Sermon – Sunday, June 1, 2014
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church – Heidlersburg, PA
It’s not every day – in fact it’s rare – that you have the opportunity to listen in on the private conversation between a person and God. Intimate prayer like that is kept confidential. Yet in a dimly lit room, illuminated only by primitive lanterns, a solitary figure lifts his head and prays. He doesn’t pray for himself. He doesn’t ask for a miracle to get him out of the difficult situation he is in. He doesn’t curse God for all the pain he’s suffered and all the pain yet to come that will inevitably end his life. Instead, he prays for his friends. And he prays for countless people he’s never met. This single voice prays for a connection between all people – a unity – as closely knit together as the threads in a shawl – a prayer shawl – and for Jewish men who pray in the synagogue – also called a tallit. This prayer was a surprise to those in the room who had only a few minutes before engaged in conversation with this man, this teacher.
They all had dinner together – the teacher and his students. They sat around the table – eating, drinking, and enjoying the night together. It was the last time they would all be together. It was the last time they would see their beloved teacher. He was going away and they couldn’t go with him. No longer were they going to be one close-knit group – they were soon to be unraveled by this significant loss. What would they do now that their teacher was gone? He was the one who had all the answers, the one who knew what to do next. How were they going to figure it out on their own? They had spent years studying under him and yet there was so much that they still had to learn. They weren’t ready. They weren’t ready to say goodbye. And now their teacher was talking about sending someone else, someone who would take his place and never leave them. It didn’t make any sense. They were confused and afraid. Wouldn’t you be?
Wouldn’t we all be if we were there when Jesus spoke to the disciples on the evening before his betrayal, suffering, and crucifixion? And maybe you’re confused right now, wondering why we are talking about the night before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion on the last Sunday of Easter. Let me try and explain. You see, our gospel text today is a long prayer by Jesus to the Father. He prayed this prayer after the last meal with the disciples. After he washed their feet and gave them a new commandment to love one another, Jesus stops – lifts His head – and prays.
When was the last time you stopped what you were doing and just prayed? Right in the middle of doing something else – in the middle of traffic when you just wanted to lay on the horn, or waiting in the line at the grocery store when you just wanted to scream because it was taking so long, or lined up to get a ticket or pay the fee at the toll booth? It’s not normal to just stop and pray. It goes against our human nature. That sinful part of us that wants to fight instead of apologize. The sinful part of us that wants to hate instead of understand. The sinful part of us that wants to blame instead of taking a look in the mirror to see if we might be at fault too. No, stopping what we are doing and praying is not something humans naturally do. Yet, the Holy Spirit – whom Jesus promised to send to us – helps us to pray and leads us to Jesus and to God. We are led into unity.
My cousin Debbie lives in Texas. She is not Lutheran, but she is a Christian and she often asks me when we talk on the phone together to pray for her. She doesn’t just expect me to say yes and let it go until a later time. We pray, right there and then over the phone, for our particular needs. She’s taught me over the years the importance of stopping whatever I am doing and praying – even if that means over the phone – because prayer is a powerful thing. It isn’t some last resort as we often hear spoken, “Oh, there’s nothing left to do but pray.” No, prayer is not something we do as a last resort. Prayer is our very faith. In our first reading from Acts we heard, “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” Prayer for the early Christians was not something that they did if they had no other resources left. Prayer was their resource. The early Christians faces ridicule, imprisonment, suffering, and even death, and prayer was the rock to which they clung. Prayer was the energy that kept them moving. Prayer was the force that propelled them forward. Prayer was the thread that tied them together with each other and with God.
We – like the early Christians – may not face death on a daily basis for being followers of Christ, but we do face other persecutions. In a world that increasingly does not believe in God, we can be ridiculed for our faith. In a society where we face economic hardships we may worry how we are going to meet our budgets whether individually or as a congregation. Sickness and diseases still threaten us. Homelessness and violence are increasing and it is easy to become paralyzed by fear. We may wonder how we can survive such challenges.
And that’s what’s so significant about today’s gospel text. Jesus showed us what to do when we are faced with challenges. Jesus – who was both fully human and fully divine – stopped what He was doing and saying and turned to God the Father, the Creator, in prayer. He turned to God as if He were turning to another one of the people in the room. And we – generations later get to listen in on this private conversation between Jesus – the Word made Flesh – and the very Word – God Almighty Creator of the Universe. It should make us pause at this moment of unspeakable glory and revelation because Jesus is praying not just for the disciples, but for each one of us today. Jesus prayed, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…” Jesus is praying for us! Right before He was about to be killed He prayed for us. He prayed for our protection. He prayed for our peace.
We are covered in prayer by the Triune God. What an image of glory! We have no greater protector than the God of the Universe! We have no greater mediator than Jesus – the Crucified, Risen, and Ascended One! We have no greater advocate than the Holy Spirit who speaks on our behalf when we have no words to say. We are covered in prayer by each other – the body of Christ – when we lift our voices to God in truth. The prayers God wants to hear our the ones that come from our hearts. Like the voices of prayers from the Psalms – scream to God, tell God when you are angry, tell God when you are afraid, tell God when you are disappointed, tell God when you are overwhelmed with joy. Whatever you are feeling you can tell God. God knows our hearts and wants us to pour them out before our Creator.
That solitary figure that prayed in a dimly lit room thousands of years ago is still praying for us today. Jesus died, rose, and ascended so that we would have eternal life, yet this eternal life is not something we need to wait for. It is here today. Jesus said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Prayer is how we can know God. It is how we stay in relationship to God. Prayer is what empowers us to be disciples of Christ and show God’s love in this world. We need not be afraid for we are covered in prayer, not only by praying for one another, but by the very prayers of Christ who continues to pray for us each and every day. This may be the last Sunday of Easter in the church year, but it is not the end of our Easter celebration, because Christ truly is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!