Ⴕ In the Name of the One to whom we pray, the One who prays for us, and the One who prays in us. Amen.
I am asking on their behalf . . . because they are yours. All mine are yours and yours are mine. And I have been glorified in them.
We hear Jesus pray for his disciples this morning. The text is more poetry than prose, as the language of prayer often is. I want to use this occasion to jump off from this reading to talk about prayer: Jesus’ prayer, and our prayer.
The text I began with from John 17 emphasizes union with God, both Jesus’ union with God and our union with Jesus. “All mine are yours and yours are mine,” Jesus says. In verse 21 of this chapter, Jesus says something similar. There Jesus prays
That they may all be one. As you, the Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.
Richard Rohr says of this chapter of John’s Gospel that it is fundamentally about connectedness. And I think that this says something vital about prayer.
As a brief aside, isn’t it odd how little we talk, and especially teach, about prayer? We tend to assume everyone knows what it is and everyone knows how to do it. I’ve considered myself a Christian for a little over forty years now, and I’m still working on answers to those questions. I imagine most of you are in the same boat.
So what is prayer? The word “connectedness” is suggestive. And it is helpful to know that the Greek word usually translated “intercede” or “intercession” does not mean “to ask,” or any number of other verbs we might use for prayer: plea, beg, petition. It doesn’t even have the connotation of “speak.” The Greek word literally means “to meet with, encounter, or be with.”
The other place in the New Testament that speaks a great deal about the prayer of Jesus is the Letter to the Hebrews, where in chapter 7 we are told that Jesus “always lives to make intercession for [the people]” (Heb 7:23-25).
Sometime Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey says this means that Jesus is forever with God with us and the world on his heart. He suggests that this is the actual heart of prayer, which does not imply using words at all. Our own prayer, he says is primarily being aware of God, being with God without the pressure of words or specific petitions.
It is similar to a well-known direction he once gave on a pre-ordination retreat. He said to those about to be ordained: Your prayer is first and foremost “to be with God with the people on your heart.” And that works for all of us really.
We do come to God with desires, asking on our own behalf or on behalf of others. Think of what you are doing, Ramsey says, as bringing your desires into union with God’s compassion. And this has the added effect, he says, of strengthening our own compassion and care for others.
I love what Ramsey has to say about prayer because it is so simple and realistic. Among other things, he says,
Put yourself with [God], just as you are, in the feebleness of your concentration, in your lack of warmth and desire, not trying to manufacture pious thoughts or phrases. You put yourself with God, empty perhaps, but hungry and thirsty for him; and if in sincerity you cannot say that you want God you can perhaps tell him that you want to want him; and if you cannot say even that perhaps you can say that you want to want to want him!
Ramsey is being funny, but he knows we have all been there, and he wants to encourage each one of us to take the occasional time to be still, just as we are.
If we do this, and do it with some patience and persistence a couple things will happen. First, as St. Paul says, we will find that the Spirit prays in us. And again, it is not about words. The Spirit reminds as that we are God’s children. “Likewise,” he says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)
The second thing that will happen over time is our hearts will soften and enlarge and our sight will be transformed. In Richard Rhor’s words, we will become able to see greater and greater connectedness, the wholeness of the world. “Faith,” he says,
Ironically, I have found that we in the church don’t pray very much, and I am including myself in that critique. I’m not talking about the liturgy, which is a vitally important part of our communal and individual prayer. We do that form of prayer a great deal. Nor am I talking about those little perfunctory prayers we use to start the occasional meeting, also all well and good.
I’m talking about being with God, holding one another in our hearts, and doing so especially before we make the criticism or express the frustration we have over this or that in our life together. The goal is not to make differences of opinion or anxiety or unhappiness go way. It is to give God the opportunity to weave compassion into that unhappiness or focusing our sight so that we can distinguish between our reasonable desires and the destructive emotion that often gets attached to them.
Be with God just as you are. Think of prayer as a meeting, an encounter. Without the need for words, but using them if they come to us, be with God with one another and the world on our hearts.
Richard Rohr, “Living in Heaven Now,” essay from his listserv.
Michael Ramsey, Be Still and Know (Glasgow: Collins, 1982).
Michael Ramsay, The Christian Priest Today (London: SPCK, 1972).