Asking for the right things (COVID-19)

‘And he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.’ (Luke 17: 19)

The lepers were quite clear about what it was that they wanted from Jesus: they wanted to be made clean and be given their lives back. Their bodies were diseased and deformed; they were ritually unclean and were in a kind of internal exile, excluded from society, but still living by its rules and expectations as well as they could. Like all their unfortunate kind they were excluded, but longed to return home, to family, to work. The story is told partly because it is a miraculous healing and partly because the one thankful leper is a Samaritan. Perhaps the stranger gets more than simply healing. Commentators often suggest that through his faith he is made whole, something which goes beyond a straightforward physical restoration and includes a renewal of spirit. He gets more than he might have expected and progresses a little further on the road to holiness.

They asked Jesus. I would like to say something more about ‘asking’ as that is such an important part of our prayer – not the greatest part I hope, but a significant one. When the young Solomon ascended the throne of Israel in succession to his father David, he went to sacrifice at Gibeon (the temple not yet having been built). There the Lord appeared to him in a dream and asked him what he would like to be given. Solomon replied,

Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people? (1 Kings 3: 9)

We learn from the account (in 1 Kings) that this pleased the Lord because the young king had not asked for riches or the lives of his enemies or a long life for himself. Instead he had asked for wisdom to be able to fulfil his role as God would have it done. This is notable for two reasons, first it tells us that Solomon was beginning his reign in the right way. He was thinking of God and his people Israel, not just about himself and his great fortune. The second thing is that God is pleased. God is not often pleased in the following chapters of the history of Israel as the people and their rulers persistently turn away from him to idols. But he is pleased now and we should enjoy the moment and note the reason because it is instructive for us.

If Solomon asked for wisdom, what do we ask for? Whatever it is, today’s provision in the Prayer Book sets out our intention and the Godly desires which will lead us, like the Samaritan in the Gospel, a little nearer to holiness.

The collect asks God to grant us the increase of faith, hope and charity. These are the prime Christian virtues which serve to define the life of faith. They are spiritual gifts which enable us to draw close to God in prayer and to live a life worthy of our Lord Jesus. They eclipse all the other gifts, important though those other gifts are, because they ‘abide’ or ‘remain’. Faith, hope and charity are constant throughout the life of the Christian even if we are given other gifts as well, natural or supernatural. It is through faith, hope and charity that we are enabled to use the other gifts correctly and wisely for the glory of God. As St. Paul comments, he may have wonderful gifts of prophecy and hospitality, but they are worthless unless driven by charity. The sentiment of the collect therefore is one which we should take for heart. It is a prayer that we can make our own as so many have done before us. (It is a very old collect dating back to the days of the Fathers).

In the epistle we are reminded of the works of the Spirit, which are the fruit of a faithful life in which the works of the devil have been cast aside and the Christian vocation embraced.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. (Galatians 5: 22-23)

St. Paul’s imperative is, ‘Walk in the Spirit’. He is not dealing here with the realm of ideas and philosophies, but with the presence of the risen Lord on the road through life. The Christian virtues are not merely something to assent to, but the foundation for a practical life. The fruits of the Spirit – as found in you – are not the results of a thorough forensic examination of your life, but the measure of your relationship with God and others. We cannot always see the fruits ourselves, but be sure that others can (and they can see when they are missing as well).

The gospel reading today exalts thankfulness as the proper Christian response to the receipt of God’s gifts, whether these be the natural gifts by which our human life is sustained or the spiritual gifts which we have already examined. Frequent prayers of thanks, offered from the heart, develop in us a spirit of thankfulness which enables us, not just to be grateful for things, but to see God in all things and to begin to understand his redeeming presence in the world. This is especially important when we spend time observing the problems of the world and lamenting its failures and depravities. We are often very good at that and allow it to absorb a great deal of our time – sometimes too much!

It is not enough to ask where God was when something bad happens or when there is failure or when people act wickedly, but instead to ask what God was doing because he will certainly have been doing something, even if only sorrowing over sin and inhumanity as Jesus wept over Jerusalem. The message of the gospels is that God is present even when things are difficult and when men are going astray. This is because he loves each one of us and desires to be reconciled. There is always something better that God has in store for us; he has a plan even if we harden our hearts against it. God wants us to recognise his presence and with thankful hearts to embrace the life of the Spirit: to walk in his way.

In conclusion, although it is no more than a footnote, let me remind you of what I ask for you when I pray for you, as I do constantly.

I offer this mass for N for repentance and renewal; for healing and peace; for the increase of faith, hope and charity; for protection from all evil, from pestilence and disease and from the crafts and assaults of the devil. I don’t always stop there, but that is the foundation of my intercession for you. Please pray for me too.

Solomon did well asking for wisdom. We can do even better and it is all in today’s collect and readings.

Father Andrew Burton SSC

13th September 2020