The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s184g07 Sunday 17 29/7/07
'how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!' Luke 11.13
The Old Testament lesson that I would use today is the passage from Genesis 18:20-32 where Abraham bargains with God to not destroy the city of Sodom unless 50 until (finally) God finds 10 righteous people there. Here is indeed a story about persistence in prayer! It is interesting however that this assumes that humanity represented by Abraham is more forgiving and righteous that God! This is, when we think about it, blasphemous, but it is a sentiment frequently reflected in 'christian' prayers.
God being reticent about forgiveness is echoed in the gospel reading where there seems to be a degree of reticence on the part of God to give in response to prayer. The man must persist knocking on the door of his friend to get him up to help with his duty of hospitality. But this reticence is contrasted with the willingness of God to give when asked, to be found when someone searches, and to open when someone knocks. This is reinforced by the words about getting what one asks for rather than anything that may harm.
It is instructive that the examples of prayer that Jesus gives are about our human interactions. There is the man who comes to his friend at midnight for provisions. Then there are the examples of giving our children good things. The man in bed doesn't say to the friend in need: 'pray to God', nor do parents withhold good things from their children to teach them to ask. How often have you heard things like 'God likes for us to ask'?
So prayer is related to our human interactions rather than God giving me what I want, when I want it! As a patient said to me recently (with a broad smile on her face), that she had been praying to God for patience, and she wanted it now!
So rather than Abraham bargaining for God over the fate of his enemies, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, as if Abraham were 'forcing' God to do something against the divine will, the interaction between Abraham and God was the Holy Spirit leading and encouraging Abraham to pray for his enemies.
Now this might sound far-fetched, and of course everything anyone (including me :-) might pontificate about prayer is really very provisional, yet we have another important linking of the Spirit and forgiving others. In John, the risen Jesus breathes the Spirit on the frightened disciples and says: 'If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.' (Jn 20.23) We might wishfully think that this means that God is going to forgive those for whom we ask and is going to condemn those for whom we don't ask. God desires that we live in a forgiving and accepting world, and we condemn ourselves (and everyone else) to the opposite if we (as 'christians') don't initiate and continue to do this. So for me this is much more a both divine and human imperative to forgive, for it should be that neither God nor us desires the 'death of anyone'. (Ezekiel 18.32)
So the Holy Spirit is poured out abundantly to overcome differences between people. While we remain in our white anglo-celtic, male dominant, straight ghettoes, the Holy Spirit cannot be poured out. It is only when we encounter difference that we need the Holy Spirit, to have God's grace to overlook the differences and accept the other.
It will make precious little difference to the world if God forgives my sins and keeps reassuring me of this fact, Sunday by Sunday. It might begin to make a small difference to the world if I put aside whatever prejudices I have against others, especially if I do it in the name of God. So, in the name of God, I accept people of other faiths and forgive them that they worship the deity using another name than the one I use, and using a liturgy different from the one with which I am familiar. So, in the name of God, I accept people of no faith and forgive them that they don't worship the deity like I do, yet do their best to help other people and contribute to society in the manner God has endowed them. So, in the name of God, I accept gay and lesbian persons and see their attempts to love those they choose as no different from my efforts to love someone of another gender to myself.
And isn't it strange that this is the way that the world is actually heading, often with conservative 'christians' kicking and screaming trying to stop it! It is this fact that lies behind the reason I suspect so many people outside the church don't want to have any part of it.
After folding the socks, pondering how this sermon might finish, I reflect that this is what caused such anger towards Jesus that God had acted in sending someone, but someone who wasn't going to take 'their' side in their positions of supposed superiority over others. So too there is anger in those conservative parts of the church where it seems their superiority over others people of other faiths, people of no faith, women and gay people is questioned in the name of God.
In another place Jesus says: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." Luke 6.37-38 How often has the Church been seen as judgmental, ready to condemn others and unforgiving? Is it any wonder others do not want to join a society such as this?
God cannot give the Holy Spirit to those who want it to show off to others how superior, different or privileged they are over others.
How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! God gives the Holy Spirit in abundance, to those inside the church who seek to bridge differences between people, as well as to those outside the church who seek to bridge differences between peoples. We can praise the Lord that this is so! God doesn't leave it all up to us.
Perhaps we can conclude that the Church is actually composed of those who do not judge, those who do not condemn, those who forgive and those who give, whether they call themselves 'christians', something else or nothing at all.
Actually this teaching is (of course) nothing new! Richard P McBrien in his two volume work "Catholicism' (1980) informs me that the Second Vatican Council's 'Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity' (1965) stated that: 'We must learn to appreciate the riches of the gifts of God to all the peoples of the world'. (Decree, nn 11,18 Vol I p 276) In fact his definition of 'Catholicism' as 'a radical openness to all truth and to every value' has been particularly formative in my own theology. (Vol II p1184) My edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Vol I p277) gives as the third meaning of the word Catholic = kath holou as 'embracing all'. This gives us, the one holy and apostolic church, something to do!
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