Sermon preached by Bishop Humphrey Southern, Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon on Sunday 7th April at the Benefice service at St Mary’s, Garsington.
John 12. 1-8.
Hard/Soft. Leave/Remain. People’s vote/respect the referendum. And now ‘Flextension’ …
What a good moment to be encouraged, as we are in our sermon series on the Our Father today, to reflect on the prayer of Jesus that ‘thy will be done’ and that ‘[God’s] kingdom come on earth as in heaven’! As our newsfeeds and broadcasts and papers and media are full of assertions of competing ‘wills’ and priorities, together with the necessary concomitant to that, which is the silencing of others’ wills and priorities, it is salutary to be focused on the central petition of all Christian prayer, which must be ‘thy will be done’, and that the coming of God’s kingdom, or rule, be established before all or any other programme or policy or aspiration.
There is a tedious old mantra that gets trotted out (still) far too often about Church (or Faith) and Politics, which insists that Faith is an essentially personal and private matter, and so entirely distinct from the public and corporate business of policy making, which is what Politics is concerned with. This petition of this foundational prayer to God – ‘thy will be done, thy kingdom come on earth’ – must for ever dismiss this nonsense for Christians. Our God, who became flesh in Jesus Christ, is involved in the world of human beings and human affairs. Our God in Jesus Christ lived and taught and suffered for his teaching in the world of human beings and human affairs. Our God in Jesus Christ established key priorities, which run as a seam throughout the Bible – peace, justice, freedom, kindness, sacrifice, generosity – that are both individual and corporate, personal and political.
‘Thy kingdom come’ is not a prayer merely for a world in which each individual does good, but for a world which is deliberately ordered according to the divine principles of peace, justice, freedom and human dignity (for what else is the Incarnation about, if not human dignity?) ‘Thy kingdom come’ is (therefore) inevitably and irresistibly a political manifesto. Uncomfortable though that doubtless is.
What does not follow, of course, is the idea that God’s will can be encapsulated in or delivered by any established political project. We cannot appeal either to referendum or renewed people’s vote to determine God’s will for our nation. ‘Vox populi, vox Dei’ (‘the voice of the people is the voice of God’) may be good political theory, but it is rotten theology!
(For one thing, we may speculate that the will of God – even a God whom Scripture attests as changing his mind on occasion – has more consistency to it than does human instinct and loyalty, shifting and fickle as it so often seems to be, both in individuals and the common herd.)
We who say these words (what? Once? Twice? More often?) every day – ‘thy will be done, thy kingdom come on earth’ – commit ourselves as we do so to the rule of God in our private lives, in our communities and in our society. But as we do so we need to acknowledge that knowledge of that rule in all its detail is hard to attain, and still harder (impossible, indeed) to programmatise either in terms of socialist equality, capitalist prosperity, libertarian freedom, utilitarian happiness or any other political or social philosophy we care to name.
The rule of God and the will of God is intensely political but it is equally incapable of being contained within the manifesto of any political party, including (we may add) those who adopt the label ‘Christian’ within their title.
Where, then, shall we go with this frustrating and rather worrying conclusion? We, who pray for the triumph of God’s will and the coming of God’s kingdom, what shall we say about such concepts? Maybe today’s Gospel – the Lectionary’s provision for today, not a passage especially chosen for this them – may help us.
But before we turn to that, one more thought about that key phrase in Jesus’ prayer: ‘thy will be done’. In the context we have it – Jesus’ summary to his disciples of what prayer should consist of – it has, of course, a certain force. But in a couple of weeks’ time (or just less) we shall be listening again to an important echo and living out of that phrase in circumstances much more personal and agonising. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed thus: ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ (Mark 14.36.) Thy will be done.
Jesus’ lived out expression of his own teaching on prayer and the will of God is the absolute antithesis of the assertion of human will such that we see (and make) so often, whether in politics or so many other spheres. Quite the opposite: it is all about humility, obedience and sacrifice.
Prayer that presumes to know – still more, prayer that presumes to tell – what is the will of God is not prayer in the example and teaching of Jesus: it is mere petulance and manipulative obstreperousness. We, who pray ‘thy will be done’, need to be alert to this, and the danger of what we are doing.
Still more importantly, we need to be sensible of the demand that that petition makes of us: to seek the will of God (more prayer, more thought and study – how is Lent going for you?), and to do the will of God, obedient and humble before it.
The model for our praying that God’s will be done is the one for whom that led to death on Calvary. The king who reigns in the kingdom for whose coming we pray reigns from the cross, rather than a throne. It’s as disturbing and as perverse as that.
And this is what brings us back to today’s Gospel, to the story of Mary of Bethany and her disturbing and perverse gesture with the costly ointment of pure nard. Ointment which could have been sold to benefit the poor – a perfectly reasonable political project of wealth re-distribution or to invest in a better future – but which instead was used by her to point to Jesus’ sacrifice and death.
Mary’s gesture is prophetic: it points forwards and inwards to reveal the truth of Jesus’ mission and of God’s rule. Which is the truth of sacrifice, and of glory – mysterious, rich and strange – what Passiontide and Easter are all about.
In truth we may not know, when we pray daily that God’s will be done and for God’s kingdom to come, what it is precisely and in detail that we are praying for. It will certainly not solve the Brexit problem! But we can still – must still – pray for the grace and the courage to embrace that will and live in that kingdom nevertheless! Amen.