Sermon for Sunday, June 1st
Sunday after Ascension
1 Peter 4:12-14;5:6-11
They devoted themselves to prayer . . .
When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
I wonder how many of us have ever had this thought :- ‘how much more straightforward this Christian life would be if we had Jesus with us, in the flesh’ Well there’s a couple of things we should remind ourselves of in that regard, before we boldly pray ‘Jesus be present amongst us as you were with your disciples’.
Firstly we need to ask ourselves ‘how easy would it be to face him with his call to leave our means of making a living to follow him . . .’ Or his call to ‘sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor then follow me?’, or indeed see him look us in the eye as we denied him for not the third but probably the thirty third time before the cock crows. We may well be pleading with him pretty quickly, ‘thank you Jesus for answering my last prayer – would you now please answer another, and disappear into the clouds as you did at that first Ascension?!!’
But secondly take note of this – that there is no sense in the New Testament writings that the first disciples in some sense lacked in terms of their life together because Jesus was no longer present with them. There is no sense of ‘Oh, if only Jesus was still here!!’ Yes they longed for his return, but not because they thought that things would be any clearer. One of the obvious things that hits us after a few readings of Luke’s gospel and then the second part of his writings are the powerful parallels between the actions of Jesus in the gospel, and the life and actions of the church in The Acts of the Apostles. Jesus is present throughout. There are NO marks of the absence of Jesus – even in the days between the Ascension and the day of Pentecost. Even then no one is saying ‘Oh, if only Jesus was here . . .’ – ‘Oh, if only Jesus was here . . .’ – these are our words, not those of the infant church. So what we might ask is the difference. What are we lacking??
Thursday was Ascension day – Jesus is taken up from the sight of the disciples, and what do they do? We read – they returned to Jerusalem – they went to an upstairs room – all eleven of them, several women also, including Mary and also Jesus’ brothers – and they devoted themselves to prayer. [Before I go any further – I’d like to ask you – what do you see in your minds eye in that room. What do you hear??]
What is the Church’s response to the absence of Jesus? Devotion to prayer. All together in one place – the Greek isn’t straightforward – the way we might think of it is ‘they committed themselves together as one’ to prayer. Together, as one. We might say they devoted themselves together as one to prayer. I’ll come back to this in a minute or so.
But before we think about what they do, note where the disciples go – Luke is very careful in describing the place – returning from the Mount of the Ascension – they go back to Jerusalem – ‘they went to the upstairs room where they were staying’ – why does Luke tell us this seemingly insignificant detail? Why ‘the upstairs room?’ Perhaps it is because it was in an upstairs room, perhaps the very same one – that they had gathered with Jesus. In other words the intention is to continue in that fellowship – Around His table. The upstairs room – away from the street – the place where they know intimacy with Jesus, and there that intimacy is continued for they ‘constantly devote themselves to prayer’
Jesus is not present in body – so now they ‘constantly devote themselves to prayer’
And this is Not purely before the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. – it is not as if the presence of the Holy Spirit exactly replaces Jesus. The enfleshed word of GOd, the Son of God has ascended – the Spirit will be given, but even after the Spirit is given – Jesus’ disciples we read ‘devoted themselves to the Apostles teaching, the breaking of bread and the prayers’;
The intimacy they had known with Jesus around the table before his death upon the cross – they still know – in their devotion to prayer.
When the church so grows that the Apostles are pulled hither and thither looking after the needs of the flock – they appoint deacons – those full of the Holy Spirit and Wisdom – for the task of looking after them – ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables.* 3Therefore, friends,* select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ What is the Apostles concern? That they are being taken from the task of praying.
Prayer – more specifically the disciples of Jesus praying – is one of the non negotiables. It is through the prayer of the church that the life giving intimate relationship of the church with her Lord is maintained. The prayer of the body. All through the book of Acts, and overwhelmingly in the New Testament, the disciples are found praying – and praying together! That is revealed to be the normative expression of the life of the Church.
And now? And now? Yes, we all know that as Christians we are to read our Bibles and we are to pray – and note I say ‘as Christians’ Do you see? ‘As Christians’, not ‘as the Church’ All around the Western Church we are being taught to read ‘our’ bibles on our own, and that the heart of prayer is to pray is to pray on your own. Books on praying abound, but you will have to search SO VERY hard to find a single book which will teach ANYTHING about praying together. We have taken the exception, praying alone in those painful times when we cannot be with our brothers and sisters in Christ – and turned it into the norm, and largely abandoned Christ’s will for his body, praying together.
In large part, in and through the Reformation and its after effects, the Church in the West has drunk long and deep at the poisoned well of post enlightenment hyper individualism and its toxic results are to be seen everywhere in the church. Not least in our rapid numerical decline as social convention no longer holds the church together. For the heart of the Church is Only OUR intimate fellowship with Our Lord in devotion to praying, and that together – in our devotion to a common life of prayer. And that spoken. What Do you see in that room? What do you hear?? Are the disciples all sat there in silence??? Silent meditation no doubt has its place – not least because it is the place where we HEAR from Christ – as we should. He is ALWAYS speaking. But by and large there is no conversation – no Converse – no Sharing in LIfe with Christ.
Common prayer – where the body of Christ enjoys intimate fellowship together with her head – has all but disappeared. What do We know as the bride of Christ, of that agape feast of Our self surrendered Love relationship with the Bridegroom in our life of prayer together??
The disciples weren’t saying ‘Oh, if only Jesus were still here, for in their devotion to prayer together they were with Him, he speaking with them, and they with Him. Just as Jesus knows the intimate presence of the Father in prayer
Here in New Zealand,very creatively I believe, we observe the ‘Week of prayer for Christian unity’ between Ascension and Pentecost. Thus today hear these words of Jesus as he in that profound intimacy, in Union with the Father prays – ‘I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one’. Our thoughts are trained towards the unity of the various denominations – perhaps the unity within our own denomination – but amongst ourselves?? We are so distracted by the ‘out there’ that we don’t beleve that the Father ALWAYS gives the Son what he asks for. That in Christ we are one – and that unity is most profoundly expressed in our praying together, and in being with Jesus around the table – where as in prayer we know him, in the breaking of the bread.
We are so trained in individualistic relating to Jesus in prayer, that we don’t realise that that is not the deepest of relationships we are called into. To adapt some words of CS LEwis, our so called intimacy with Jesus on our own, is as it were ‘playing with mud pies on a rainy day, when we could be playing with sandcastles on the beach as we feel the sun and the wind and hear the roar of the surf’, would we only devote ourselves to prayer together. Oh yes, when we have no choice but to pray alone – if we are sent into exile like our beloved patron Saint. Yes THEN he comes to us in full brilliance – but under no other circumstances. And so most of us most of the time can’t understand why the disciples weren’t saying ‘Of if only Jesus were still here’ For less and less do we venture into the far more profound, far more intimate prayer which we know as the bride in her encounter with the bridegroom. That we discover the glorious answer of Jesus prayer ‘that they may be one as we are one’ in our Life of prayer together. We are the Church, we are the bride of Christ – in prayer together we know the deepest intimacy with the One who loves us and has died for us.
As we consider our future Life here at St John the Evangelists – I have suggested various themes which might shape our Life in the form of what I call an Open Rule. I will speak much more to this over the months to come, but Firstly Prayer. Prayer is THE foundation, and Prayer is first and foremost praying together. Without praying together we will go nowhere. St Peter says, ‘God . . . gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God’.
To pray together, especially when we have been deceived into thinking the most intimate expression of prayer is solitary, requires great humility. It requires acknowledging we were wrong in this matter . . . and worse 🙂 it requires the difficult work of setting aside all those so important things so important to us as individuals to submit our wills to the glorious work of praying together. It requires the humility perhaps of praying with those whom we do not find amenable – and hearing that we recognise of course that one of the deceptive ‘joys’ of solitary prayer is this, that we are praying with the person we most love – ourselves 🙂
Last Sunday, if the weather hadn’t intervened we would have begun exploring what a shared life of prayer – Praying together might look like. But there will be further opportunities – and I pray flourishing opportunities to pray together in the coming months and weeks. Please come and join in – to know Jesus amongst us in profound intimacy – and what is that??? ‘This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ To know HIm, present amongst us – this is eternal life. What more could we possibly want?
Now to the One who by the power at work amongst us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to Him be glory in the church, and in Christ Jesus, to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.