Fifth Sunday after Easter, 2023
“In Jesus Name we pray”
Something has shifted in the readings this morning, if you noticed. As Cynthia said in her sermon last week, at the beginning of the Book of Acts, coming on the heels of the Resurrection, the disciples and the growing community have come together to share resources and live a truly interdependent life. But, it doesn’t take long for the neat pattern of that common life to become frayed. Is the bright light of Easter dimming a bit?
With today’s reading, tucked here in Easter Season, we focus our attention on St. Stephen, appointed a deacon by the community, who is being challenged by the religious authorities. Remember that we never say it was the entire Jewish people who persecuted the disciples or who called for Jesus’ crucifixion. Rather, it was the specific Jewish religious leaders who had aligned themselves with the state, who saw their religious power strengthened by their connection with the brute political power of the Roman Empire. That is where religion goes wrong, if you will: when it aligns itself with a particular political agenda and craves the power and influence that comes with that convergence. Nothing is more deadly. In our own day and time, we can see the danger of such an alignment of religious and political agendas with certain Christian schools of thought and other faith groups. The refrain sounds like this: You have to believe exactly the same way I do, and I am going to advocate for political power to enforce my expectation of your behavior. This is what St. Stephen encountered.
At its heart, the stoning of Stephen focuses our attention on the cost of discipleship within the complexities of community life. With this story, we see that rather than ushering in a blissful season of peace and comfort, Jesus’ Resurrection seems to have ushered in a time when we are called to nurture a practice of faith that transforms the way we live in the world. Jesus’ Resurrection fundamentally altered reality, as it were, with death no longer having the final say, and in that fundamental shift, we are challenged to live consciously–and to recognize that such a conscious life will put us at odds with the powers and principalities who want to grasp onto and strengthen their own control. Put another way, Jesus’ Resurrection and our participation in it has not taken away all struggle and tension from life; rather, it has invited us to be transformed in the way we respond to struggle and tension. Jesus doesn’t live our life for us; rather, he empowers us to live our lives grounded in an awareness of his presence.
We do struggle to understand how this “works,” to put it that way, what it means to live a life of faith, as we reflect on just what has changed and what is being changed as we follow Jesus.
We see this dynamic highlighted in the Gospel reading for today as well. The disciples are struggling to understand how their lives have shifted in their decision to follow Jesus. At the start of today’s readings, Jesus tells them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” And it’s important to see why Jesus says this. Just prior to this statement, Jesus is sharing the Last Supper with them when he washes their feet. He tells them that he will be betrayed, and when Peter refuses to accept this, Jesus tells Peter that he, specifically, will betray him before the rooster crows twice. They cannot imagine that things will not always be the way they are now.
They have experienced an incredible moment of sharing a meal with Jesus, of being invited into this deepening relationship and awareness of just how God’s Incarnation is reorienting their lives and the entire world. And immediately on the heels of this, Jesus tells them that he will be betrayed and there will be struggle. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he tells them.
Jesus offers them an incredibly powerful teaching that, of course, they cannot possibly understand at this point in their experience.
Do not be afraid because I am going to prepare a place for you.
Where are you going?
You know the way I am going.
We do not know where you are going.
How can we know the way?
I am the way, and the truth and the life.
Can you show us the Father?
If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.
What does this mean?
I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.
Jesus, at heart, is trying to tell them that life is being transformed for them. He is laying the groundwork for how they can continue to live their lives–when the time comes. And he knows it is coming.
As they wrestle with their fear about what life will be like, Jesus makes a fascinating statement: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
For me, Jesus is saying this: I want you to see that the way you are going to be able to live your life, with the transformation I am ushering in and your participation in it, with your own path forward and desire to make sense of all this, is with a certain understanding of prayer. Having a practice of prayer is the essential element in your ability to live fully into the new life I am bringing into being.
But what does this mean, when Jesus says “If you ask for anything in my name, I will do it?”
When it comes to understanding prayer, when we were young we picked up on our cues by listening to how other people pray. I remember my Uncle Gip saying the phrase “Father God” over and over in his prayers. I remember my Aunt Rosie crying in her prayers at the front of the church. We all have these stories of learning how to pray–and of how we understand prayer “working.”
One of the patterns I picked up on was that prayer is a list of things we want or need, all wrapped up with the same basic ending: “In Jesus name we pray. Amen.” The way I understood it was that, if I made sure to “ask in Jesus’ name,” it meant that I could expect Jesus to do whatever I asked him to do. Because the text said this. There was a formula to prayer that we needed to follow.
What we learn at some point in our life is that prayer is not some rote spell that we can cast and control. I know this because I asked over and over to be good at sports and Jesus has not done those yet.” Yet, I tell you, because my becoming a sports star could happen at any moment.
When we struggle, as we live, and as we try to make sense of the world around us, we begin to see what Jesus was trying to teach the disciples. Asking “in Jesus’ name” is not just about asking with that particular phrase attached to whatever we want. It actually means asking out of the same spirit that Jesus has, that Jesus embodies in his life. What is the spirit out of which Jesus is living? What is the deeper orientation in life that Jesus is inviting us all to live out of? It is not about the phrase, it is about the posture.
Jesus describes his awareness of his union with the Creator, with the Source of life. “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me,” he says. Jesus understands his own existence as one of mutual indwelling with the Source of existence, and out of that awareness, Jesus speaks and lives in the world.
His life is marked by union with the Source of all life, and this union is not limited to Jesus as a person. Rather, he tells the disciples–and us–something profoundly radical: “one that believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact will do greater works than these.” The union that Jesus describes with the Source of existence, his attunement with this Source, is a reality meant for us all. We are called to share in this awareness, in this indwelling Spirit. In fact, some three chapters later, in John 17, Jesus comes back to this focus and says:
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, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
When Jesus says “if you ask anything in my Name, I will do it,” this is the reality he is speaking about: if you ask for something out of an awareness of this union with Jesus, with the Source of existence, and if your desire is rooted in this awareness of the transforming union through the Spirit of God, whatever comes out of your heart will be aligned with the desire of God himself. Such a desire cannot help but bear fruit as it flows into the world.
Such a desire is far from a hollow, self-centered petition but is rooted in the desire of God, which gives life to all existence and flows and connects us all with the creative life-force of all life.
Such a deeply grounded awareness is what led Stephen, even at that moment of his own death, to echo the petition of Jesus himself when he said “Forgive them. Do not hold this sin against them.” How else could Stephen dare to utter those words at a moment like that?
This is what it means to pray, my friends. This is what it means to live a life of faith and practice, grounded in this transforming awareness of God’s presence, even while we struggle to make sense of the world around us.
So, let us pray.
Give us grace, O God, and open our hearts to your life-giving Presence so that we may be filled with an image of your desire for the world, and our participation in it. Give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hands to serve, as we listen for your voice to guide us. Always, and forever. In Jesus Name we pray. Amen.
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