Proper 16: 1 Kings 8 [1, 6, 10-11] 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-59
Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than either we desire or deserve: pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
JESUS’s extended teaching on the bread of life ends on a telling note: “He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum” (John 6.59). This suggests, first of all, that the crowd pursuing him from the other side of the lake had found him in the synagogue (John 6.25).
More importantly, it suggests that Jesus chose that setting to talk to them about the meaning of the meal they had eaten on the hillside, in order to place his words firmly within orthodox practice. He is illuminating for them the fulfilment of scripture: “He gave them bread from heaven to eat” (John 6.31; Exodus 16.4; Psalm 78.23-25), and the synagogue is the place to do this.
So there is nothing furtive or unofficial about what he has to tell them, and he will make that point about everything he has ever taught, when he stands before the High Priest after his arrest: “I have always spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret” (John 18.20; see also Matthew 4.18-5.3, 9.35, 12.9, 13.54; Mark 1.21, 1.39, 6.2; Luke 4.15-16, 4.44, 6.6, 13.10).
What the people do not realise, even as the trial takes its course, is that Jesus is not just telling them what the scripture means, but making God’s promises real in his own flesh and blood. The most helpful definition of a sacrament I have ever come across concludes that “in the sacraments God shows us what he does and does what he shows us” (Herbert McCabe OP, The Teaching of the Catholic Church, Catholic Truth Society, 1985). This rich chapter achieves all of that.
Solomon’s journey from his accession, to the moment when a house where the name of YHWH will be permanently honoured is ready for use, has not demonstrated the unblemished holiness which might be expected of a king who now takes up a priestly role among his people (1 Kings 8.14, 22-30).
Having come to the throne by ruthless political scheming, he consolidates his power by systematically annihilating potential opposition (1 Kings 1-2). Although commended for his love of the Lord, he sacrifices at shrines which are not all dedicated to YHWH (1 Kings 3.3). What allows Solomon to be the king with whom the Lord keeps the covenant made with David is the unusual self-knowledge that moves him to ask for wisdom as a divine gift. Legendary wealth will be added to this, precisely because he has not asked for it (1 Kings 2.8-14).
When, at last, he stands before the altar of the new Temple, and prays in the presence of the nation’s senior representatives, his prayer comes from what Robert Wilson describes as a particularly Deuteronomistic point of view. YHWH is the only God, and there is only one legitimate place for worship.
The prayer “asks God to hear the prayers of those who are righteous and truly repent of their sins” (Robert R. Wilson, “1 & 2 Kings” in The NRSV-Harper Collins Study Bible, (HarperCollins, 2006). It extends beyond Israel to all who will come to God’s house and offer petitions in his name (1 Kings 8.41-43).
For the writer to the Ephesians, the movement is outward rather than inward, to communities whose local existence around the eastern Mediterranean takes a larger unity from common trust in the Lord in the face of evil powers in this world, and in the “heavenly places” beyond (Ephesians 6.12).
This really is the “Church militant here in earth”, as the vivid metaphors of armour and weaponry indicate (Ephesians 6.10-17). But the most powerful weapon of all is the prayer that runs like a living current from the Spirit, through the “saints”, and overflows in intercession (Ephesians 6.18-20).
Making the principle of prayer into something that is genuinely the prayer of the people is a continuing task for those who lead worship and for those who participate. Cranmer’s brilliant translation of a collect with its roots in the eighth century uses rhetorical devices native to English to portray a God who is as majestic as, but less austere than, the Latin implies.
This God longs for our prayers, even if we are lethargic, and responds beyond what we “desire or deserve”. We approach in fear, and find forgiveness. Sometimes it is the given, and not the glitteringly ex tempore, that speaks the needs we did not know we had.