St Bride's: Sermons

Thy will be done

John 17: 20-end

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20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;

21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:

23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.

24 Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.

25 O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee: but I have known thee, and these have known that thou hast sent me.

26 And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.

In the newspaper coverage of the remarkable Premier League victory by Leicester City, it has been interesting to observe the speculation about precisely what it was that enabled the club to pull off such an astonishing feat, against all conceivable odds.  Could it be that there was something supernatural at work?  Theories I've read have ranged from the rather bizarre suggestion that the reburial of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral was somehow connected with it, to the notion that it was all down to the power of prayer - either the prayers offered by Buddhist monks on the club's behalf - or the prayers that, we are told, were offered by the Leicester City manager to St Rita.  

Which I have to say raises some very interesting questions about the whole nature and purpose of prayer - and the rather strange assumptions that people, both outside and occasionally inside the church, seem to have about it sometimes.  As some of you will be aware, I particularly react against notions that God operates either like a kind of celestial cash dispenser - you inform God of what you want, and then sit back and await delivery - and if you don't get what you ask for, take that as evidence that God can't possibly exist and turn your back on the whole God business - or alternatively the idea that prayer is a kind of celestial insurance policy, which guards against bad things happening to you.  Which seems particularly odd, given that as we all know, not only Jesus, but most of his early followers met with the stickiest of sticky ends.  They certainly didn't regard it as a means of securing a comfortable and stress-free life - quite the opposite.  

I should stress, by the way, that I am in no doubt whatsoever of the extraordinary power of prayer - nor am I in any doubt that remarkable things can happen as a result of it.  It is just the cash dispenser/insurance policy models that I regard as way off the mark.

So let's think about this a bit more closely - and in particular look at what we can learn from the example of Jesus about what prayer is for, and how it works.

To make a general point first of all: prayer is basically about our relationship with God - and any relationship worth having is multifaceted.  Think about a relationship that you have with a good and wise and trusted friend - the kind of relationship in which you know it is safe to relax and be totally yourself.  When you spend time together sometimes you will speak; but it is important that you also listen; at times you may find you simply sit in silence enjoying one another's company.  There will be occasions when you ask for help, or need to share your fears or perplexity with that person; or look to them for support and comfort when you are going through a hard time.  Conversely, you may find that at times you are the one who needs to undertake a challenging task on their behalf.  It may not always be easy: indeed, there may be times when find you find yourself angered or frustrated or baffled by something that they have done, which leaves you feeling disappointed or let down; but nevertheless you stick with that person because you know deep down that that relationship remains such an important part of your life, that it is much too valuable to lose.

The best kinds of friendships are relationships in which you learn and grow; and through which you have your horizons broadened and your assumptions challenged; they are relationships in which you discover new things about yourself, as well as about the other person.  And it seems to me that it is also the case that it is only in the context of that kind of relationship with God, that the notion of prayer can begin to make real sense.  

Because a relationship in which the only thing we ever did was to ask for things that we wanted from the other person would be no relationship at all.  It would simply be a one-sided, selfish, and ultimately loveless set of unreasonable demands.  And yet that is precisely the kind of 'cash dispenser' approach that some people assume is the case in relation to prayer.

What we learn about prayer in the gospels demonstrates the precise opposite.  For Jesus, prayer was all about relationship - his relationship with God - and, by extension, his relationship with his followers and with the world.  In the midst of his busy and demanding ministry, we are regularly shown Jesus withdrawing to a quiet place, or a desert place, to spend time alone with God.  And occasionally, as in this morning's reading from St John's Gospel, we can glimpse something of the content of his prayer.  

What is most striking here is that when Jesus prays there is not the merest hint of him asking for anything that is of direct benefit or advantage to himself.  Instead, he prays for his followers; that they may be united with one another, and at one with God, just as he is at one with God; and that through that love God may be made known to the world.  And significantly, he is offering this prayer immediately before he leaves for Gethsemane.

And it is in the Garden of Gethsemane that, according to the other gospel writers, we hear Jesus utter the most personal, and tortured, but ultimately most faithful prayer of all: 'Father, for you, all things are possible; let this cup pass from me.  Yet not what I will but what thou wilt.'  Which demonstrates beyond all doubt that for Jesus what mattered in the end was one thing and one thing only: that he aligned himself with the will of God, and entrusted his destiny to him, regardless of the cost.  

And that is ultimately what prayer is all about - as Jesus himself taught us.  In response to the request from his disciples 'Lord, teach us to pray', what did Jesus do?  He gave them the Lord's Prayer, the whole of which is framed around the pivotal phrase 'thy kingdom come; thy will be done'.  That is what prayer is ultimately all about.  So there will of course be times when we are not given what we ask for in prayer.  But then again, there have been countless occasions when, with hindsight, I have ended up being very grateful not to have been given the thing that I had thought I wanted, because what had ensued instead was the thing that actually needed to happen and was far more appropriate - which in the process also served to expose the narrowness and limitations of my own earlier assumptions and prejudices.  
On a lighter note, and to return to the footballing analogy for a moment: one of my Churchwardens in Edgbaston once told me that her experience of being a committed West Bromwich Albion fan had in fact taught her a lot about prayer: 'You learn very early on' she said, 'not to pray that you will win the match - but rather that you will have the strength to endure defeat with magnanimity.'  And she has a point!

Prayer has transformed my life in countless ways; it has transformed impossibly difficult relationships; it has enabled me to endure situations that would otherwise have been unendurable; and to witness God's grace at work in the most surprising of contexts.  It has broadened my horizons, requiring me to look outwards; and it has enabled me to discover new life and new hope in the most bleak and impossible of situations: because sometimes God's most precious gifts arrive very strangely packaged.

But I want to close with an observation about the wonderful passage from Acts that we heard as our second reading this morning, in which St Paul and Silas, beaten, stripped and thrown into jail, spend their time in prison praying and singing hymns to God.  Suddenly there is an earthquake: the foundations of the prison are shaken, the chains fall off the prisoners and the prison doors are opened.  A miracle! - surely this must be the answer to Paul's prayer - because now he can escape!.  Not a bit of it - as the initially distraught but increasingly perplexed jailer discovers, as he is about to top himself, devastated that the prisoners have escaped on his watch.  'Do not harm yourself', Paul says to him - 'for we are all here.'  They don't make any attempt to escape at all, despite their prison doors standing wide open - because the point of their prayer has not been the securing of their own freedom, but simply the glorifying of God.  And, we are told, on that night the jailer took them to his home, and washed their wounds, and his entire family were baptized, rejoicing that he had found God.  

Which for me is surely the real miracle in that story, and the real demonstration of the power of prayer.  And thanks be to God for that.

Amen.

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