Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity 2022
Ask, search, knock.
The Reverend Mark Birch Precentor
Sunday, 24th July 2022 at 11.15 AM
There is a theme of persistence running through today’s readings: Abraham going back to the Lord, again and again, trying to work out how far he can go to advocate for the people of Sodom—suppose there are fifty righteous people, or twenty, or ten; St Paul, in the epistle, counselling the Colossians to persist in living their lives in Christ, and not getting caught up in what he calls ‘earthly philosophies’; and finally, Jesus offers a bittersweet little parable on the persistence needed to persuade even a friend to get out of bed at midnight to help you. Ask, search, knock.
Persisting in prayer, persisting in faith, can feel like dropping pennies down a very deep well; a well that might appear to be completely dry; or perhaps the wrong well altogether.
It is, of course, wonderful when prayer seems to be answered; when faith is vindicated; when success and good things come our way; and we should receive these things as God gifts; as signs of his love, his grace and mercy. But the repeated call in Scripture to persist suggests that if we rely on a constant supply of answered prayer, of exciting religious experiences, people convinced and changed by our witness, of the kind of blessings that others will envy; if we rely on these things to keep us praying, to keep us engaged with the faith, then we might have missed something important.
Sticking with Christianity, persisting with the Church, is a deeply counter-cultural thing to do, particularly in western Europe, so congratulations for not just following the herd. Consider yourselves the true radicals; the edgy, non-conforming, free-thinkers of our age.
But beyond a bit of cheer-leading from the front, what is it that can help us to persist, especially when prayers seem unheard, when the world tells us that our faith is foolishness and that we have hitched our wagon to a pony that is rapidly running out of steam; throwing our pennies down a well that most people abandoned a long time ago. Why might we persist?
‘See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition… and not according to Christ.’
So wrote St Paul to the Christians in Colossae. It seems that they were getting very excited about a new cultic craze, involving extreme fasting and, frankly, hallucinating, whereby they thought they were having a preview of heaven—a kind of out-of-body experience. They were the experience junkies of their day, always on the look-out for the next spiritual high. Paul is basically telling them to stop it, or not to get involved in it, and he contrasts the fantasy of these out of body visions and experiences with the reality of the bodily, incarnate Christ—these are mere shadows, he says, the substance belongs to Christ, and only Christ.
It is only in Jesus Christ that the fullness of deity dwells bodily, he says, so the only way we, bodily beings, can share in divine worship, in the heavenly vision glorious, is in Christ—the head of the body, the Church. The true vision of heaven is not achieved individually, even by strenuous acts of piety; the vision is corporate, in the body of Christ. Heaven is not an out-of-body thing at all—as the resurrection shows us, as our Eucharist reminds us—we are one body because we share in the one bread; the bread of heaven; the bread of life; the body of Christ. This is the substance; the rest is mere shadow.
But how does this help us persist in prayer and in the faith?
Our culture offers us all kinds of distractions, all kinds of exciting experiences, all kinds of philosophies, and we are encouraged, like good consumers, to pick and choose according to our own tastes and appetites. These could well be the ‘human traditions’ that St Paul talks about. They offer short-term success, pleasure, or entertainment, or intellectual satisfaction—they are a quick answer; certainly quicker and more controllable than any discipline of prayer. Next to them, faith looks complicated, demanding, slow, and a bit of a gamble. After all, if there is more than one belief system; how can I be sure I’m backing the right horse?
The only reason to choose Christianity, to persist in it, is, of course, Jesus Christ—the Word made flesh, our God incarnate—substance, not shadow. And in Christ it is not so much our choosing him at all, but it is he who chooses us. In him God declares us his children and offers us help and healing; salvation by the Holy Spirit. Although the Church is a human institution, with human traditions, and human fallibilities, the substance of the Church is the risen Christ. We are, firstly, his body and he is our head. This is beyond the imagining of any human tradition.
The only reason to persist in this faith is because it reveals God’s persistence with us. We ask, search, and knock because God, like the good friend in the parable who stirred himself out of bed at midnight, has come to our aid in Christ; and because what God is he is eternally, we know that God will not stop stirring himself; endlessly coming to our aid.
Jesus said: 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!’
We persist in faith and in prayer not because we always get what we want, or because our faith wins every argument and makes us successful. The only reason to persist is Christ—the persistence of God with us—the Truth sent from above, not of human origin—the Truth upon which all truth depends and to which all truth points—a truth beyond any human tradition or science or wisdom. We persist not so much out of experience or feeling, but because of doctrine—because of who Jesus is.
And while our persistence may sometimes feel like a tremendous, dogged act of will, a believing and praying against all odds, in truth, our persistence is the Spirit of God already at work within us – the Holy Spirit that is the answer to every prayer; the good gift that our heavenly Father gives to his children; the constant, persistent stirring of God towards us, for our help and healing.
We will not always feel this. St Paul is clear that the experience junkies needed to get real. Our pennies may seem to fall endlessly. But if we persist, if we allow our persistence to be the work of the Spirit within us, reflecting the persistence of God towards us, in Christ, then we will be living not according to human wisdom, but according to Christ in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily and in whom we will be brought to the fullness of life.
Thanks be to God.