life of prayer
A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, July 22, 2018
The Epistle, Romans 8:12-17 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 7:15-21
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
“As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14).
I. The epistle and the ongoing experience of Baptism
We have had a series of epistles from Romans. Today’s epistle can be understood in the light of the epistle from Trinity 6 about baptism. Romans 6:3-4 says,
Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore, we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father even so we also should walk in newness of life.
The epistles from Romans last week and this week emphasize that Baptism initiates us into an ongoing experience of dying and rising with Christ. The death of baptism becomes the ongoing activity of putting to death the deeds of the body, which is how we share in the sufferings of Christ.
We often think of spiritual experience as mystical and peaceful. However, one of the main things we experience because of our baptism is interior conflict. Today’s Epistle is the source of a term in the spiritual life called “mortification.” St. Paul writes, “If you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death (or mortify) the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13).
In the New Testament the word “flesh” refers to the disordered desires of our fallen human nature—the human nature we were born with. The baptismal gift of the Holy Spirit puts the flesh to death. However, the Spirit also redeems and recreates our human nature in the image of Christ’s new humanity. The Spirit leads us to do new things that are oriented towards love for God and love for others rather than merely self-gratification.
II. How we mortify the deeds of the body
We put to death the past deeds of the body by making good confessions that take stock of both our actions and our motives; by receiving the grace of forgiveness that removes the guilt, shame and fear caused by sin; and by establishing new patterns of faithful and loving behavior in the place of the old selfish habits of sin.
We put to death the deed of the body each day by avoiding and turning away from the temptations that come upon us. For example,
Something provokes us to anger and we are tempted to strike out and strike back. Instead, we take a deep breath, pray, remember who we are in Christ and, by the grace the Spirit gives us, we do not react in anger—we mortify our selfish anger. Then, after we calm down, we respond to those who provoked with some action of love. As Jesus said,
“Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45).
Or, something visual may tempt us. It may be something sexual, or it may be something that we tempted to covet. Rather than entertaining the thought and embracing the lust or the greed, we immediately turn our eyes away from the temptation, using the grace the Spirit gives us. We use this circumstance of our temptation to pray for the grace of contentment and self-control.
Because prevention is better than cure, we examine our habits and identify the places and circumstances that cause us to face repeated temptation. We reorganize our schedule and so that we avoid those places and circumstances in the future.
III. The results of mortification.
Sin tempts us because it promises us things we want right now, but when we give in to it we experience guilt, shame, fear and death instead. We replay the scene of Genesis 3, the pattern of the original sin. This is what it means to be slaves of sin. We are stuck following impulses that never produce anything good in our lives.
We live “in the Spirit” when we establish a foundation of prayer in our lives and practice following the impulses of the Spirit each day, saying no to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). As we practice this pattern of life over time, we experience new results. The experience of grace and forgiveness replaces the experience of guilt. The experience of being accepted by God replaces the experience of shame. Fear is replaced by trust in God and his provision and providence.
The experience of life in the Spirit involves conflict, but the long-term result of the conflict is peace. It is a necessary battle. The battle of the Spirit against the flesh is the cross we are called to bear in the Christian life. Our suffering in Christ, our cross bearing, is not merely our share of the general pain of the world. We take up our cross when we persevere in God’s will against the influences that pull us away from God and our prayer and back into the patterns of sin and the false and temporal hopes of the world.
It is here that authentic Christian faith stands in the clearest contrast with the promises of our consumer and therapeutic culture. The implication of our culture is that pursuing what you want will make you happy. This leads people to try to gratify themselves apart from God and his will. This is the cause of the discontentment of our culture. People are committed to finding fulfillment in that which cannot provide it.
The Spirit fills us we a deeper desire; the desire for God, who alone can satisfy us. The Spirit teaches us that our disordered desires must be put to death if we are to get what we really want. Thus, as we mortify the flesh and persevere in our pursuit of God and our deep spiritual longings, we confirm our status as God’s children. As our Epistle says,
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together (Rom. 8:14-17).
A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, July 15, 2018
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The Epistle, Romans 6:19-23 – The Gospel, St. Mark 8:1-9
I. The Gospel and the Eucharistic pattern
We think of the feeding of the five thousand as a miracle—and it is that. But it also a pattern for the life of faith—a pattern for what we can call a Eucharistic life. When we follow the example of Jesus in the feeding miracle as a habit or pattern of life, we experience continuing the miracle of God’s provision.
The gospel story takes place in a remote setting in Israel, but it portrays a typical crisis. There are too many needs and not enough resources. In the gospel, there were 4000 mouths and only a few loaves and fishes. In our lives, there are too many things to do and not enough time; there are too many financial needs and not enough money; there is too much work and not enough laborers.
Apart from God our response to need follows a characteristic pattern. First, we get anxious about the problem; then we develop a plan to solve it; then we anxiously pursue our plan. Prayer typically comes in at this point. We ask God to help us with our plan, the plan that results from anxiety rather than faith. We work hard and pray hard and hope that we will get what we want for our efforts. We often achieve just enough of the illusion of success to tempt us to continue to try to control life this way.
Jesus established a new pattern. The first thing Jesus did was to take the inadequate supply of food and give thanks to God for it. Rather than complaining about what he did not have or becoming anxious, Jesus took what he had and offered in to God in thanksgiving. Then he went about the business of feeding the people—and there was enough to meet the need and more.
II. How we follow this pattern.
The Greek word for giving thanks is Eucharist. We follow the Eucharistic pattern of Jesus when we begin by giving thanks. We begin by taking everything that God has given us, as inadequate as it seems for the needs before us, and we offer it back to God in thanksgiving. Today is the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, the beginning of our time. We begin by giving thanks. We offer the Eucharist. We offer ourselves and all we are and have to God. Our inadequate offering is made acceptable because it is united with and consecrated by the offering of Jesus. By ourselves we do not have enough, but in Christ we have all that we need.
We receive back from God the Bread of Life. Our inadequate offering becomes sufficient food to meet the needs of our lives. An exchange, a trade, takes place in the Eucharist. We offer to God all the unmanageable stuff of our lives. We give it to God because he is God and he alone can change our inadequate supply in his abundance. We receive back a sense of vocation and ministry. We receive the wisdom to know what can do and the grace to do it. As we faithfully do the work God has given us, God provides for us.
This is the pattern Jesus alludes to in Matthew 6:
Therefore do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you (Matt. 6:31-33).
This is the pattern St. Paul describes in Philippians 4:
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:6-7).
Jesus gave God thanks for the inadequate supply of food first, then he went about the business of the feeding the people. This teaches us to give thanks to God and offer everything to God first, and then to focus on doing God’s will in our lives each day. As we do this, God will provide for us and give us his peace.
III. The need to learn this pattern by practice.
We learn this pattern by practice. We can experience God’s provision and peace in one circumstance, but then easily digress back into the pattern of the world when we face our next challenge. God’s provision and peace can easily be replaced by new anxiety and need. We live our faith by a Rule or pattern of prayer. Our Rule of prayer teaches us to live by the Eucharistic pattern by teaching us to offer life to God again and again in thanksgiving. We need to practice letting God be God and practice focusing on our own faithfulness rather than worrying about the results. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” because we are forgetful people. We gather in church to remember and practice.
The discipline of offering prayer to God each day—what we call the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer—are the way we extend the Eucharistic pattern into our daily lives. We begin each day by offering the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God. We begin each day by offering our anxieties to God and recommitting ourselves to focusing on the work we are called to do rather than the problem or the needed results. We return to our prayer each day to remember again and to practice again the discipline of a Eucharistic life.
The goal is to remember God always, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). However, the ability to pray without ceasing is built on the foundation of our habits of prayer. Skill is developed by habitual practice. A golfer who does not practice may hit some good shots, but he won’t hit them as consistently as he would if he practiced. A musician who does not practice may have a moment of brilliance, but he will not be as consistently good as he would be if he practiced. Prayer works the same way. As we persevere in our habits and practices of prayer over long seasons of time, we develop habitual competence—we learn to “pray without ceasing.” The Eucharistic pattern becomes the default setting.
Many Christians do not experience the miracle of God’s provision and God’s peace because their faith is not embodied in daily practices of prayer and thanksgiving that produce the fruit of faith and peace over time. They live according to the anxious pattern of the world and run to God only for occasional help when their plan isn’t working. Consequently, they experience the anxiety and neediness of the world more than God’s provision and God’s peace.
The feeding miracle teaches us the simple—but hard to learn—pattern of faith. Begin by giving thanks. Begin each week and each day in prayer by offering our lives to God in thanksgiving. Give thanks for what seems like inadequate resources and provision. Give thanks for the life God has given us and for the presence of Christ with us in all things. In response to our prayer, God will give us the wisdom and grace we need to do the good works he has prepared for us to walk in today. God will provide for us and give us his peace. We will experience God’s continuous miracle of feeding and faithfulness.