The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity


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Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray,…
2 Corinthians 3:4-9
Mark 7:31-37

The Collect is a fine example of knowing when to put practice above theory. In this case we know the relationship which we should have with God but we are incapable of fully living it and so it notes that: God is more ready to hear than we are to pray; and is accustomed to give more than we deserve or can imagine. It then customarily asks for mercy but, in a strikingly unusual phrase, asks for forgiveness in those matters “whereof our conscience is afraid”.

Nobody knew more about consciences that were afraid than Moses who is a pre-figurement of Jesus as the Divine intermediary, in token of which he shone when he had been in the presence of The Lord. The context in which he led his people was one of upheaval and bewilderment, spiritual uplift and sharp retribution, representing followers who consequently oscillated violently between complete awe and crude self indulgence. This was wearing enough for Moses but the other aspect of his representation was the pressure of literally being in the presence of God; the worse the behaviour, the more intense the prostration. The glory with which he was rewarded, says Paul, was great in itself, symbolised by his physical appearance, but that was nothing to the glory which we will encounter through the intercession of Jesus. In a slightly tangential metaphor, Paul then compares the glory of Moses with the tablets of stone and then, by extension, compares the tablets of stone with the Christian ambition of observing the spirit rather than simply the letter of The Law; and one stage further back we reach the logical foundation, that “our sufficiency is of God”.

Throughout his mission, Jesus demonstrates the sufficiency of faith in God through performing acts of power, not to show his own powers but to confirm the power of The father on whose behalf He is acting. The Jews never quite understood the intercessory role of Jesus; they saw what He did and they attributed it to Him, finding the link which He made with the Father deeply troubling. As long as he could perform mighty works while not making any claims of kinship with The Father he could be accepted as a prophet but once he made those claims he was in a heretical danger zone. Many Christians (particularly some ‘fundamentalist’ sects in North America) share this problem of intercessory connectivity, having very little interest in Jesus, but many more Christians experience the reverse problem with the Father/Son relationship, concentrating on the life and teaching of Jesus to the exclusion of The Father.

All of the Abramic religions require a complex balance between reliance on god and personal responsibility but the unique factor in Christianity is the way in which Jesus makes both of these aspects of our creatureliness more concrete. Whereas Moses solved this problem through a strict code which was the recognised approach of his times, Paul repeatedly emphasises how this will no longer be adequate; both the relationship with God and the commitment to neighbour have to be much more personal.

The very concreteness of Jesus also allows us to see our relationship with God much more clearly. The collect’s observation that we ask much less of God than we might is instructive because it tells us of the narrowness of our spiritual ambition. We tend to get stuck in our spiritual ways for a wide variety of reasons but let us think of just three. First, intercessory prayer tends to close down the spiritual horizon and ambition, making our relationship with God mundane and habitual, extracting the wonder from it. Secondly, our very familiarity with scripture in general and the Gospels in particular can rob the texts of their wonder; this is a particular danger when our primary concern is trying to extract a contemporary ‘meaning’ from a complex text. Thirdly, many of us abandon theological development when we leave school in a way we would never abandon our vocational or professional development. One of the reasons why we choose a vocation or hobby is the way in which the beauty of it fills us with wonder. We have traditionally thought of God in terms of wonder without understanding its cause which is the beauty of the relationship.

Addressing all three factors involves frightening our consciences. Taking risks with prayer, with our understanding of scripture and with our theological reflection should test us to the limit whereas staying within our spiritual comfort zone gives us a sense of security but Jesus did not deal in security, his mission was to widen and deepen our personal relationship with god. What makes this area of consciousness particularly difficult is that deep relationships are profoundly paradoxical: the more secure they are, the more they encourage exploration into areas of insecurity, a theological replica of the heightened experience of being in love. A further paradox is that one of the things we talk about most is love when we know it is barely susceptible to language; the same is true of our relationship with God which is hardly surprising as it is the ultimate manifestation of love. Another way, then, of understanding conscience might be to say that the more critical our commitment, the more sensitive our conscience which might best explain our fear. Yet with God we need not fear going too far, asking too much or taking too much; therein lies the paradox of responsibility and dependence.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Is dependency on God and human responsibility a paradox?
  2. Why did Jesus perform mighty acts?
  3. Explore the idea of Moses pre-figuring Jesus as an intercessor
  4. What are the similarities and differences between being in love with another human being and being in love with God
  5. Let us consider the beauty of God…

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