One of the most polarizing events in Sydney’s cultural calendar is the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. What started as a political advocacy and protest march has grown into a major Australian tourism extravaganza. It regularly attracts international celebrity and acclaim. Locally it’s a popularly promoted festival and gives rise to various protests and campaigns in reaction and response from the more conservative, usually Christian, members of the Sydney community (although not exclusively these days), who are concerned about the tone, message and lifestyle mardi gras promotes.
I wonder though, how Jesus, friend of sinners, would react and respond to the occasion. I don’t see any precedents in the New Testament that indicate he would be a red-faced, screaming, placard holding protester. Neither, do I see the Son of God off his face at the after party having popped a few of whatever may be the latest party drug or stimulant. I suspect his action would be one of grace, love, compassion and service.
Local Sydney Pastor, (among other things), John Dickson, penned this prayer. I think Jesus would be the one who would model how this prayer is answered and lived out to the glory of God.
For my friends, who are at Mardi Gras tonight, and, well, if you read this at all, are probably doing so late Sunday afternoon or Monday at the earliest, hear the words of this prayer as my prayer for you AND me.
A PRAYER FOR THE NIGHT OF MARDI GRAS – by John Dickson
God of the righteous and the wicked,
Have mercy on your people, the church,
for their wickedness:
for allowing biblical convictions about love and sex
to justify unbiblical words and actions
toward men and women made in your image.
As it rains on tonight’s parade,
may this speak not of your judgment
but of your promise to cleanse and forgive
all who turn to you for grace.
And teach our nation,
especially your church,
to follow Jesus, the Friend of Sinners,
that we would learn how to care deeply
for those with whom we profoundly disagree;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
What does God owe you and I? How about someone who has given their life to the service of God? What is the obligation on God’s part to repay that person for their service and sacrifice? What can be said to someone who pours out their life in some far off country caring for terminally ill patients without any access to modern western medical technology or perhaps works in a refugee border camp providing education to children? Surely such saints will call for some sort of reward from God?
In Matthew’s gospel, the Apostle Peter seems to ask a similar question;
See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?
~ Matt 19:27
In response to that Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard. You might think that was the end of it, if not for the way Matthew continues to build his narrative. Following the parable, Matthew relates Jesus third and last prediction of what will happen when he reaches Jerusalem. What follows after that are two accounts of people asking Jesus for something. As you compare the two accounts a sharp contrast is clear in how they respond to Jesus and what they think God owes them.
In the first account, the Sons of Zebedee, James and John, have their Mother ask Jesus to give them the highest positions of honour in his future kingdom. Evidently it was insufficient for their ambition to be promised “thrones“. They wanted much more; to make sure they were above their peers, the other 10 apostles.
The second account also is about two men, this time both are blind beggars. Their wish is that Jesus would show them mercy and that they might be able to see.
What a vast difference. James and John assume a posture of entitlement and Jesus corrects their view of themselves and their view of him. What they couldn’t see, or didn’t hear, was “the last will be first and the first will be last.”
The blind men, however, have a posture of penitence and desperation. In response, Jesus also corrects their ability to see, by healing their physical blindness.
The reactions of those nearby each pair is also illuminating. The remaining 10 apostles are indignant that James and John would dare ask such a question. After all, it’s what they wanted ask (as indicated by Jesus calling them all together to teach some more), but James and John got in first. In the case of the blind beggars, the surrounding crowd is embarrassed and upset with the beggars because they seem to be asking the wrong question. When the crowd tries to silence them they only scream out even louder.
Some, it seems, follow Jesus to manipulate God and others. They may disguise it as leadership or influence, but it’s all about their ambition to be the big men on campus. The argument they use is, similar to Peter’s earlier question, “I follow you, therefore you should give me …fill-in-the-blank…“
Others, like the blind beggars, follow Jesus because they have received his mercy. Rather than seeking to make an exchange with God; their performance for his reward; they rely solely on his mercy because Jesus has already made the exchange by giving himself as a ransom for sinners.
Are you in one of these two groups? Or, perhaps, do you identify more closely with those who observed the pairs of men interacting with Jesus?
When Oscar Wilde said that “Self-denial is the shining sore on the leprous body of Christianity” he could easily have observed almost any professing Christian in any age or place who mistakenly believe their abstinence was the key that unlocked all the blessings of heaven. In Matthew’s, “proof text” for Christian self-denial there is a preposition that is often overlooked in practice and lifestyle that is responsible for spiritual leprosy.
The preposition Wildes’ lepers have ignored is in Matthew 10:39, “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it“: or “because of me“.
There is no gain or merit in a life of self denial, strict discipline, adherence, stoicism, charitable works and the like outside of Christ. If the sacrifice in possession, place or relationship is done now to manipulate or bargain a greater inheritance in eternity, then it will fail. We cannot merit grace. We cannot earn God’s favor.
Rather, if, in the pursuit of Christ, to gain more of him, to know him, love him, serve him or to, in the John Edwards sense, deepen my affectation for him, by him and to him, I suffer some loss here and now in relationships, recognition or reward that will be to my eternal gain. For though I may have lost those things I gained Christ. He is my exceeding great reward; to know him and to experience the power that was at work in his resurrection in my life; that is a true and elegant sufficiency.
The call is not to suffer for sufferings sake as though by my suffering I repay part of an impossible debt. It is a rejoinder that as you suffer “because of me” you are, in fact, finding your life not losing it. Don’t seek to suffer, but when it comes receive it gladly “because of me” and rejoice in the eternal life that Christ has given. Self denial is a wasted virtue because so many think that through their efforts, they achieve or earn God’s gift. “I have suffered so I deserve better.” When that is your posture you are seeking your life on your terms and you only have loss waiting for you. Write it all off for the sake of Christ and gain everything.
I certainly have not received everything I have ever asked for. Sometimes that has been a good thing, especially when my mother used to say, “You’re asking for it kid!“
What about the times, when I sincerely, politely, humbly, even altruistically, asked for something and still did not receive it. What was the deal there?
Have I not received it “yet“? Is it a case of timing or delayed gratification?
Have I received it in some other form I am unable or unwilling to recognise?
Perhaps the premise or the promise is flawed. Merely a delusional distraction of some kind?
What on earth was Jesus going on about when he said, “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” in Matthew 7:8?
I read it again the other day and it jumped out as a dogmatic statement. When I flicked back a couple of pages I noticed that “asking” and “seeking” featured regularly in the section of scripture, commonly referred to in Matthews Gospel as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, where this verse is found.
At the start of the Sermon, Jesus said,
“”Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and
“”Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” – Matthew 5:3,6
If, as seems to be the case, he is using a poetical form of rhetoric to make his point, this would show that those who are the poor, the impoverished, the ones who lack in some way, thus their hunger and thirst, are the ones who will be on the receiving end of God’s grace, mercy and generosity. There is a sense in which they do not need to ask or seek because they will be pre-emptively supplied by God in some way.
This seems to be reenforced in Matthew 6:8, where Jesus said,
“your Father knows what you need before you ask him”.
However he then goes on to teach the Lord’s Prayer, which has a series of requests in which the petitioner first asks for God’s kingdom.
Later in Matthew 6:33, he tells them to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you”. Previously when I’ve read that verse, I took it as a sort of reassurance that Jesus was referring to my temporal comforts. i.e. there was some sort of theistic bargain taking place. If I “seek” his kingdom, I will taken care of in the food and clothing department, ignoring the full context of the sermon.
The verbs and participles in Matthew 7:8 are all in the present tense (except for “will be opened”), so it could be read as;
“For all those who are asking are receiving and all those seeking are finding and to all those knocking it will be opened”
Putting this together with the preëmptive statements in Chapter 5 and 6 and the imperatives of the Lord’s Prayer (“pray like this…”) and Matthew 6:33 (“seek first the kingdom…”) God is using the means of prayer (asking, seeking, knocking) to carry out his goal of giving us his kingdom, his righteousness etc. It is not a case of bargaining; “If you bow down and worship me then I will give you these riches” – that offer came from someone else. Instead it is more the sense of; “God is giving you new life, and a new world view, as you worship him, apart from self interest, self justification, self vindication, and realise your own radical spiritual depravity.”
This is the only way “your righteousness exceeds that of (the self-appointed religious élite of their day) the scribes and pharisees.” When it is derived, or better understood as, received from God through Jesus. The difference between the first century application and today is merely context and politics. Then it was nominally religious posturing in defiance of an incumbent foreign government to look more self righteous before ones peers. Today, the posturing still happens, but its in the form of token environmental salvage or political endorsement of a minority whim both of which are fashioned to appear as gracious and tolerant and yet, like the scribes and pharisees of old, is dresses up in elaborate, eloquent, scolding arrogance towards any who buck the trend.
It may be said of them, as it was of me in my belligerence, “they’re asking for it.” Jesus assures them, they’ll “get it.” We all will. The question is not, are you getting what you asked for, but, what are you asking for?
What are you asking for?