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This article was published in the January 1999 issue of The Journal.

Everyone who asks will receive

Participants in the World Gathering of Interchurch Families were invited to a celebration of the Lord’s Supper held in the Cathedral of St Peter, Geneva, on Sunday 26 July 1998. What follows is a translation of the sermon preached in French by the Revd Anne-Lise Nerfin, pastor of the Swiss Reformed Church, and a member of the cathedral staff. Anne-Lise and her husband, also a pastor of the Swiss Reformed Church, were part of the Swiss group responsible for local arrangements for the World Gathering, and took part in the whole of the conference. One of the English couples present at Geneva wrote: "Sunday morning in the cathedral was magnificent; we could feel Calvin shifting in his chair in the corner." Others made the point that there was no interpretation or translation of the sermon. So we offer this translation to them, and to all those readers who were not at Geneva, with much gratitude to Anne-Lise.

Luke 11:5-13; Colossians 1: 1-6.

What were you doing at midnight? There are so many possibilities: you might have been asleep or awake, reading or watching television, taking the dog for a walk or saying good-bye to visitors, engaging in personal reflection or taking a shower. It is not difficult to put ourselves into the situation of the man – one of us, said Jesus – who was disturbed in the middle of the night by a friend. Midnight: it’s the point where time stops until tomorrow begins.

Nor is it difficult to apply this parable to our Christian lives, to the life of our churches, and to say: well, we are interchurch families, we are working for ecumenism, for human rights, for the underprivileged, for so many good causes, and we have knocked at the doors of our institutional churches, and they have told us they don’t want to be disturbed in their sleep! How shocking!

It is not difficult to see ourselves as the friend who came at an inconvenient time and received nothing to eat: I wanted to go to church, to the service, I wanted to open the Bible, to meet a priest or a pastor, some parishioners, and I found nothing, received nothing; I was left hungry.

Nor is there a problem in recognising ourselves in that man who was disturbed at midnight, and we say to ourselves: of course some things are urgent, but a lot can wait until tomorrow; my family and I have a right to our rest if we are to keep going, and people must respect the time for stopping and being quiet.

Yes, it is easy to use the parable to reinforce the feeling that we are right, whichever person it is with whom we identify.

But it is easy too to see that the parable has more than that to teach us. What is it?

There are two things in the text we need to note.

Human relationships give us no rights

First, you will have noticed that it is a friend who goes to find a friend because another friend has arrived at his home. So there is a network of friendship. It is strong enough for the friend in the middle to dare to appear in the middle of the night, recognising he has nothing to offer. If he dares to do that, it’s real friendship. But you will notice that the story goes on: if he doesn’t get up because he is your friend, he will get up because you are not ashamed to go on asking. Not embarrassed. Friendship counts for nothing. It gives no right to anything.

The love which unites the partners in an interchurch family, the friendship which links interchurch families together, the friendship which links the members of a group or a parish: it gives no right to anything.

It is not because of our love or our friendship that we can demand to receive bread and to share it. It is not because we love one another with love or friendship that we can demand unity, because unity, or eucharistic hospitality, or the recognition of ministries and theologies is not a right linked to our spirit of concord and our happy affinities with one another.

The man in the parable doesn’t get up because of his friendship. He gets up because his friend is not ashamed to go on asking. Because it is midnight: and here is another point for our reflection.

The hour of judgement

Second, it is midnight. What happens at midnight, according to the Bible? Always terrible things. It is when the angel of the Lord passes over the houses of the Egyptians and all the first-born sons die, while the homes of the Israelites are spared. It is when Samson tears down the gates of the city of Gaza. It is when young Eutychus, in the book of Acts, can no longer manage to keep awake listening to Paul’s sermon, and falls from the window. And in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, it is when the bridegroom arrives and the door closes.

Midnight: the hour when we are disturbed is important. It is the hour of judgement. It is the hour when one day finishes, never to come again, and another day begins, the critical hour at which time is no longer the same. The hour which changes the criteria for action. At midnight, friendship no longer counts. Patience no longer counts. Sharing is decided by other criteria. Even unity changes its category.

It’s no good to say any longer: I’m sorry, I’ve mistaken a fish for a serpent, I’ve mistaken an egg for a scorpion. But all the same, I’m not a bad person.

It’s no good to say any longer: by friendship, do this or that for us. At midnight, we have to let go of our shame, our embarrassment, our respectability; we have to knock, demand, seek. And ask without shame for the one thing that we lack: the Holy Spirit.

Our Father in heaven will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask

The Holy Spirit: not bread, not even the eucharistic bread. Not unity. Because unity, and eucharistic sharing, I am convinced, are not ends to be attained, but means. The end is the life which God gives us, his Holy Spirit who enlightens us, full understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ who came to share our suffering, divisions and death, and bring them to an end for ever. Unity, the sharing of bread, are the means by which we declare this reality in our lives.

Using a vocabulary which is special, well-rounded and religious, the apostle Paul says it in his own way: I pray for you without ceasing. Without ceasing. Night and day, midnight and always. Because the Gospel makes progress, grows in you and in the world. I pray for you always.

Prayer too is a means, not an end. It is a means of making known our impoverishment and our needs, until the day and hour of judgement comes. In that hour we shall be without embarrassment and shame in saying to God: "My friend, I need bread, I need unity, I need your Spirit, for myself, for my friends. I have nothing. I depend totally on you. I know you will give me all that I need."

We shall all return to our homes, be they near or far. 

Here the bread and the wine of the Supper are offered to us. It may be that we shall share them. But however that may be, we know that having asked for the Holy Spirit, God will give us his Spirit, and we give him thanks without ceasing. Amen. 

Anne-Lise Nerfin