St Stephen's Lewisham

Year C, Week 17: Gen 18: 20-32; Col. 2: 12-14; Luke 11: 1-13

If you take up your service sheet and turn to the page with the Opening Prayer you will find the words which we used a few minutes ago. They read as follows:

"God our Father and protector, without you nothing is holy, nothing has value. Guide us to everlasting life by helping us to use wisely the blessings you have given to the world.

Now keep that page open in front of you and listen to an opening prayer from another service book:

"O God, the Protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy> Increase and multiply upon us thy mercies that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal."

The first thing you will have notices is that they are obviously one and the same prayer. The next remarkable thing is how different the language of the two prayers is, even though they are saying much the same thing. And thirdly, if you were listening carefully, you will have realised that the second version of this prayer says something very important and significant near the end which the first one barely mentions.

Of that difference, more in a moment.

The first point, that the prayers are really the same, helps to remind us that almost everything we say and sing and do in our worship in church has its roots in history. The prayers, the actions, the hymns, the readings have been listened to, sung, done and said for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years.

So our faith is securely grounded in history. That's partly what we mean by the word "catholic". One of its meanings is "universal, in the sense of unchanging in its essentials".

Of course there are, and always have been, people like Bishop Jack Spong of New Jersey and Holloway of Edinburgh who would wish it otherwise. They do their best to persuade us to cut our links with the past and work out a new faith base on what they would call "most right-minded people" (meaning usually themselves!) think nowadays.

But in spite of their efforts the Catholic Church to which we owe our loyalty remains steadfastly rooted in its historic past, and most importantly it remains firmly based on the unique revelation of himself which God has given to us in Jesus Christ.

The second point we noted, the difference in language between the two versions of the prayers, serves to reinforce this point and to remind us that although the Truth revealed in Jesus Christ is one, there are many different ways of expressing that truth and of saying the same thing. Catholic doesn't mean "uniform" in the sense of being exactly the same in all its details; instead it means "all-inclusive".

So, for instance the two versions use very different kinds of language. People may like the older version because they think it's more beautiful, or they may prefer the modern one because it's easier to understand. That's largely a matter of taste. The important fact is that either version can be, and is, used quite properly in the course of divine worship.

So it makes you and me no more or less "catholic" to use a translation of a prayer made in the 1960s than one made 400 years earlier because both versions of this prayer we have been thinking about are almost one and the same prayer.

Almost the same, but not quite. Perhaps you spotted the difference.

The modern version reads:

"Guide us to everlasting life by helping us to use the blessings you have given to this world"

The older version reads:

"increase and multiply upon us thy mercies that, thou being our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal"

There are two very important differences here. One difference is that whereas the modern version might be thought to be saying that God is no more than our guide who is there to advise us about the way that leads to eternal life, the older version makes it much more clear that without God's mercy and his free gifts of grace and forgiveness, our chances of enjoying the things eternal for which he has created and designed us are absolutely nil.

The second difference between the two is that the older versions speaks of us as "passing through things temporal", that is to say the things of this world, the concerns of the present day, "that we finally lose not the things eternal", the things that really matter, the modern version is curiously silent on both these subjects. It simply talks about using wisely the blessings God has given to the world" as if that were the be-all and end-all of life on this planet.

There's not a hint in the modern version that we might be in danger, through sin or negligence of losing altogether our eternal heritage; not a murmur about "passing through things temporal" as opposed to getting bogged down in them. The modern version seems to be entirely one-dimensional, horizontal, concerned with the things of this world. The older version is gloriously two dimensional, speaking as it does in the same sentence of things temporal and things eternal.

Think back for a moment to last week's gospel and you will see the fundamental importance of a two-dimensional vision: the two sisters, Martha and Mary lived under the same roof and both of them were disciples of Jesus. Mary from whom seven devils had been cast was the sinner whom Jesus had helped to rescue from being bogged down in the things of this world, the things temporal. She sat at Jesus' feet to learn; Martha, the morally virtuous one was in danger of getting stuck to her virtue in such a way that she had no time to learn anything, but was "troubled with much serving" and as a result was in danger of losing hold of the things eternal.

The prayer speaks of "passing through" things temporal, not of avoiding them altogether. As Abraham discovered about whom we heard in the first reading, being righteous doesn't;'t mean that we can entirely avoid living alongside and being affected by places like Sodom and Gomorrah and the sins which are typical of such places.

In his letter to the Colossians St Paul reminds his hearers that they have "died to sin through baptism and have been buried with Christ and raised up with him; but much of the rest of his letter to them, and indeed most of his other letters consist of practical advice about how to live as Christians in a fallen world and successfully avoid the occasions of sin: "fornication, impurity, guilty passion, evil desires and covetousness which is idolatry" are the ones he singles out in the letter to the Colossians a little further on.

Not for one moment does St Paul suggest that being a Christian will free us once and for all from such temptations. Indeed in one sense becoming a Christian makes it all the harder to avoid them precisely because from that moment onwards one first starts becoming aware that things we supposed "didn't matter all that much" because "everyone does it nowadays" are the very things which, in eternal terms, matter intensely because they are profoundly displeasing to God himself. The fact that "nowadays everyone does it", so far from being an endorsement of their moral rightness should be an immediate warning signal that such things are as likely, if not more likely to be morally wrong than they are to be morally right.

Lastly, and this should clinch the matter for us, the Lord's Prayer itself which we heard in the gospel and which we say together every time we meet for worship contains not only the words "give us this day our daily bread" but also "forgive us our sins and deliver us from evil".

Yes, being a Christian is about "daily bread" and therefore about things temporal. But yes it is about avoiding evil and being forgiven.

So we need so much more than God's guidance; we need his grace and mercy. We need them because being a Christian is primarily about the things eternal which every one of us is in daily danger of losing because of our natural, and very understandable, attachment at this present age to the thing temporal.

"O God, the Protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy> Increase and multiply upon us thy mercies that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal."

 

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