Tag Archives: prayer

Not good news?

Paul, preacher of a wonderful gospel, is left with an agonising problem. Romans 9 opens with pain – we read Romans 9:1-5). A Jew (more observant than most – look at 2 Corinthians 11 etc) and one-time persecutor of Christians, he has been chosen as the apostle to the gentiles. His career has met with success (by grace), and a large number of churches look to him as founder. Corinth, in Galatia, Philippi, and others.

The problem? He knows, only too well, that the faith of these non-Jews, “outsiders”, has been won against the opposition of some Jews, who would have stopped them if they could. He knows that he is seen as a traitor, and there are numbers of people who would gladly kill him as a religious duty. He knows that Judaism doesn’t want to know about Jesus; there are exceptions, thank God, but the majority won’t listen.

In one sense it’s not a problem. The Christian church has made the decision – Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem, – gentiles who become Christian believers do not have to become Jews, only to keep the Christian faith and avoid some things particularly offensive to Jews. History will show that the offspring will overtake the parent, spreading further and becoming far larger. But for Paul, there remains the pain of seeing people he knows, and others he understands so well from his former life, refusing to accept what God has done and is doing.

Are we past the issue? Many of us – perhaps all of us? – know the difficulty of friends and close family, about whose faith we have no confidence. We can’t always be sure: faith is not about words, but attitudes (and I suspect the faith of a depressive or someone with little confidence is less obvious than that of the opposite personality type – but even then it needs action, reality).

How do you cope with the fact that parents or children may live, by choice, outside Christian faith and hope? I hope you pray for them – for it is a serious matter. To live without faith is to live in danger of the judgement of God, to live without the assurance of heaven. And so we pray, and take what opportunities we can to encourage faith, to explain, to take them to places where they might hear the gospel in ways that would strike a chord. We listen, to hear what they think and feel, to check for ways in, for books or films or experiences that might help.

We may be seen as traitors, “letting the side down”. We may even find religious people trying to prevent people coming to living faith. You know the sort of phrase that begins “We don’t do that here” . . We will certainly find people who will lie and cheat, to prevent the message about Jesus being taken seriously (by themselves or others). But in the end, we have to wait for God. Knowing that we don’t understand more than a tiny part of his purposes. Knowing that, while he can work in amazing ways to turn people right around, he so values their free response that he will not force, nor let us do so. No nagging, no blackmail. We have to use the methods of Christ, and offer love, knowing it may be refused.

Paul’s concern for his fellow Jews shows his human side. How will we be seen for our concern for non-Christian friends?

Are you receiving me?

(There is a dialogue sketch on Mark 6:1-13 available here).

How do you communicate with God? It’s a very personal thing, and should be. But it is also important, and so worth talking about.

People vary in the ways they relate. Some are more spontaneous, some more formal and organised – I remember a story about one person, who was said to pray as if he were addressing a business meeting, but – they said – that was all right because he talked to everyone like that.

The story of Jesus going to the synagogue in his home town (Mark 6:1-13) is sad. He is known to be a wise teacher and powerful worker of good miracles – but he is offensive because of his local background. Nobody suggests he has done anything wrong, it seems just to be that he can’t be taken seriously. It’s sad, because it means he can do little there – there isn’t the open communication, or the trust we call faith, which makes it possible to teach and heal.

But then the twelve are sent out on mission. Their confidence in Jesus has grown to a point where they can take a risk and try things for themselves. It will be an important leap forward in their faith, their understanding, and their communication skills. The instructions to take no provisions increase this – can it work? Yes, apparently God can do it.

So, how do you communicate with God? Is it a “wish list” of things wanted, or an expectation of emotions flattered and soothed? Is it about what you want, or is there a relationship where you can be honest about what you want and feel, but also listen for what God is doing and saying – even when that is not what you want to hear?

Are you like the locals, who didn’t want to take Jesus seriously and found excuses not to, or like the twelve, who (probably with very mixed feelings!) went and did what they were sent to, and as a result learnt and grew and celebrated?

Glory!

In John 17:1-11, Jesus begins a prayer that will continue through the chapter.  Some find it odd that he, Son of God, should pray – but we understand the three persons of the Trinity to be in close, indeed perfect, communication.

He knows the time of glory – the time of sacrifice – has come, and prays that his disciples may receive eternal life.  Too often we have limited that to some after death experience, but it is meant to be a new quality of life, beginning now and continuing beyond death.  We shall have to discover what it means, as the first disciples did.  It is not the effortless and trouble free existence we might imagine, but does indeed bring a new quality of love (purpose, hope, service, – we could find many words) to what may still be a difficult situation or hard slog.

Jesus is clear that his followers are those God gave him.  For us, it is a mystery how God both gives us freedom of response and yet knows who will be his people.  Yet this group have discovered that Jesus spoke God’s words, and value them accordingly.  He prays for them, rather than for humanity, that they may be protected and united.  Protection we find it easy to understand – there are many threats.  Unity takes more thought.  Why is it so important?  Perhaps it helps to look at the history of Church division, the often personal (or personality) differences which have handicapped fellowship and service.

It is good to have a tradition, to belong to a group of fellow believers.  It helps us find a starting point, a way of doing things.  But let’s resolve to be Christians first, and above all other loyalties and badges.  United with all who follow Jesus and long for his life to be fully realised in them, we shall grow in love and service beyond narrow boundaries.

Go on, and on, and . . (Pentecost 22c, Proper 24c)

Sometimes you find something which is hard to make sense of.  Perhaps you think it is telling you what you don’t want to hear – or, even worse, what you think other people might want to throw at you.  Take Luke 18:1-8, one of Jesus’ stories about a widow and an unjust judge.  Is it a justification of nagging? a suggestion that God is reluctant to listen and has to be bullied?  I think not (but it may explain why the other gospel writers don’t include this story).

This is about persistence, but to understand its significance we need to look at the story.   Jesus makes the point that we should always pray, and not become discouraged or lose heart.   Why would that happen? Because things don’t seem to be going our way, aren’t working out the way we expected or hoped.

So the story is about a widow (no influence, money . .) and an unjust judge (not bothered about justice – but hoping for a bribe, except that in this case, not much chance of that). He can’t be bothered to give justice – until he reckons its worth it for a quiet life.  Is God like the judge? No, Jesus is saying EVEN if a judge like that (who doesn’t care for justice, people . .) can be persuaded, HOW MUCH MORE will God (who longs to give good things) answer our prayers.  He isn’t comparing God and the judge, but making the contrast.

So, why do we need to persist? All the parable tells us is that persistent prayer works. We aren’t told why – but we can have a guess.  Sometimes our prayers sound as if we are giving God good advice on how to run the world. We flit from subject to subject. But the things that we come back to are the things that matter most to us – and the things we are prepared to get involved with.  God is prepared to work with us.  He is even prepared to change the way he deals with things according to what we will take on. And – we might guess – persistence, coming back to one subject again and again, is an indication that we mean business, and he can work with us.

Let me give you an example. We might pray for our church. We often do. The success of that prayer is not about how good we sound when we pray, or how carefully the words are crafted or read, or how long we keep producing more words. But if people who really want a thriving Christian community (so turn up, work, put up with and solve problems), the more God effectively can use them in his plans, and the greater the blessing.  That is only a guess at how it might work. But it does take seriously this parable (that we need to persist in prayer and not be discouraged), as well as the reminder in Matthew 6:7,8a that heaping up empty phrases gets us nowhere.

Don’t lose the last words, “will the Son of Man find faith on earth when he comes?” Its easy to run down, get tired, think other people ought to be doing things now. Christians need persistence.

Prayer (Proper 12, Pentecost 10)

Jesus prayed, and what his disciples saw made them want to pray, too.  (Was it the effect on Jesus, or the renewal of his power or creativity, or just so much part of his life?  We aren’t told.)

The instructions he gives in Luke 11:1-13 are short.  This is no “formula”, but teaching to be pondered and understood.  (Compare the account in Matthew 6, and you will find rather more words, but the same impression of an outline).

The familiarity of the words to many of us can blunt their impact.  They start, not with us, but with God.  That is important. We might be happy to dive into our problems, requests, worries – but we are told to begin with God.  (God as “Father” may cause problems to those whose parent was not much loved – but we know of good parents.  A parent remains one with power, perhaps to direct our behaviour, always to know what we are, and have been.  It is not an equal relationship).

We are to communicate, understanding that God is somehow personal, contactable, and involved with us. Luckily, as with a good Father, we are known and understood. Still, there is the effort of seeing another person’s point of view, and what plans and directions we may need to hear, and then obey.  We have to listen, as well as speak.  (Though many Psalms suggest that we can expect a sympathetic hearing when words pour out in pain or anger, with little hearing.)

After beginning with this mysterious and wonderful other, we are encouraged to ask for what we need.  The following verses (5-13) underline this.  Ask – the Father wants to give us what is good.  Good, not necessarily indulgent.  Good, for life in service of the Kingdom, and life which finds its real purpose.  The parable is about finding the means to be hospitable, not about living comfortably.

That brings us to forgiveness.  We ask for it, with a strong reminder, not only of our need for being forgiven but also of our need to forgive others, reflecting the grace we receive!  It is a demanding line, but one close to the heart of Christian living.  How can we, who hope for heaven only by being forgiven, criticise or look down on others who need forgiveness too?

Let’s not forget the last line, that we are not lead into the time of trial – or temptation.  No, of course our heavenly Father is not making trouble for us.  Remember Jesus words to the sleepy disciples in Gethsemane – Luke 22:39-47.  Twice Jesus uses this phrase (v40,46), and the meaning is clear.  Temptation may come in many forms, all dangerous.  We ask the Father’s help to come through the hard times with faith.

So, what’s the problem?  It is not that prayer is complicated, rather that we all find good relationships hard, and honest communication demanding.  God is as close as a good parent, but the stakes are high, the distractions pressing.  But the disciples wanted to learn; it must have been something important for Jesus, and for them.