Sunday, May 2, 2010

All Theology Is Plagiarism—Part 1: All Theology Is Repetition

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Athanasius of Alexandria, Pastor and Confessor
May 2, 2010
John 16:12-22

Some of you have heard this in a slightly different form. But that’s okay, because repetition can be a very good thing. It can also be bad, if we’re repeating things that are not good. When we begin to learn that all theology is repetition we will begin to see that too often those things we want to hear are the things that aren’t good for us and the things we’d rather not hear consistently are those very things we need to hear.

Do you ever feel like you don’t know the words to use when you pray? Do you sometimes think that you’re not praying the ‘right’ way? Do you struggle with the words to say to someone who is hurting? Do you find yourself tongue-tied when you are sharing the Gospel with others? All our prayers, all our words, all our beliefs come from somewhere. The question is, where? When we learn that all theology is plagiarism we begin to see prayer and what we say to others in a whole new way.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is preparing His disciples for His suffering and death. We know what comes after that, His resurrection and ascension. He says to them: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come.”

If you hear this in passing you miss what an astounding statement this is Jesus makes about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, as is Jesus and the Heavenly Father, is God. And yet, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak. Now, if this is true of God, how much more should it be of us. The disciples are to repeat what they receive from the Holy Spirit. And guess what? The Holy Spirit simply repeats what He Himself receives from the Heavenly Father.

Repetition is a good thing when we are saying, praying, believing what God has given us. In those times we don’t know what to say, how to pray, or we’re not sure what we believe, our Lord gives us an opportunity to plagiarize Him.

It’s tough to be a Christian. We’re supposed to have all the answers. We’re the ones with the strong faith. We’re the ones who know that God is in control and is working everything out for good. Some people genuinely turn to us for answers, but we are caught like deer in the headlights. Some will scoffingly ask us what good God is making out of the bad situation they’re in and, deep inside, we’re wondering the same thing.

Some of us marvel at those who are creative, how they are able to think up things that no one has before. How are they able to create a work of art, when all we can do is stare at a blank slate and see the blank slate? If only we could be creative. If only we could come up with something no one has before. But we just go through life saying and doing normal things. We pay to see others do the creative and artistic things.

We also have an awareness that that is their own creation. It is their possession. If someone writes a book they should get the money for it. If someone makes a movie they should get paid for it. If someone comes along and says, Look at my book I’ve written, and later on it’s found that he stole the idea or the words from someone else, then he’s in trouble. God even has a commandment against that: You shall not steal. If someone else wrote the book, it’s their book. You passing it off as your own is called plagiarism.

Here is the definition of plagiarism: 1. the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work. 2. something used and represented in this manner. [ Unabridged, Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2010.]

When it comes to prayer, what you say to others in their troubles, when you evangelize, what you believe, I want to encourage you to plagiarize. What I’m not going to do is try to convince you that, generally speaking, it’s okay to plagiarize—to just go ahead and steal away! After all, the Bible itself said that there’s nothing new under the sun.

We need to think about prayer, and sharing the Gospel, and what we believe in an entirely different way from the way that we usually think about them. When it comes to these things, originality is not where you want to go. The creative realm is best left to the movies and to books and the arts. With prayer, evangelizing, and what we believe there’s nothing wrong with not knowing what to say. In fact, it’s a good thing. After all, what you come up with yourself can only be against God’s will since your sinful flesh is concerned only with itself, not God. In prayer, in speaking to others in their difficulties, in our beliefs, it is entirely a matter of plagiarism. You might even say that it’s a God-blessed license to steal.

You could read books on prayer. You could talk to others who naturally gravitate toward those who evangelize. You could seek the wisdom of the many religions of the world. But what we believe, how we pray, what we tell others, all boils down to one source: our sinful nature.

There is another source. The source is God. More specifically, it’s God as revealed in the Bible. We could even get more specific, in that it’s God revealed in His Son. When we say that God is the source for our prayers, what we say, we need to understand that our prayers need to be plagiarized prayers, our words to others, plagiarized words. We can’t just get ideas from God on some things we should pray for. We need to be praying what God wants us to pray for. That means stealing from God. Jesus had this very thing in mind when He gave His people His Holy Prayer to pray. 

Jesus has actually given us the words to pray. He said, “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…” He wants us to plagiarize His stuff! When the disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, He gave them the words to say. He’s not impressed with hearing something new. God desires to hear what He’s already given us in His Word. In His Son.

Books on prayer keep coming out. Shelves at Christian bookstores are lined with “how-to’s” on Evangelism. But really, how many pages can it take to say one simple thing: if you want to learn how to pray, get into the Word of God. If you want to prepare yourself for sharing the Gospel with others, spend time in God’s Word. Read it. Dig into it. Study it. Hear it proclaimed. God will give you the words to say. He already has given you the words, they’re in His Holy Word, the Bible. Not that it’s not good to read books on prayer or evangelism. But being formed by the Word of God is how you will learn to pray and what to say to others.

Let’s take prayer as a specific example. No doubt you’ve heard that the Psalms are the Prayer Book of the Bible. And that’s certainly true. But isn’t the entire Bible the prayer book of the Christian? No, it’s not comprised of a bunch of prayers. But it’s a book which teaches us to pray. It forms our prayers. It’s a plagiarism factory waiting to explode.

I’m not saying that the more you’re into the Word of God that you’ll suddenly be a master pray-er. That you’ll be able to fashion beautiful and well-sounding prayers. That people will marvel at your eloquence in lifting prayers on high.

But you will be able to pray in a godly fashion. You will be able to pray according to God’s will. You will be praying what God desires to hear from you. Because you will be growing in the Word of God. You will be saying back to Him what He has already said to you. You will be praying God-pleasing prayers, prayers according to His will.

Think about it. Why did Jesus, in the Prayer He gave us to pray, give us the petitions He did? Why did He have us pray, for example, “Hallowed be Thy name”? Don’t we already know that His name is holy? And even if we didn’t have the Catechism to remind us, wouldn’t we already know that we pray this petition that it may be kept holy among us also? Yes, we do, and yes, we would. But Jesus has given us this petition because we need to say it. We need to say it because we need to say to Him what He has said to us. If we didn’t, what would we say?

Well, I don’t know about you, but my prayers often go a lot like this: Dear God, I would like this, and this, and that, and these other things. There’s the things I want, the things I need, the things I don’t like that, God, You should really take care of, the things I like but don’t have enough of, and there’s these other things on my mind, and… well, you get the idea.

My prayers are all about ME. They’re about what I want because that’s what my sinful flesh excels at. It doesn’t need to plagiarize anybody or anything because it’s already consumed with itself.

But that’s where God comes in and says, Hey, why don’t you stop trying to think about what you should be praying for and just plagiarize. Listen to Me. Hear what I have to say. Concern yourself with My Words, My will. Say back to Me what I have already said to you.

And you know the great thing about this? It’s because He knows what we truly need. So when He shows us what to pray for, we see that it is actually really about us after all. When we think we’re praying for what’s best for ourselves, we’re really praying for what’s NOT best for ourselves. But when we take God’s words and make them our own, we actually ARE praying for what’s best for ourselves.

If Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to bring to us what we will say, then we can be confident in knowing that He will guide us in our prayers, go with us as we give comfort to those who are hurting, bless us as we share the Gospel with those who are without a Savior.

And if we are still struggling then we can know that it is not just words that He has given us but the Word made flesh. His very own Son is who we have by virtue of our Baptism. He is who we have when we feel we are on our own without an idea of what to say to God in our prayers. He is the one who offered up the perfect Word to His Heavenly Father—Himself, the Word in the Flesh. Our Heavenly Father hears us through Him. His prayers on the cross were perfect prayers, offered in our place, offered for us. He Himself was offered for us and there is nothing better that we can hear of or continue to make known. Amen.


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