The Seventh Sunday after Easter – May 16, 2021
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; I John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
Today’s readings are about the relationship between our prayers and our alignment with God’s vision. Belief and action are essential to Christian life. We must live out our faith in daily life. But our ability to live out our faith depends on spiritual depth and prayer may be the most definitive faith practice. Today’s readings assert that prayer changes things and leads to world-transforming actions. When we pray, we gain a larger perspective, open to new possibilities, experience synchronicities, and move from self-interest to world loyalty.
The practice of prayer drives us to theological reflection. We say prayer changes things and shapes the future but what are the mechanics of prayer. In what ways does prayer shape what is happening now and what is to come? If God hears our prayers, how does God respond to our prayers? Do our prayers make a difference in our lives and the world beyond? Do our prayers make a difference to God? Does prayer really change things? Does prayer enable God to be more active in the world, seeking wholeness and healing? How does prayer reflect our understanding of divinity, humanity, freedom, and creativity?
The reading from Acts 1 is a curious one and is foreign to most of our congregants’ experiences. Our congregation’s leaders come forth through episcopal appointments, the actions of a search committee, or the ruminations of a nominating committee, not the casting of lots. Still, we can gain much from this snapshot from Acts 1, describing the first congregational meeting in church history. Uncertain of who should take Judas’ place among the apostles, the community casts lots. Their casting of lots is similar to the Daoist I Ching or Yoruba/Santeria divination in many ways. Most likely, they wrote the names of Matthias and Justus on two stones, placed the stones in an urn, began to shake the urn, and the first stone to fall out represented God’s choice for Judas’ successor. Was the result a matter of
luck or providence, or a combination of the two?
Flipping a coin or picking a name out of a hat typically isn’t the way we choose our pastors or spiritual leaders, except in certain traditional Mennonite communities, but Acts community’s casting lots is not merely a matter of dumb luck or happenstance. It is bathed in prayer. Prior to choosing the next apostle, they prayed for God’s presence in the process. When God is brought into play, luck becomes synchronicity, revealing the movements of God amid otherwise random events.
Leslie Weatherhead once asserted that “when I pray coincidences happen, when I don’t, they don’t.” Carl
Jung spoke of synchronicity or meaningful coincidence to describe certain life-changing events. Neither Weatherhead, Jung, nor I believe that prayer is magic or violates normal cause and effect relationships, but we do believe that prayer connects us with deeper wisdom, power, and insight. Prayer may open a connection with the mind of God, enabling us to see more and do more. We see more deeply and notice realities we previously missed. We may even catch a glimpse of God’s vision, hidden with our experience, as the sighs too deep for words. Our prayers may guide our steps in congruence with God’s vision for us and our communities.
The words of Psalm 1 connect following God’s law with personal and community well-being. Alignment with spiritual laws joins the micro and macro in holy ways. In harmony with God’s way, we experience greater wholeness; life becomes a blessing. While I don’t believe that the path of blessing is linear. I do believe that when we follow the divine pathway imminent in our bodies, minds, relationships, and spiritual lives, we experience greater power, energy, and insight. Meditating on God’s vision throughout the day, seeking God’s guidance in small and large things makes our world more transparent to God’s presence and guideposts along our way. Prayerfully aligned with God’s vision, new insights surface to guide our way.
The words of I John root our lives in our relationship with Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate spiritual friend; he is God among and with us. When we turn to Jesus in faith, we share in God’s promise of eternal life in the present as well as the future. What would it be like to have eternal life now and trust the future to God’s everlasting love? Perhaps, we would no longer fear penultimate threats and experience courage to respond to the needs of our world, knowing that our lives in their fullness are in God’s hands. Belief in Christ is ultimately relational rather than doctrinal. Connected to Christ we experience eternity in the changing world and in God’s heavenly realm. We can be afraid, but not afraid of our fear, as we confront the challenges of our time.
What would it be like for Jesus to pray for you? What would it be like for Jesus to know your challenges and hopes and be interceding on your behalf, as near as your next breath? This is what Jesus’ first disciples experienced and, I believe, that Jesus’ prayer is still operative in our lives today. In the spirit of Bell’s theorem in which space and time can be transcended through relationship, Jesus’ prayers are still alive in our worship and activities.
Jesus’ prayer from John 17 is a source of great consolation for faithful persons in challenging situations. Jesus is praying for his followers, then and now. Jesus is praying for Peter, John, and Mary, and Jesus is praying for us and our congregations. Jesus is praying for their unity and he is also praying for their protection. Jesus is also praying that we be protected from the impact of the
evil one and all that would separate us from our brothers and sisters. Imagine it – Jesus is praying for us! Jesus’ prayer of protection is reaching out to encircle us and give us the courage to face life’s challenges with grace and trust. In our polarizing times, when the right course is in doubt, we need to know that God is with us in all of our uncertainty.
Jesus’ prayer for his followers reminds me of the Celtic practice of “Caim” or “encircling” in which before a journey or facing a threat, a person draws a circle around her or himself as a sign that God surrounds him or her on every journey. Jesus’ prayer reminds me of the prayer of St. Patrick which can be connected with the encircling to give us courage amid threat and conflict.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
We are always encircled by God’s love, and when we align ourselves with God’s way we can have confidence even in challenging times. We can live with confidence, amid challenge, knowing that God is as near as our next breath and that God seeks our well-being in every situation.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books, including the following books related to this week’s lectionary – PROCESS THEOLOGY: EMBRACING ADVENTURE WITH GOD; PROCESS SPIRITUALITY; PRACTICING HOLY ADVENTURE; MYSTICS IN ACTION: 12 SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; and PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM.