What do you expect to happen when you pray? Do you see it as a form of magic, get the words right, make a bargain with God, and then good fortune will come; our plans will be fulfilled? Do you expect anything at all? Is it just a moment of quiet to let the thoughts distill and occasionally bring clarity of insight? Perhaps it is more therapeutic, a moment when peace can be found? It may even be that asking the question makes an assumption that prayer has any place at all and there are times when it can feel like it is being treated as an add on, a mere churchy whitewash to decorate the walls, but not really the core activity. Prayers of dedication at the beginning of concerts or focus at meetings can come over like this. Prayer means many things to different people and there are times when we will hear all of those approaches being displayed and some of them are not mutually exclusive.
Today and throughout this coming week the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have invited us all to join them in prayer. The reason given for this is to focus the churches on praying that those around us will see and come to know Jesus. Both Archbishops are evangelicals and so they use that language about knowing Jesus, which some other traditions would phrase differently, or even avoid. In case we are in doubt about what they mean, they go on to remind us that when we pray God does things to us. And their suggestion is that if we pray God will bring the life of Jesus, the living presence of himself which we see in Jesus, into our hearts and that will change us. We will go out as witnesses whose lives reflect the love of Christ to those we meet. And then they too will meet the Jesus who inspires us. So when people say where is the Kingdom of God, like Jesus said in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 17:21), they will find signs of it around them. (It was at this point I realised I had been reading the wrong gospel – I’d opened the bible at Luke instead of John, but it worked.) The call is for spiritual renewal in the church, for spiritual refreshment and enlivening, which prayer brings.
It’s quite a dangerous strategy to say ‘look at us if you want to see Jesus’. My goodness, I don’t think I want to carry that weight. And it can sound so arrogant as to be completely repellant. How on earth could we possibly claim that we will display Jesus to those around us? Well, our actual Gospel reading this morning (John 17:20-end) puts that pressure on us. Jesus’ prayer is that as the Father is in him and he in the Father, so his followers will be in them and the world see and know (v21). However, this not to be a source of arrogance but of humility, and a hope that the light in us will shine out. And of course, if that light is blocked in any way, then that will affect how it shines out or indeed doesn’t. Which is why we need prayer to be the foundation of all that we are and everything we do. It is not just a whitewash to make it look holy. It has to be our lifeline.
If we want to know when this is being authentically reflected, then look to Jesus as our model and he is not always meek and mild by any stretch. Sometimes he asks challenging questions, sometimes he confronts, sometimes he gets angry, sometimes he is merciful to those we don’t expect, sometimes he makes high demands, sometimes he understands deeper than we do. So to make him known we do have to model ourselves on him and working that out should keep us busy for a lifetime.
Prayer is about looking in a different dimension. It is to open our hearts to what lies at the root of creation and seek to be at one with it. That goes deeper than thinking, or stilling, or even hoping, though many find words helpful in homing in and being reminded of the story. On Thursday I spent time with a number of people in a nursing home suffering from different stages of dementia. I found myself challenged by what prayer means for them. I don’t know what is going on inside them, and sometimes we can wonder, but I see the flicker of recognition in their eyes as I make the sign of the cross on their foreheads and say the Lord’s Prayer with them. Sometimes there is the flicker of something but it’s quite hard to say what. There is in the tenderness and moment of intimacy a reminder that spirituality touches us at a level that is deeper than intellectualizing and even narrative. This is what lies at the root, and all of our making sense, or non-sense, is built on this. The radical challenge of prayer is that we don’t limit ourselves to the world as it is, which is the secular approach, but enter a sense of its purpose and deeper heartbeat. It is an approach that can only be expressed through metaphor and those of course are borrowed from the world we inhabit, but aim to capture a caught glimpse of the eternal.
Thought for the Day on Radio 4 on Friday was by John Bell of the Iona Community. He was speaking about people with Down’s syndrome. I find them profoundly moving and inspiring. His take was that they might actually be God’s corrective to our lost perspective and hope, our tainted smiles and arrogance. He observed Jesus’ tendency to rehabilitate those society marginalizes, not just tax collectors and others labelled as sinners, but those stimagtised for their physical or mental disorders, sending them back into those same communities to belong. Those of us who think we are normal need curing of the disease of arrogant perfectionism. And he went on to say those who have Down’s may be the very people through whom society is healed.
One of my enduring images in my memory is of a pilgrimage by Jean Vanier’s L’arche Community and at the offertory those with Down’s coming forward to present flowers they had brought with them on their journey. It challenged so many of our aspirations and expectations. It challenged a young student struggling with the latest theories and great intellectual questions. It challenged the idea of what constitutes success and therefore aspirations. It challenged what it means to be a soul, a person before God.
Prayer is far more powerful than mere magic or manipulation of events. It opens us to the transforming presence of God. That doesn’t bring what we want, but rather opens the possibility that we might change and start to see the world and its priorities from God’s stance. We might find that we are in the wrong place from which to view and we need to move to get a better view. The Hebrew word for ‘truth’ is Emet and it refers to the place to stand from which to view what is true. It might be that people we regard as being disabled or as not really counting have got a much better view than we have. And if we can be open to the possibility that those with Down’s can be God’s agents of change and deeper vision, where else might we find them?
We can find light in surprising places. The gospel reading also appealed for unity. That doesn’t mean we all have to be the same, but the Spirit of Christ is far bigger than our small way of expressing and reflecting it. If we truly believe that in Jesus God has been made known in a unique way then whenever God is made known Christ is there. God can’t be split up and God is God. When we pray we open ourselves to what lies behind our religious narrative and that is where any sense of unity and concord can be found. It is then that we can understand more deeply the stories of faith and identities that flow from these. I don’t mean by this that everyone believes the same really; there are deep differences of vision and the consequences that flow from these. But behind them lies something more profound and it might be that those with Down’s and dementia might be more in touch with it than I am.
So today we are encouraged to join with others in praying that Christ may be seen and known in this city. And if we pray that we will find that some changes start to happen within ourselves. And who knows, that might even become the mechanism through which Christ’s presence becomes more visible. This is the heart of the Church’s mission. It is to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ and it starts with our prayer.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 8th May 2016