July 24, 2016—The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
In the gospel we read this morning, we hear Jesus make an amazing promise to his disciples. He tells them, “If you then who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Lk.11.13). He says this in the larger context of a teaching on prayer. His doctrine of prayer is very reassuring. “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (LK.11.9) he tells them. In other words he assures them that God hears our prayers and that God is anxious to answer our prayers and meet our needs.
But how far will God go to meet our needs? Anyone who has ever asked God for anything concrete, like a new sports car, learns quickly that the heavenly Father is not like the genie in Aladdin’s lamp. God does not appear in response to prayer to fulfill our dreams, bow to our vanities and serve our selfish wishes. God has a purpose for prayer and it’s not to make us all successful, brilliant, attractive, millionaires; too bad. God is Goodness with a capital “G”. God wants us to become all that He is, like him in every way. God has given us prayer as a means to achieving that end.
True prayer always begins with a question on our part: not just what do I need here and now to get through the present crisis, but what do I need to become more like God? If we fail to see our prayers answered, it may be because we are not praying. Prayer is not just asking God for favors for ourselves and others. That is allowed and encouraged, but that is not the primary purpose of prayer. Prayer is asking God to give us those virtues that will make us more like His Son. God wants us to become like Jesus. Prayer is the means by which we grow into his likeness. Whatever God does for us in response to our prayers, He does to that end.
Prayer is to the human spirit what physical training is to an athlete. If you engage in prayer deliberately and consistently for the right purpose, you will see results. Prayer is like keeping to a healthy diet. It requires discipline and you have to keep at it. But unlike dieting in which you are largely on your own, God helps us in prayer. God wants us to succeed. God wants to forgive us our sins and to give us patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control, wisdom, a charitable and generous spirit, courage in the face of suffering, a hunger for righteousness, a humble heart, unshakable faith. That’s what, “ask and you will receive,” means. God is Spirit. His chief concern in prayer is for our spiritual and moral growth. If we accept prayer for what it is and enter into it on God’s terms, there is virtually no limit to what God will do for us. He will even give each one of us, personally, the Holy Spirit, if we ask. In fact, that is the point of Jesus’ teaching: we are to ask for the Holy Spirit.
That sounds simple enough, but many Christians are hesitant to ask for the Holy Spirit because they have no idea what the Holy Spirit is or what he does. We baptize and offer up our collects “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”He seems familiar enough to us. And yet, many Christians are puzzled by the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t help to be told that He’s the third person of the Holy Trinity. I have had many faithful Christians tell me something to the effect that, “God I get, and Jesus I get, but I don’t get the Holy Spirit? What is it?” The Holy Spirit is the perfect love of God. The work of the Spirit is to abide in the church, sanctifying each one of us in love (John14.15-17). When Jesus says that God wants to give us the Holy Spirit he means that God wants to give us the fullness of his love. And by giving us the Holy Spirit, God wants to transform us from selfish, fearful little people pre-occupied with our own immediate needs into great lovers of God and of sinful humanity. He wants to make us into saints, into living souls who walk in love as Christ loved us, who gave himself up for us, so that strengthened in his Spirit we might do the same for others (Eph.5.1-2). To this end God wants nothing so much as to pour the Holy Spirit into your heart and mine (Rom.5.5) so that we might grow into the image of Christ and become like him, men and women of faith and holiness who do everything in love (1Cor.16.14).
Why does God wish to do this for us? The answer is as obvious. Why did God send his Son to suffer and die on a cross for us? God wishes to hear our prayers and answer them, even going so far as to give us his own Holy Spirit, because God loves us. God does not just like us, sort of, or have crush on us. God loves us with the passion of a groom ready to take his bride on the wedding night. God wants to lavish everything he has on us. He wants to pour out all of his love on us and fill us with the fullness of his love. The Holy Spirit is the fullness of God’s love. It is his whole heart, mind and soul. It is, therefore, his most precious gift. The Holy Spirit is God himself, in all his sweetness, all his tenderness, all his power, all his glamour, all his goodness, all his generosity, giving himself to us unconditionally.
If that causes us to feel a little embarrassed, it is because we know all too well, how undeserving we are of such total love. He wants to make a total commitment to us; but how many are ready to give him the same kind of love in return? Have you ever had someone be more in love with you than you were with him or her? It’s awkward. That’s how it is with us and God. He loves us more than we deserve, and we know it. What but do you do? He won’t take “no” for an answer.
Take all that Sunday school fluff about prayer being a little talk with Jesus and stow it. Prayer is not holding hands in the park, prayer is the honeymoon night, it’s letting him who loves you have you and giving your all to him in return. Are you ready for that? Many would say, I’m not so sure. And that’s an honest answer because love is a commitment and total love is total commitment. That’s what God is after. He wants us to make a total commitment to Him as He has to us. The Holy Spirit is God’s total commitment pledged to us, the passion of his perfect love poured into our hearts at baptism, renewed in every act of Holy Communion, and renewed again in every humble prayer.
I’ll be the first to admit: that much love frightens me. But Jesus has assured us that this is the way forward in life. Don’t be afraid of God’s love. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4.18). As I said to you last week, Jesus is the incarnation of God’s perfect love. He has shown us the way in his own life of constant prayer. Let God have his way with you and God will enlarge your heart until it is large enough to receive the fullness of his love. Love is not easy. Keeping love’s commitment demands struggle, sacrifice and suffering. Jesus who loved us perfectly loved us all the way to the cross; even as we crucified him, he loved us. That’s why God is anxious to give us the Holy Spirit, so that he can strengthen us to love one another even as he loves us.
So, here is your homework assignment for this week. Pray for the Holy Spirit. Move your lips and open your mouth and tell God that you love him, and ask to be filled with the fullness of his love. Do it once and then do it again and again and again. Let God pour his love into your heart and don’t stop until your heart is full, which means don’t stop being open to his love. Let God fill you with the Holy Spirit!