25 July 2010

Ain't no other way than to keep on knocking

17th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Univ of Dallas


The Colossian Christians are in trouble. They've been tinkering with the gospel, messing about with the apostles' teachings, and now their faith is in danger of being wrecked. Paul diagnoses the problem with a warning, “See to it that no one captivate you with an empty, seductive philosophy according to human tradition, according to the elemental powers of the world, and not according to Christ.” If Paul has the right of it, the Colossians have surrendered themselves—body and soul—to the vacuous traditions of human philosophy and the hungry, elemental powers of the world. They have been intellectually seduced by the specious arguments of the Talking Heads of their day and driven to abandon Christ by taking part in the mystical rites of angels and the earth-bound gods. Having set aside Christ, they forget their new lives in him and crawl back to the darkness that promises enlightenment but delivers only death. Therefore, Paul must remind them of where they have been and where they must go: “Brothers and sisters: You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him. . .he brought you to life along with him.” When tempted by the lovers of worldly wisdom with promises of a life liberated from our old-fashioned and oppressive morality, do you recall where you were before Christ? After Christ? If not, here's a reminder: you were held captive by ignorance and sin; then, with Christ, you were dead and buried in baptism; raised along side him, washed clean; and then bought to new life in him. When challenged or tempted to forget where you have been with Christ and where are you going now that you follow him, turn to the prayer that Jesus taught us and remember. 

The prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples is more than a formula for petitioning God correctly. His prayer is a memorial, a status report, and a promise. Looking back, the prayer tells us where we were Before Christ. Fallen, lost, wandering, and dead. Looking around right now, the prayer serves as a measure for us to gauge the depths of our faith. Committed, hesitant, lukewarm, or zealous. Looking ahead, Jesus' prayer reveals our destination, our point of rest. Fullness, completion, forgiveness, and freedom. Regardless of where we choose to look, or how we are bound to see, Jesus teaches us to pray as he himself prays: with the wisdom to bring together in one moment the beginning, the middle, and the end. In other words, Jesus prays as one who stands with the Father at creation, suffers with us in our disgrace, and redeems us through the Holy Spirit. When we pray as Christ as taught us, we participate in his priestly ministry, if only imperfectly for now, standing with him at the throne—united as one Body, giving thanks and praise to our Father with one tongue; loving, forgiving, hoping with one heart; and seeking out His truth and goodness with one mind. Christ the High Priest teaches his priestly people how to offer themselves as a sacrifice, to partake in his life by giving themselves over to lives of holiness.

How does Jesus teach us to make such a sacrifice? We confess to our Father that he is indeed our Father in heaven. That His name is blessed among us. That His kingdom among us has arrived, is arriving, and will arrive in the fullness of time. That His will among the angels and saints is His will here on earth. That all we have and all we are comes to us as the daily bread of His grace. That His forgiveness of our debts moves us to forgive the debts owed to us. And that we are spared His final test of faith only by gracious will. If we will stand with Christ at the throne and offer ourselves as sacrifice, lifting ourselves up as those made holy through surrender, then Christ's prayer, the Lord's Prayer, must be for us a model of how to live now, right now, as we hope to live with him forever. From the start of our lives in Christ to our lives with him right now and on to our eternal lives in heaven, we must offer one holy sacrifice, one act of praise and thanksgiving—to serve one another in love so that the Father's love is made perfect in us. 

The Lord's Prayer is a memorial, a measure, and a promise. Paul accuses the Colossian church of forgetting their new births in Christ, of failing to take their measure against Christ's holiness, and of refusing to accept the truth of God's promise. Rather than persevere as the redeemed children of God, the Colossians listened to vain arguments of the lovers of worldly wisdom. They allowed themselves to be seduced by the mysteries of angels and the elemental powers. As they lived in the world, they became of the world and forgot both where they came from and where they were going. Worst of all, they let slip from memory the one sacrifice that saved them. They forgot that Christ obliterated the bond of the Law against them, a bond that opposed their eternal lives. He removed it from their midst, nailing it to the cross. Hoping perhaps to avoid the nails and the cross themselves, they cast around for alternatives, more pleasant, less painful alternatives for seeking and finding their salvation. They found none. And neither will we.

But what do we do when it appears that nothing we do brings us peace? Nothing we do or say seems to bring us closer to God, or takes us further away from sin? No doubt most of us here want to be closer to God, want to be further away from sin. But all the wanting and doing we can manage in a lifetime seems to go unheard, unanswered. Can we be blamed for turning away from the demands of a Christian life and seeking out a more pleasant, more attractive alternative? Or at the very least seeking to decorate the bare bones requirements of following after Christ with a little worldly wisdom or angelic mystery? What do we do when anything we do, when everything we do ends in apparent failure? We persist. Jesus tells the disciples that a friend who will not get out of bed to give you a loaf of bread b/c you are his friend, will eventually relent to your pleadings for no other reason than that you persist in asking! 

Spiritual failure is not remedied by forgetting who you are in Christ.  Running after worldly wisdom and exotic theologies is not the answer. The answer lies in persistent prayer and vigilance in your priestly sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Jesus teaches us to seek then find; to ask then receive; to knock and knock and knock some more, and the door will be opened. The point of prayer is not to change God's mind about His blessings, but rather to better prepare the one praying to receive His blessings with gratitude. If you are not finding or receiving God's blessings, then perhaps you are not allowing your search, your requests for His blessings to transform you. You must seek and be transformed by the search. You must ask and be transformed in the asking. Persistent prayer is not about worrying God to death with your needs. Persistent prayer is about first remembering who you are as a redeemed child of the Father, then placing yourself on the altar of loving service as a sacrifice. If you think you are going to argue God into responding, or appease Him with fantastical, mysterious rites—think again! He wants a contrite heart surrendered to loving service. 

Jesus teaches his disciples to pray as he himself prays. His prayer is devoid of worldly philosophy, devoid of pagan babbling and occult meaning. There's no magic there, no mystical keys to open hidden doors. He teaches us to pray so that we are made ready to do our Father's will, to receive our daily blessing, to forgive as we ourselves are forgiven, and to rely on His promise that no temptation is stronger than our faith in Him. If we remember, if we persist, we will arrive at the throne, whole and perfect. There is no other way but Christ, no other altar on which to sacrifice, nothing else to do but seek him out and receive with gratitude all that he has to give us.

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