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A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock


[Acts 1:15-17, 21-27; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17: 6-9]

Prayer and praying together: This is my sermon’s focus.  The Prayer Book Catechism describes prayer as our “response to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words”.1  In our experience of shared worship in this space, you and I pray a lot together.  Specifically, in that particular special praying time we know as the “Prayers of the People”, I always invite you to offer the personal prayers of our hearts and lives aloud .  And, of course, one of the practical issues with such publicly offered prayers is being able to hear what is offered.  Obviously, corporate prayer is not the same as individual prayer.  Yet, perhaps the question is to what extent are these two experiences of prayer related?

This reminds me of a dinner table exchange that occurred a long time ago, when we were a family of four.  Our evening meals were taken at the round kitchen table, which we still use.  At this particular dinner, when Clare was in second grade and Noah was a kindergartner, one of the many memorable, kid-generated conversations occurred.

Seated at the table and seemingly out of the blue, Noah announced in a rather confessional tone that he had had a dream the previous night; and in that dream God talked to him.  (Normal dinner talk from a five-year-old!). Seven-year-old Clare, in her goading, older sister mode, immediately asked her brother: “What did God say?”  Noah looked down at his food for a moment and sheepishly replied that he didn’t know what God had said, to which Clare slam-dunked the conversation with an immediate: “What do you mean, Noah, that God mumbles?”

Whether God mumbles or not in our prayers, the People’s corporate prayers are frequently mumbled or at least offered at an imperceptible volume.  Why is that, do you think?  Being publicly exposed and vulnerable, I concede that we are often afraid to get the prayerful offering “wrong”, not having the “right” words at hand.  But this was not Jesus’ problem in today’s gospel lesson.  Clearly, we know from other gospel accounts that Jesus prayed regularly; but we have never been privileged to hear the full content of his prayer.  In today’s gospel we hear Jesus praying out loud, and two things occur to me.  One is to ask about the significance and impact of Jesus’ audible prayer.  The other is to ask: What’s it like actually to hear another pray?

In terms of Jesus’ prayer, the one we heard in the gospel reading, we have the unique, sacred privilege of hearing what the “God beside us” intimately says to the “God beyond us”.  In his audible prayer, we not only hear what Jesus prayed; more to the point we are drawn into the mystery of his relationship with God the Father and are privy to what is most pressing on Jesus’ mind and heart.  Indeed, this is rare territory, not simply because it is Jesus praying, but also because hearing him praying invites those who willingly listen to enter his prayer. 

From the outside one can never be sure what is being prayed for; nor what the reason is for the offering.  For instance, we can all pray for peace, but are we praying for the same thing?  Is this a prayer for the cessation of hostilities; or is it a plea for a sense of wholeness, completeness that heals the sources of the violence?  

So it is with praying to God corporately.  Left unsaid or in low tones, do our prayers include all of God’s “People”; or do these prayers just belong to an individual?  Personal prayer clearly feeds corporate prayer; but the reverse provides the real impact.  Corporate prayer (as in the “Prayers of the People”) makes sure that prayer does not devolve into individual willfulness.  There is something about hearing another’s faithful prayers that draws us into the prayer, itself as a “response to God” – a response that cannot be just about us.

The point here is that since all our prayers are already known to God before we offer them, the sharing of them can locate us in God’s response.  Putting our prayers into words crystalizes the relationship we have with God by asking for what we need and cannot provide for ourselves.  And because God is always more willing to give than we are to receive, our shared prayerful words help shape the extent to which we willingly receive God’s response – or not.  My point here is that prayer shared together may be challenging and even uncomfortable, but together sharing in the prayers we can assist one another in our ability to pray for what we and the world need so that we might all “live more nearly as we pray”.

Let me refocus this praying issue in another way.  When do you recall hearing another praying?  What was it like for you?  Did you feel like an intruder; or were you swept up a bit in what you heard?  

My own response to this question recalls the experiences of the times our three-generation family gathers at our house to share a meal.  Sitting around the table, our family custom is to have the grandchildren take the lead in offering thanks over the food.  Consequently, there have been times when the words the kids offer for “grace” cause giggles; but seeing them hold hands around the table and hearing them recite the words that my mother taught me and my three brothers – well, the praying is much more than the words.  These shared occasions are sacred in their wonderful ordinariness.  And the specialness of this shared and audible praying gets demonstrated when the youngest among us not only insists on holding hands, but also when it comes to the closing.  Hands clasped around the table, they are raised overhead and thumped down on the table, as we speak loudly and in multi-syllabic unison: “Ah – ah --men!”  It matters, this experience of shared praying.

In the gospel lesson for today, we are privy to Jesus’ prayer to the Father.  One would think that the Son of God need not put his heart’s content into words in order for the Father to know about the prayer; but it is clear from many glimpses of Jesus at prayer that such concreteness is necessary: Glimpses such as when on the night of his arrest Jesus verbalized his plea: “Let this cup pass from me”2 or uttered audibly from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”3  The verbalization, the words that say something from the depths of the soul, are offered to God but also expressed so that others can not only hear what is offered to God but also participate in the prayer that is not their own.  And this is the case in the prayer Jesus offers in today’s gospel.

The element in Jesus’ prayer is that he prays, not for the world, but specifically for those who follow him and who are called to continue his redeeming work in the world.  Our 4th century, Eucharistic prayer (Prayer D) expresses it with these concrete words: “And, that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.”4 [emphasis mine]

In his Ascension, Jesus “leaves” his followers so that his followers have the necessary room to exercise more fully the new life that Christ has presented.  This to say that Jesus’ prayer is for the protection of his followers, and that includes us.  With them, we are to live and serve in the world but not be of the world.  With Jesus’ return to the Father, following Jesus radically changes from sheep following their shepherd to spiritual adults representing the realities and hope of Easter.  The way this will be done is that the Holy Spirit is given.  The question, then, is always: Will those who claim to follow Jesus be open enough to receive the response to his prayer?  

At the heart of all our praying – individual or corporate – listening to and receiving what Jesus prays for is the central issue: that we may keep and share the connection that makes us one – with God and with one another.  Can our own prayers hold anything less than being rooted in the same God-life?.  As we are wont to say together, “let us pray”.  Amen.


1.  Book of Common Prayer. “Catechism: Prayer and Worship: page 856

2.  Matthew 26:39

3.  Luke 23:34

4.  Book of Common Prayer: Prayer D, p. 374.

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