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Sermon on The Jesus Prayer

The Reverend Robert Wright Canon of Westminster

Sunday, 28th October 2007

Preached in St Margaret's Church

After his resurrection and before Jesus commissioned Peter to be his shepherd he asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?” he asked him again, “Do you love me?” And he asked him a third time, “Do you love me?”

That Jesus asks this question three times suggest to us that it is highly important. We might spend a moment imagining Jesus asking us that question, “Do you love me?”
“Do you love me?”
“Do you love me?”

These questions come from the very heart of one who says to us, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me! Let anyone who believes in me come and drink” (Jn 8. 37,) and “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt 11. 28, 29,)

I am using these two Sundays to talk about prayer and today we are thinking about how we respond to these searching questions. For many Christians the Jesus Prayer, which comes to us from the desert Fathers of Egypt 1400 years ago via the Eastern Orthodox Churches in Syria, Sinai and Mount Athos, and especially the Russian Church, is a way of responding to those questions from the heart of Jesus to our own hearts.

“Do you love me?” to which we can reply “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” That is the prayer in its traditional form. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

The prayer itself is immensely versatile. The Orthodox Christian tradition is that the prayer is a simple and constant repetition 0of the prayer. This repeating of the name of Christ offers an ideal way of praying. Indeed, some who use the prayer as a mantra – the praying over and over again of a word, or in this case a phrase, is used by many as a way into contemplative prayer, the prayer of the heart. The prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” can be used in other forms. Sometimes when I am using this prayer without thinking I find myself saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, my king and my God” and since this often comes to me without my thinking about it, I can only suppose that it is a gift of the Holy Spirit who after all prays in us. It can be shortened to Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God or Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, or even just using the name Jesus. Another way of using the Jesus Prayer is the Taizé chant O Christe, Domine Jesu – O Lord Christ and the choir are very kindly going to sing that for us. … … … …

You see it is a very simple chant and it is repeated over and over so that gradually we still ourselves and allow space for God in our busy lives. We shall hear this again during the intercessions in a few minutes and you are welcome to join in if you wish to.

But going back to the versatility of the Jesus Prayer I want to think for a moment of other ways that we could use the prayer. I often find myself singing O Christe, Domine Jesu as I walk along – I suppose my speed of walking just fits into the speed of the chant. In that way my walking can become a prayer , praying for God’s glory as we said last Sunday. Now many of us say we are too busy to find time to pray in our noisy, busy lives. I think the Jesus Prayer can help us here also because we can say the prayer Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me in almost any circumstances. We could try using it on the bus or the Underground; we could say it while we walk to school or work; ; we can use it when we are anxious or worried; we can also use it as a prayer of intercession by adding the name of the person we want to pray for: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on xxx / yyy or whoever…

The standard form of the prayer is normally attributed to Abba Philemon, a monk living in the Egyptian desert in the sixth century. But Philemon was himself very indebted in much of his theology to the earlier theologian Evagrius ( born 346) and in any case it is an entirely scriptural prayer as it was the three great apostles Paul, John and Peter who uttered the words of the prayer, and we heard echoes of it in both the O.T reading and The Gospel this morning, It is a very wonderful prayer, combining as it does two of the important aspects of prayer – adoration and contrition, joining as it does the great hymn of Philippians (2. 6 -11,) “the name which outshines all names… and for which all knees should bend” with the cry of blind Bartimaeus, “Son of David, have mercy on me.”

And this prayer is not something entirely self-centred, for if we pray in the Holy Spirit, God will open our eyes to his world. Jesus’ words, “Do you love me?” come from his heart. Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing. And when we live in the world with that knowledge we cannot do other than bring hope, new life, healing, & reconciliation wherever we go. After all, when Peter replied to Jesus’ questions, “You know, Lord, that I love you” Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep”, once Jesus is assured of our love he will also send us out into his world as his disciples.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me… Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
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