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sustain in me a willing spirit

“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Have you ever felt this way? In Matthew 26, Jesus goes with 3 of his disciples to a place called Gethsamane. He asks them to stay awake while he prays, “38 Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’” (Matthew 26:38). He went and prayed to God in his agitated and grieved state: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matthew 26:39). When he returned, his disciples were sleeping. He says to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:40-41). The disciples could not keep awake even though Jesus asked them to stay awake while he prayed. 

There are times when despite our best intentions, we cannot accomplish what we would like to. But this was not the case with King David. He wanted Bathsheba who was married to Uriah the Hittite. He arranged for Bathsheba’s husband to be killed then he married Bathsheba. When the prophet Nathan tells a story about a rich man taking from a poor man’s cherished possession, a lamb that was like a daughter to the poor man, King David becomes appalled at the action of the rich man: “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” (2 Samuel 12: 5-6).  Then Nathan tells King David, 

“You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. 11Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. 12For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”  (2 Samuel 12: 7-12). 

Feeling convicted by Prophet Nathan’s story and reflecting on his own actions, “13David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the LORD.’” (2 Samuel 12:13). In Psalm 51, King David asks God for forgiveness. He asks God to create in him a clean heart. 

10Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and put a new and right spirit within me.

11Do not cast me away from your presence,

and do not take your holy spirit from me.

12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

and sustain in me a willing spirit.

(Psalm 51: 10-12)

King David asks not to be cast away from God’s presence. He asks for a new and right spirit and to be forgiven, to be restored to God’s presence, and to feel the joy of salvation again. He also asks God to sustain in him a willing spirit. 

But a willing spirit to what? Let us turn to St. Augustine’s Confessions here. St. Augustine, a theologian in 3rdcentury, praises God, and speaks of our desire to praise God. Here is the first paragraph of the confessions:

“Great art thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is thy power, and infinite is thy wisdom.”  And man desires to praise thee, for he is a part of thy creation; he bears his mortality about with him and carries the evidence of his sin and the proof that thou dost resist the proud. Still he desires to praise thee, this man who is only a small part of thy creation. Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee. Grant me, O Lord, to know and understand whether first to invoke thee or to praise thee; whether first to know thee or call upon thee. But who can invoke thee, knowing thee not? For he who knows thee not may invoke thee as another than thou art. It may be that we should invoke thee in order that we may come to know thee. But “how shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe without a preacher?” Now, “they shall praise the Lord who seek him,” for “those who seek shall find him,” and, finding him, shall praise him. I will seek thee, O Lord, and call upon thee. I call upon thee, O Lord, in my faith which thou hast given me, which thou hast inspired in me through the humanity of thy Son, and through the ministry of thy preacher.  – St. Augustine, Confessions Chapter 1

As St. Augustine writes, our hearts are “restless” until it finds rest in God. But how can we call upon God, Augustine ask, when we do not know God? So he asks God to grant him to know and to understand whether to first call upon God or to praise God. “But who can invoke thee, knowing thee not?” A chicken and an egg problem. To call upon God, we must know God. But we need to invoke God in order to know God. We seek, and we shall find God, and finding God, we shall praise God. But we may not find God, unless God is initiating and reaching out to us. St. Augustine states that it is faith, “faith which thou hast given me, which thou hast inspired through the humanity of thy Son, and through the ministry of thy preacher” that he seeks God, calls upon God, and praises God. 

We also seek God to know God and to praise God. We too, have been given the gift of faith in addition to other gifts God gives us as we see in Ephesians chapter 4. Apostle Paul writes that to each of us was given grace by Christ: “7But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Ephesians 4: 7). The gifts, which Paul describes here in Ephesians, were individualized and not the same for everyone. 

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13).

To some gifts given were to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, for the purpose of preparing us and helping us to do the work of ministry. Each of us has a task to fulfill, a calling to live into, and to build up the body of Christ, not only as children of God, but also building up of the church to unity of the faith, knowledge of the Son of God, and to maturity. Paul urges us, 

14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. (Ephesians 4:14).

We are called to grow up, to no longer be children. Not to succumb to people’s trickery. Not to be tossed to and from and blown about by every wind of doctrine or by people’s ways. Not to succumb to and tossed by people’s craftiness in deceitful scheming. 

15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16). 

How do we speak truth in love? Each part working properly promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. We are given the tough task, difficult task, of speaking the truth in love. Love your neighbor as yourself, the command given to us by Jesus, is not to shy away from confrontations in order to keep the appearance of peace. Loving oneself and Loving others as we love ourselves requires that we speak truth in love. 

I see here speaking truth in love as having two levels of meaning. One plain and obvious meaning is the kind of love you find in what we call is tough love. We tell those we love hard things to hear when speaking truth is coming from a loving place. And also, it seems that speaking truth in love also implies that when truth is spoken it can result in love. Telling the gospel involves this kind of truth telling. We often talk about bringing the good news when we share the gospel. But the good news, that God saves us, doesn’t make sense unless we hear and feel convicted that we need to be saved. And so truth spoken in love can bear fruits of loving relatedness to each other and trusting one another. 

Sometimes our spirit is willing but our flesh is weak. And sometimes we do not even have the willing spirit. How do we even get to the place where we have a willing spirit? Remember in Sunday school, the answer to nearly every question was Jesus? To get willing spirits, we look to Jesus. Let us turn to Gospel of John chapter 6, 

35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)

Jesus is the sustainer of our life, of our faith, and of our willing spirit. In this point in the Gospel narrative, Jesus had just fed the multitude. A small boy brought his lunch, fish and bread. Jesus blessed it and gave it out to the multitude feeding all of them. What little we might have to offer, with God’s blessing, can feed multitudes, and bring joy and love to those who are lonely and hurting. 

So, let us ask God to sustain in us a willing spirit to build each other in love towards unity of faith, knowledge of God, and maturity. We can build each other up by loving ourselves as God loves us, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. See how that works? God loves us. As recipients of that love, we love others in the way we are loved and the way we love ourselves. Loving our neighbors spreads God’s love. And as we love our neighbors, we must speak truth in love. But this also means we ought to be ready to hear truth in love spoken to us. With Christ as the head of the church, we are the whole body, “joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Ephesians 4: 16). We are connected and accountable to each other. We each have gifts we received, unique gifts that equip us to do the work of the ministry in ways each of us is called to, and when each part is working properly, the body as a whole can grow and is build up in love. Let us live into our calling in truth and in love, each in our unique way doing the work of ministry as each of us were equipped to. Let us ask God to sustain in us a willing spirit, to give us courage, to give us strength, and the wisdom to do each of our parts so that we promote the growth of the body as a whole.  

Let us pray: Lord, it is not easy in this world to believe that what one person can do is going to make a difference. But you have given us gifts, each uniquely equipping us to fulfill our calling to do the work of ministry. Let us love one another as you love us and as we love ourselves. Let the love give us willing spirit to speak truth in love, and to build up the whole body, building trust and strengthening each other so that the whole body can be built up in love. Give us courage and strength every day to live in truth and in love. Amen.

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