He calls us his friends.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Over the past few months we’ve spoken quite a bit about duty and commitment and sacrifice.  We’ve walked through the covenants as opportunities for God’s people to accept and reflect back the love and faithfulness that God shows to us.  We’ve looked at the incredible awesomeness that is God’s will and desire to save us from our sins, as Jesus, the Lamb who was slain from before the foundation of the world, offered himself freely as a sacrifice to cover the sins of the whole world.  And then we’ve turned our focus to the absolutely necessary – but extraordinarily difficult – message about the desire and sacrifices that true love requires.

In all of this, it’s clear that God loved us first, that He reached out his hands of mercy long before we were ready to accept it.  For that alone, God is certainly worthy of our praise.

But, as much as God deserves our worship, as much as we know that – when he comes again – every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, today we hear our Lord say something absolutely incredible: yes, He’s the Lord of all creation; yes, He alone is worthy of all worship; yes, He’s the one who has conquered the power of death, and has opened the pathway to abundant life, but, he says, “no longer do I call you servants… I have called you friends”.

Jesus calls us his friends.  Jesus wants to be your friend.

Friends or Neighbours?

Now, to be completely honest, “friend” really isn’t a category that gets much attention in theology.  If anything, what we hear most often is to down-play the importance of friendship: we’re reminded, time and time again, that we’re not just to love and serve and care for our friends and family, but our neighbours.  Our love, our desire for a yet-more-glorious future isn’t limited to those we like, but extends to strangers and even those we might consider enemies, those who work against us and what we have planned.  As followers of Jesus we all know that the entirety of what God commands is summed up in the love of God and the love of our neighbour; we all know that serving the person across the street or across town is an act of faith, whether it’s a simple act of kindness, whether it’s a second or third or seventy-seventh chance offered in grace, or whether it’s being ready to offer that simple word of hope and mercy when you feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck or get that little twinge in your gut that it’s time to speak up.

We all know that love carries obligations.  But then, after Jesus teaches us about love, and as he prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice, He calls us his friends.

And the difference, of course, between friends and neighbours is what brings them together.

My neighbour, your neighbour, those to whom you owe a duty to love as much as your love your own life, is anyone who crosses your path.  Anyone within your sphere of influence is your neighbour: the good, the bad, and the ugly; those whom you would choose, and those who, let’s say, give you an opportunity to exercise grace.

But friendship… friends are those we want to be with, those we want to share our lives with, those whose presence we enjoy, with whom we look forward to chatting, to sharing the ups and downs of life, those we can’t wait to call when we get good news, and those whose burdens we would gladly bear in their time of need.

And, though He’s worthy of all worship, though He’s Lord of all creation, though angels and the host of heaven bow down in worship before him, Jesus wants to be your friend.  Think about that.

Obligation or Desire?

One fundamental truth proclaimed by scripture, cover to cover, is that God doesn’t want us to serve him out of obligation.  True, there is no one or nothing else worthy of worship, and certainly the Lord and the Holy Spirit working through the Church have provided certain ways of worshipping that are beneficial.  But as soon as our worship or our service or our offering becomes something we have to do, rather than something we earnestly desire to do, it loses its’ value.  God knows the heart, and it’s the attitude of the heart that matters.

And so Jesus calls his followers his friends.  Yes, we believe every person will stand before Christ, and every person will have to acknowledge that our deeds, the fruit of the life we lived fell short of the glory of God.  But, in the most incredible way, the judge on the throne wants to be our friend.  He told his friends how these cases play out, that the only hope is to plead guilty and ask for mercy.  And then, the whole point of Pentecost is that he sent the Holy Spirit to be our advocate to guide us along the path.  It’s absolutely incredible, it’s a plan we could never write ourselves: we actually do have friends in high places.  Jesus wants to be your friend.

What a friend we have in Jesus.

The thing is, though, that friendship can’t be one-sided.  It has to work both ways, doesn’t it?

I have to be honest: I have a hard time making friends.  Sure, I do my best to honour, serve, and love my neighbours, and my door is always open to walk alongside whoever pops in.  But, deep down, I’m an introvert, and any fellow introverts in the room will probably agree that friendship is sometimes hard work.  Taking the time to share joys and concerns, even just taking the time to call and have a chat after a game of phone tag can sometimes feel like a bit of a chore.  But, as one who has lived in 3 countries and whose friends move around even more than I do, the cost – the sacrifices – of friendship are worth it.  Nothing can replace that handful of people who I know I can pick up the phone and share my life with, with whom I can pick up where I left off, even if I never did return their last email, and who know I’ll do the same for them.  In a lot of ways, honestly, it’s that handful of friends, those few strong relationships, that allow me to bear the ups and downs of loving my neighbour.

And the absolutely amazing thing is that Jesus wants to be one of those friends.

It’s not enough that the Lord of all Creation says that you have value, that out of all the things in the vast universe, you matter, personally.  But more than that, the Lord of it all wants to be your friend.

He wants to be one who you chat with not to get something done, but just for the sake of chatting; one who you know you can just pick up where you left off, even if you forgot to return that last call or message.  He wants to be one who can listen when you need to get something off your chest, who can be there when you need to vent, and like any real friend, who can just be there at those times when there just aren’t words to say.

Jesus wants to be your friend. 

And like everything, God always makes the first move.  He’s made the offer, he’s made the invitation to sit and chat.  He already calls you his friend.  But, have you done the same?

You’ve heard me speak a dozen times about the importance of taking even just a few minutes each day in prayer and Bible reading.  No matter how busy you are, every one of us has at least 10 quiet minutes that we can carve out of our day.  (Many of you do that already; if you don’t, the time to start is now!) And maybe it seems daunting, maybe we don’t know where to start.  But the whole story of Pentecost is that God sent the Holy Spirit to guide you.  Jesus, the Lord of Heaven and the righteous and merciful judge wants to be your friend, so simply open up and chat.  Read a psalm, read one of the lessons assigned for morning prayer, read Our Daily Bread, read something so you spend a few minutes listening to what God says in his Word, and then simply say what’s on your mind, like you’d say to your friend.  It might just be “Lord, today’s great.  I’m feeling useful.  I did good and made a little difference.  I’m so glad I had the opportunity.”  (yes, that’s a prayer – it doesn’t have to be fancy!).  It might be “I’m frustrated.  None of this is working out.  I’m sick of wasting my time”.  (Yes, that’s a prayer too!).  And, it might be “I’m broken. I’m tired. This hurts.” 

Jesus wants to be your friend.  He wants to be the one you can trust in, the one you can lean on.  He wants to be your friend in high places, encouraging you to see the big picture and to trust in that yet-more-glorious future for which you were created.

But friendship means making time to be together, not because you have to, but because you want to. 

Jesus said, “you did not choose me, but I chose you.”  He considers you his friend; so today, this week, have a chat, pick up where you left off, or maybe get to know him for the first time.  He’s a friend like no other!

To God be the glory!  Amen.

The Thin Veil that Clouds our Vision

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Today the Church invites us to offer our bounden duty and service of prayer and praise to Almighty God, but with particular attention to those whom we love but see no longer.

Every one of us here has been touched by the death of a loved one, and while on the one hand the Church tells us that we are to rejoice in the knowledge that Christ overcame death and the grave, this day reminds us that grief – that sadness and even that deep longing that we feel in the pit of our stomach because of separation from those whom we love is not just legitimate, but is part and parcel of life in this fallen world, marred by sin and corruption.

That longing, that desire to remember those who have died, as painful as it sometimes might be, is actually a gift.  It’s a gift that points us through the pain to the deep reality that every one of us is created for immortality; that while our bodies perish and memories fade, life continues in the nearer presence of the merciful, righteous, and loving God, who alone is the source of life.

Life and Death

We live in a time that is more confused about life and death than ever before.  Confused by conflicting teachings mixed with shreds of science and fear of our own mortality, it seems many of us come to understand life and bodily death as infinitely separate, as categorically different manners of being.

In the eyes of the world around us we’ve come to believe that, once that last breath is drawn, existence itself is somehow cut off.  This plays out most clearly, and is most sad, in the language of our fellow Christians: perhaps we can speak plainly about the life of faith in Christ Jesus, and perhaps we can even speak plainly about the eternal life that comes after future judgment, but the Church has largely fallen subject to the wider culture, in being unable and unwilling to speak with confidence the truths that we proclaim at Easter: that Christ is risen, trampling down death by death, and winning victory over the grave. 

And, if that’s the case, if death is defeated, then our longings to be reunited with those we love are not wrong at all; instead, they’re a foretaste of the eternity that God is calling us to share.

You see, life and bodily death are not categorically different; they are not separated by some chasm of our imagination or even by eternity itself.

Rather, it’s quite the opposite.  Death and life are imminently close.  The veil between our mortality and eternity is infinitely thin, separated at all times, and for all people, by nothing more than a single breath.  There hereafter is not far off, but imminently close.

And, on this side of the veil, we see things dimly.

The Church, as a bride prepared to be united on that long-awaited day, looks to Christ, our loved ones, and our eternal home with vision obscured by the gauzy veil of time.

And, when that last breath, that last beat of temporality is ended, it’s not as though we close our eyes.  No, it’s quite the opposite.  With that last breath, the veil is lifted and it is then that we see fully what we have longed for, it’s then that we ourselves are fully known, and as partakes in the death and resurrection of Christ, it’s then that we are born to eternal life.

What of those who weren’t model Christians?

Of course, there remain hard questions, for the veil – though thin – is real.

We proclaim in our Creed the truth of resurrection and of judgment, and the hope of everlasting life.  But what of those fellow pilgrims through this fallen world for whom, for whatever reason, we don’t feel as though we can boldly claim the assurance of God’s forgiveness.  Those – perhaps even those we love dearly – who had real struggles and real failings; perhaps even hurting those around them.

In times like these, it is of the utmost importance that we remember that none of us earn God’s mercy through good deeds; none of us can earn eternal life.  All who are saved are saved by grace, by Christ who loved us first.

Of course, it’s God’s will that we would grow in the likeness of Christ in this life, that we would follow in the steps of Christ leading us to the new heaven and the new earth, to the very throne of God in the new Jerusalem.  But, lest we prove our own unworthiness, we must remember that, when that veil is lifted, we stand as equals inasmuch as we stand only by the grace of God.

And, of course, as Christ himself tells us, we are called to be faithful, but it’s the master – not us – who will weigh the faithfulness of the servants.  Some are entrusted with only a little with which to be faithful, while some are entrusted with much; whether we lived in faith from birth, or turned to Christ as adults, or whether a wretched soul reached for that extended hand of mercy as the darkness of death itself was falling over their eyes, the reward is not ours, but Christ’s, offered freely as we accept his invitation to share in the victory over death, the resurrection, and the ascension of the very Son of God.

Prayers for those we love but see no longer.

So, tonight, we remember the dead; but not just recalling the happy memories.  Tonight we remember them before God in our prayers and in our worship. 

We pray for them because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.[1]

True, when those we love pass through the veil, we see them no more; but that’s when the people of God, throughout history, have confidence that those who have gone before will be caught up with Christ, even those whose faith was unknown to us, or who received the gift of faith at the final hour like the criminal on the cross, who, even that day, was with Christ in paradise.[2]

And, by the mercy of God, we believe that the process of sanctification, the process of being healed and conformed to the image of God, does not end with the wearing out of this frail flesh.  Indeed, how sad would it be if, once the scars and weight of this sinful world are healed, and our vision is unclouded, and we can finally know things as they truly are, how sad would it be if we did not then have the opportunity to go from strength to strength as those redeemed by Christ, growing in grace and love to become more like Christ our Saviour.

Tonight we pray for ourselves, acknowledging our grief and pain, just as we trust that those saints who have gone before are interceding even now for all of us those who are still in their pilgrimage.  And, our prayers for the faithful departed are nothing short of us proclaiming our faith, and our assurance that Christ has destroyed the power of the grave, and has made us partakers through our baptism in that death and resurrection; that we, like them, are united with the whole people of God, so that we, too, may come to that unspeakable joy in that place where nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So let us proclaim that faith with true hope and full assurance for all who die in Christ, not in sadness, but as those who know that our merciful God has won the victory.

            May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.
            And may light perpetual shine upon them.  Amen.

[1] The Catechism of the 1979 BCP.

[2] For a fuller exploration, see N.T. Wright, For All the Saints: Remembering the Christians Departed (Morehouse, 2004).

Why do we pray?

Luke 11:1-13

Ask and you shall receive.  Seek and you shall find.  Knock and the door shall be opened.

Back in my second year of teaching, I had just finished giving the orientation session about chapel life at the theological college.

A brand new student, a man twice my age who was there to study for ordination came up to me while everyone else started walking towards the cafeteria.  He looked at me and said, “just so you know, I’m happy to say the words from the book like everyone else, but I really don’t pray”.

I can only imagine the look on my face.  Here was a man who left a successful career and moved his family to a new state to train for ordained ministry, announcing, on his first day, that he doesn’t pray.

He went on – “I just don’t really believe in the whole idea of prayer”, he said.  “It doesn’t make any sense to me.  If God is really everywhere and knows everything, then why does he need me telling him what’s going on?  And, if God really is good and loving, why does he need me to beg for his goodness?  I just don’t see the need of prayer, so I just don’t do it”, he said. 

It was a pretty troubling first conversation with this new student, but, as I reflected on our lessons today, it raises an important question.  There’s no doubt from scripture that prayer is central to a Christian’s life, but, why is it that we pray?

Why do we pray?

Beginning with the Old Testament, the one true living God is revealed as one who is actively involved in the world around us.  Of course, one of the glories of creation is that God created the complex systems that unfold each new day: the sun rising and setting, the change of seasons, water evaporating and falling back as rain, even the trees that clean the air that we breathe.  He created all that is, but didn’t just ‘set it and forget it’, but is deeply interested in each human person, created in his image.

God, who is infinite and truly beyond our comprehension, desires to be close to us.

And, that’s the first point we need to make about prayer: yes, God knows what we pray long before we ask; yes, God’s understanding of our lives far surpasses our limited knowledge, but God doesn’t use prayer as a news report.  God isn’t waiting for us to come to him with the evening news, as though we’re announcing things he doesn’t know.

Rather, prayer is about relationship

And, in any relationship, communication is essential.

Think of any loving parent with a little child, maybe one who is just learning to read.  The child is experiencing new things, learning new things, trying new things, and probably struggling with new things.  Some days the child runs into the room, bursting with excitement to share some new fact about dinosaurs or race cars or horses; sometimes the child stomps into the room, announcing that they now hate their best friend and will never talk to her again. 

The parent, of course, doesn’t need the child to teach them about dinosaurs or horses. 

The loving parent doesn’t even need the child to announce why they’re upset and stomping or sulking; the loving parent already knows something is wrong with their child just from the look on their face.

But, it’s that conversation, it’s that communication, that makes the relationship valuable; that makes it life-giving.

When God the Father says that we are his children, part of the relationship that comes from that invitation is that we would communicate with him, and the way we do that is by prayer.

And, this might go without saying, but the frequency of communication is central in any relationship.  If I only spoke to my wife for an hour on Sunday morning, we’d hardly call it a marriage.  The same goes for prayer: we’re taught to pray without ceasing,[1] to present prayers and supplications in every situation,[2] devoting ourselves to prayer.[3]

Prayer is our communication with God.

But, it’s much more than somehow passing information.

In praying, as in conversation with someone we love, we are taught to see the world as God sees it; praying is one of the ways that we are taught to love what God loves, to value what God values, and to drive away those selfish, prideful, or greedy desires that break down our relationships with God and our neighbours.

In today’s Gospel, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, and Jesus gave them that model prayer for all Christians – the Lord’s Prayer.

That prayer models for us what our concerns ought to be.

How does it start?

Well, most importantly, it starts with a very bold statement: “Our Father”. 

From the get-go, Christian prayer claims our relationship with God, not as a distant or disinterested ruler who must be appeased, but as a loving parent.  And, as we say those words that Jesus taught us, we must allow ourselves to hear God’s response: if he is our Father, than we are his sons and daughters, whom he loves.  And every time we call out to Our Father, he responds to us with open arms.

Then, as our Gospel today shows us, prayer focuses on God, his Kingdom, and his will for us.  Prayer, rightly understood, isn’t about us presenting God with a wish-list of what we want for our lives.  Instead, we start with praise – praise for who God is, and what he is doing in the world.

When we do bring our concerns before God, we do so as those who are learning by the grace of the Holy Spirit to see the world as God sees it.

God, we believe, shares our concern for the world around us.  He is righteous and just, and shares our hurt when people use their freedom to cause injustice or pain to others.  He is merciful and good, and promises to work all things together for good for those who love him, knowing that God’s timeline is much longer than ours, and that God sees the big picture, and the ways that what might appear to be suffering and pain today might actually be a means of grace and training for the work he has called you to do tomorrow.

When we pray for one who is sick, or lonely, or hurting, no, it’s not as though it’s news to God; but, as we communicate in our loving relationship with our Heavenly Father, it’s in interceding for those around us that we come to share the mind of God.  As we mature as Christians and learn to pray not for selfish desires but for those around us and how God can use it, we’re growing into the image of Christ, who gave up his life for the sake of the world.

And when we pray for the sick or lonely or suffering, we do so already knowing and trusting that God is in control; we pray because we, in our humanity, are unable to see God’s plan in that situation, and we pray, as Jesus prayed, that God’s will would be done, and that we would have the grace to trust in him.

That’s why we pray.

What do we pray?

But it’s also important that we learn what to pray.

Here’s where my former student, who would read the beautiful words of the prayer book, but didn’t believe the words of the prayers, really missed the boat.

We heard in the Gospel today: ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.

Ask.  Seek. Knock.  These are simple words, simple actions.

And, no matter how much we love the eloquent words of the prayer book – and I certainly do, and I believe it’s a blessing to offer the best of human poetry and art back to God – it’s important that we remember what we are praying.  After all, Jesus himself warned us not to babble on in prayer, thinking that we will be heard for our many words.

What we pray depends on how we pray.  And, as Christians, our access to God as Our Father is through our baptism in Jesus Christ; that’s why Christians pray in Jesus name.

That means, though, that we must pray those things that accord with his will.  It does us no good to attach Jesus’ name to something that our Lord would not bless.

Here’s an example: A young student asked me to pray for him because he hadn’t studied for an exam, and he really needed to do well on the exam to pass the course.  I asked him why he didn’t study, thinking there might have been some family emergency or something; turns out, his buddies were playing an online video game tournament, so he did that instead.

The bible tells us that the prayer of the righteous is effective, and that we are to ask, seek, and knock, but we can’t attach Jesus’ name to things that Jesus wouldn’t approve.

We believe in miracles, not magic.

God can intervene in the most miraculous ways to his praise and glory, but the most humble and pious of prayers won’t bless wasting your study time to play a game with your friends.

Even the most loving of parents, if it’s real love, wouldn’t bail a child out of that situation, as sometimes the most important lessons are learned through the consequences of our actions.  But, even when the answer to our prayer is “no” or “not yet”, even then, when we pray, God grants us the peace that passes all understanding to carry us through even the difficult situations, the peace that takes away our anxiety and worry and allows us to trust in him.[4] 

An Invitation

My friends in Christ,

We are called to pray without ceasing, with prayer being the way we build a loving relationship with the God who loves us so much that he would sacrifice everything to save us.

And, nothing cheers the heart of our Loving Heavenly Father like when we, those whom he loves, desire to be close to him.

Maybe you haven’t been praying much outside this hour on Sunday morning.  Maybe there was a prayer that didn’t seem to be answered that caused you to stop, or maybe you just got out of the habit.

This week, even if only for a moment before you get dressed in the morning, speak to your heavenly father.  Praise him for the new day, and the blessings of this life.  Ask and seek, not selfishly, but ask and seek those things that we can truly ask in Jesus name – for health and safety, for forgiveness, for restored relationships, for opportunities to serve.

For, as the scripture says, everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and if we are joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer, God hears us.  And even when the answer to our prayer isn’t as we would like it, if we trust him, he grants us the grace to face every day with the peace of Christ.

To God be the Glory, now and forever more.  Amen.

For Reference: Alan Richardson and John Bowden, eds., The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), “Prayer, Theology of”.

Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life (Oxford: OUP, 1980), pp. 37-44

Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven
Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God
My Faith Looks up to Thee
Now Thank we All our God

[1] 1 Thess 5:16

[2] Phil 4:6

[3] Col. 4:2

[4] Phil 4:6-7