God knows what we need before we ask, why do we ask? Because we need to acknowledge our creaturely dependence on God. That’s the deal: God is Creator. We are creatures. Our daily bread is what we need to sustain us in our earthly pilgrimage. This is not caviar and champagne – though we may enjoy those on occasion – this is the staff of life, meeting our basic needs.
And Prayer is about our Spiritual Resources
And forgive us our sins…
Sin is what breaks our relationship with God our Father in heaven. In Christ, God has done all that needed to be done to restore that relationship. But we can drift away. Each time we pray using the Lord’s Prayer, we ask that the relationship be restored.
Prayer is about our Relationships with Others
…for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
Our relationship with God is always tied in to the relationships we have with others. We can’t expect God to forgive us if we are not open to forgive others.
Prayer is about having the Resilience to cope with life
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
It’s not a ‘get out of jail free’ card. I don’t know if you had noticed, but Christians – even vicars – do not necessarily lead charmed lives! We pray that we may have the resources to cope with what life throws at us.
Our prayer is that God will never take us to a place where we are stretched beyond our capacity to endure, to persevere.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
Prayer is never mere repetition or recitation of something we have learned by rote. It is
- To do with Ranking Priorities
- We trust God for our Material Resources
- and for our Spiritual Resources
- We seek the Resilience to cope with what life throws at us.