Sunday, September 22, 2013

holding to the truth

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

I think we would all agree that it is a good thing to pray for others; more, that it is our Christian duty to do so. And not just our family, friends, and neighbours, or those who might be sick or in need, but all people, even those who hate us. Which means that when we hear words like those from our epistle reading today, they don't surprise us. In it, St Paul writes:

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.

The usual Christian message, yes? Well, yes and no. Yes it is reminding us of our duty to pray for all people. But there's more going on under the surface here. The first clue is the unusual fervour with which prayers are being exhorted: I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone. First he uses the Greek word δεησεις (de-ēs-is) which means a prayer, request, or supplication; then he uses προσευχας (pro-seuch-eas) which essentially means an urgent prayer, with some overtones that this prayer would be made in a place of worship; then comes εντευξεις (en-teu-seis) which means supplication, intercession, or prayer; and finally ευχαριστιας (euch-ar-ist-ias), which means to give thanks, and it the root of our word Eucharist, and was already being used at that to designate the celebration of Holy Communion, the greatest combination of prayer and thanksgiving in the Church then, since, and now.

To put it another way, St Paul is using several words that are close in meaning, but with subtle differences, to lay it on really thick that he wants those hearing or reading his letter to make these prayers. Why the extreme emphasis? That takes us to our second clue, which is found in the last part of that verse: these prayers are to be made - for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. St Paul is calling on people to pray for all people … but he singles out for special mention kings and all in high positions … and he gives his reasons for doing so … that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. St Paul hopes that these prayers, both public and private, will allow Christians to live godly lives in peace and quiet.

At this point, we need to know some of the context in which St Paul writes. The fact that Jews believed in only one God and refused to worship the many other deities of the Mediterranean world was well known and accepted. But then, theirs was a national religion, one that didn't seek out converts. It was no threat to the religious system of the world around them – a religious system that was intertwined with the public life of the Roman Empire. It didn't matter if the Jews didn't wish to make sacrifices to what they saw as a bunch of false gods – or indeed, to emperors that they saw as gods. They did not go around stating loudly and publicly that these gods were false … or daily attract more and more followers to their faith.

So what St Paul is doing here is urging his flock to publicly prayer for those in authority, in order to prove that they are not some kind of threat to public order … and that the reason that they refuse to offer these sacrifices is not because that they hate the princes of this world and wish to see them overthrown; but that instead that they pray for their good health and happiness, and that they may be blessed with the wisdom to rule wisely.

We all know that there were times when that wasn't enough for those in power. That there were many times when Christians were dragged before governors and princes and told to make the prayers to the false gods and offer the required sacrifices – often, merely a pinch of incense into a brazier – or suffer death. And we know that uncounted and unnamed thousands of our brothers and sisters in Christ chose death rather than worship those false gods. Cruel, bloody deaths.

It would have been such an easy thing to do, to offer that little pinch of incense. They would have known in their hearts that they didn't really mean it … and the result would have been life and being accepted into the wider society of the community in which they live. But they would not. They preferred to stand as witnesses to their faith … and it is, of course, from the Greek word for witness, mar-tur-us, that our word martyr comes.

How would we do today if we were so tested? Would we hold true to Christ and die a martyr's death? Or would we offer that tiny pinch of incense? Perhaps there is no way of knowing. Or perhaps there is. We live in a world where secular values grow stronger every day … a world that asks us make concession after concession to the false gods of this modern world … gods like greed, lust, materialism, an obsession with individual rights over the duty one owes to one's fellow man and society, part of which is that if the truth hurts someone's feeling, then the truth must not only not be spoken, but oft-times changed … to name but a few … and it is hard not to think that each little concession we make … each time we say something like 'I know that this is what God, or Scripture, or the Church teaches on this issue, but who am I to tell anyone what is or isn't the Truth' … is that not our own pinch of incense offered to the flames of a heathen god … the sacrifice we make for a quiet life and social acceptance rather than defending the truth of the Gospel?

The advice of St Paul to his flock still holds true today: we not only can, but should, offer prayer after prayer for all those in the world, whether ordinary folk or those in positions of power, who follow the false gods of the secular world … but we must also remember the example of the martyrs, of whom St Paul was one, and stop short of anything that amounts to denying the truth of the Gospel. Something that I invite you to join with in praying for ourselves and all the world, Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment