05 August 2012

‘I, the prisoner of the Lord …’

The former prison cells in the Guildhall, Lichfield … what keeps you prisoner today? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 5 August 2012

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

11 a.m.: Choral Eucharist

Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78: 23-29; Ephesians 4: 1-16; John 6: 24-35.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

You know what it’s like to come home late after a hard day’s work.

It’s about 6 or 7 in the evening and you’re tired.

All you want to do is to sit down … with the family, at dinner, or in front of the Olympics on television.

And then, the ’phone rings.

Do you remember the days when it was someone asking if you would like a new credit card? No longer. But it could be a cold caller, asking you to change your cable television provider, your internet service, or who charges you for your electricity bill.

I love it when it’s someone asking for my opinions, political, social or economic. I can let rip, and know someone is listening.

There is a well-known story of the pollster who called one evening. The man who took the call was able to give very forthright views on the civil war in Syria, the presidential candidates in America, famine in Africa, Greece’s place in the Euro, how to deal with the former directors of Anglo-Irish Bank, and which party to vote for at the next general election.

But when it came to questions about what cereal the children eat for breakfast, what they bring to school for their lunch, or the cost of a pint of milk, he asked to pass the phone to his wife.

The pollster was insistent. He could only deal with one individual for each form he was filling out.

But the man was hesitant.

“Why?” asked the bewildered caller.

“Well, in this household, I deal with the big questions, like war, peace, famine and politics. And my wife answers all the small questions, like what the children eat and wear and where we go on holidays.”

Macro-economics. Micro-economics. There you have them.

Yes, we all have opinions about what’s going on out there.

We know what’s wrong in the world, and who should go to jail for all the suffering in the world.

But we have little idea of what imprisons us ourselves.

If we were asked what was wrong in the world we would probably all agree – wars, famines, cruel dictatorships, great disparities in wealth, unemployment, emigration, unjust access to health care, education and housing – even if we disagree about the political steps to take to end those injustices.

But if we were asked what was wrong in our own lives, we would all have very individual answers.

If Christ fed not just the 5,000, but all the hungry in the world; if Christ healed not just the blind and lame, but all those who needed healing in the world; if Christ cast out not just the demons in the demoniacs he met, but cast all the evils that beset the world … well, would your life be any better today, this morning, now?

Do we follow Christ in the hope of miracles and signs? Or, because we find something lacking in our own interior? (see John 6: 26)

Saint Paul in our Epistle reading this morning talks about being a prisoner in the Lord (Ephesians 4: 1) and about Christ making captivity itself a captive (verse 8).

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus ... Saint Paul may have been a prisoner in Ephesus for nine months (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Paul knows what it is to be a prisoner, and the Ephesians he is writing to know what is for him to be a prisoner too. It is widely thought that he spent nine months in prison in Ephesus, and visiting tourists are still pointed to the tower that is said to have been Paul’s prison.

But move from the past to the present – what keeps you captive?

What keeps you a prisoner?

What keeps you and me from being free to do the things we want to do?

Is it the search for what Christ calls this morning “the food that perishes” (John 6: 27)?

Or is it what drives that search for that “food that perishes”?

What are you, what am I, constantly trying to achieve, to attain, to prove, that in reality holds me prisoner, that in reality tricks me into imagining that there is something out there that – if only I could grasp it – I would find the key to happiness?

A new car?

A bigger house?

A more lavish lifestyle?

Maeve Binchy was refreshingly honest about being one of the richest writers in the world. “I used to think if I was very rich I’d be Mother Teresa and give it all away,” she said once. “But of course, when you get it you don’t.” She pointed out, however, that Mother Teresa “never decided she wanted a conservatory, or that she wanted a better car, or a taxi account.”

We are prisoners to our futures, dreaming idle dreams about what might be, and what might make us happy.

We are prisoners to our present, unwilling to accept that what is just good enough is in fact good enough or unable to take the courage needed to challenge injustice and oppression.

We are prisoners to our past, blaming our teachers, our parents, our classroom bullies, for angst today, for not making the team, for not winning the medals, for not getting the big job or the big house, and for our unwillingness to grasp tomorrow.

The Holy Spirit calls on us not to fear for the future. For there is a future that is beyond both our fears and our ambitions, that invites the Church to call all into the Kingdom of God, where all shall be fed without discrimination, where no-one shall ever hunger or thirst (see John 6: 35).

Christ reassures us in the present. He loves us as we are now, not as we would like others to see us, not as our parents wanted us to turn out. Christ loves you as you are here, this morning, sitting here, now, without you working for it (see John 6: 27).

God the Father loves you from the very beginning, for you are made – just as you are here this morning – you are made in God’s own image and likeness … and when God makes us, God makes no mistakes.

Or, as Saint Paul tells us this morning, God as Father binds us together as his children, as brothers, and sisters (Ephesians 4: 6).

Christ in his victory free “all of us” (verse 13) so that we are built up in love (verse 16).

And the Spirit unites us in love as one (verse 4).

And so, the past, present and future are in God’s hands:

● In love, God makes us in God’s own image;

● in love, God takes on our image and likeness in Christ;

● and in love, God calls us back to be restored to that image and likeness in glory.

That’s God’s macroeconomics and God’s microeconomics in one.

And as we allow ourselves to grow into that love, we are built up in the Body of Christ, so that, as Saint Paul says this morning, “all of us come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4: 13).

In this we can find the true unity of the church, a unity founded firmly not in the judgmental demands and narrow impositions, demands and impositions that bring division. But we find this unity in the church in the humility, gentleness, patience and loving forbearance that are given by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4: 2-3).

In this we are empowered as a new humanity.

Let us pray and hope that we allow ourselves to do something about it … in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on Sunday 5 August 2012.

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