St James 1:22-27 St John 16:23-33
"Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.
... ask and you will receive, that your joy may be full. "
Today is the Fifth Sunday after Easter - also called Rogation Sunday - "Rogation" from the Latin verb - rogare - which means "to ask”, and when this asking is to God, it is prayer. To pray is to live in the light of Jesus’ Resurrection.
Traditionally Rogation has been a time – Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week – of prayer and fasting associated especially with intercession for the harvest (from the 5th century in France – and in England since the 8th century). [Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church] It was a time to “beat the bounds of the parish” – to have a procession around the border of the parish and pray for the harvest.
The timing is just before Ascension day – a kind of fasting before the feast of Ascension – and of course Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for power from on high, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and they did so by “devoting themselves to prayer” from Ascension to Pentecost. [Acts 1:8,14]
So, one theme of the gospel reading today is prayer.
The first thing to say about prayer is that it is not an option if we call ourselves Christians. In the Epistle today, James says, Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
Jesus told us to pray – and we are to be doers of that word! Jesus showed us by many examples in His earthly life that we should pray - remember His 40 days of prayer and fasting in the wilderness before His public ministry began, remember his separating himself from His disciples at night to go on a mountain to pray alone. Think of His high priestly prayer in John 17, that we would be one. Think of His prayer on that darkest night in Gethsemane, when we are told, His soul was "sorrowful and troubled", when He prayed, "not my will but thine be done". Think of His prayer while hanging upon the Cross - for mercy, to those who crucified Him, his prayer asking the Father why had He forsaken Him, and then His commending His soul to the Father.
And Jesus also explicitly calls on us, his disciples, to pray for certain things - "Pray for those who persecute you." Jesus says, "Bless those who curse you and pray for those who abuse you." He says, "Pray in secret", "Pray like this, Our Father ...", "Pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers", " Watch and pray that you do not enter into temptation." And he gave us a parable to teach us that we should "always pray and not lose heart. "
What is prayer?
Prayer is something of universal practice by people in all religions, and even those who have given up religion still have longings which they express – all people desire a better world. From a human point of view, prayer has been described as “the articulation of human desires, human longings and human aspirations.” [Fr Crouse, Heavenly Avarice: The Theology of Prayer]
For the Christian, there is an added dimension to prayer. Our human desires, our human longings and aspirations are given a focus by the teachings of Jesus Christ and by the gift of His Spirit dwelling in us – our desire, our longings, our aspirations are being shaped by God. This gives a certain content to the voice we lift up in prayer.
How do we pray effectively?
In the Gospel this morning, Jesus tells us, what may seem surprising, that, "Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you."
We know that it is normal for us to end our prayers as Christians with the phrase, "in Jesus Name" or "through Jesus Christ our Lord." But what Jesus is saying is more than that we use the right syllables – it is not a magic formula to get us our every want. If we received whatever we asked for we would be in trouble.
There is a passage in the previous chapter in John's Gospel that throws some light on what praying "in his Name" means. Jesus says, If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." [John 15:7] The more we live in Christ and allow Him to live in our hearts, the more we will know His will, His perfect will, the more we will desire it, and He will give it to us – only the best things. God’s will will be done. Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.
In the early Church, it was so clear that we cannot know the will of God, and so we cannot pray as effectively, until our lives are purged of sin. The practice of spoken prayers, that turning of our minds to God, in itself actually helps purge our lives of sin - it undermines foremost our pride, but also our vanity, our discouragement, our wrath towards others, and an excessive love of earthly things. There is a song, Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends… [not a prayer "in Jesus' Name"]
Praying changes us – it demands that we more self-consciously place ourselves before God – thinking about what is appropriate to bring before God – the less trivial or vain things fall away, and what is most important comes to the surface. In prayer, our hearts' desires, are purified, the Holy Spirit coming alongside us, both kindling our desire, setting us on fire with love and purifying that love within us as by fire, so that in time our one desire, our one prayer, is the love of God and our neighbour.
The more difficult questions arise when we pray for the healing of others – it sometimes happens and sometimes does not. The call is to perseverance in prayer and to a deepening humility and trust before the purposes and Providence of God.
The Gospel for this morning ends with Jesus explaining one reason why we should pray. Jesus says, I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but take heart, I have overcome the world.
Prayer leads us to an overcoming of the world, with all its conflicting demands and destructive desires that we might be focussed on the Highest things. In Prayer we place ourselves in Christ who has overcome the world. We become more and more like Jesus, on the mountaintop, receiving certainty about the next steps in our life, like Jesus, filled with compassion for others, like Jesus, praying that the Will of our Father might be done in our sufferings and in our joys.
But how do we get there?
To get there, the advice of countless Christians through the ages has been to establish a discipline of prayer.
The Anglican tradition provides excellent daily patterns in the Book of Common Prayer or in Common Worship that teach us how to pray and informs our hearts about the God to whom we pray. Find a pattern that works for you.
Prayer is never easy. These set forms – Morning and Evening Prayer – help us especially when we are exhausted and dried up in our spiritual lives. These set forms help us when the tribulation of this world is overwhelming us. Think of the set forms of prayer as like bicycling! We peddle for a while, and then we coast, then we peddle and then coast…
- Taking time in the morning to pray directs our hearts once again aright – towards God – perhaps after the confusion of our dreams, and before we carry out our daily tasks. Then our daily tasks, our sacrifices, will hopefully be offered as they should – to God's glory.
- And then when we return in the evening, after having been exposed to the confusions and often conflicting purposes of the world, our time in prayer recalls our hearts to their true desire and rest – God.
And in this discipline of daily prayer, by the grace of God, we will find ourselves less and less confused by the tribulations of this world and more and more infused by the Spirit of Christ, who has overcome the world.
If prayer is the opening up of communication between God and ourselves, and that communication is hindered by sin, then it is the Cross of Christ that makes prayer more possible. Jesus gives us a way this morning, to help us prayer better – Holy Communion.
Here is what the 17th century Puritan divine, Richard Baxter, said about the Lord’s Supper…
In the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, we are called to a familiar converse with God (– to prayer!).... There we are entertained by God as friends...and that at the most costly feast. If ever a believer may on earth expect his… near access, and a humble intimacy with his Lord, it is in the participation of this sacrifice feast, which is called the Communion.
[Works III, 819, as quoted by Fr Crouse in Heavenly Avarice]
In Holy Communion, the cleaning and purifying work of Christ on the Cross is made effective in our souls and what hinders prayer is lessened and “the gates of prayer are truly opened” – our tongues are loosed, and our ears and eyes are opened – our communication with God is restored.
Let us prepare ourselves now for this holy conversation.
"Whatever you will ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.
... ask and you will receive, that your joy may be full. "
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2