I Thessalonians 4:1-8 and Matthew 15:21-28
"For this is the will of God, even your sanctification"
My friends, these words are taken from our first reading, the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. If there is any one phrase that can sum up our Lenten resolution, it is certainly that it is the will of God that we be sanctified, that we be made holy, that we deepen our faith. It is to this end that I would say a few words this morning about the Gospel reading and the kind of faith that was displayed there and the kind of faith that you and I aspire to during this holy season.
You are familiar with the story of the Canaanite woman. Jesus and his disciples had left Galilee and had traveled north along the Mediterranean coast up to Tyre and Sidon; that area in what is now Lebanon. Can you imagine going on vacation to Lebanon? But this is exactly what they did. They had to get away for a while. They encountered this woman; a Syro-Phoenician, says St. Mark; a Canaanite woman, says St. Matthew. She was a pagan who was desperate because her daughter was terribly ill. And so, she went after Jesus to cure her daughter. Let's face it: she was a pest. She pestered and pestered Jesus and the disciples as well, to a point that the disciples would plead, "Please get rid of her; she's coming after us now." Jesus greets her with stony silence. He doesn't say anything to her. Strange, isn't it? But upon further harassment, Jesus simply says, "I came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Not only that, he called her a name that isn't very nice or, at least He infers it. She's a dog. This from Jesus! He's done just about everything He could to drive the lady away, but she is not about to be thwarted. She comes right back at him: "Even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall off the table. All I'm asking for is a crumb. Please." So Jesus says, "You have what I'm looking for. You have the necessary faith. Go home." And Mark says when she got home, her daughter was lying in bed completely cured. Marvelous. She just pestered the Lord until she got her way.
As I was reading this Gospel, what came to mind was a parable that Jesus told one time about praying always and not losing heart:
Once there was a judge in a certain city who respected neither God nor man. A widow in that city kept coming to him saying, "Give me my rights against my opponent." For a time he refused, but finally he thought, "I care little for God or man, but this widow is wearing me out. I am going to settle in her favour or she will end by doing me violence."
The Lord said, 'Listen to what the corrupt judge has to say. Will not God then do justice to His chosen who call out to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them, do you suppose? I tell you, He will give them swift justice. But when the Son of Man comes, will He find any faith on the earth?" (Luke 18: 1-8)
Just imagine this corrupt judge. He was in it for the money. He skimmed a little bit. He'd take a bribe here and there. He lived well. And there was this widow. Remember, in the Old Testament, widows and orphans were the least powerful of all in Israelite society. They were the people that the Law of Moses was to care specially for. If Israel was to be anything, it was to be compassionate and caring for the widows and orphans. Now this woman had some claim against an opponent. What does she do? Does she hire a lawyer? No way! She decides she is just going to pester the judge. And so she goes after him. You can just imagine some of the things she could do: throw rocks at his window at midnight to keep him awake; chase him down the street, yelling at him. No matter where he goes, there she is. He can't stand it any more. He doesn't care about whether she's got a good case. "I'm got to get rid of her. I'U just settle the case in her favour and get her out of my hair."
Jesus is saying, "Look, if an unjust judge will do that because someone makes a pest of himself, how about your heavenly Father? He loves you so much more. He will respond to what you ask Him." That's the whole idea behind the parable. St. Luke quotes Jesus as saying, "Ask, and you shall receive. Seek, and you shall find. Knock, and it shall be opened to you." In other words, prayer of petition is supposed to be persistent. That's the first criterion. "Ask, and you shall receive." Not, "Ask, and God will think it over". Maybe he'll give it to you. No. "Ask, and you shall receive." The word is clear. "Knock and it shall be opened unto you." And that isn't a little tap, tap on the door. That's pounding on the door. Being a pest. You don't let the Lord sleep even on the Sabbath. That's the way He wants us to pray: with persistence!
Now we've all heard that before. But there is a problem and you all know what that is. "I know that I pray. And I pray real hard. Nothing apparently happens. Millions of people were killed in World War II, for example. I'm sure that they weren't all atheists in fox holes. They were praying. They were righteous people. And they were praying to God. And nothing apparently happened. An innocent child dies of cancer. Why? What happened to the prayer there? We asked and we didn't receive. How come?" That is the mystery we face.
Jesus is saying to us all, "All you have to do is ask him and you'll receive. Seek and find. Knock, it'll be opened to you." And we're thinking, "Really? Is that really true, Lord?" There's something is us that says, "I'm not sure." And that is a problem. We can harbour all kinds of doubts. Of course, God answers prayer and sometimes the answer is, "No, because it isn't good for you." We know that. We can understand somewhat. Sometimes, not even that bit of understanding satisfies us. But there is a verse, that does help us to understand as we are praying to God our Father. After Jesus finishes talking about asking and receiving, He goes on in the eleventh chapter of Luke's Gospel:
"Whoever asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. Whoever knocks is admitted."
Then He continues:
"What father among you would give his son a snake if he asks for a fish or hand him a scorpion if he asks for an egg? If you with all your sins, know how to give your children good things, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?" (Luke 11:11-13)
There is the answer to all of this. How much more will your heavenly Father give? Give what? What you ask for? No, give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him. What does that mean? It means that in order for us to be right with God, we have to receive the Holy Spirit. That's God dwelling in us with grace. It's the closeness that you and I have with God in the person of the Holy Spirit. We would receive the Holy Spirit in order that we can persist in our prayers. But, more importantly, we receive the Holy Spirit in order that our wills are aligned with God's will. That is how we must pray; how we ask for the things that we need. "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." We could not pray that prayer without the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul maintains, "We cannot say Jesus is Lord, except in the Holy Spirit." It is the Holy Spirit who empowers us, first of all, to be persistent. Secondly, and even more importantly, He empowers us to be so aligned with God's will that we can be open to however He desires to respond to our prayer. That is how we are to pray. That is prayer of petition.
I think it is the answer to the age-old question of why God doesn't seem to answer our prayers. Remember how Jesus prayed the night before He died in the Garden of Gethsemane? "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. (If there's a back door to this garden, I'll take it!) Still, let it be as you would have it, not as I" (Matthew 26:39). He lined up His will with His heavenly Father. He did this because He was led to do so by the Holy Spirit.
This is how you and I should pray as well. "This is the will of God, even your sanctification." What does that mean? It means that you and I would be so filled with the Spirit of God that our minds and hearts are aligned and attuned to God's ways, God's thoughts and God's plan for each one of us. Then we can surrender our wills to His. Of course, we pray without ceasing. Of course, we pester God all we want. He expects us to do just that. But in the pestering, we also know, that it is God's will, not ours, that would be done, and that surrender is by the power of the Holy Spirit. "How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!" That's honest-to-goodness faith. That's living a life that is attuned to God, and in God. That is a life of grace.
This morning, as we offer our Eucharist to God the Father, we have many things to pray for: ourselves, our family, this beat-up world that still doesn't know that it needs a saviour. We have to petition our Father through and with and in Christ. And we do it with faith. We pray in the Holy Spirit that God will be responsive; that He will pour out His grace. That He will pour out new life; a life of resurrection to this world that is so apparently dead. We can pray this way because it is God's will, our sanctification.
Father Ed Bakker,
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne