St Augustine is one of the more famous of the early saints. He was a bishop in the gloriously named city of Hippo in North Africa. One of the signs of his greatness was his honesty. As a young and pious man, he prayed for forgiveness and for purity; but later, he realised his lips were praying for purity while all the time his heart was inserting a penalty clause. He was living in sin, and so his subconscious prayer was really, ‘Make me holy … but not yet!’
Many of us speak about holiness. We say we want to be holy, say we want to be consecrated to God but continue to sin because sinning at the time seems so much more pleasant than serving God. Sometimes we try to bargain with God, saying something like, ‘I’ll keep this bit to myself and you can look after the rest’. Sometimes we’re not even aware of what we’re doing, or don’t want to be aware. Indeed, sometimes (to use the words form the Book of Common Prayer) ‘We deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’.
Partial discipleship does not work. God will not, cannot, act in such a way. True, he was probably Lord of a small fraction of our lives when we first believed, but do you remember the internal pressure as he sought to control the rest?
We don’t know anything at all about the two men who were crucified with Jesus. The Scriptures imply a prior crime as one of them says, ‘We are reaping our just reward’. We don’t know if either man has ever seriously considered the things of God but, if they had, they were praying the same prayer as Augustine, saying something like, ‘I’ll do whatever you want or ask or do … but not yet’.
We have a habit of pushing that ‘not yet’ into the future. It seems safer to stay as we are. We don’t define when that ‘yet’ will occur — it’s neither Tuesday nor a year on Tuesday. For that reason, we usually don’t know when our time will run out so the ‘not yet’ becomes ‘never’ and we die with sins unconfessed. We die unforgiven.
This man was lucky, because he knew his timetable of dying, so he could plan appropriately. We don’t. So let our prayer he an authentic prayer of Christian faith, ‘Lord make me holy, and please start now’.