For many years the 10 days between the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost have been a time of prayerful preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit. A time of anticipation and expectation, and a time for us to pray and reflect on what we might be able to bring to the mission and ministry of Jesus in which we now share. As we look forward to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost how are we to approach our own commitment to sharing in the vocation to which we as a community have been called.
For the past few years the movement known as Thy Kingdom Come has provided us with encouragement and resources to use this short season as an opportunity to join in an international wave of focussed prayer as a way of giving thanks to God for his faithfulness and generosity to creation and also as a way of lifting to God those issues that matter to us all, both as part of the corporate Body of Christ and as individual followers of the way. Each day The Kingdom Come issues a short reflection to facilitate our prayers and if you haven’t already discovered these I would really encourage you to seek them out on the website that is dedicated to this cause – just Google Thy Kingdom Come and you will easily find them.
Now you might be one of those fortunate people for whom prayer comes very easily which is a wonderful gift. Or you might be like me – someone who needs help to find a pattern of prayer that works for them. According to the Try Praying website (www.trypraying.com – there is even an app that can be downloaded for free!) nine million people in the UK pray every day and one in three believe that their prayers will be answered. Now this is no bad thing, after all the more people that practice prayer and believe in its power the better, but if you think of the size of the total population of the UK this is actually a relative drop in the ocean. If you asked a random person what to pray means they would probably be able to have a fair stab at describing it. It’s a word that has slipped into every day speech – I am sure you will have heard people say that something or maybe someone is an answer to prayer. Or they might say that they prayed that something would happen. But do they actually mean that or has the verb to pray actually become an alternative to saying I wish?
To wish is a very different concept indeed. Fairy godmothers grant wishes (usually in sets of three) to princesses. “Make a wish” we say when someone is blowing out the candles on their birthday cake. To wish is to long for something that we feel is unattainable but to pray is so much more than simply asking God to make something happen. To wish maybe heartfelt at the time but is a relatively superficial act. Prayer is much deeper and is based on the development of our relationship with God. To wish is a short exhortation, to pray is not only to express what is on our hearts but it is to listen, it is a two-way conversation that develops over a lifetime.
This Sunday’s Gospel reading is an extract from Jesus’s prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, just prior to His arrest. Jesus is praying not just for His disciples but for all who will come to believe in Him through the Gospel message that will spread throughout the world. He prays for unity with God for all people. He prays that humanity should come to know how much God loves the world He created and all who live in it. There is something incredibly moving and beautiful in reading those words and knowing that at that moment in that place shortly before He would make the supreme sacrifice of His life, Jesus was praying for all believers, not just those who believed in Him then but all who would come to believe in Him across the ages to come. There is an intimacy in the words that He uses and it almost feels as though we are eavesdropping a very private conversation between father and son – which indeed we are. We may marvel at how effortlessly Jesus prays to God but this is the prayer of a child to a parent and if we liken it to the way in which we converse with those we love it is perhaps easier to understand how prayer is simply that – a conversation with someone who we love deeply and uninhibitedly.
To be able to pray is such an amazing gift and one that does indeed change lives. I am always fascinated at how when times are difficult people turn to prayer. It may as a result of national crises – many of us are praying fervently for the situation in the Ukraine, beseeching God that peace will descend on this conflict-ridden country. You may recall when the footballer Fabrice Muamba suffered his near fatal heart attack on the pitch – the hashtag #prayformuamba went viral across social media and Fabrice, a devout Christian, credits his recovery to that wave of prayer as well as the skill of the medical staff who treated him.
Like all good gifts prayer is one that should be shared. We can certainly pray for people but even better is to pray with people. When I was a hospital chaplain lots of people would ask me to “say one for me Rev”. Of course I always took such apparently throw away remarks very seriously but I also wanted to say why don’t we say one together? Many people worry about praying – they don’t feel that they are worthy enough that God should listen to them, they think that they don’t know how to pray, that they need to be somewhere special to pray, that they should use specific words. Over the centuries we have complicated something which should be as natural as breathing, we make a mystery of an act which is as straightforward as picking up the phone for a chat with a loved one.
Jesus shows us how simple it is to pray and He also shows us how essential it is. As well as praying with His disciples Jesus takes Himself off to a quiet place to pray, to replenish Himself through time spent with God. In a world where we often feel pressurised to do stuff, prayer can feel like another thing on our to do lists but actually it is the complete opposite of that. It is an opportunity to be not to do, to be still, not to be active. It can take place anywhere, at any time. It can be as long or as short as we feel. It doesn’t need special language, it just needs to be the words that we feel on our hearts. In the final verse of our Gospel reading Jesus prays “I have made you known to them and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and I may myself be in them”
One of the suggestions that has run through Thy Kingdom Come over the past few years is to choose five people for whom we particularly want to pray that they will draw closer to God. Now I am sure that many of you have people that you regularly pray for and that is a wonderful thing. But I am hoping that you might have some capacity for some more prayer. Just think if every person in this room prayed for 5 people and if that made a difference to just one person how wonderful that would be! We are the fortunate ones – Jesus has been revealed to us. We do believe in His saving power, we have received the gift of eternal life and we will share in the glory of God’s kingdom.
The days between the Ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost were a time of transition for the disciples. Jesus had made it very clear to them that He was passing the baton to them, it was for them to spread the Gospel and to encourage others to commit to a renewed relationship with God. A relationship that had been revitalised through the sacrifice He had made on the Cross. And this period remains a time of transition for us as well. We have reflected on what has gone before at our APCM, we have elected our churchwardens and new members of the PCC. We are adapting to a world that has been forever changed as a result of the pandemic but which is also beginning to resemble the life we have previously known. But there is still work to be done – this work will not be completed until the Gospel has been proclaimed throughout the world until God’s will has been done and His kingdom has indeed come. God has a mission for creation so let us be part of that mission. Let us make Jesus known to as many people as we can both through the example of the way we live our lives and especially through our prayers.