Like many Protestant Christians, we at Madison Avenue have begun to celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper on a weekly basis. Our prayer following communion always ends with these words, "Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come!" Shortly after we began the practice, one of our members cornered me at coffee hour and asked, "Fred, are we praying for doomsday?" "No," I answered. We are pleading for that promised day and world where righteousness will be at home. Last week, the Epistle from 2 Peter promised that living lives of holiness and godliness will actually hasten the coming of that day. That is a startling notion if you think about it--the way you and I live can actually hasten the coming of that day.1 What does that say about the way the church has lived in the past? What does that imply for the church today? And what kind of life hastens that day? Is it a pristine spirituality that shuns the world and its ways or an activist spirituality that intentionally get its hands dirty in the day-to-day stuff of the world? What does an authentic Christ-like life of holiness and godliness look like?
Is the holy and godly life simply a matter of withdrawing from the crumbling world about us, circling the wagons of our lives in a biospherically separate, Spirit-saturated sanctuary to devote ourselves to nothing but things of the Spirit in the ways the desert hermits did or by adding to that the discipline of simple, honest work, as the monastic communities of the fourth and following centuries did? Those two reforming movements emerged within the church as a counterpoint to the secularization and materialism that accompanied the church's acceptance when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of his empire. Both hermits and monks were separatist movements2--retreats into a form of spirituality--one by complete withdrawal into the wilderness caves, and the other, withdrawal into communities of work and prayer. Both were not unlike the holiness my grandmother was so concerned about--being separate from the world--doing her best to keep from becoming "worldly." Worldliness was her constant concern and greatest fear. But as I would later learn, such spirituality can be so heavenly-minded it is no earthly good.
There is another kind of spirituality, an activist form that engages the world on God's behalf, pours itself more deeply into the world, challenging its corruptions, speaking out against its complicities with evil, giving of itself and its resources to curb and correct the avarice and greed that lie behind the injustices that surround us. This kind of spirituality believes that Christ has no hands but our hands, no resources but our resources, and that he waits for us to invest ourselves in the pursuit of righteousness before it can come to be. This is decidedly the dominant spirituality of the Reformed tradition. It is clearly the legacy we have inherited at Madison Avenue since our earliest days of the 20th century and our participation in the social gospel movement that has, over the years, been expanded to take seriously the importance of worship, prayer, scripture and sacraments--in short, the importance of praying, "Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come."
But is that kind of spirituality enough? Or is there even more that God requires of us for the living of these days, for the facing of this hour,3 for the hastening of that day? The Apostle Paul answers that question with three short imperatives, instructions for holy and godly living that hasten the day: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. "This," he adds, "is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."4
Rejoice always: this is not about wearing a pasty smile through life as a mask behind which we grit our teeth to life's realities, or worse, try to avoid them altogether. This is not the escapism of Voltaire's Candide: the best of all possible worlds where noses were formed to hold glasses. There is for Paul a decided reason that you and I are to rejoice always, even living amid the contemporary roll call of tragedies and maladies we see on the evening news nightly. We are to rejoice because amid all of that, we know, again in Paul's words, "If God be for us, who can be against us?"5 We are to rejoice because we know that having been joined to Christ in the waters of baptism, we shall be joined to him in his ultimate victory. We are to rejoice because our names are written in the Lamb's Book of Life.6 We are to rejoice because, as Paul wrote to the Thessalonians just a few verses earlier than today's lesson, "God has destined us not for wrath, but for salvation."7 The Day of the Lord is not doomsday, but a day of redemption for us because we belong to God in Jesus Christ.
There is a second reason for us to rejoice always: in the midst of the world's brokenness, we do see signs of its redemption, signs of its righteousness about us and within us that signal the presence of God's Spirit in and among us. The saints continue to reveal godly and holy lives: the Word is proclaimed, the sacraments are celebrated, the homeless are housed, the hungry are fed, acts of mercy take place as Christ is among us anonymously. These too are reasons for us to rejoice. When Paul says "Rejoice always," he is not saying "Cheer up!" or "Get happy!" He is talking about our keeping ourselves centered in the deep joy that knows, regardless of the darkness of the hour, we are children of light rather than darkness, not because we are enlightened, but because we belong to the light.8 The saints persevere, not because of our steadfastness, but because of God's--God is faithful and does not leave himself without witnesses.9 We are to rejoice in this always, without ceasing, and in all circumstances; this is God's will for you.
We are to pray without ceasing. This does not mean a life spent on one's knees in an oratory or cave. On the other hand, time on our knees, whether literally or figuratively, must be a part of the daily rhythm of our lives if we are to remain faithful. For in such prayer, you and I are drawn into the intimacy of God's presence and there nurtured by God's presence and power. One of my favorite definitions for prayer is "conscious contact with God." And though that is true enough, at least from our side of the action, from God's side, prayer is so much more. Prayer is first and foremost God's means of giving God's self to us. The person who does not pray daily has gone on a starvation diet. The person who does feasts daily on the source of life and drinks deeply at the font of all being and has her being suffused with God's being. The reason that prayer has the power to still the troubled soul is that prayer is one of the ways God gives us the gift of God's self. That is what we receive when we follow the psalmist's injunction to "Be still and know that I am God."10
But Paul says, pray, not only at established times--for him it was three times a day11--but at all times "without ceasing." He bids us live a life in constant dialogue and interaction with God, whether on our knees or seated at our desk, in the chapel or on the bus--and in New York City the bus is an excellent place to pray--as well as on the street, at the computer, the dinner table, in front of the TV or with a newspaper in hand. Such conscious contact with God in the midst of our daily activity actually brings God's power and holiness to bear on our lives and all those things that engage them. Brother Lawrence called it "practicing the presence of God." For when our lives are in such constant dialogue with God, all that we see, encounter, contemplate and do is held before God, while we are, in turn, buttressed with a divine self-giving that takes place within us. Here is the real power of prayer--it is our divine lifeline--it sustains, strengthens and empowers us. Prayer links us to life's power source--the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of life--as surely as the cord on any appliance links it to the electricity necessary for it to perform its intended function. Unplugged, it is useless. This is why you and I are to pray always, without ceasing, in every circumstance. It is God's will for us.
Give thanks in all circumstances. Notice what Paul does not say: he does not say give thanks for all circumstances. There are circumstances in life that no one can give thanks for. Not every circumstance that comes to us is of God's making, nor God's will for us. Evil is real and present in our world; it is not an illusion or simply a matter of wrong thinking. Yet, none of that--no circumstance in life--is beyond God's reach and God's power. God's power is such that even the most heinous evil can be overcome with good, transformed and folded into God's purposes. The ultimate example of this is nothing less than the cross of Jesus Christ. Those who sought to destroy him, through cruel and wretched means, forgot about the power of God, what C.S. Lewis called "the deeper magic" of life; and so with their treachery they simply created the opportunity for God to reveal the scope and dimension of God's goodness and power. Do not give thanks for every circumstance, but in every circumstance give thanks for the power of God, thanks for the power of the resurrection, thanks that our steadfast hope is in God, thanks that what we see is not all that there is, thanks that the God we know and experience in prayer is the God of the promised future and is the ultimate guarantor of all promises. Give thanks always, unceasingly, and in all circumstances. This is God's will for you.
The life of holiness and godliness to which you and I are called, which hastens the day, does not demand withdrawal from the world so as not to be tainted by it, nor does it fling us blindly and singularly into life's corruptions and brokenness, there to fix the world on our own. Rather, God promises that holiness and godliness will emerge within us as we rejoice, pray and give thanks always, unceasingly, in all circumstances. For thereby and therein, the God of peace is making us God's own and giving us God's peace; the God of holiness is making us holy, sound and fit for God in body, mind and spirit--the sum total of our personal existence12--and the God of hope is holding us in such a way, forming us in such a life, that we will be found blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
You see, at the end, it is not about spirituality at all. And in the end, it will not be about our holiness or godliness. Those are traits we need to evidence now. For now, as at the end, it is and will be about God and God's faithfulness. As you and I live our lives in conscious contact with God--rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, giving thanks in all circumstances--God sanctifies us. God makes us holy and godly by giving us the gift of the Spirit, to drive out all that is ungodly, all that is unholy, and in its place, fill us with the gift of Christ Himself. As Paul reminds us, the one who has called us is faithful and will do it. Until the coming of that day, rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances. This is God's will for you.
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
Let us pray. Gracious God, come and fill us with the gift of your Spirit, the gifts of holiness, and the power to be your people in this world until that day when Jesus does come in response to our plea. In his name we pray. Amen.
1. 2 Peter 3:11.
In the Old Testament, holiness had to do with being separate from the world in order to be set aside for God. The priests and the Levites were holy, quite apart from whatever moral stature they might maintain, simply because they were set aside for God's service.
To borrow two graphic phrases of the late Harry Emerson Fosdick. Cf,. Harry Emerson Fosdick, "God of Grace, and God of Glory," The Presbyterian Hymnal, (Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), # 420.
1 Thessalonians 5:17c.
1 Thessalonians 5:9.
1 Thessalonians 5:5.
The fifth of the so-called "five points of Calvinism" has nothing to do with the steadfastness of the faithful, but rather with the steadfastness of God, who, having chosen the "elect," will not permit them to fall back into perdition, but keep them in God's power to salvation and eternal life. Cf. Roger Nicole, "Perseverance of the Saints," Donald K. McKim, Editor, Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), p. 275f.
The times for prayer were morning, noon and evening.
Paul is not affirming a tripartite anthropology, as though the body, spirit and soul were three distinct and separate entities. He is simply using the language of his day to describe the whole and integrated person. He is saying there is not one aspect of human life that God will fail to make holy.