There is a story told of a boy who was taken to church by his father. As the preacher got into the pulpit, the boy was fascinated. Once he arrived at the top of the steps, the preacher put a Bible onto the desk. “Daddy, Daddy, what does that mean?” asked the boy. “Ah, son, that means we’re going to have a good Biblical sermon today.” From the Bible, the preacher took some papers – his notes for the sermon. “Daddy, Daddy,” said the boy, “What does that mean?” “That, my boy, means that the preacher has done his homework, and we’re going to have a well-crafted sermon today.” Then the preacher took off his watch, and laid it next to the Bible on the desk. “Daddy, Daddy, what does that mean?” The father looked his son in the eye and said, “That means absolutely nothing.” I should warn you I don’t wear a watch!
My name is Simon. I’m the CMD officer for the Diocese, which means I look after clergy training. I have a special role for curates, so I have got to know all of the clergy here. I’m also the Canon Chancellor at the Cathedral, and there I take services, form a link between Cathedral and Diocese, and look after some of the adult education that the Cathedral offers. More importantly, I’m a husband and a father. And if you really want to know about me, I like chocolate, real ale and Doctor Who.
There has been some concern, I know, that I am an academic. Well, I do have that in my background but I have fairly deliberately chosen to use that background within the church. I am very clear that the Kingdom of God is not about being clever, and that following Jesus is not about using big words! What I hope to offer you over this weekend are some ideas, some questions and some stories that help us think about how together we can be God’s people living in God’s world. That’s not overly clever – we are already God’s people living in God’s world. I want us to think about this through the passage from Romans chapter 8 that we will look at each time we come together over the weekend.
There are three big themes to this passage from Romans: the Spirit of God, the creation (of God) and the children of God. Broadly speaking, tonight we are going to think about the Spirit of God; tomorrow morning we will think about the creation of God; and then tomorrow evening at All Saints we will consider the children of God. Tonight, then, I want to offer a brief overture of what Romans 8 might have to say to us. And I’m going to get you to do most of the work!
As we approach this passage thinking about the Spirit of God, there are three themes I want us to consider. The first is pain. Romans 8 is full of images of pain. There are the “sufferings of the present time.” There is also the straining of creation, as it stands on tiptoe to see what might come. Creation is subject to futility and decay. There are the labour pains of creation. And there are the groans of God’s children. This is not a passage of easy confidence, but a hard-won account of life through real difficulties.
And so, on your tables I’d like you to share two things. Please share one thing that causes you pain. And please share something that you see of pain in Mickleover.
The second theme of this passage is hope. We are saved in hope, and that means that we can’t see it! We are always stretching to grasp what we and our world might be. Paul here writes about being on tiptoes, and that is a really helpful image. “Now we see in a mirror darkly” he wrote elsewhere (1 Corinthians 13). All that we believe and hope for we cannot know, for it is beyond our reach. Turn to the end of the book of Revelation (I was always told to read Revelation in the opposite way to reading a whodunit – turn to the end and find out who wins!). The end of the book of Revelation speaks of the new creation, the new Jerusalem. It is all pictures, because John the seer is standing on tiptoes and trying to grasp something of what it will be like. All of this is hope.
But hope is not optimism. Hope does not mean that we think it wil all work out in the end. Hope can be present even when we know it will get worse. We do not hope because we think it might get better, we hope because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Christian hope comes from knowing that God brings life out of death. Nothing that can happen can change that. God brings life from death. That is the source of our hope.
So back to our groups on the tables. What do you hope for, for yourself, for these churches and for Mickleover?
The third theme of the readings is prayer. But this is not ‘churchy’ praying. David Runcorn, who used to live not too far from here, tells a story of someone leading intercessions in church for the first time. There was a famine going on in East Africa at the time, and the woman stood up and berated God for five minutes about how he could allow this to happen. She sat down again to stunned silence from the congregation. ‘Clearly,’ David comments, ‘no-one had explained to her how we pray in church.’ He goes on to say, ‘I hope no-one ever does.’ This is honest prayer, and too often we allow our Sunday best to become a front so that we are much less honest in prayer. But think of the Psalms – if they weren’t in the Bible we would never allow anyone to use them in prayer. The Psalms complain about God, they threaten violence, they are full of doubt as well as faith. They are honest, real prayers. How much better would it be if our praying was that honest?
Prayer in this passage is about entering into the life of God. When we pray ‘Abba, Father’ the Spirit prays in us. That’s what Paul tells us. And we do this every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. It is as we pray that we are most truly the children of God. And our groanings echo the groanings of creation and are taken up by the Spirit who prays with ‘sighs too deep for words’. The Spirit prays within us, with us and for us. Prayer is the language of God’s life, and when we pray we join with the Spirit in the inner life of God the Holy Trinity. So never, never think your prayer is unimportant.
But that doesn’t mean prayer comes easily. I want to tell you about a morning when I went into church to say my prayers. I sat in my seat and put the prayer book onto the desk. That was as far as it got. Things were really hard for me, and all I could do was to sit there and to say to God, this is hard. I could not say my prayers. But I sat there for half an hour, and as I got up to go to the Parish Office I remember thinking, ‘That is enough.’ I had turned up, and I have offered the time to God. The Spirit praying within me had to do the rest, I was not able to do it. But it was enough.
So on your tables, for the last time, I promise. Two questions. ‘What do you reach for, but find it hard to pray for? Have you ever been unable to pray?
So let me try to bring things together. This incredible passage from Romans 8 speaks of the Spirit of God in terms of pain, hope and prayer. The Spirit is in it all. The Spirit shares our pain, and not just ours but the pain of all creation. The Spirit points to hope, hope for everything and everyone. And the Spirit prays in and through all of this. The Spirit prays in and through us.
So where might this take us? It might take us to find the places of pain, because God is at work there and we need to join in. It might take us to sustaining our hope, not for the continuation of things as they are but for the transformation of everything. If might take us to be people of prayer, people who pray in the groans of life and who allow the Spirit to pray in us. People who value even our stuttering, tiny prayers as part of the life of God.
First given at St John's, Mickleover 21.2.15