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Luke 11:1-13

Gift, Discovery, Hospitality

Prayer is the fundamental work of the Christian. Later in Luke’s gospel Jesus will tell a parable that speaks to “the need to always pray” (Luke 18:1) and Paul tells the Thessalonians in his first letter to them that it is their duty to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17).

In our text, the disciples see Jesus praying, and realizing this is important, they ask him to teach them to pray. Now there’s probably a couple ways we could understand the disciples’ request. They’re probably looking for a how-to, a strategy, a twelve-step plan to getting what you want by praying.

But maybe we should give them benefit of doubt? Maybe they’re being earnest. In this case, there’s some releif in seeing people who have been with Jesus who still need instruction about how to pray, how to connect and relate with God.

But there’s a dilemma in preaching this text. It begins with the Lord’s prayer which is all well and good, we pray this together on a regular basis. But then Jesus moves to instructions about prayer that make it sound like God is basically a divine problem solver. Ask, seek, knock . . . everyone. These are bold claims. And some days it seems that if indeed God is a divine problem solver, then God’s not a very good one, or perhaps we’re not employing the strategy in the right way to get included in this category of “everyone.”

We have often sought and not found, we have often asked and not had it given, we have often found ourselves on the outside of a firmly closed door.

We are all acquainted with loss, pain, grief, despair. When we didn’t get the job. When the diagnosis was cancer. When we sought reconciliation with someone who hurt us but didn’t achieve it. When we prayed to meet someone to share life with, but haven’t encountered them.

But Jesus’ invitation to prayer is not an invitation to a strategy, it is not so much a proper technique of prayer, it’s not that these are the magic words, or the right kinds of strategies, the right ways of going about prayer, in order to get what you want. Rather, what we see opened up in Jesus’ words on prayer is an invitation to a certain kind of life.

Prayer is a life (pray without ceasing).

It’s not so much what we do in prayer, it’s the reality that stands behind the practice of prayer that interests Jesus. Jesus is drawing our attention not to the techniques of prayer but to the theological vision prayer points to. We are instructed to pray because of what God will do: ask because it will be given, seek because you will discover, knock because the door will be opened. Pray “thy kingdom come” because it will, pray for forgiveness because God will forgive, and you in turn will be empowered to forgive others.

It’s the life that we are invited into that makes prayer so important. Prayer is the invitation and the doorway into that life. So if the fundamental modes of prayer are to ask, to seek, and to knock, then the reality into which prayer invites us—the reality that is the fundamental essence of the Christian life—is a life of gift, discovery, and hospitality. Those are the realities that stand behind and invite our prayers of asking, seeking, and knocking. This is not a “how-to” but an invitation into a world, into a life, into a person.

Gift: First we are instructed to “ask,” because God gives to everyone who asks. In this first mode of prayer we are called into the reality of gift. And it’s in this reality of gift that we learn how to ask. Gift is another name for the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.38; 8.20; 10.45). The Book of James tells us that God is the supreme gift giver, and that everything that can be conceived of as a gift comes straight from the hand of God (James 1:17-18). Gift is a way of speaking of Christian existence; it’s a way to say, “I exist because of God’s creative grace, I can live the way I do because God gifts it to be so.”

It’s not the asking that determines the gift, it is the gift that shapes and guides the asking. In the reality of gift we learn to ask without anxiety, we learn to ask without being distracted by our thirst for power or our greed, we learn to ask purely and simply, trusting in the goodness and the generosity of God’s gift in Jesus. When you’ve already been given infinite divine compassion, forgiveness, crucifixion and resurrection, your asking can be confident, simple, direct, and focused.

Living into the reality of gift means not only “asking for the right things” but having our very asking, our very desiring questioned and transformed. Someone visited a Benedictine monastery for a short term stay and the Benedictine head monk said to him: “If you find that there’s something you need, come find one of the brothers, and he will tell you how to get along without it.”

Discovery: The life of prayer is a life of discovery. “Everyone who seeks discovers,” Jesus says. What is it we are to be seeking and what will we discover? Ultimately we will find Jesus. All through the gospel of Luke, the characters of the story are finding Jesus, whether it is the shepherds in Bethlehem (2:8-20), his parents when they lost him in Jerusalem (2:41-51), the crowds who go looking for him when he is off by himself in prayer (4:42). Jesus is, in Luke’s gospel, the sought-out one. When we seek in prayer we discover Jesus. But we also discover ourselves. Because when we discover who Jesus is we find the one who seeks us out, and knows us deeply.

When we seek in prayer we will discover the one who can mold us into our full potential as kingdom people. In Luke 15 Jesus tells three stories about the kingdom that are all about people finding things precious to them: a coin, a sheep, a son. Jesus is telling us that he is the one who discovers and his invitation to prayer is an invitation to a life of discovering ourselves as found and known by Jesus. In discovering Jesus we’ll find that it is actually Jesus that is discovering us (John 1.43)!

Bishop Kallistos Ware, in the Orthodox Church tells this story: “There was an old man who used to spend hours in church each day, and his friends said to him ‘what are you doing during all that time?’ And he said ‘I’m praying’ and they said ‘Oh, you must have a great many things you need to ask God for.’ And with some indignation he said ‘I’m not asking God for anything.’ ‘Oh,’ they said, ‘well, what are you doing all that time in church.’ And he replied ‘I just sit and look at God and God sits and looks at me.’” [1]

Hospitality: “For everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” The invitation to prayer is an invitation to God’s hospitality. It’s here we see the vast, roomy generosity and unselfishness of God. When we knock we find that in Christ through the Spirit, God has made space in God’s life for us. We are invited into the life and love of God, made to be participants in God’s presence and activity in the world.

It is God’s Spirit that makes room in God for us. Jesus says it himself, the gift we receive in prayer is the Holy Spirit. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan Friar puts it this way “the answer to prayer is always the same – it’s the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Even if you asked for something else in prayer, when you come in confidence, asking, seeking, and knocking, you might not have asked for it, but God is going to give you the Spirit anyway, because the Spirit is who you really need.

When we knock Jesus doesn’t just open the door, he rips it off the hinges and turns it into a table. [2] In Luke it is said about Jesus “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). Thanks be to God! When we get invited into God’s Spirit, it is God’s Spirit that gets into us as well, turning our lives into places of God’s hospitality and welcome, and our doors become tables, as we make room for others in our life. [3]

So that’s the life we’ve been invited into, the life of prayer: a life marked by gift, discovery, and hospitality. May we all live this kind of prayer-without-ceasing. [1] [2] See Robert J. Karras, Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006). [3] One thing I’ve not noticed in this passage until recently is in the parable of the friend at midnight, the one in the house objects to getting up and helping his friend at first, because it will disturb his sleeping family. Well, he gets up and helps him anyway, thus, we may suppose, waking up his family in the process. It’s subtle, but Jesus implies that when God moves to answer prayer, God’s family is stirred in the process, God’s movement to provide also raises God’s family to wakefulness and action to meet the need as well.