Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 24, 2009
John 17.11-19

John the Baptist was a faithful teacher. He taught his disciples the Word of God. He preached the Gospel to them. He guided them spiritually, fed them spiritually. He taught them to pray. His disciples were fed by the Word of God because John carried out his calling to feed his followers with the Word of God.

Jesus taught His own disciples. On one occasion His disciples asked Him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples. Jesus’ answer was the Lord’s Prayer. This is how you should pray. We learn how to pray from the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we not only pray, we learn how to pray. Jesus is our teacher.

You can well imagine that John the Baptist spent time in prayer for his disciples. He was their teacher, their spiritual shepherd. Spiritual shepherds not only teach their flock, they pray for them.

This is what Jesus did also. Today’s Gospel reading gives us one of Jesus’ prayers for His disciples. He not only taught them to pray, He prayed for them. But in praying for them, He didn’t simply pray for them, He also taught them to pray. We learn from Jesus to pray. We don’t just tell God stuff and then call it prayer. We pray in the way Jesus has taught us to pray.

Jesus has given us His prayer, which we call the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus Himself prays to His Heavenly Father. His praying isn’t any different. What He has given us to pray for is what He Himself prays for. Jesus said, “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven.’” In the same way, He prays to His holy Father. And whereas He teaches us to hallow His name He prays that His Heavenly Father would keep His disciples in His name. His teaching us to pray that our Heavenly Father’s Kingdom come is coupled with His own prayer that His disciples may be one even as He and His Heavenly Father are one.

All of that sounds wonderful and exactly the kinds of things we’d like to be praying for. It’s when He begins teaching us to pray according to the Heavenly Father’s will that we become uncomfortable with prayer. We pray it all the time in the Lord’s Prayer: Thy will be done. In Jesus’ prayer He Himself prays that His Heavenly Father’s will be done. What is this will? He prays: “Now I am coming to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves.” We can live with this will of our Heavenly Father, but Jesus goes on: “I have given them Your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that You take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”

This is usually where our prayers break down. It’s that constant struggle between our will and God’s will. Our will often is to be removed from trouble—our Lord’s will is that we stay right in the midst of it. He has no illusions about this. He doesn’t tell us that just because we’re Christians smooth sailing will come our way, that everyone’s going to love us. There will be trials and there will be those who hate us. His will is not to remove us from this but to keep us in it. Why is this? We know His will for us is good, so why is it so difficult to swallow?

Because His will is the way of the cross, not the way of glory. Adam and Eve had grace and they threw it away for the sake of perceived glory. We, too, have grace but often seek the way of glory. How? By wishing that God’s will would conform to ours. By seeking His care for us as removing us from difficulty rather than by preserving us in the midst of difficulty. His will is the way of the cross because it’s the only way we will see our need for His eternal care. The way of glory—in other words, our way—would only cement us in our belief that we’re better off without God.

So we constantly need to learn to pray. And not only this, but Jesus Himself is constantly praying for us. His prayer here for His disciples is shortly before His departure, which He alone fully understood. It was His own cross. Bearing the cross for the sin of the world. He would be departing from the disciples because He alone could go to the cross for them and the world. But He would also depart after it. He would rise from the grave and then He would ascend into heaven.

All of this He knew, but they didn’t, really. They knew the Scriptures and Jesus had been teaching them, but they didn’t really understand what the way of the cross was all about. Their prayer was that He would remain with them, that everything would continue on as it was going. But He had come for this purpose, to go to the cross. Those who serve in the Armed Forces are prepared for the real possibility of laying down their lives for their country. But you can’t fully understand what that amounts to until you actually experience it. For the many of us who haven’t served our country in this way and who will never know what it is like to lose a brother in arms, we are grateful for their sacrifice and honor them on Memorial Day. Those who serve know that there may come a day where Memorial Day will be observed to include them. But that doesn’t stop them from serving. They are willing to lay down their lives in service to our country.

In a similar way, Jesus prayed on another occasion. Shortly after His prayer for His disciples which we have in our Gospel reading, Jesus found Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying again to His Heavenly Father. His prayer is well known due to the intensity of it. It might seem that this was a last ditch effort to get out of this whole dying thing. But His words tell differently. He wasn’t praying, Father, please get Me out of this. He was saying, rather, If there is another way, let it be so. His prayer was consistent with what He taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer and in what He prayed regarding His disciples in our Gospel reading: Thy will be done. Jesus wanted what His Heavenly Father wanted.

Our prayer is often, God, get me out of this. Our Lord teaches us to pray the opposite: If there is another way, let it be so, but Thy will be done. The God who went to the cross will bring you through yours. The God who endured the cross will strengthen you to bear yours. Through it all we have prayer. Not just our own prayer, but Jesus praying for us. We have His words in the Scriptures, not just of Him teaching us to pray, but of Him praying for us.

In the book The Hammer of God an elderly man is on his deathbed. He was a faithful, godly Christian throughout his life but as his daughter watches him dying he is in great distress and not in his right mind. Episodes from his youth are coming to his thoughts and he is spewing forth profanity and other inappropriate things. His daughter is horrified and thinks that if he dies in this state he will go to hell. In a moment where he is lucid she pleads with him to think of Jesus. He is weary and responds to her that he cannot. But, he says, “I know He is thinking of me.”

This is the basis of our prayers. The Scripture even says that we do not know how to pray as we ought. But we have an intercessor. One who prays on our behalf. One who has interceded on our behalf for our sins and the sins of the world. One who sends the Holy Spirit to express groans that words cannot express. One who constantly brings us back to that eternal Word, the Word made flesh, who suffered, died, and rose so that we may be in the eternal care of our Heavenly Father, including the trials we experience now. Our Lord ascended on high and yet continues to come to us in His Holy Supper.

Have you ever noticed what is said in the liturgy right before the Words of Institution are spoken? The Lord’s Prayer. We pray the Lord’s Prayer right before we hear our Lord’s Words. We pray His will be done and then we are recipients of His will, receiving His very and Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. We are not removed from the world, we’re not taken out of it. We’re sent into it so that the joy we have in Christ may overflow to others as well. Lord, teach us to pray that this will becomes our own. Amen.



Byron92806 said...

Is it way off base to think that in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus was praying to make it to the cross? In the account Jesus says... "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death" Can we tell from the words "let THIS cup" exactly what THIS is? Jesus said "I and the Father are one". I think this means in purpose also. I am not a biblical scholar but this make sense to me.

rev.will said...

Hi Byron:

I wouldn't say way off base, but it is clear that the "this" of "this cup" is His suffering and death. And so therefore, yes, according to His human nature He was praying to His Heavenly Father that if it were possible that it could happen another way. And yet, at the same time, the author of Hebrews points out that it was for the joy set before Him that He endured the cross. You have pointed out well why that would be--He and the Father are one, indeed in purpose as well.