Prayer awakens us to the intimate presence of God
What a wonderful, gorgeous day! How could there be a more beautiful and inspiring place for us to gather together? I don’t know about you, but this setting – the trees, the green, and all of you here with me – fills me with such joy and a sense of the presence of God that it’s hard to remember that our lectionary is asking us to be in that place of darkness when the resurrected Christ has ascended and the Holy Spirit has not yet come to us.
Our gospel lesson places us in the mystical, metaphorical gospel of John. It’s the first part of what is called the “Farewell Prayer” in John’s gospel, chapter 17 – his last words to his disciples before, in chapter 18, they went out to the valley and it all began. This final prayer is in three parts: Jesus’ prayer for himself, his prayer for his disciples, and his prayer for future believers. On the Sunday between the Ascension and Pentecost, each year, we hear a part of this prayer. Today we heard his prayer for himself and the first part of his prayer for his disciples.
John is so different from the other three gospel writers. His words circle around us, they defy sequential thought, and they beg that we let them carry us away from stress and worry and into the arms of Christ. John’s words allow us to relax in the eternal presence of the risen Christ.
We get words about glory and eternal life and knowing God, and to some these words might sound like poetry, to some they sound like a prayer, to some of us they simply sound confusing. For us, today, in this setting, they probably seem to match what we are experiencing! Yet, to add to the confusion the church pairs up these words with Luke’s story in Acts about Jesus leaving. We observed that Ascension last Thursday, and so we are in that time of waiting for “what’s next” – that promised gift of the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit.
Jesus had done his work, and was about to leave. And, Jesus is praying. So often, in the gospels, we hear of Jesus going off somewhere to pray. In our first reading today, from the beginning of Acts, we also find those followers of Jesus praying: “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”
So, in this time between Jesus’ leaving, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, what do we have?
After Pentecost next week, we will be given the stories that the church has told for 20 centuries now, to help us to be the church in the world, to help us get a sense of empowerment for our work in the world.
This week, though, I think there is a key to these stories, a key to unlock what’s important in these stories, and I believe a key to unlock something important in our lives. It’s what the lectionary, in its centuries-old wisdom, gives us in this time of missing Jesus. The key is prayer.
In Luke’s words in the Book of Acts, during this awful, difficult time, the disciples wait for a sign of what to do. How do they wait? What do they need for this work? They wait in prayer, together. With Jesus gone, they didn’t go off by themselves. They stayed together to pray. Not just the 11, but more, Jesus’ brothers and women, including Mary the mother of Jesus. She who gave birth to God’s son was also there, in that group, where the church was born.
John’s words, written several decades after Jesus died, and probably a decade or two after Luke, are words written to a group of people struggling to be a community of faith. We see Jesus getting ready to leave his friends. We see Jesus looking up, in the traditional Jewish posture for prayer. We eavesdrop and hear the metaphors of prayer. As usual, John’s words carry us into a holy place. Jesus is leaving, and he wants them to be safe, to be close still to him, to God, to the source of their strength for the work they are to do.
He doesn’t give them a plan. He gives them the key to eternity. Eternity, he tells them, is not future life. Eternity is knowing, intimate knowing. Eternity is this moment, when the moment is lived in awareness of God. In this awareness, he prays, they will know God is in them and they are in God. They will know what they need.
It’s so easy to get caught up in life, in the “acting” part of love. There are so many things for us to do, both in the complexity of our daily lives, and in the many things that must go together to make this Church, this Body of Christ. Those of you who set up this wonderful outdoor church certainly know what I mean! But, in the Acts and John passages this morning, given to us in this time when Jesus left, we are reminded of something that’s oh, so essential.
Prayer. To do what we need to do, as Christians, to be whom we need to be – we need to be people of prayer.
How easy it is to forget that. Don’t we all have days when we have been filled up with plans and projects and programs and problems, days when we have spent lots of time thinking and talking and doing and planning—and too little time in the centering and seeking and thanking posture of prayer, too little time listening to the small Voice inside. Those days can feel like off-center days, when our words and actions feel uncomfortable and we lose connection with our own souls.
Prayer is not about method. It’s just awareness. What some call ‘mindfulness.’ It can be the corporate words of worship, holding a passage of Scripture in heart and mind, the silent word of Centering Prayer, the sound of music (as St. Augustine said, ‘to sing is to pray twice’); this time together in this glorious sunshine can certainly be prayer. Some people dance or paint or cook a meal for friends, or for strangers. Perhaps it’s holding the hand of someone who weeps. There are many ways to pray.
It’s so simple we miss it. It’s not that we do anything special – it’s that we do ordinary things with a special intention, an awareness of God. As Brother Lawrence said in The Practice of the Presence of God: ‘I turn my little omelet in the pan for the love of God … Do everything for the love of God, make use of all the tasks one’s lot in life demands to show God that love, and to maintain God’s presence within by the communion of our heart with God’s.’ It’s simply an assumption that our waiting, our watching, our thinking, our listening, our speaking, our daily tasks all rest on a foundation of prayer. We build that foundation by simply acknowledging that God is already praying within us.
John’s language is about this simple awareness of prayer, about placing the events of a life in the context of a connection with God and each other. That’s eternity: knowing God, intimate knowing of God, and allowing ourselves to be known. Eternity contains the meeting with God in this present moment, in such a way that can transform the present moment and the future. We simply need to notice it, to notice the instances of eternity all around us – it’s everywhere. A day like today makes us catch our breath, and in that breath is the breath of God, the spirit praying in us in ways beyond words, bringing us into awareness, into the oneness Jesus promises.
For now, that eternal Christ, with us yet ascended, has given us this day, and each other.
Thanks be to God!