The way of Discipleship requires that we put God first. The Lord Jesus makes this explicit in his own teaching. Seek first the Kingdom of God. It is always a danger when we take instructions like this in a negative way, as if God is saying, seek first or you will be in trouble. Of course we can see that as human beings we are created to live in union with God, and so when we have things in the wrong order, and with the priorities, we will indeed have to face the natural and personal consequences. But our Discipleship is not a matter of seeking God, or else!
On the contrary, we can see the mercy and compassion of God in the way in which he speaks even about this necessary reordering of our lives. He doesn’t say, seek first or else, but seek first, and I will take care of everything else for you. We can be afraid to give our whole life over to God and not be sure where he might lead us. But he offers us encouragement saying,
Don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
We have to make a choice. Not just once and when we are thinking about becoming a Disciple and following this path. We have to keep making this choice each day, and as we see how God wonderfully provides for us we can consider what he has already done and have confidence when we look at our circumstances. It is not that God waits to take things away from us. But we cannot receive from God while our hands are held tight grasping what we already have. We cannot seek God while all our attention is focused on the things we already have.
Taking a step of faith we have to open our hands and arms, and looking upwards and outwards we set off towards God in the way of Discipleship. What do we find? It is that God is already there, as we take our first step, and our hearts are already being filled with hope and love to the extent that we put our trust in him. But God has to come first, first in everything, or he is not first in anything. And when we put him first we discover everything else works out in his will and for our salvation.
Scripture – Matthew 6
1 “Be careful that you don’t do your charitable giving* before men, to be seen by them, or else you have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2 Therefore, when you do merciful deeds, don’t sound a trumpet before yourself, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may get glory from men. Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you do merciful deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does, 4 so that your merciful deeds may be in secret, then your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. 5 “When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Most certainly, I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, enter into your inner room, and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. 7 In praying, don’t use many words as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking. 8 Therefore don’t be like them, for your Father knows what things you need before you ask him. 9 Pray like this: “‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. 10 Let your Kingdom come. Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors. 13 Bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For yours is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.’ 14 “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. 16 “Moreover when you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites, with sad faces. For they disfigure their faces that they may be seen by men to be fasting. Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you are not seen by men to be fasting, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. 19 “Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal; 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume, and where thieves don’t break through and steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and Mammon. 25 Therefore I tell you, don’t be anxious for your life: what you will eat, or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than they? 27 “Which of you by being anxious, can add one moment‡ to his lifespan? 28 Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin, 29 yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today exists and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you of little faith? 31 “Therefore don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore don’t be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Each day’s own evil is sufficient.
From the Fathers
John Chrysostom (349-407 A.D.)
By the example of the importunate widow who prevailed with the pitiless and cruel ruler by persevering in her requests, we are shown how to pray. We hear the insistent voice of the friend who came late at night and roused the sleeper from his bed, not for friendship’s sake but out of his urgent need. By these examples Jesus called us continually to make earnest supplication to the Father. He did not ask us to compose a prayer of ten thousand phrases and so come to him and merely repeat it. He warned against those who “think that they shall be heard for their loquacity.” “For your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” But if he already knows what we need, why do we pray? Not to inform God or instruct him but to beseech him closely, to be made intimate with him, by continuance in supplication; to be humbled; to be reminded of our sins.
[In the passage from the Gospel today we find the teaching of the Lord Jesus about prayer, and the Lord’s Prayer. But he also says much about the nature of prayer. Verse 7 is sometimes translated by the words vain repetition, and then used to condemn the idea of praying often to God. But in fact this is a bad translation, it means rather to use many words in trying to convince God of something. St John Chrysostom makes this true meaning clear in his own commentary here. We can write a very long prayer, with 10,000 phrases, but it will not impress God if we stand and repeat it. It is the warmth and attention of our heart which he desires, and which is true prayer.
In this commentary we see that the purpose of prayer is not to convince God, or to teach him about our problems. But it is the means by which we come into his presence, the means by which we draw into union with him, the means by which our sins are revealed. And so we pray often, turning our hearts to God rather than just our voices, and discover that we are in his presence each time we make this effort to recollect ourselves.]
St John Chrysostom speaks about the parable of the widow, and of the man who needed bread for his neighbour. In these parables the Lord Jesus tells us that he is teaching us to pray always and not give up or cease. We have begun the journey of Discipleship by starting to build a habit of simple prayer in the morning and evening with the Lord’s Prayer. We will continue to build on this necessary foundation and return to considering the Lord’s Prayer in the next few days.
But there is another aspect of Orthodox spirituality. Very early on in the development of Orthodox spirituality it was found that a short prayer, repeated often with warmth and attention as true prayer, was fruitful in helping the Disciple to spend more and more time each day, more and more moments, connecting with God and standing in his presence, whatever the circumstances. At first a phrase from the Psalms was used, O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me. This would be repeated quietly, prayerfully with attention, and the one who prayed in this way would find that it was possible to spend much of the day, every day, in God’s presence in prayer.
Quite soon a short prayer, the Jesus Prayer, became very widespread and encouraged among those following the way of Discipleship. We will consider this throughout the course. It is enough to say that it has several forms including, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. This same prayer is used in the hymns of the Coptic Orthodox tradition in the form, My Lord Jesus Christ, help me. To pray this slowly, with warmth of heart and attention does not require a great deal of mental effort. It is possible to be doing some other repetitive activity at the same time. But it does allow our heart, that deepest part of ourselves, to be often and even always turned towards God, which is what prayer is.
1. Continue to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and evening. Pray with warmth and attention.
2. Try to pray the Jesus Prayer for ten times in the morning and evening. Quietly, prayerfully, with attention and warmth. Find a place to be still and give focus to this activity.
3. Continue to intercede for those on your list of names. Pray with warmth for each one, especially those with pressing needs known to you. Try to remember to pray for some of them through the day.
4. Read the Gospel again. Read prayerfully and write down in your notebook whatever comes to mind in a strong way as you read. Go through the chapter and make a note of all the different things which we can learn from it about prayer.
We will start to add a little historical material to each day. It is important that we have an understanding of how the Church, the Apostolic community established by the Lord Jesus, developed in time, and how it is a universal Church, not limited to any one place and people.
In the next few days we will consider the earliest days of the Church. The Church in Egypt was the fruit of the preaching of St Mark, the disciple of St Peter and a companion of St Paul. In the History of the Patriarchs, compiled by Severus of Al’Ashmunein in the second half of the 10th century, we find an account of the missionary work of St. Mark. It says,
Mark journeyed to the city of Alexandria; and when he entered in at the gate, the strap of his shoe broke. And when he saw this, he thought: «Now I know that the Lord has made my way easy». Then he turned, and saw a cobbler there, and went to him and gave him the shoe that he might mend it. And when the cobbler received it, and took the awl to work upon it, the awl pierced his hand. So he said : «Heis ho Theos»; the interpretation of which is, «God is One». And. when the holy Mark heard him mention the name of God, he rejoiced greatly, and turned his face to the East and said : «O my Lord Jesus, it is you that makes my road easy in every place». Then he spat on the ground and took from it clay, and put it on the place where the awl had pierced the cobbler’s hand, saying : «In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, the One living and eternal God, may the hand of this man be healed at this moment, that your holy name may be glorified». Then his hand at once became whole. … And he went with him to his house. And when he entered his dwelling, he said : «May the blessing of God be in this house!» and he uttered a prayer. … Then he began to teach him the gospel of good tidings, and the doctrine of the glory and power and dominion which belong to God from the beginning. …Then when the cobbler had heard wisdom and the words of the Scriptures from the holy Mark, together with the great miracle which he had seen him work upon his hand, his heart inclined towards him, and he believed in the Lord, and was baptized, he and all the people of his house, and all his neighbours. And his name was Anianus.
This is how the Church in Alexandria, the great city of Egypt, came into being. St Mark preached and a small community began to believe and worship the Lord Jesus Christ. St Mark faced opposition from the local pagan priesthood and he left the city, leaving the Church in the care of Anianus. He returned after a few years, encouraging the Christian community, but this time the pagan authorities took him and dragged him through the city tied to a horse, and he was martyred. Anianus succeeded St Mark as the bishop and leader of the Church in Alexandria, and today Pope Tawadros II is the 118th leader of the Church in an unbroken line.