Luke 18:9-14; Romans 8:18-27

2nd Sunday before Lent

St Barbara’s Church; 19.2.17

Rev Tulo Raistrick

A few months ago I went to hear a talk given by an Eastern Orthodox priest about prayer. It was a talk that profoundly moved me.

My experience of the Orthodox Church has been extremely limited. I have been aware of icons, and have seen pictures of incredibly ornate churches, often with gold domes; with lots of swinging incense; with priests dressed almost like kings and with long beards; and with the deep bass chanted singing of ancient liturgy. All of this felt quite alien to me. so I was not quite sure how much I would gain from the talk.

But I came away struck by two things. One was the commitment of the Orthodox Church to prayer, and in particular their desire to take hold of Paul’s words to “pray without ceasing”. What does it mean to pray without ceasing, to pray so that every breath, every thought becomes a prayer? The priest described how many Christians in the early centuries of the church (people that we now call the desert fathers) were almost like scientists trying to determine what it could mean to pray without ceasing, and the desert became their laboratory. They tried lots of different things – things that nowadays seem frankly bizarre, like living up on top of a pole for months on end, or eating only locusts, or living in total solitude for decades – but all of this was about discovering how can we best grow in faith in God, how can we come to pray without ceasing.

The other thing that struck me was, though you may feel I should have seen this coming, the commitment of the Orthodox church to… orthodoxy. In other words whilst my eye and my understanding was focused on the externals – the incense, the music, and so on – actually of far greater importance to the Orthodox church is their understanding of the holiness and majesty of God, and the divinity and humanity of Christ. Prayer must be rooted not in mystical experiences but in what scripture reveals about who God is. It matters what we say in prayer, even if what we say may be difficult or uncomfortable.

These two strands –  a deep longing to pray without ceasing, and a profound commitment to biblical truth – led to the development of a prayer which has shaped the orthodox church for centuries, known as the Jesus Prayer.

In our Gospel reading we heard the prayer of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. In stark contrast to the Pharisee, whose prayer is so full of self-righteousness and pride at his own accomplishments and his superiority to others, this is a prayer of humility, a prayer acknowledging his total need of God’s mercy. Without God, he is nothing. And Jesus’ response: it is the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who will be be justified before God.

A little later in the same chapter of Luke, we come across a blind beggar also crying out for help: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” His tone is different – vigorous, bold – and for him, he is seeking healing, wholeness, as well as forgiveness. Jesus responds by healing him, commending his faith.

These two petitions have been shaped into the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

They are words that are both simple enough to learn and yet remarkable in their depth, for they open the window into who God is and how he interacts with us.

The prayer begins with the name “Lord Jesus Christ”. It is a name of huge significance and wonder, a name that conveys the power and authority of God. As Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “God has given Jesus a name which is above all names, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow.” It is a name that Peter declares: “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” And Jesus himself says to his disciples, “Whatever you ask the father in my name, he will give it to you.” In other words, the name of Lord Jesus Christ contains huge meaning, significance, wonder and power.

We pray “Lord”. Christ is the lord of all creation; it is through him that all things are made. Look around you at the beauty of the world; look above at the galaxies and the immensity of the universe; at the extraordinary detail of every strand of DNA. It is before the creator, the source of life, the lord of life, before whom we come in prayer.

We pray “Jesus”, a reminder that the Lord of heaven and earth became a helpless babe, a vulnerable infant, given a common human name, that he became like us, and lived among us. In him we see who God is like in the only way our minds can possibly understand – in human form.

We pray “Christ” – the word meaning saviour, a reminder that Christ suffered and died for us and rose from the dead, to save us from our sins and bring us to eternal life. He is the one who conquers the power of death, who brings us into relationship with God the Father, who offers hope and light.

And we pray, “Son of God”, a reminder that Christ is now ascended to glory, sitting at the right hand of the Father, worshipped in heaven.

Those six words – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God – take us to the very heart of who Christ is, his holiness, his awe, his wonder, his love, his grace. They are words worth praying.

The second half of the prayer then places us before God. Given what we have already prayed, it is difficult for us to take the place of the Pharisee. Given the greatness, the wonder, the love of Christ, we can only acknowledge our need of him. “Have mercy on me, a sinner”. Like the tax collector, before God’s greatness and holiness we are all too aware that we fall short, that we don’t live as He would want us to, and so we need his forgiveness. And like the blind beggar, we may also become all too aware of our needs, our need for healing, restoration, empowering, equipping, the recognition that we are weak but he is strong.

Saint Maximos, one of the ancient church fathers, and a major influence in the Orthodox Church, wrote that pride, the predominate sin of humankind, consists of two forms of ignorance – ignorance of divine power and ignorance of human weakness. The Jesus Prayer helps to remind us of both. 

The Orthodox Church have encouraged Christians down the ages to pray the Jesus Prayer many times over each day. To take 15 minutes just to simply say the words of this prayer, repeating them maybe 30 or 40 times. This is not a mantra – an attempt to empty the minds of all thoughts. In fact it is the opposite. It is the commitment to fill the mind, but with just one thought, the thought of Christ. In a life where there are so many distractions – and in our technological world it is rare nowadays to be doing just one thing with all our attention – we may texting someone while watching a film, we may be phoning someone whilst walking down the street – the Jesus Prayer offers an opportunity to centre down on just one thing, one person – Christ.

We are encouraged to create a still space, to still our breathing, to sit upright with legs uncrossed, and palms laid on our knees – all things to aid our concentration. And then to quietly (out loud if possible) say the words of the prayer. I find setting a timer to alert me when a certain time has gone by helps me not to be distracted by how long the time will last. Others like to use a prayer rope with knots in it to help them count a certain number of times they say the prayer. But these things are only to aid concentration. It is not about length of time spent praying.

And when distractions come along, which inevitably they will, the key is to recognise them, write them down if it is particularly insistent or important, and then return one’s mind to the prayer, consciously putting aside distractions.

I am very much a beginner in this type of prayer, but I have found that the more I do it the more I find myself almost sub-consciously praying this prayer at other points in the day, when washing up, or when in conversation with someone. It becomes a way of inviting God into every part of our day, of living a life of prayer, of being conscious of our need for him and his presence with us.

So let us take time to pray this prayer this week.