Sermon, Sunday 28th July, 2013
I recently had a drink with two people who are considering whether they have a vocation for ordination. In my opinion they are both excellent candidates and the church would be very fortunate to have them. In talking to them individually, both of them said exactly the same thing, namely that they didn’t feel holy enough for the priesthood. On both occasions it was all I could do to stifle a giggle. After all, holiness entails an element of moral and spiritual perfection and if it were an entry requirement I would surely have fallen spectacularly at the first hurdle. What’s more, so would most of the priests I know, the Vicar of St. Mary’s being a notable exception, of course!
When you meet holiness it is a wonderful thing. Just occasionally I have met holy people and they had an aura of peace, of calm, of profound inner confidence that was born of a real humility. But this is, as I said, remarkably rare. More likely, I fear, is that one meets people who are trying rather hard to be holy and who end up being sanctimonious, self-righteous and a bit smug.
Well, this is all a bit perplexing, for holiness is what we are all about isn’t it? The dictionary definition of holiness is “morally and spiritually perfect; belonging to, empowered by, devoted to God”. That pretty much sums up Jesus and we are, as Christians, enjoined to be like him, so what’s the problem here?
It seems to me that holiness is rather like happiness in that it isn’t a state you can achieve by self-consciously setting out to get there. Rather, it is the by-product of other things. That, at least, is the thrust of today’s gospel reading.
Jesus was always telling his followers to, in effect, be holy: to act justly and wisely according to God’s commands. But look at the Lord ’s Prayer and nowhere does it say “make me holy, make me morally and spiritually perfect”. Rather it focuses on the preconditions for us growing and strengthening in faith and holiness. And those preconditions are few and very basic.
Most basic of all is the request “give us this day our daily bread”. In Jesus’ day this would have had much more resonance than it does for us now. The vast majority of people lived in grinding poverty and the question of where the next meal was coming from was a real and urgent one. But while that is unlikely to be a question for us it is a real one for many throughout the world and, indeed, for some in this country. My son, Max, started a charity in his first year of university that took surplus food from supermarkets and cooked it up for the needy. He and his friends were shocked at the extent of food poverty in Britain today and how it extended well beyond the homeless.
However well fed or not we may be, Jesus’ prayer reminds us that we are above all, physical beings and that our moral and spiritual state depends, very largely, on our physical needs being met. And, of course, you can extend this point beyond food to the need for adequate shelter, health care and security. While, happily, these may not be pressing questions for most of us, they serve as a reminder that we cannot expect the state of the world to improve much when so many live without their most basic physical needs being met. If we are to take Jesus’ words seriously, then any approach to faith which denies or obscures of essentially physical nature does the gospel a profound disservice.
Beyond our physical needs our other great need is that of forgiveness. In the Christian church we use the deeply unfashionable word “sin” to describe wrong-doing. In modern culture this has been trivialised to describe things that are “naughty but nice” – eating and drinking to excess or extra-marital sex. But sin goes far deeper than this. It is, quite simply, our common human propensity to get things wrong. And we get things wrong because we are weak and fallible and because our lives are distorted by all sorts of false values and attitudes that are bad for us and bad for the world. The result is a sense of profound helplessness that we can end up hating ourselves for. To paraphrase St. Paul: “why is it that I do the evil I don’t want to do and I don’t do the good that I do want to do?”
The only possible answer to this helplessness is forgiveness and that is only made possible through love. If we believe ourselves loved come what may, that nothing can separate us from God’s love – which is precisely what our faith teaches us – then we are freed to: first of all confront and acknowledge our failings; to forgive ourselves for them and maybe set about doing something about them; and, in accepting and acknowledging our weakness, find it in our hearts to forgive others for theirs.
There is a wonderful verse in Psalm 119 that reads:
“I will run the way of your commandments/When you have set my heart at liberty”
Note the dependency there: our becoming holy is conditional upon our being freed. Freedom from want and freedom from condemnation are the two great promises of the gospel.
So, the Lord’s prayer bids us acknowledge two great, human needs, one of the body and one of the soul, both of which must be fulfilled if we are to make progress on our spiritual journey. But – and this is crucial – our progress is also dependent on something else, and that is the acknowledgement that God – and not ourselves – is the proper focus of our attention. That’s why the Lord’s Prayer – though not in the version you find in the reading from Luke today – is “bookended” by an acknowledgement of God’s power – “Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come…..for the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours”.
Such food and physical essentials as we have and such forgiveness as we enjoy all come from God and unless we truly acknowledge our complete dependence upon him we will never make progress on this spiritual journey on which we are embarked.
This is, of course, deeply counter-cultural. We are taught to be self-sufficient, that we are the authors of our own destiny. And here’s the gospel saying no – whatever you do, whatever you achieve, it’s not really down to you. It’s all thanks to God.
And this is where it gets really challenging. As soon as you begin to think like this you start to give up a large degree of control over your own life and to realise that maybe you don’t know what’s best. This, I suspect, is why prayer is so frustrating. We complain that God doesn’t answer our prayers. Might it just be though that we are getting an answer but it’s not the one that we either wanted or expected? This, surely, is whey Jesus pressed the importance of perseverance in prayer – “seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you”. It’s not that God is slow to answer – it’s more that it takes us time to become attuned to his will and to accept it.
So, to return to my would-be priests, I’m not surprised they don’t feel holy enough. Who possibly could? Holiness is not something you attain by trying harder. It is the by-product of our most basic physical needs such as food and our most basic emotional need of love and forgiveness being met, together with our growing acknowledgement that God is the proper focus of our lives and not ourselves.
Who can say where any of us will get to on this journey? But for all the many obstacles on the way we should not doubt for a moment that it is worth persevering with.