Inner discipleship – learning the simple language of silent prayer
A sermon preached by David Barton at St Mary’s Iffley on Sunday 21 July 2019
The Gospel readings for the past three Sundays have all been about discipleship. And at first sight that reading seems different, letting us in on a very domestic scene. But, like the rest of these readings, there is more going below the surface. A quick quiz question: put Paul (who wrote the middle reading) alongside the two women in that Gospel story, and who is he most like? Martha or Mary? “For this I toil,” he writes, “and struggle with all the energy within me”. Those “toils” make him like Martha than Mary, you might think. And certainly he always seems to be busy.
But actually, the answer is ‘both… and’. Because, just as Mary does in that Gospel, Paul himself sat at the feet of his teacher Gamaliel. And that’s the clue to properly understanding the gospel passage. Sitting at someone’s feet was the technical term for being a disciple. You sat at the feet of your teacher. And the purpose was always to go deeper and become a teacher yourself. But in that world only men became disciples. So Mary has crossed a boundary here. Feminist theologians look at this passage, and another in St John’s Gospel, where the roles are not so different, to argue that women played an important role, both in the early church and in Jesus’ own lifetime. And I’m sure they’re right.
So let’s move on to the middle reading from Colossians. There was a time when people doubted if this letter really was by Paul, because it’s language seems denser, more tightly packed than other letters. But now there seems to be a general acceptance that it is by him, and I’m glad of that. This is Paul in his old age, looking back on his understanding of Jesus, and summing it up in these wonderful paragraphs. It’s the kind of passage we all ought to keep by us, coming back to it again and again.
Just remember, Jesus was Paul’s contemporary, slightly older perhaps, but someone who lived at the same time as Paul lived. Paul knew well the people who had known Jesus intimately. And yet, Paul can write, it is this same Jesus who was right at the heart of God’s purposes from the very beginning. And this same Jesus is one with us and we are one with him. Christ, deeply embedded into our life, and we in his. Paul’s letters used to circulate to tiny little communities, scattered across the Greco-Roman world. They were often isolated. But they are held together by their sense of oneness in Christ. They in him and he in them, and heavenly splendour is their hope.
So there is a question: do we think in the same sort of way? If not, how can we make that truth our truth?.
Because it matters. And I fully agree that it’s not easy to understand, either that Christ is part of the mystery of God, or that, at the same time, we are bound up in him and he in us. But I want to suggest that it it’s not a matter of getting our heads around it, in the way we would normally try to understand things. Rather it’s the reverse: it’s about letting our minds be grasped by that truth: letting that truth speak to us. Like Abraham, in that first reading, who must often have met passing strangers. But in the moment he saw these visitors, he knew, in the deepest part of himself, that with them he was in the presence of a mystery that was beyond all words. It didn’t need explaining. He just knew it. I suppose you could say that these verses in Colossians are Paul’s attempt to sum up in words the unutterable mystery that has grasped him, and been at the heart of his life. And he sees it at work in the churches he has founded.
The way through to an understanding like that lies in the picture of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. It’s about inner discipleship: the importance of prayer. We would all agree about the importance of prayer. But prayer, private prayer, is something that many people have difficulty with. We live in a busy 24/7 world, with its screens, and phones and radios and advertising and endless news. These things invade our minds and make us all busy. We don’t seem to have time, and when we do manage to chisel out time to pray our minds swirl with busyness: shopping lists, plans, things we should have done but haven’t. And this world lives by hard, provable facts against which the claims of faith seem, well…..not provable. So faith thins out, and churches empty.
I think nowadays, we have to be more than usually alert to the way our minds actually work. As I’m sure you know, our minds work in two different halves. One half thinks, plans, asks questions and teases out answers. It provides us with our language. It winds up our adrenaline, and drives us on. Our society hugely values this part of our minds. This bit of us makes our world tick, and there is a fall out from it that none of us can avoid.
But the other part of our mind is quite different. It is reflective, creative, intuitive. If we let it and listen to it, it will always tell us of the deeper issues at work in the situations we are in. This part of our mind believes, in a way that the questioning part of our mind never can. Strangely, its language is silence, but we utterly rely on it for our understanding. And when we finally sleep at night, this part of our mind sorts out our days experiences in its dreams, and sees to the healing of our tired bodies.
One of the reasons so many people find Prayer difficult, and religious understanding difficult, is because we are, in this busy, adrenaline driven society, often exiled from this, our deeper mind. And yet we long to return to it, because, instinctively we know, to do so really would be a return to wholeness.
So how might we to return to it, and to the perceptions and understanding that really do come to us when we can be at home with the deeper part of ourselves?
I often say to people who come to talk to me about prayer, just imagine you are dragging your awareness from the busy bit of your brain, into the silence and calm of the other part of your mind. Be in a position where your whole body can be relaxed and still. Light a candle, and let its flickering flame claim your attention. Repeat a gospel phrase you love, or perhaps just the name of Jesus, or Jesus Mercy – which is one of the most ancient prayers. And just remember this is unbelievably simple, and it not about perfection. We are slowly learning again the deeper language of silence. Interruptions happen. Let them go, it doesn’t matter. This is practice, because we are all beginners. Disciples like Mary, humbly learning the truth. We should never lose that sense of ourselves.
This is, as Jesus says “the better part.” Better because Prayer opens our eyes to Grace. Prayer enables us to see God’s economy working deeply below the ordinariness of things. That’s what Paul’s letter is about. Like Abraham and Sarah we constantly see the world limited by our own understanding. So God’s promises always seem impossible. Prayer opens our eyes to see that Grace is everywhere. The world shines with God’s glory. In such a world all things are possible. And above all you and I are gifted with God’s grace and energy. And our lives can be changed by it.