On Thursday the Church celebrated Ascension Day. It is that day, 40 days after the Resurrection of Jesus, a day described by the Book of Acts where, after Jesus finished talking to his disciples, Jesus was lifted up and a cloud surrounded him. When he had vanished, two men in white robes stood there and said to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:11.
This phrase, “Why do you stand there looking for Jesus?” becomes a phrase throughout the liturgy for Ascension Day. In churches where the day is celebrated with a full solemn Mass, the music echoes this question, the first reading asks this question, and more than a few preachers struggle with this question: Why do you stand there looking for Jesus?
Why do WE stand here, looking for Jesus?”
The Gospel we just heard comes from John. It comes from a portion of the Gospel well before the Crucifixion, much less the Ascension. It’s a time when Jesus is trying to prepare his friends for the life ahead, for life without him. Jesus knows that their faith will be tested. It will be hard to keep faith in his teachings when he is gone. And so Jesus leaves gives his disciples several tremendous gifts. He gives the gift of his body and blood through the mysteries of the sacraments.
He gives his Holy Spirit, which we will celebrate especially next Sunday with the Feast of Pentecost. And Jesus gives his disciples, and all who follow in their way (including us) the gift of prayer. It is this third gift, the gift of prayer, that I want to focus on today.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus prays for his disciples and friends whom he loves. He asks God to protect the disciples and for “those who will believe through the word.” Notice that he doesn’t ask God to take us out of the world—he knows that it is through his followers that the world can be changed—but he does ask God to protect us from evil, to keep an eye on us, to look out for us, to keep us close.
Jesus prays for us—which is no small thing. It means everything. It means that there is a constant link between us and God, even when we might feel like we haven’t really done our part, or when we feel like we might have messed up that link. That Jesus prays for us means that when we have a tough decision to make, it means we don’t make it alone—because he’s praying for us and with us. It means that even as we try to figure out what it means to be a person of faith and integrity in relationships, at work, in social settings… Jesus prays for us, and is pulling for us to figure it out, and make our way through.
Jesus prays for us and it’s his love that carries the weight of the prayer. It’s his love for us that keeps that prayer in the presence of the Father. When we add our love, then there’s even more in the conversation, and in the exchange of prayer—the asking, the answering, and the silences in-between—that we grow in relationship with the Holy Trinity.
Margaret Guenther, a priest and spiritual director, often reminds people that prayer is really a conversation. And, she writes,
A good conversation is like a dance. The partners are aware of each other, attuned to each other, sensitive to nuances in tempo and rhythm. A good conversation with a friend—in contrast to idle chitchat with an acquaintance—allows space for pauses. There is no need to fill every minute, for there is comfort in the intimacy of shared silence. A good conversation is generous: each partner brings the gift of willing attentiveness. [And] listening is an important and as dynamic as speaking” (The Practice of Prayer, p. 20).
Jesus prays for us, and with his spirit we can pray for each other and for ourselves. The prayer moves through a kind of frequency that is based on love– or even when it’s not quite love, but simply friendship, or concern, or regard—it serves as the medium through which prayer moves. But sometimes our prayers life becomes a little stagnant. We get into habits and miss some of the conversation God might be trying to have with us. One way to try praying more, or differently, is to adjust the kind of prayers we make. ACTS is often used as an acronym for remembers some of the types of prayer.
A stands for adoration. Adoration can happen with words or with in silence. We can adore with posture, as we kneel or lie prostrate, or simply open our hands to God. Adoration of God is like sitting in the sun and simply feeling the warmth, allowing the light to reflect on us and in us. Adoration helps us move out of ourselves and more into God.
C stands for confession. And confession is not a repeated rehearsal ad infinitum of things done and left undone. Confession speaks the truth and then lets go, confident that God has heard our prayer and is already working on us in forgiveness. If you confess and can’t let go—that’s a good time to see a priest or a spiritual advisor and perhaps try the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confession, (as can be found in our Prayer Book beginning on page 446.)
T stands for thanksgiving. God doesn’t need thank you notes. But God blesses even further our recognition that we are gifted, that life is a gift, that friends and family are gifts, that all the stuff we fill our lives with are gifts loaned to us. Prayers of thanksgiving are said, sung, lived out, and spread around (as we show thanksgiving by helping others who are less fortunate.)
And S stands for supplication, asking outright (including prayers for others and prayers for ourselves.) Madonna (the rock star, not the Mother of God) once said something that has a lot of truth for one’s prayer life. She said, “Most people never get what they want in life—because they never ask for it.” In prayer, we ask God for what we want—even if we don’t know for sure whether it’s a part of God’s will. God will work out the details, but God can only work with us when we’re able to be honest.
I remember learning a lot about supplication from a former minister of mine, Mac Turnage. Mac used to talk about when his wife Anne was struggling with cancer. Mac didn’t waste words through false piety by mumbling a kind of “thy will be done, O Lord.” Instead, Mac ranted and railed at God, “God, heal Anne. God, make the cancer go away. God, take away her worry and pain.” And yes, eventually, there was added, “but come whatever may, God, don’t leave us and keep us close, help us live with your will.” That’s honest supplication. It’s honest prayer.
Jesus prayer for us and with us, giving us courage to ask for what we want and enact prayerfully what God wants.
That question from the two angels in the Book of Acts still hangs in the room, but I think we can answer it. “Why do we stand here looking for Jesus?” “Well, we don’t,” we might respond. We continue to enjoy his presence and power—through the sacraments, with the Holy Spirit, and in the continued experience of prayer—the prayers we pray, and the prayers that are prayed for us and in us. Thanks be to God for the gift and conversation of prayer.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.