2 Samuel 18.5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4.25-5.2; John 6.35, 41-51
Let your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of your humble servants; and that they may obtain their petitions make them to ask such things as shall please you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THIS week’s collect looks, on first reading, to be somewhat coercive. It might be crudely summarised as an agreement whereby our prayers will be answered if we pray for the things God wants us to pray for.
I have thought about it differently since reading Nicholas Wolterstorff’s compelling “exploration of liturgical theology”, The God We Worship*. Wolterstorff understands the task of liturgical theology as making explicit and articulating the understanding of God which is implicit in the forms and words of our worship. That leads him to a double insight: that God listens, and that God is “vulnerable to being wronged and resisted”.
These divine characteristics, he notes, go strangely unmentioned by other experts in the field. It is easy to see that the collect assumes that God will listen, from the anthropomorphising “merciful ears” of its very first line. We need to work harder to see God’s vulnerability in thinking about what will “please” God. This is where today’s readings can help.
Continuing his instructions for Christian living, the writer to the Ephesians begins with the way in which Christians should behave towards one another (Ephesians 4.25-29). This advice is what we might expect, until it turns from human community to humanity’s vital relationship with God. Not only are the members of the audience responsible to one another: they must not “grieve the Holy Spirit of God”, whose “seal” they received in baptism (Ephesians 4.30; 1.13).
If Christ gave himself up for them in love, and if God, in Christ, forgives them all their sins, then that is the model they must imitate, continuing to grow into the family resemblance described earlier (Ephesians 4.15-16, 4.32-5.1). Any pattern of behaviour which falls short of this can only wound the God who held back nothing in offering them salvation through Christ.
We need look no further than David’s grief over Absalom to see a reflection of the infinite grief of God, who offers us the model of Christ, but dignifies us with free will (2 Samuel 18.33). Nor can there be a more powerful expression of hope that God will forgive — again and again — than Psalm 130.
After this exalted picture of Christians living in harmony and obedience to the example of Christ, the Gospel reading brings us down to earth. In practice, it can be difficult to gather people around projects that will not show immediate results, or to persuade them to change their way of life without instant rewards. Jesus makes the most extraordinarily generous offer to the crowd who have followed him to Capernaum: nothing less than the satisfaction of all needs and desires. All they have to do is to come to him, and believe in him (John 6.35).
They respond with rumbling, gargling discontent that is dramatised for us in the Greek (roughly transliterated), “egonguzon”. “Complain” (John 6.41, 43) gives a rather milder impression of this reaction to the idea that someone whose family is well known locally should be claiming heavenly origins (John 6.42). There are echoes of the hostile reception given to Jesus in Nazareth recorded by Mark (Mark 6.1-6), though this is more surprising from people who have just been miraculously fed by the man whose credentials they are questioning.
With patience that survives the hurtfulness of rejection and lack of belief, Jesus again explains that he is not claiming the status of the Father, but offering God’s people the way to God, and the gift of life. They are being presented with something better than their ancestors found in the wilderness (Numbers 11.33; 14.26-35).
In Richard Burridge’s words, this is “the simple choice of life or death”.** It will take much more of Jesus’s patience — to death itself — before they realise that the gift of this living bread to give life to the world demands his own life (John 6.51). It is the same divine patience and self-giving love, always ready to listen to our prayers, ready to run the risk of being hurt by sin and negligence, asworks with us, through scripture and liturgy, to make us ready for eternal life. Charles Wesley caught this exactly:
Author of life divine,
Who hast a table spread,
Furnished with mystic wine
And everlasting bread,
Preserve the life thyself hast given,
And feed and train us up for Heav’n.
* Nicholas Wolterstorff, The God We Worship: An exploration of liturgical theology (Eerdmans, 2015)
** Richard Burridge, John (The People’s Bible Commentary,BRF, 2008)