With the Feast of the Ascension formally celebrated this past Thursday, we come to the conclusion of the “Life of Jesus.” No, it doesn’t mean that we won’t hear about him anymore, far from it! It means that the calendar observances of his life’s milestones, from birth to death and resurrection, have been completed. We won’t engage with his story this way again until Advent, when the church calendar starts over.
The Ascension marks an important transition point for us, as we wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which we will celebrate next week, (don’t forget to wear red!). Now the disciples have to figure out to go forward, as one way of life is ending and another beginning. Questions about what to do next, who’s in charge, who makes the decisions, and so forth loom large as they are set to re-enter the world. Sound familiar?
The Archbishop of Canterbury has said recently, “Christ’s Ascension into heaven is a sign that He has finished what He came to Earth to do. Now he entrusts us to play our part in transforming our world to look more like the Kingdom of Heaven.
How do we do that? How do we play our part? How do we take on that enormous responsibility that has been entrusted to us? It’s worth spending some time reflecting on this transition, on this space between letting go of Jesus and receiving and accepting the power of the Holy Spirit.
If Ascension had been celebrated today, on this Sunday, we would have heard a different gospel where Jesus explained to the disciples their new mission that repentance and the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed to all nations. That is, and always has been, the mission. They had to wait, though, stay in Jerusalem until Pentecost happened, when they would be ‘clothed with power from on high.” (Lk 24: 47-49). The Spirit unleashed throughout the world, would replace as it were, the physicality of Jesus.
The virtual world is a good analogy.
This year, we’ve experienced what that’s like, of being physically distant, but spiritually connected, of keeping relationships beyond geographical space, of believing not just only what we could take in with our senses. This helps in ways we don’t quite yet understand, to be able to go beyond the immediate presence into the divine, to imagine the kingdom of God.
I want to propose that when it comes to that Kingdom, our connection, our very own virtual –or spiritual– link is something called prayer. Prayer is the bond keeps us together as followers of Jesus, as members of the Body of Christ, as children of God.
I think we are so used to prayer as being a vehicle for us, that we don’t see its importance or how radical it is to have it as an integral part of our discipleship. It’s not what we do for God in prayer, but what we allow God to do in us when we pray.
We learn to pray from Jesus himself. We know he had a deep life of prayer, reflected in multiple accounts across all the gospels. We also know that at different moments of his life, prayer is the one thing that keeps him going. We don’t always hear the content of his prayers, but when we do, it is powerful and moving, especially as he nears the events that will bring his life to an end.
How does Jesus pray? He gives us three important ways:
First is his ‘institutional prayer.’ His disciples specifically ask him to teach them (Luke 11:1-13). ‘Teach us,’ they say ‘to pray’ and so he does. That beautiful and foundational prayer we know as the “Lord’s Prayer.” He taught it and we learned it. It is so ingrained in us that we can’t unlearn it. It’s reflex. I know that all I have to do is say, “Our Father…” and just about everyone will chime in, no matter where I am, in church, the nursing home or the hospital, wherever.
The Lord’s Prayer is important because it gives us both permission and a template with which to approach God, no matter the circumstance. And perhaps more importantly, it unites us in the eyes of God. God is father to us all.
Of course knowing this prayer hasn’t stopped us from forming our own. While other denominations will look to and cite biblical passages in their prayers, most Episcopalians will turn to the Book of Common Prayer. Indeed, there are few life situations that are not covered by the prayers included in the Book. And they are beautiful! All great, except when we feel we can’t pray without it. Sometimes even I will look up a prayer rather than trust my heart. Extemporaneous prayer doesn’t come easy to us.
That leads me though, to a second type of prayer and it’s what we hear today. This is part of a long passage in the gospel of John, known as the farewell discourse, his goodbye at the Last Supper. It is an extemporaneous prayer, and it sounds like it. It’s hard not to stumble over the words when reading it out loud. And that’s important. Jesus didn’t rehearse what he said, he just poured out his heart. “I’m asking…” he says.
Jesus prays for his disciples. What an amazing thing that is! So much on his mind, yet he lets his heart speak out. In describing this prayer, Debi Thomas writes, “Knowing full well the trials and terrors that lie ahead, he prays into uncertainty. He hopes into doubt. He trusts into danger.” (Debi Thomas, Journey with Jesus). As he prays for us, he asks God to provide three specific things for his followers: unity, protection and sanctification.
These are things that only he could ask on their behalf. It’s not the perfectly worded beauty of the prayer he taught, but it is the last prayer he prays for those he loves.
The third type of prayer follows soon after this one. And it is when Jesus prays for himself. All the gospels have Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemani before his arrest. (Mt 26:36-45; Mk 14:32-, Lk 22:39-46, Jn 18:1-11). Luke highlights the need of prayer in “the hour of darkness.” Here Jesus entreats God, if God is willing, to “remove this cup; yet not my will but yours be done” and in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus uses as he prays the endearing “Abba, Father,” to make his petition. It is an appeal only a son could make. In this hour he is as vulnerable as anyone of us.
Communal prayer, praying for others, praying for one’s self. Jesus’ prayer life covers all the bases. We have in his prayer life a wonderful model of how we should, could and ought to pray. It’s not one size fits all. It’s not the form, it’s the content. It’s not the words, it’s the disposition of being open to God.
How will you follow Jesus by praying today? How will you play your part in transforming our world to look more like the Kingdom of Heaven, as the Archbishop said?
Prayer was for Jesus, and remains for us, that point of connection, a means of access, a way to reach out, a means of identifying ourselves as believers and a way to build community as we do. Praying is as important today as it has ever been.
If ‘living online’ has taught us anything during these last few months is that even though the connection at times is weak, leaves a lot to be desired and sometimes breaks down and feels absurd, the relationship endures.
Jesus has ascended into heaven but has not left us alone, indeed, he sends us out into the world trusting in this connection, however tenuous it may seem to us.
Don’t let go of this link. It will change the world.