A Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Sunday after the Ascension), Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
June 2, 2019
One week ago today, I was wrapping up my time at seminary…this time, my seminary graduation…attending Sunday Holy Eucharist at my “home away from home” parish of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. At the close of the service, that community gathered around me and offered a communal sung blessing on my graduation, ordination and journey and into new ministry. In that holy space filled with color and light, I felt such a depth of love and connection with these people, some of whom I know well and others of whom I didn’t know well at all. But there we were, being Church, lifted together in voice and prayer into the presence of God. We were one, and we were One in Christ. I felt that. It was a holy moment and a palpable reminder that prayer is that which connects us with God and each other.
But, standing here this week, I hold that joyful memory along with a heavy heart. We worship today disquieted by the violence of this world, and we would not be true to the Gospel and the vows of our Baptism without pausing to feel and name the grief and anger and hurt we share with our neighbors in Virginia Beach, grieving the friends and family who were civic employees gunned down at the close of their work week. We also hold in our hearts Markiya Dickson, third grader gunned down at a family picnic in a park in southside Richmond last weekend, a standby victim of gun violence. We mourn the deaths of two transgender women of color, Muhlaysia Booker and Michelle Washington, also targeted and killed this past weekend. Our hearts still ache for our siblings in Christ gathered for Easter worship in Sri Lanka, our Jewish siblings praying in synagogues in San Diego and Pittsburgh, and our Muslim siblings attending Mosque in New Zealand who were attacked within their places of worship. And we grieve with our family of Christ who worship in historic black churches, set on fire and targeted by racial hate crimes which go against everything we are taught in the Gospel. These aren’t even all of the unjust and violent acts which break our hearts. There is much to grieve, and obviously much to do. And there is, I believe, an incredibly important lesson in this week’s Gospel for us about the fervent and persistent power of prayer during times such as these when we feel the most comfortless.
I think that it is fitting as we commemorate Christ’s Ascension this Sunday that the reading from John’s Gospel is not focused on the leave-taking of Jesus from among his friends, but instead on the prayer that Jesus offers to all those who follow him. Jesus’ final action…yes, action…is to pray. Jesus prays for the disciples who were present and those who were not; Jesus prays for the disciples of the age in which he lived and of the age to come. The prayer Jesus prays, in fact, is every bit as much for us today as it was for those who were gathered at that particular time and place. And it is the continual working of that prayer which Jesus offers, and the way it calls us to action, that I would draw our attention to today.
Rather than offering a fleeting platitude of “thoughts and prayers” for those who grieve, I will assert that using the depths of our Christian thought and responding actively with prayer, as Jesus models for us, will lead us down pathways of change and hopefulness. Distancing ourselves from the pain and discomfort of our world flies in the face of everything we hear uttered by Jesus Christ in today’s Gospel lesson. It leaves us numb and isolated, with hearts that are unmoved by injustice. We are called to more than that. We are called to transform the world through the love of Christ.
In our fervent prayer and worship we genuinely come to know and hear how to respond to that love, as individuals and as a community. From the very core of our tradition we are taught this. Episcopalians are unquestionably and unapologetically a people of prayer. The Anglican tradition we embrace was forged at a time when people were being put to death over their conflicting religious expressions. Common prayer was then, and is now that which holds us together. Every time we gather, our unity is in our prayer. We pray together, whether we agree with each other or not and whether we know each other well or not. Like my moment at St. Gregory’s last week reminded me: our common prayer is what solidifies our communal identity in Christ. Our Book of Common Prayer emphasizes a broad and transformative understanding of this form and nature of prayer which we embrace: (see p. 856), “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” Responding to God requires action on our part. The act of prayer presumes our openness to be transformed to action by God.
While I am obviously responding to the immediate events of our world, I am not preaching some new or transient theology. Throughout history, prayer as action has been the core of Christian life. The story of Paul and Silas in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows them jailed, out of spite and malice, singing their praises to God. Their prayer wasn’t for their personal release or retribution; their prayer was praise to the living God. In that worship, Christ was made known to those imprisoned with them and even to the jailor whose belief releases him to freedom and new life in the love of Christ and through the waters of Baptism.
The transforming power of Christian thought and worship through common prayer in our Anglican identity is also expressed eloquently by theologian F.D. Maurice in his sermon on the prayer book, delivered in 1893:
Thought and prayer both come from a hidden source; they go forth to fight with foes and gain victory in the external world; they return to rest in Him who inspire them. Oh! how fresh and original will each of our lives become, what flatness will pass from society, what barrenness from conversation, what excitement and restlessness from our religious acts, when we understand the morning prayer is really a prayer for grace, to one whose service is perfect freedom, in knowledge of whom is eternal life; when at evening we really ask the One from whom all good thoughts, and holy desires, and just works proceed, for the peace which the world cannot give.
Let me repeat that, from 1893 to 2019: The peace which the world cannot give.
This peace is the prayer that we hear Jesus offering up in our Gospel lesson: “Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Jesus prays for us. Jesus intercedes and petitions for us. Jesus’ prayer is specific and purposive, embodying both his divine intention and his human longing. Jesus prays for us…and by that I mean ALL OF US…that we may be one, even as Jesus and the Father, Source of all Being, are One. Jesus was praying not only for his disciples gathered around him but for all who would believe on his name. That means Jesus was praying for Paul and Silas, for the jailer and his family, for the enslaved young girl who would be freed from spiritual bondage even if held by human captors. Jesus was praying for John, exiled on the Island of Patmos and for those disciples after the Ascension who would gather in fear, eagerly awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was praying for the early church, those at the first church Councils, and for the saints, martyrs and everyday folk of our Great Cloud of Witnesses over the ages. Jesus prays for the quiet followers, and the public figures; the spiritual leaders and the prophetic voices. Jesus prays for those who are born with voice and privilege, and for those at the social margins of this world. Jesus prays that we come to know that we are all one, and that we are also One with Christ just as Christ and the Father are One.
Jesus’ prayer is powerful and counter-cultural. It enfolds us, as community, and lifts us into the divine presence of God. It fundamentally changes our understanding of who we are as followers of Christ. Jesus’ intercession for us is that we become completely one, so that through us, the world might know the depth of God’s transforming love for all of God’s people. And, if we go back to that core understanding of prayer as a response to God with thoughts and deeds, with or without words, we can see the opportunity for everything we do to become an action of prayer. When we welcome as God would welcome; when we feed those who hunger not out of pity but out of love; when we hurt with the grieving rather than distancing ourselves; when we respond to our convictions by thoughtful and prayerful action; when we set aside our need for human recognition and set our sights instead on letting the Love of God be known through our words, actions and intentions then we are living out the prayerful life which Jesus intended for us, and prayed into being for us. That was true in those moments where Jesus’ disciples were gathered around him, and it’s true for us today as we continue to gather in the name of Christ and come to this table together as one Body, united in common prayer.
As we commemorate the Ascension we come to know that even as Jesus is lifted into glory, we are not left comfortless. The worst thing we can do is grow numb and distance ourselves from the children of God who are hurting in this world, which is a false comfort. Instead, Jesus’ prayer invites us into the fullness of God as experienced in each other through the Holy Spirit who unites us and makes us one. All of us. And the wider we allow that circle to grow, the more we will experience and liberate the expansive, transforming love of Christ for all the world to see.
So, on this day where Christ is lifted up, we have more reason than ever to lift up our hearts and give our thanks and praise for the great gift we have been given: the resonant blessing, the gift of Jesus’ prayer which continues to make us one with each other, and one with God. In this is our comfort. In this is our hope. In this, we are made one.
 F.D. Maurice (1893) Sermons on The Prayer Book and the Lord’s Prayer. London:Macmillan and Co.