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Cooperation With God
Matthew 6:7-13 (03/18/01)
by Tony Grant
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the Gospel of Matthew chapter 6 and follow along as I read verses 7-13. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches." (RV2:29).
7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Last Sabbath, I mentioned, Pierre De Berulle (1575-1629), a French cardinal and statesman who summed up our relationship to God in three words: Adoration, adherance, and association. Today, we come to the last of Bérulle's three ingredients of a spiritual life: association or co-operation.
A spiritual life is more than passive adoration of God or intimate communion with God. True, we should adore God and should have communion with God, but those responses, great as they are, do not cover the entire purpose of our creation. God does not send us the Holy Spirit to wake us to the reality of the spiritual landscape so that we may sit on the porch and contemplate the glorious view. Some people seem to think that with regard to spiritual things, God provides the spectacle and we gaze with reverent appreciation from our comfortable seats. No so. Our place is not the balcony but the stage-or, as the case may be, the field, store, study, or factory-because we ourselves form part of the creative apparatus of God. God made us in order to use us to achieve his glory, not ours. To live spiritually means recognizing that single fact.
Now whether we recognize it or not, God will use us anyway. The Bible records many examples, from Pharaoh to Cyrus to Pilate, of people who had no idea or intention of being used by God, but they were used anyway.
Having said that however, we must add that God uses us best as conscious fellow-workers with his purpose. God's purpose is to bring in his kingdom. We have a part in that purpose. It may not be a grand part, involving the rise and fall of empires. For most of us, for almost all of us it is not. It may just be that we are called to live God's love where we are. Living God's love, in our time and place, is what it means to be a conscious fellow-worker with God. But it is not an easy task. Life itself is not easy. Nevertheless, this is our call from God.
Let us go then to the one perfect summary of the Godward life--namely, the Lord's Prayer. Consider how dynamic the prayer is. Thy Will be done, Thy Kingdom come. Energy and drive permeate those words. Those words show an intensity of desire for the coming of God into life. The Lord's Prayer has no limp resignation that lies devoutly on the railroad and waits for the train; rather, it concentrates totally on the interests of God. This is concentration that must be expressed in action. We are poor workers for the kingdom if we utter fervent petitions for Gods Kingdom to be established and Gods Will be done, and do not do anything ourselves.
As we drive through York, we know very well that we are not driving through the capital of the Kingdom of Heaven, yet we might be--if the conviction and action of every Christian in York were absolutely devoted to doing the will of God and bringing in the kingdom of God. If we were consistent in our spiritual purpose, whatever its cost, then we certainly could make York a city set on a hill for the glory of God.
Vertical and Horizontal
We are the agents of the Creative Spirit, in this world. Real advance in the spiritual life means accepting this vocation with all it involves. Real advance in the spiritual life is not merely talking about it, but doing it. Think of your spiritual life in terms of a cross. A cross has a vertical bar, and our spiritual life must ascend vertically to God. A cross also has a horizontal bar and our spiritual life must spread out horizontally to express love of neighbor, to do Gods will here and now in this world. The Holy Spirit invades and transforms all our activities, even those we may think of as practical and unspiritual.
Ordinary everyday life is a mixture of home and work, car and truck, TV and cinema, Internet and telephone. Ordinary life is a tangle of problems and suggestions and demands. And our question is: How we can cooperate with the Will of God in that life? We all know that it is easier to preach about the spiritual life, than to live it. Putting our convictions about God into practice means trying to see things, persons and choices from the angle of eternity; and dealing with them as part of a great ongoing movement of the Spirit. It has often been pointed out that our real religion is what decides how we behave. Our real religion, that is to say our personal convictions and attitudes, decide the books we read, the TV programs we watch, the way we vote, the way we act every day of our lives. The challenge is to make God our real religion. For though we may renounce the world, We still must accept the world as that place where we cooperate with Spirit, and do the Will of God. The prevalent notion that spirituality and working in this world have nothing in common is the exact opposite of the truth. The Spiritual Life has everything to do with this world. The spiritual life means that our convictions about God become the building blocks of our lives; and control the way we choose to behave in that bit of the world over which we have been given a limited control.
Human life often seems to have gone wrong, and badly wrong. Every time that we read about another school shooting, or another shooting in a factory, or another atrocity in some ugly civil war overseas--we are reminded of that. The occasional flashes of beauty and goodness and love that show us what God is, only throw into more vivid relief the cruelty, greed, oppression, hatred, and stupidity which is the norm for much of the world. Unless we put on blinkers, we can hardly avoid seeing this; and unless we are warmly wrapped up in our own cosy ideas, and absorbed in our own interests, we cannot help feeling the sense of obligation to do something about this. To say "Thy Kingdom Come" does not mean "I hope that some day the Kingdom of God will be established, and peace and goodwill prevail. But at present I don't see how it is to be managed or what I can do about it." That is not what it means. It means that I am going to do something today to bring in that Kingdom.
Call of Isaiah
Consider the call of the young Isaiah as given in IS6. Isaiah sees the Divine Splendor. He is stunned by the mysterious and daunting beauty of Holiness, on which even the seraphim dare not look. The veil is lifted, and the Reality that is always there is revealed. And at once the young man sees, by contrast, his own dreadful imperfection, he cries, "Woe is me! for I am a man of unclean lips! " The vision of perfection always brings shame, penitence. and leads to decision. The faulty human creature possesses the amazing power of saying Yes or No to Eternal God. God asks for cooperation, saying, "Who will go for us?" Isaiah responds, "Here am I. Send me!" Thus, the vision of Isaiah protrays the whole of spiritual life. It contains the vision of the Perfect, and the sense of imperfection and unworthiness, and then because of the vision, and, in spite of the imperfection, action in the interests of God. "Here am I. Send me" means going anyhow, anywhere, any time. It means going not where the prospects are good, but where the need is great; not to the obviously suitable job; but to do the difficult thing, or give the unpopular message, in the uncongenial place.
Moses said, "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?" But he did it. it is a Characteristic of the great spiritual personality that he or she constantly does what other people say cannot be done. Spiritual people are driven by a total devotion that overcomes all personal timidity, and have a power that those who are only interested in themselves can never have.
If we consider the lives of the great men and women of the faith, we see the strange paths along which they were driven by God to their destiny. They were led along ways that were often unexpected and harsh. But they fed on that spiritual bread that made them strong for their destiny. They had courage and initiative. They were willing to accept unpopularity, misunderstanding, and contempt. We might say that they lived within the Cross. They shared the agony, darkness, loneliness of the Cross; but they also shared the saving power of that cross.
Here is the point: The Church is not a comfortable religious club. The church is in the world to save the world. It is a tool of God for that purpose. Every member of the church is required, in one way or another, to co-operate with the Spirit in working for that great end.
We should think of ourselves as transmitters as well as receivers. We receive God's love and light so that we can transmit it to those around us. Or, to say the same things in other words, we are called to be prophets. We are meditators between God and His world. We are called to bring the saving power of the Eternal into time. Yet we are usually far from realizing this call. We do not realize all that human souls can do for one another on spiritual levels if they will pay the price. We do not realize how truly and really our souls interpenetrate, and how impossible and un-Christian it is to "keep ourselves to ourselves."
St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was recognized in her own time as a great woman of god and people came to her to lay their sins before her. She would say: "Have no fear, I will take the burden of your sins." She did not mean that she forgave sin, for only God can do that. She meant that her life was so intermingled and united with the other person that his sins were to some extent her sins, and she would work through those sins with him. That is love; that is costly, vulnerable, divine love. St. Catherine could do this because she was totally self-given to the purposes of the Spirit. Thus, she was part of a great army devoted to rescuing souls.
That army continues in being, and the call to serve in its ranks would be more frequent and effective if we believed in it a little more, believed in it so much that we were willing to suffer like St. Catherine for the sins of another. That is what real love requires. I am not talking here of the kind of paper-thin love that we often see protrayed in the movies. I am talking about a love that is so real that it will suffer with and for the beloved. That is the kind of love God has for us, that is the kind of love God requires of us.
Sometimes we are privileged to meet some of God's special people, people who are so immersed in God's love that they literally radiate that love. They love God and love other people with the same love as that with which they love God. When they find someone struggling with temptation, or persisting in wrong-doing, or placed in great spiritual danger, they are moved to a passionate and unconditional self-offering on that person's behalf. The world says that they are foolish or naïve. Not so. They are the wisest of all those who walk this earth.
Tranquillity, Gentleness, and Strength
What do they get for all their loving self-sacrifice? They get God in their lives, and all that God brings into their lives. St. John of the Cross says that every quality or virtue of the Spirit has three distinguishing characters: Tranquillity, Gentleness, and Strength. All our actions have about them a depth and a steadiness that come from the fact that our small action is now part of the total action of God. Fuss, anxiety, worry, instability, pessimism, and every kind of hurry are signs of the self-centered and self-focused soul. Men and women of faith are never like that. They share the quiet and noble qualities of the family to which they belong, the family of the children of God.
If, then, we desire a simple test of the quality of our spiritual life, we should observe the tranquillity, gentleness and strength with which we deal with the circumstances of our outward life. How serene and peaceful are we amid the ups and downs of life? How sweet and kind are we to people who need our help and encouragement? What kind of force and vigor and power do we have to deal with emotional and professional disappointments, the sudden intervention of bad fortune or bad health?
Tranquillity, gentleness and strength are the threefold imprint of the Spirit on the soul. We see that plainly in the great people of the faith; in the quiet steadiness of spirit with which they meet the vicissitudes and sufferings of their lives. They know that these small and changing lives, about which we are often so troubled, are part of a great mystery. They know that they, and all the other souls they love so much, have an abiding place in Eternity; and there the meaning of everything which they do and bear is understood. So all their action comes from this center; and whether it is small or great, heroic or homely, does not much matter to them. Their action is a tranquil expression of obedience and devotedness. ICHR22 describes how Ornan the jebusite turned his threshing floor into an altar. Even so the great men and women of God know how to turn the ordinary things of life into a great work for God. And thus their lives are lived in cooperation with God.
The Knight, Death and the Devil
Cooperation is a giving of ourselves to Gods service, doing some of Gods work in the world. Our call is what we have to do in response to the Love that is drawing us out of darkness into Gods great light. God draws us to himself, but the way is often hard.
I think of Dürer's wonderful drawing of the Knight, Death and the Devil: the Knight of the Spirit on his strong and well kept horse-which symbolizes human nature, is shown riding up a dark rocky defile. Beside him travels Death, a horrible. doddering figure of decay, saying, "All things perish-time is passing-we are all getting older-is this effort really worth while? " On his flank is a yet more hideous fellow-pilgrim; the ugly perverse, violent element of our mixed human nature, all our animal part, our evil impulses, nagging at him too. In one way or another, we all hear those two voices from time to time; with their discouragements and sneers. "Don't forget me, I am your future," says Death. "Don't forget me," says animal man, "I am your undying past." But the Knight of the Spirit does not look at them. He has already had his hand-to-hand struggle; and on his lance is impaled the horrid creature, his own special devil, which he has slain. Now he is absorbed in the contemplation of something beyond the picture, something far more real than the nightmarish landscape through which he travels; and because of that, he rides steadily forth from that lower world and its fantasies to the Eternal World and its realities. He looks at that which he loves, not at that which he hates, and so he goes safely out of the defile into the open; where he will join the great army of God.
In this picture we see the spiritual life as we are called to live it. Such a life is based on the deep conviction that God is all that is real, and all that matters. Amen.
Source: Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life, Part III: The Spiritual Life as Co-operation with God.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 04/11/01