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Sunday 15 July 2018

I am the youngest of four brothers and so mealtimes as I was growing up weren’t so much a time of hospitality as a contact sport. Amongst the conversation and arguing, the teasing and cajoling, silence and peace were in very short supply. You might have imagined that those occasions where we managed to say grace would overcome this. But after giving thanks we would blurt out a hasty ‘Amen’ and the noise would begin again.

So, to bring some order to the chaos my father inaugurated a new grace.

My father grew up in Leeds not far from one of the larger Jewish populations in that city. As a teenager he remembers being jealous of his Jewish contemporaries who, in the winter months, could leave school early to be home for the observance of the Shabbat, the meal which begins the observance of the Sabbath at sunset on Friday evening.

This meal begins with the lighting of candles and a series of prayers which begin the same way:

Barukh ata Adonai - Blessed are you King of the Universe.

And so, prayers in our house followed a modification of this prayer – which is used sometimes in our Churches as we pray for the gifts of the altar. This prayer ends with a repletion of the opening injunction – which you need to remember if you are ever invited to dinner at my parents’ house – Blessed by God forever.

This form of prayer, and this style of injunction as we address God in prayer goes to the deep heart of Jewish prayer and practice.

This form of prayer and address punctuates the Psalms, it is used by King David to begin his great prayer of praise before his death, and it is the form of prayer which Jesus and his friends would have used in the daily patterns of their worshipping life.

So when we encounter this same form of prayer at the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians – and in fact throughout Paul’s letters – we need to pause to see both how traditional and how radical Paul’s opening is.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ

It is traditional in that Paul’s letter follows the traditional form that classical letters took, beginning with a thanksgiving. And it is traditional in that Paul, drawing on his Jewish heritage, bases that thanksgiving on the Blessings of the one true God.

But it is radical in that unlike the traditional Jewish prayers that Paul inherited, which designate God as ‘King of the Universe’ or ‘God of our Ancestors’. Instead God is identified primarily and uniquely as the ‘Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’

This is not an accidental designation – in the way that we might distinguish John the milkman from John, Thomas’ Dad.

In this designation Paul is making a statement about who God is and how we can come to know who God is. And that comes in one way, and one way alone. Through knowing his son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

As this opening thanksgiving develops Paul then lists the ways in which we come to know God through Jesus.

It is through Jesus that we were ‘destined for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.’

It is through the blood of Jesus and the richness of his grace we have received forgiveness of our sins.

It is through Jesus we gain the wisdom and insight into God’s ‘plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’

What Paul is telling the Church in Ephesus, what Paul is telling us, is a radical new truth. That the God of our ancestors, the God we know as the King of the Universe, is known to us more deeply and more truly as the Father of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s thanksgiving puts Jesus at the heart of the truth he is seeking to proclaim.

The challenge for us is whether we put Jesus at the heart of our faith.

Last Sunday I experienced an unusual version of this challenge. As part of some teaching I am doing for the Diocese last Sunday evening I accompanied a group of students to Evening Prayer and Benediction at St Peter’s Church in Cowgate.

Benediction, if you don’t know it, is a practice in the high catholic traditional of Anglicanism which focuses on a devotion to Jesus as revealed in the sacrament of the consecrated bread.

In an elaborate but simple ceremony, communion bread is placed in a golden cross and placed on the altar. And then in silence we knelt before the sacrament, before the priest gave the ‘Benediction’ – blessing us with this real presence of Jesus amongst us in the sacrament.

To many of our students, as I am sure for many of you, this was a strange ceremony harking back to high catholic doctrines of the eucharist and the real and immediate presence of Christ in the consecrated bread.

For some of the students it was a profoundly moving experience of God’s presence amongst us in Jesus the bread of life. For others it was mystifying.

As we came away many of us continued to discuss this experience and in it I encouraged us to look past the ceremony and the incense and the feeling of ‘God in a box.’

Instead I was struck that at the heart of the life of this Parish in a tough part of the west end of Newcastle was fed by a spiritual devotion which lived out Paul’s radical injunction for us to know God most truly in Jesus.

In this context it was in the bread of the sacrament. For others it will be in the word spoken and preached in out midst, for others in the faces of the strangers they meet and serve day by day.

Whatever the practice the theology remains the same. That we know God most truly when we find Jesus in our midst.

And in that truth, we are blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And in that blessing we might pray again and again Blessed by God forever.