May only God’s word be spoken.
May only God’s word be heard and believed.
When I was a chaplain, there were many in the health care field, not only chaplains, who were excited about some research which seemed to point towards the efficacy of intercessory prayer: Hints that people who were prayed for got well faster and stayed well longer than those who were not.Now we already knew that people who prayed and meditated tended to have less incidences of certain stress-related illnesses, or least better kinds of outcomes of certain diseases. That had been fairly well studied. Some of those same people wanted to study the other side of the coin. We know that personal prayer and meditation helps oneself; can we show that intercessory prayer actually helps others?
So earlier this year, the end of long double-blind peer reviewed study of thousands of cases showed…nothing. No difference. No change. People who were prayed for groups by nuns, American Indians, Buddhists communities, Pentecostal churches and lists of individuals showed that people with defined measurable illnesses got no healthier faster nor better than those who were not being prayed for.
There was no-small amount of hand-wringing over this outcome.
Some people worried that this might send the message that religious claims were false. After all, they said, people who take Jesus at his word—that whatever you ask in my name I will give you—will find this study at best to be a stumbling block to their faith.
Some people faulted the nature of the study. Since no one knows the mechanism of action in intercessory prayer the study should be done differently. Besides, they said how could anyone know that the people in the “no prayer” group were really not being prayed for. (A good point given today’s Gospel lesson!)
Still others drew the conclusion that prayer does not work. It might not hurt, they said, but it might not help either.
For me, the outcome of the study shows me one this: prayer cannot be so easily regimented and captured. There is a difference between prayer and magic. Magic requires that you get all the incantations correct and in the right order. Prayer is a relationship.
The mystery and power of prayer rests in this one fact: Jesus prays for you. Jesus, who has ascended to the Right Hand of God and reigns in victory, prays for you. Jesus Christ, the incarnate, crucified, risen Lord, prays for you.
That’s at the heart of today’s Gospel. Jesus prays for you. And Jesus prays for all of us.
And we are prayed for, whether we like it or not. We did not fill out a form, make a request or sign a release. Jesus prays for us despite any HIPPA regulations and regardless of any scientific double blind studies say about prayer. We don't earn it, ask for it, or have to think it help. It just is.
Why does Jesus pray for us? Just because. That's why.
But there’s a catch. Not for the prayer—Jesus will pray for you no matter what you do or don’t do, whether it matters to you or not, whether it changes your behavior or not—that’s not the catch. The catch is in us.
The catch is that we are called to pray as Jesus prays. In other words, to be the face and hands of Christ in this world, means that we are called, cultivated, and formed to pray as Jesus prays. To love this world as Christ does. To be intimately involved with the needs, hopes, aspirations and fears of real people and Jesus is. And pray for them as Jesus does. Not because they want it, need it, or ask for it. Not because we know better what people want than they do. We are called to pray because Jesus prays for us. Just because.
Prayer is not, thank God, a pre-requisite. Prayer is not a condition that we have to master to begin our spiritual journey. Prayer is something we are drawn to--it is the journey. Prayer is something we are called into. Prayer is something we grow into. When we begin to walk in the way of Christ, we are changed and our relationship to the world we live in changes by our prayer.
In today’s Gospel, John uses the device of having us “overhear” Jesus praying what is called the High Priestly Prayer. We always read a part of it on the Sunday after the Ascension. In it Jesus prays that he will be glorified; that we might be one, even as he and the Father are one; and, he prays for the Faithful. That’s us.
As the human heart now beats as one with the divine heart, we are sent to be the Jesus' face, Jesus' hands, and Jesus' heart to the world. The more we are drawn into life with Christ, the more we our heart beats with compassion and understanding and concern and hope for God's creation, God's people.
This the essential Ascension truth.
We just celebrated the Ascension. Ascension Day is, perhaps, the second or third most important feast of the Church, and it is certainly the most important feast that most of us don’t know about. We tend to overlook the Ascension because the Feast falls on a Thursday—and generally, we don’t go to Church on a Thursday—and because we get hung up with Jesus going “up” to heaven. I remember a scholar at my college who taught religion no less who used to scoff at such a notion.
Silly isn’t it? We modern people are too sophisticated for that! Why that’s just as silly as doing a double-blind study about intercessory prayer. Oops. Sorry about that. Sometimes worrying about things that seem so important can cause us to miss the point.
The point is that Jesus—the perfect union of God and humanity—the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord of all Creation is now reunited with God the Father bringing the heart of humanity to the heart of God. This Jesus—just as human as ever and just as divine as always—prays for us.
And since all that God has given Jesus is now given to us, we have the role of being Jesus’ face, hands, and presence in the world. As Jesus prays for us, we pray for the world.
Have you ever been put on a prayer list? Maybe when you were sick, or in trouble, or grieving or making a decision, you have been put on a prayer list in this Church or some other or maybe a prayer group. It is good to know that when things are tough, people will do lots of good things for you: bring you a casserole, cut the grass, sit with you a while, listen to you, and pray for you. I cannot tell you the immeasurable comfort that kind of support is.
But what if I told you that you were being prayed for just because?
No reason. Just because you are you.
That is what Jesus does. And in this church, in a very small way, we imitate that. Look in your directory. Notice that it is divided into twenty-six sections. Each week, we pray for the people in that section. Everyone in our parish gets prayed for by name at every liturgy and every office we do during twice a year. Now, of course, we pray for lots of people all the time; but twice a year you will know that we attempt to incarnate what Jesus always does: pray for you. Just because. Most of the time, (I hope) you will get a call telling you that you and your household will be held up in prayer. But even if you don’t get a call, it happens.
This is not the only thing we do to imitate Jesus. The
And there is the intercessory prayer ministry of the Daughters of the King, to remind us that Jesus Christ now prays for us. Just because.
We post our prayer list in the bulletin, on our blog and e-mail it to our e-list. It is there for you to use whenever you can. And even if you forget to read it, scroll it or download it, there it is reminding you that Jesus and your companions in Christ are prayering for you. Just because.
We imitate that because I want us as a community to have the heart of prayer. To grow into a depth of compassion that takes us into the world. That lives itself in daily prayer in the world--a prayer of engagement and involvement and real compassion--that takes us into place where people seek Jesus. To the hungry, to the lonely, to the poor. To victims of violence and to people who seem to have everything and know they still posses nothing. To real people, who just like us need to be prayed for.
The good news is: Jesus prays for us. Just because. That is what Jesus does.
The good news is also that the Church prays. We pray. Just because. That is what we do.
Jesus said that everything God gave Jesus, Jesus has given to us. I want us---I hope and pray—to have the heart of prayer so much that we love the world as Christ loves the world, that we love one another as he loves us, and that we be the face of Christ to the world in the way that Christ has brought the face of humanity to God.
Jesus prays for us. And so, we pray for the world, each other, and the Church.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Andrew T. Gerns, Rector - May 28, 2006 (7 Easter B- RCL~E)