Over the last few years we have been encouraged to use this time between Ascension Day (which was on Thursday) and next Sunday, the Day of Pentecost, as a time to pray. It goes under the banner of ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, picking up on a key phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, and so as with all prayer we aim to align our wills with the will of God. There is a deep echo in these 11 days, because we are told in the Acts of the Apostles that this is what the Apostles did along with Mary, the mother of Jesus during the same period. They met to pray. (Acts 1:12-14) What other response could they make to whatever form the Ascension took than to pray? It takes some getting their heads round.
They had been through so much in such a short space of time. Having followed a movement, which they thought would take them in one direction, that of a political leader to rescue them and sort out all their problems, they find that he has a different agenda. His announcing of the Kingdom went way beyond the political to embrace all their hopes in this life and the next. Their leader had been killed and buried, and then appeared to them again, risen in a new form. And now having got used to him turning up for barbecue breakfasts on the seashore, accompanying travellers on a road and breaking through locked doors, he makes one final dramatic exit. And they see him no more.
Something profound and dramatic had taken place and they needed to work it out. It actually took quite a long time, as their vision and compassion was expanded with their journeys and encounters over the coming years, but the first stages take just over a week. In their praying they call on God, they seek to align their will with the will of God and they no doubt wondered just where this would lead. So we too are encouraged to do this, to pray in this period, to align our wills with the will of God and to wonder in delight and hope where this will lead. Some of the material that goes with ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ will no doubt delight, bemuse and even trouble us in different ways. For some the service last Saturday was a great liberation of praise and a different style to the usual Cathedral worship. For some it was not to taste and what is clear is that no one way catches everyone. We are different, we are quirky, we find different things move us.
The invitation that comes to us through the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ initiative to pray for 5 people to come to faith in Jesus Christ may not feel natural and can sound like we are being encouraged to invoke a magic spell. Name the 5 people and God will do what we ask. That is to look at it the wrong way round. The initiative is always God’s and rather than us needing to expand the mind and heart of God, it is God who longs to expand our hearts and minds. And so I found Pope Francis’ message for this year helpful, that as we pray for the Holy Spirit to come, we pray that our hearts may be widened and enlarged. I think that we are to use this period of time to pray that God will make us stronger, wider and keener in our love, in our faith and in our witness. Let me explain what I mean by stronger, wider, keener.
The Holy Spirit comes to strengthen. It strengthens in confidence, in hope, in vitality to live and seek to transform as we are transformed. We pray for strength not to coerce or control, not to manipulate or exercise power and domination – my goodness there has been far too much of that over the centuries and we can see it still in abusive religion and the major failings that have come to light. No, stronger is a desire to be equipped with the spiritual resilience and resources to live to God’s praise and glory and be people of hope and light where there is much despair and darkness. And the disciples found strength came upon them on the Day of Pentecost when those puzzled and frightened followers became Apostles who stood up to proclaim the hope inside them. The reading from Acts this morning (Acts 16:16-24) gave us yet another moment when they spoke with confidence and passion, and the resulting imprisonment needed strength and resilience, hope and trust to cope with it, to be able to sing those hymns of praise in the prison cell.
After Morning Prayer on Wednesdays we gather as a clergy team here in the Benedict Chapel to look at a passage from the Rule of St Benedict. This week gave us humility and silence. If you know my colleagues well you’ll spot the irony of that; silence is not a frequent virtue. We read that humility comes through being confident in God’s love, in God’s promise, in knowing that while we are mortal and frail we are nonetheless loved. If our hold on that is shaky then we need the healing grace that will restore for us confidence in knowing we are children of God, and that may need all sorts of healing, but ultimately for each of us to know that we are a beloved child of God. In that strength we can face whatever comes. We pray that we will be strengthened by the Holy Spirit.
Secondly we pray for a widening of our concern, of our hope, of our vision, of our hearts. The reading we had from Acts last week took Paul on a boat trip across the Aegean (16:11-15). Lost in the place names is that he crossed an ancient continental boundary. This gospel has gone from a group of marginal Jews, to the dispersia and then on to Gentiles, non-Jews in Asia Minor, and now it has gone global, entering Europe. Others went in the other direction; tradition has it that Thomas made it to South India. The arms outstretched on the cross want to love the world. And so our concern, our passion is to be wider than we can imagine, or are even comfortable with. So here the praying for 5 becomes an openness to who God may be placing on our hearts in love and passion for Christ’s transforming love. This is not magic and manipulation because it is a wider yearning that comes from God and is a response to God, rather than being a conquest complex from our own egos. Remember that humility in the Rule of St Benedict, which seeks not its own glory but God’s, and it was linked with silence which is a quieting of the appetites, the untamed passions and dis-ease within us.
Praying for a wider love, for a wider vision is to be disturbed from our comfort and cosiness. The strengthening of the Holy Spirit is also a disturbing of the Holy Spirit. It touches social concern, the cry for justice. It touches building bridges to reach those we disagree with. On Tuesday I hosted a hustings in St John’s for candidates for our Parliamentary By-Election. There are deep divisions, not least on how we place ourselves in the European map. My photo has been taken shaking hands with people who are diametrically opposed to one another and we all have to reach across the current divides so that we can work for the common good, the flourishing of all people and be a community and nation at ease with itself. We pray that God will enlarge and widen our hearts.
Thirdly I suggested that we pray that the Holy Spirit will make us keener. Here there is a nudge. There is a passion for sharing faith, an urgency and a keenness for it, because it matters. We need to find some words to be able to say ‘this is why I do what I do’, or in the words of 1 Peter, to give an account of the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15), to name Jesus Christ as our Lord. And if the thought of this scares you, read Isaiah and Jeremiah and of Moses and Jonah, where you will find prophets who were scared stiff and in some cases ran away. This is why I began with prayer for the strengthening of the Holy Spirit, so that God’s grace will be with us.
Being encouraged to pray for 5 is not magic or manipulation but rather a response to the widening grace, the keener passion and the strengthening of the Holy Spirit. And our gospel reading brought this to the fore as Jesus prayed not just for his friends but for those who will believe in him through their word (John 17:20). The recognition was that the frightened, sometimes slow to cotton on disciples would actually transform the world through the power of the Holy Spirit which would come in a week’s time. So we make our prayer: come Holy Spirit; make us stronger, wider and keener in the service of God through Jesus Christ.
Sermon for Easter 7, Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 2nd June 2019