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“We Know Not Even How to Pray as We Ought”

Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
July 26, 2020

Romans 8: 26-39

In a Sunday school class recently, we were discussing what Jesus teaches about social justice, and one student pointed to the story of the rich man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. This is a pretty familiar story; you can find it in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus responds by telling him to obey all the commandments, and the man replies, “I have obeyed all these since my youth.” Then the Gospel of Mark tells us, Jesus looked at him with love and said, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give your money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). The rich man goes away grieving, we are told, “for the man had many possessions.”

Well, this led to a hearty debate. How literally did Jesus mean this? Does Jesus ask this of everybody or of just this one man? Was this just meant to challenge his pursuit of perfection? But the person who raised the question kept saying, “Why don’t we just take Jesus at his word? Why do we need to explain this away and make excuses?” And she concluded by saying, “I don’t know how well anybody can really do this. But don’t we have to ask, based on this, if maybe our reasoning is backwards? We always say, ‘I can’t do this because I have to support my family’ or some other reason. But maybe our starting point shouldn’t be sustaining our way of life. Maybe being a disciple means that our starting point should be ‘sell everything you have and give it to the poor,’ and build out how we manage our personal economic situation from there.”

I have a feeling a lot of us—certainly me—left that Bible study really wondering, “If Jesus asks this, why can’t I do it?”

That is a question we disciples should be asking all the time. Jesus asks all sorts of things of us that we give nodding acceptance to, but don’t really try to do in real life. Love our enemies, pray for our persecutors, sell all we have and give it to the poor, if someone asks you for your coat give them your shirt as well, give to everyone who begs from you—I’m just right now quoting random things that Jesus actually said. In fact, if one reads the gospels honestly, Jesus is pretty uncomfortably demanding. Unfortunately, we tend to say, “That’s all well and good, but here’s the reason why I can’t do that.” And so I say, “Jesus is Lord,” except when it comes to how I live my life.

But an honest assessment of Jesus’ calling to us to be disciples puts us in the uncomfortable position of realizing that we don’t do a great deal of what he says, and in many cases, we don’t even try to do it. I don’t want to suggest that we have selfish or unethical motives for that. Some people certainly do, but I think for most of us the problem is that what Jesus is asking us to do seems to border on the impossible. How can we love everybody? How can we give everything we have to the poor?

We recently lost a spiritual titan, Georgia Representative John Lewis, who was a founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, in the early sixties. He died a congressman, but he started out as a young black man dedicated to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his principles of non-violent direct action as a means to overcome racism. The moment he is most remembered for is the famous march from Selma, AL, across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965, where hundreds protesters were violently attacked by police and John Lewis himself was seriously injured by a blow to his head by a police baton. Despite many instances of such violence in his life, throughout his career, as an activist and as a politician, Lewis remained dedicated to non-violence and in fact constantly, constantly told people that they must love their enemies. He was unshakably committed to the principle of love. He remained committed to loving neighbor and enemy his whole life. This was his commitment as a Christian, and it led him to make the decisions he made. He was no shrinking violet: he didn’t mind debating ideas or calling out those with whom he disagreed. But he continued to love them and never responded to violence with violence and taught others not to.

Much could be said about John Lewis. He is a lifelong hero of mine. Some of us may disparage his commitment to love and believe that he was lying or exaggerating or unrealistic. That certainly goes against the testimony of many people who knew him, including those who’d crossed horns with him. But I think many of us look at a man with such an unswerving commitment to non-violence and think either, “It’s not really possible and so I question it,” or “He was a saint, but I can’t do that.” But remember, Lewis looked at this as a question of Christian discipleship and of following Jesus. So maybe what we Christians need to stop finding reasons why we can’t be that way, and instead begin to pray that God MAKE US THAT WAY.

Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans says, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

It tells us that we don’t know how to pray, or even what to pray for, but if our hearts are willing, if we want to be what God wants us to be, God’s Holy Spirit can pray those prayers for us, change us, lead us into being the better person we are meant to be.

But I’m not sure how often any of us pray to be the way Jesus wants us to be. We pray for help in school or in our job; we pray for economic security; we pray for success; we pray for those who are sick and for ourselves and those we love when we or they are sick or in need. We pray for the world and for what ails it. All these are good prayers.

But how often do we pray that God change our hearts? How often do we pray, “Lord, make me more the way Jesus wants me to be. I can’t figure out how in the world to sell all I have and give it to the poor as Jesus says; Lord, help me to do that. I can’t love my enemies and in fact it’s hard for me not to put loving myself first in all situations; Lord, help me to love neighbor, enemy, and stranger. Help me to love that neighbor I’m in a dispute with; help me to love that person whose ideas or lifestyle I hate; help me to love that particular person whom I see as an enemy. I’m not even sure I want to do half the things you ask of me as a disciple; Lord, help me to want to do them.”

When I was a chaplain at a mental hospital years ago, we had a patient on the ward who had Parkinson’s and Dementia largely because in his early life he’d been a prize fighter and had taken a lot of knocks to the head; in fact his head was kind of misshapen because of it. We called him “Ol’ Bullet Head” because that’s what he called himself. By the time I knew him he was old, poor, beat up, mentally ill and a ward of the state of Virginia; but he was a good man. Ol’ Bullet Head used to wander the ward praying from deep, deep in his heart, “Lord, help me/ to be/ a better Christian.” It was almost like a poem the way he said it: “Lord, help me/to be/a better Christian.”

On good days, my prayer sometimes is, “Lord, help me/to be/ more like Ol’ Bullet Head.”

I think for most of the question is not, “Do I want to follow Jesus?” The question instead is “How do I follow Jesus?” And because we just can’t see an easy way to do that, we hardly even pray for it. We just kind of give up.

And if that’s what we’ve done, our scriptures for today have good news for us all. What Paul tells us is that God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. If we don’t know what to ask for, then the Spirit will ask for it through us. If we don’t know how to be faithful, then the Spirit can make us faithful. We often say, “All you have to do is ask.” But according to Paul, you don’t even need to ask. The Spirit will just do it, because “God searches the heart.” God searches the heart so that even if we don’t know what to ask for, God knows we want to ask for it. God knows the faithfulness we intend to have, hope to have, even if we don’t have the capability to be that faithful—and then God will make us as faithful as we are striving to be.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the good fortune to be leading a Bible study based on Warner Bailey’s book Living in the Language of God, which is a study of the twelve minor prophets, or the Book of the Twelve as it is known, with the idea that the twelve books actually comprise one message to Israel in its time of need. Part of that message, says Warner, is that though we are often unfaithful and even incapable of being faithful, God will give us the words—and by extension the actions—that we need to speak and to perform in order to be faithful. This is an act of God’s covenant faithfulness to God’s people. It is an act of love. Long ago God and God’s people made a covenant—God would be our God and we would be God’s people. It looks like we generally have a hard time with our end of the bargain. We are faithful for a moment but unfaithful for generations. But God is faithful no matter what. No matter how faithless we are, the Twelve Prophets remind us, God never stops being faithful; and one of the most important ways that God remains faithful is by making us faithful, empowering us to obey the covenant even when it seems completely beyond us to do it.

But as Paul says, “God knows the heart.” There’s a baseline assumption here, in both Romans and the Book of the Twelve, that at some level we want to be changed. We may not fully understand or even be capable of understanding what God wants of us, but we want to do it. And that is enough for God. Because this is how it always is with God. This is even how one becomes a Christian. At some point you realize that you want to change, but you don’t know how to do it. That’s all the lead God needs from us because God knows the heart. God does the rest. God will make us faithful—if we want to be faithful. Even if we want to want to be faithful, God will make us faithful. If.

And this goes to a concern I have about many modern First World Christians. For many of us we don’t believe in a God of change—a God of conversion—a God who expects something of us. We believe in a God of the status quo, a static God who expects nothing of us and nothing of the world. A God who maintains things as they are. That is not the God of the Bible. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about when he spoke of “Cheap Grace.” He defined “Cheap Grace” as

…grace without a price, without costs! It is said that the essence of grace, is that the bill for it has been paid in advance for all time. Everything can be had for free courtesy of the paid bill. The price paid was infinitely great, and therefore, the possibilities of taking advantage of and wasting grace are also infinitely. What would grace be, if it were not cheap grace?

In contrast, he said, is Costly Grace, Grace that was bought with a price—the life of Jesus Christ—and which makes demands of us, which has expectations of us.

Costly grace (says Bonhoeffer) is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the costly pearl for whose price the merchant will sell all that he has; it is Christ’s sovereignty, for the sake of which you tear out an eye if it causes you to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ which causes a disciple to leave hers nets and follow him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.

Costly grace always expects something of us, even if it’s only to knock at the door. If we knock, the door will be opened and we’ll be showered with the gifts of God’s Spirit; but we have to at least start out knocking. The problem with Cheap Grace is our belief that God’s grace excuses us from discipleship. “God knows I’m a sinner, so God lets me off the hook.” It’s as if now that our salvation’s in the bag, we don’t have to do anything else. So we don’t seek, we don’t ask, and we don’t knock.

But we Calvinists talk about “grateful obedience.” Grateful obedience means that we are so grateful for the salvation won for us in Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness received and the burden relieved, that we want to obey Jesus Christ. Grace has so changed us that we want to continue changing, not so that we can be saved, but simply because we’re so grateful that we want to do what pleases God.

And so the challenge before us is always: Do we want the pearl of great price, a life of true discipleship to our Lord Jesus Christ? Do we want the treasure hidden in the field, a new life lived in a new way to the glory of God? Do we want the sovereign Kingdom of Grace, what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven and what John Lewis called The Beloved Community? If we do—if we really do—no matter how inadequate we are and no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, we will always be seeking; we will always be asking; we will always be standing at the door and knocking. And by God’s grace what we seek we will find; what we ask we shall receive; the door will open again—and again—and again. Because God honors the covenant, and God enables us to honor it as well.