And Then They Prayed
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 9, 2021
6th Sunday of Easter
John 17:6-20; Acts 1:1-17, 21-26
About the time I entered my second semester of seminary, I became intellectually numbed with books written by scholars who seemed to only know how to communicate with long sentences made up of five syllable words. I began to wonder if I would ever read anything enjoyable again. Finally, I did what any radical person would do, I put the heavy books aside for an entire weekend to savor a novel. While Joy Comes in the Morning, written by Jonathan Rosen was one of our recent Virtual Book Club choices, I can still recall reading it the first time. There I sat on my sofa, devouring page after page of a story about a Reformed Jewish Rabbi, Deborah Green, who craves goodness and surety while wrestling with sadness and doubt. Throughout the novel, a glimpse is offered of the complexities of being a female rabbi, serving people in times of sorrow and joy.
Although I enjoyed the entire book, there was one part that took my breath away. In the story, a young Christian woman who is marrying a Jewish man, has decided to convert to Judaism. She has been meeting with the rabbi regularly in preparation for this huge step. But one day, out of the blue, she calls Deborah in a panic—wanting to see her. Yet, when she arrives, she remains distant…vague. Deborah asks one question after another, pressing for clarity, until she finally takes a chance, inquiring, “Will you miss him?”
“Who?” asked the young woman.
“Jesus” the Rabbi answered.
After a long moment of silence, the young woman responded, “Yes, Yes, I will.”
I had planned to take a respite from my studies…I needed a break, but I hadn’t expected to break down weeping. “Will you miss him? Will you miss Jesus?” What a question. In all my years as a believer, I had never considered what it might feel like to even imagine such a thing! Give up Jesus?
This memory bubbled up as I pondered today’s reading from Acts—a reading that takes us to the end of Jesus’ time upon the earth. When Jesus dies on a cross, the disciples never expect to see him again. Yet, in three days, wonder of wonders, Jesus rises from the dead to walk among the living for some forty days. Likely, by now the disciples are getting used to Jesus being around again—even if things are a little different since he has picked up a habit of appearing out of nowhere when they are huddled behind locked doors. But Jesus has no plans of sticking around. He’s about to leave—and for good—so he shares his plans with them—assuring them they will receive power from on high—they will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. But not to worry; they won’t have to do it alone. No—the Holy Spirit is coming, and they must stay put until the Spirit arrives. Then, with their own eyes, the disciples see Jesus disappear into the clouds. There they stand with mouths gaping until, out of the blue, two men in white robes appear saying something like, “Don’t just stand there. He’s gone.”
Can you imagine, being a witness to Jesus departing in such a dramatic way? It must have felt like another painful ending. Yet, there’s no record of weeping and mourning. Instead, Jesus’ followers return to Jerusalem and devote themselves to prayer—about 120 men and women, along with Jesus’ mother, Mary, and his brothers. They know what to do. They get down to business and the first order of business is prayer—something they learned from their Teacher.
We have a wonderful example of Jesus at prayer from John’s Gospel. In what’s known as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, he prays to his Abba Father not only for the disciples who hear his voice, but also for the disciples yet to come. What does he pray? That those who are in the world but not of the world will be protected from evil and that they may be sanctified in truth—in other words, that they may be made holy. In many ways, Jesus’ prayer sounds like the prayer of a parent: “Lord you gave them to me…they are yours…keep them from evil…keep them faithful…”
Jesus is nearing the end of his ministry but there’s still work to do—there is prayer work—so Jesus prays. He prays because he knows his disciples have a long way to go to mature in their faith. He knows they will have tough decisions to make in the future. Right now, though, they are by his side and can hear this prayer offered on their behalf. While it’s not the last prayer Jesus will pray, it’s the last one recorded in Scripture that they will hear. Jesus will pray in agony in the garden, “Let this cup pass from me—yet not my will but your will be done,” but they won’t hear it. They’ll be fast asleep. From the cross, he’ll cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They won’t hear that one either. They have scattered in fear.[i]
Jesus prays for this ragamuffin band of followers because even though he sees them for what they are, he has high hopes for what they will become. And we get a glimpse of what they will become once Jesus ascends into heaven, for obediently they remain in Jerusalem for the coming of the Spirit even though they can hardly know what that will mean. Faithfully, they gather in the upper room and then they pray.
Then, Peter brings some new business for the group to consider—the matter of Judas’ replacement. There seems to be a sense of urgency to make the circle whole again. Ironically, Peter, the Denier becomes Peter the strong leader, who speaks boldly to those gathered around him. First, he interprets Scripture (the Old Testament) in light of Jesus. Then he offers guidelines for who is eligible to fill the vacancy: It must be someone who has been with them from the time Jesus was baptized until now; someone who has witnessed his life and ministry. Two possible candidates are named, Joseph called Barsabbas and Matthias. Then the people pray to God. Surely a decision this important cannot be made without prayer. Even so, what comes next, the casting of lots, seems odd to our modern minds. Imagine we need a new session member, so we offer a prayer, put two names on the table and flip a coin. Although the idea may seem ridiculous to us, more than one scholar notes that in the end, God is guiding “the luck of the draw”—at least that’s how this community of believers sees it—for this is a common decision-making practice for them. But the important thing to notice is the presence of prayer in the process because prayer signals that the church looks beyond itself for guidance and direction.[ii] While the mission of the community will not really get started until the Holy Spirit sweeps in, for now the disciples are once again numbered 12, and the foundation is set for the work ahead.
Today marks the end of the Easter Season and next Sunday we will celebrate the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost. In many ways, today marks an important ending in the life of our faith story—the end of Emmanuel, God with Us, walking upon the earth in human form. But there is more to come because on Pentecost, God enters the earth in another form—as the Living, Breathing Holy Spirit to reside in the heart of every believer. Jesus may no longer be with us in the flesh, but empowered by the Spirit, we’ve got work to do—so we pray. There are people with whom we need to share the love of Christ, so we pray and then we speak what the Spirit leads us to speak. There are people who hunger and thirst for physical and spiritual food, so we pray and discern how to best utilize our resources to help those in need. The fledgling church begins steeped in prayer. It is still the most important work we do. In fact, any church that isn’t a praying church—well, it can hardly be called a church at all!
[i] Rev. Dr. James Howell, http://day1.org/1256-in_but_not_of_the_world
[ii] Feasting on the Word, Noel Leo Erkine, 528.
*Cover Art “Word of Life” mural by Millard Sheets from Art in the Christian Tradition.