The Power of Prayer

Icon of the Ascension, Novgorod, 15th Century

Icon of the Ascension, Novgorod, 15th Century

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after the Ascension, May 16, 2015.  The lectionary readings are Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5:9-13, and John 17:6-19.

On Thursday, the Church celebrated Ascension Day. The Book of Acts describes what happens 40 days after the Resurrection. Jesus finishes talking with his disciples, a cloud surrounds him, and Jesus disappears in the cloud. 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 Sunday is an in-between kind of day. Just as we might feel a little between spring and summer, or between one chapter of life and another, on the brink of something new—the Church uses this Sunday to take stock of the Ascension and also to be aware that next week, we pause to remember how the Holy Spirit comes is a new way on the Day of Pentecost. Jesus has ascended (whatever that might mean) and the Holy Spirit is about to burst on the scene with the blast of Pentecost, (whatever that means.) Given the odd nature of this day, we might well understand the disciples’ posture, staying still, gazing into heaven, wondering what it all means.

The Gospel for today comes from a portion of John’s Gospel in which 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 (and us his modern-day disciples) some amazing 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 the gift of prayer. It’s this third gift, the gift of prayer that I want to focus on today.

One of my favorite old preacher’s stories is about a woman who prayed the same prayer every day. Every morning, she would get down on her knees and pray: “Lord, please send me a side of bacon and a sack of cornmeal.” Over and over, day in and day out, the same prayer: a side of bacon and a sack of cornmeal.

One day a neighboring prankster overheard this woman praying, and decided to play a trick on her. He went to the store and bought a side of bacon and a sack of cornmeal. Sneaking up to the woman’s house, he crouched down under the window and then threw the bacon and cornmeal into the woman’s kitchen. It landed right in front of the hungry woman as she was praying her well-worn prayer. She jumped to her feet and began praising God, “Lord, you’ve heard my prayer! You’ve heard my prayer. You’ve really heard me!” She ran all over the town telling people what had happened, how God had blessed her and heard her prayer.

Well, the prankster watched all of this and just waited for his moment. Just when the woman had the largest bunch of people listening to her, the prankster interrupted her. He told how he had bought the bacon and cornmeal—not God— and that this woman was nothing but a silly old fool.

The woman let him finished, but rather than be embarrassed, or angry, or put off. She looked around and said with full faith, “The devil may have brought me the food, but it was the Lord who sent it. Thanks be to God.”

That lady had faith. She had faith not only in a good God who existed in the abstract, but in a God of compassion and mercy who cared enough for her to hear her prayer and provide for her. She was connected to God in love.

That connection is what Jesus is talking about. Just like we heard a few weeks ago about Christ being the True Vine that connects us to God the Vinedresser, we are connected to God through love.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus prays for his disciples and friends. He asks God to protect his friends and followers, and all “those who will believe through the word.” Jesus doesn’t ask God to take us out of the world—he knows that it is through people like us 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. This means everything. It means that there is a 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—he prays for 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. It’s through the asking, the answering, and the silences in-between, that prayer words.

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.

In the 80’s and 90’s studies were done on prayer. Often these were done where a person was not told they were being prayed for, or the person praying might have no relationship with the person being prayed for. Sometimes such prayer experiments were done using things other than people. The results, as you might expect, were inconclusive, at best. But some are doing newer studies, not so much trying to prove causation, but exploring the possibilities of prayer, of there being some connection between two people, and whether that connection can affect a person or both people, for good.

I know that when I prayer for someone over time—whether I know the person or not, whether the prayer is for healing, or employment, or anything else— the prayer may affect the other person. But what I absolutely know is that the prayer affects me. And that’s the great power of prayer.

My prayers have never quite moved a mountain, like Jesus promises. But what I have experienced is that prayer changes me so that my perspective on the mountain changes. It’s as though I’m lifted up and moved to another vantage point, to the extent that the whole world looks different, and mountains appear to have moved.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus gives us a realistic model of prayer. As he perceives what is about to happen to him, he prayers to the Father, “Father, remove this cup from me.” Change things, God. Fix things, let there be some easier, different way forward. But they Jesus adds, “But not my will, God, but yours.”   The Message version of the Bible puts this beautifully as Jesus prays, “Father, remove this cup from me. But please, not what I want. What do you want?” At once an angel from heaven was at his side, strengthening him. He prayed on all the harder. Sweat, wrung from him like drops of blood, poured off his face” (Matthew 22:41-44).

When we pray, we don’t need the angel from heaven to be by our side because we have the Holy Spirit of Christ himself, beside us and within us, giving strength and encouragement. And with him, we can pray all the harder.

If we are like the disciples in the Book of Acts, standing and gazing into heaven, looking for Christ, we’ll probably be looking a long time. But if we look inward through prayer, if we seek to meet him prayerfully in the Sacraments, and if we prayerfully look in one another for the risen Christ, then the clouds may come and go, the devil may act as deliveryman for all sorts of things, God is God, and God’s “the steadfast love endures for ever.”

Thanks be to God that Christ prays for us, prays with us, and prays within us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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