Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension, 8th May 2016
Acts 16:16-34, John 17:20-26

We are marking today the 150th anniversary of the beginning of Reader ministry in the Church. As you know, I’m a Reader. You can tell a Reader in church because they have a blue scarf instead of the black one which ordained ministers have. Readers are lay people in the Church of England who are called by God, theologically trained and licensed by the Church to preach, teach, lead worship and assist in pastoral work, but not ordained. I don’t have a dog collar!

There are things which Readers can’t do; priestly things which I can’t do: those things where the minister is actually interposing himself or herself between us and the divine, mediating for us. I am leading the first part of this service, but I lead you as a deacon, a servant of the congregation and the Minister, just up to the point where the bread and the wine have to be consecrated.

The bread and the wine have to be blessed: and there only an ordained person, somebody who has had hands laid on him or her by the bishop, in the ‘apostolic succession’ from St Peter, will do. But a Reader can preach and be the deacon today – and it’s an honour for me to do it. Let us draw near to Lord in worship!

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Our Archbishops, Justin and John, have written to all the vicars in this country, calling for a ‘great wave of prayer for evangelism during Pentecost’: that as many people as possible in the church should pray, for the renewal of the Holy Spirit and the confidence to share their faith. They have declared a ‘novena’ – a word which is derived from the Latin word meaning ‘nine’ – a novena, a nine-day cycle of prayer, for this purpose.

In the United Benefice, between ourselves and St Andrew’s down the road, there is a programme of prayer events, under the title ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. They are all set out in the leaflet which you got with your pew sheet just now. I hope that you’ll find time to join in some of them. You might want to see the film ‘God is not Dead’ at Spiritual Cinema at 7 o’clock on Tuesday, at Church Gate House.

It seems very apt that, at a time when we are being asked to engage in a great collective act of prayer, our Gospel lesson today is actually a prayer by Jesus: it’s not the Lord’s prayer, not Jesus telling us how to pray, but Jesus actually saying prayers himself, for his followers and disciples, and also for people who would come in future and would believe in him. Jesus’ prayer comes in that part of St John’s Gospel called the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is preparing the disciples for what they will face when he is eventually taken away from them. Jesus will send the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, the Advocate – a word which in Greek has the connotation of a lawyer in court, somebody standing up alongside the accused,representing and supporting them. So the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit, will be God’s presence for us now that Jesus is no longer physically here.

And then in the Gospel reading which we are looking at today, the evangelist has Jesus turning from instructing his disciples to making an extensive prayer to his heavenly father. So it seems to be very appropriate that we should have a look at what Jesus himself said when he was saying his prayers. He was praying specifically for his disciples, his followers, ‘They know with certainty that I came from thee; they have had faith to believe that thou didst send me’ (John 17:8, NEB).

Jesus is not, on this occasion, praying for the world. (There’s a big distinction between the world on the one hand and the realm of God on the other). Jesus prays not only for his existing disciples but also for future ones: ‘May they all be one; as thou, father, art in me, and I in thee, so also may they be in us …’ It’s a very intimate prayer. It’s not the sort of prayer which we sometimes pray in our intercessions, although there’s nothing wrong with intercessions. He was not asking for poorly people to be made better or for peace to come in areas of conflict. Instead, this more intimate sort of prayer brought Him closer to God. So in this wave of prayer which the archbishops are proposing, what should we ask for?

I think there’s a clue to the answer in part of the prayer which we said at our Ascension Day service on Thursday night, when we prayed,

‘Hear us as we pray for those among whom we live and work,
Grant that we may be so aware of his presence with us,
that people may take note of us, that we have been with Jesus.’

That’s a quote from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 4. Peter and the others were going around healing people and doing miracles. There was a query – actually a complaint – about how they came to be doing that. But then it was noticed, that they had been with Jesus.

I think it’s a wonderful idea to behave in such a way that people notice that we have been with Jesus. You might be a bit sceptical at that point and say, well, that is all very nice: the idea that somehow people will think that we have been with this bloke, who was last seen on earth 2000 years ago: I don’t think so!

The heart of Jesus’ prayer is the idea of unification, being at one with God and with Jesus. ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one’. The prayer is for unity, the unity between believers and their Lord. God in us, being in God, being in Christ: Christ in us.

In the week of prayer, what are the Archbishops asking us to pray for? It’s for evangelisation and witness; that people should be led to faith and that people should demonstrate their faith, should talk about it. I suppose allied with that is a prayer for people to feel a vocation, to feel called to ministry.

What sort of prayer should we be making? Does it make a difference that there are huge numbers of people praying at the same time – if that is what a ‘wave of prayer’ means? I don’t think it does. I don’t think it matters whether a million people pray, or just one.

Jesus clearly said that it was all right to pray by making requests. ‘If you dwell in me and my words dwell in you, ask what you will, and you shall have it.’ (John 15:7, NEB) That’s not the same as saying you can have whatever you want, however. ‘If my words dwell in you’ means, if you are on the same wavelength, if you are asking for something that is in line with God’s purpose, God’s design for His creation, then your prayer will be answered.

So the prayer that Jesus taught us, the Lord’s Prayer, is like that. We have reverence, respect: ‘Hallowed be thy name’. ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done’ is what I’ve just mentioned. We pray, that what God wants, God’s purpose, will be realised. Not what we want, but what God wants.

But sometimes – and I wonder whether this is at the heart of what the Archbishops are suggesting – we can’t just neatly put into words what we want to say to God, and perhaps He comes back to us in the same inarticulate way.

As St Paul said in his letter to the Romans, ‘In the same way the Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness. We do not even know how we ought to pray, but through our inarticulate groans the Spirit himself is pleading for us, and God who searches our inmost being knows what the Spirit means, because he pleads for God’s own people in God’s own way; And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:26-28, NEB, v. 29, KJV). ‘Inarticulate groans’ are all we need, to talk to God.

This is at the heart of what Jesus’ prayer for his disciples is about. It isn’t a request: no-one is poorly, or in trouble, except Judas Iscariot. He acknowledges that he can’t say any prayers for Judas. ‘Not one of them is lost except the man who must be lost, for Scripture has to be fulfilled’ (John 17:12). Jesus prays that they will be ‘in’ him, as he is ‘in’ the Father.

It’s not something you would say if you were talking about someone else, somebody sitting next to you, or on the other side of the church today, for instance. There’s no sense in which I am ‘in’ Godfrey. We are completely different, separate identities. But Jesus is saying something different. ‘As thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, so also may they be in us.’ (John 17:21, NEB)

St Paul picks this up when he talks about being ‘in Christ’. It’s usually explained that this means, having Christ in you: having his words in your heart – somehow, being with him still, even though He has ascended from his human incarnation. It betokens a unity, a unity between believers and their Lord. God in us: being in God, being in Christ, Christ in us. Take Jesus’ words to heart.

If we ‘draw near with faith’, people may indeed take note of us, that we ‘have been with Jesus.’ Now that is really something to pray for.

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