Sermon audio here.
Maundy Thursday is one of the most significant days in human history. We all know what happened on that night. Jesus washed His disciples’ feet and gave them a New Commandment: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to was one another’s feet… Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another,” (John 13:14, 34). On that night He also took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, instituting the Sacrament of the Altar. Shortly thereafter our Lord was betrayed, sold for a mere 30 pieces of silver. We also know about how fervently He prayed in Gethsemane while His sweat became like great drops of blood. All this happened on Maundy Thursday.
What you may not know is on that most Holy and significant of nights, our Lord gave His disciples a farewell sermon of sorts. This sermon is so important that it spans four chapters in John’s Gospel (13–16) and we get 5 weeks to unpack it in the lectionary (this is week 3). This sermon is just as significant as anything else that happened on that night, as it’s all about what the Church should expect between Pentecost and the Last Day. In other words, it’s about life in the here and now. The portion of the sermon we heard in today’s Holy Gospel is about prayer.
That’s what rogate means, which is the name of this Sunday. Our Lord takes up the subject of prayer in His farewell sermon not once, not twice, but three times. He ends His sermon, aptly enough, with a prayer (John 17). And as we’ve already mentioned, Jesus will be praying again in Gethsemane before the night is out.
For prayer to receive so much emphasis at this critical time in our Lord’s ministry ought to call attention to the importance of prayer in the Christian life. Incidentally, our liturgy is filled with prayer. It’s easy to think we only pray when we get to the Prayer of the Church after we receive the offering, but we pray constantly throughout the liturgy. We address God during the Invocation, the confession, Introit, the psalm, the collects, the gradual, the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and many of the hymns. Probably about half of what takes place during the Divine Service is prayer. God speaks to us—that’s what happens in preaching and His Word—and we respond with thanks and praise.
Prayer is a pretty incredible thing if you stop and about it. Scripture says we’re like clay, having been molded by God, the Potter. Now clay doesn’t do anything but sit there. It’s passive. The Potter forms it into what He likes and that’s that. You don’t expect the clay to have an opinion on how it’s formed or what happens to it, and yet in prayer, that’s exactly what happens: the clay speaks to the Potter.
Now if I bought some clay and it stubbornly resisted my ever effort to shape it—kind of like what we do with God every time we sin—I’d get rid of that clay faster than Taylor Swift goes through boyfriends. But not God. Despite your every effort to the contrary, the Potter continues to form you.
Prayer is absolutely the best gift you could give to someone else. To pray is to seek the blessing and aid of God the Father Almighty, and there is no better help or greater blessing than that. It’s a privilege we ought to guard more carefully than all the kingdoms and wealth of this world.
But guarding prayer means more than just praying. It’s true we often treat prayer like a fire extinguisher: “Break in case of emergency.” But just because you’ve prayed doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve prayed rightly. There are plenty of ways to abuse prayer, in which case you’d be better off not praying at all. There are those prayers where we treat God like a heavenly vending machine. We hear Jesus say “ask and you shall receive”, and we think this means we will get anything we ask for. This not only false doctrine, if this is what Jesus meant, He’d be a liar.
But when we keep Jesus’ words in their context, the meaning becomes clear. The very next thing Jesus says is, “I have said these things to you in figures of speech.” Figures of speech are a non-literal way of speaking. When our Lord says, “Ask and you shall receive”, He doesn’t mean you will get whatever you pray for no matter what.
What’s more, Christian prayer is made “in Jesus’ Name” (v. 36). This is something we need to unpack a little bit. Christian prayer is Trinitarian. Jesus gives us access to the Father through the Holy Spirit. Apart from the work of Father, Son, & Holy Spirit there is no God-pleasing prayer. It does not make God happy when people pray to Allah, Buddha, Baal, Zeus, Isis, Mother Nature, or any other idol.
A while back I was looking into Clinical Pastoral Education programs at various local hospitals in the hopes of sharpening my skills for pastoral ministry. The hospital is truly an ecumenical setting, as it’s a place where you interact with patients of every religious stripe. That’s a good thing so long as you don’t compromise faithfulness to Christ. Unfortunately in those programs I would have been expected to do just that, praying not only for anybody who wanted it, but also with them, regardless of the god they believed in. You certainly couldn’t pray with a non-Christian in the name of Jesus.
What makes prayer with non-Christians problematic is that we don’t believe in the same god. Our prayers are not going to the same place, and there’s nothing that makes God angrier than giving people the impression that all religions lead to the heaven. If that’s the case, then Jesus died for nothing. The prayers of Christians are not going to the same place as the prayers of the non-Christian.
This is why interfaith prayer vigils—like the kind you see after a time of tragedy—are Satan’s way of making a tragic situation even more disastrous. To pray with someone who doesn’t believe in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is idolatry. Certainty we can—and should—pray for everyone, but we cannot always pray with them. Jesus is very narrow-minded, that way.
You might say, “But I know who God is in MY heart!” Well okay, that’s great, but the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist with whom you’re praying doesn’t. If you really want to help them, don’t join them in their idolatry. Be compassionate to those who hurt. Help them to see how Jesus—and He alone—can bring them healing.
The sad part is that those who believe in idols are often more dedicated to their idols than Christians are to Jesus. We see this especially today with Muslims. Christianity has been in sharp decline in the Western world, and our area is no exception. But drive by any Mosque on a Friday and there’s so many people out there they have the police directing traffic. We have Christ present in the flesh every Sunday and we’re doing really well if we fill half the pews. Worshipping the one true God means not only praying in the Name of the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit, but also coming to the place where He brings His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
In addition to directing our prayers to the right place, it’s important to make sure that the content of our prayers is God-pleasing. Christians don’t pray for God to curse or condemn others. What Christians pray for ought be consistent with the Christian faith. This is why the vending machine approach to prayer doesn’t work. Godly prayer isn’t about getting everything we want. Prayer that tries to manipulate God for personal gain is Christiancraft.
God had once told Solomon to ask Him for anything He wanted. You know what Solomon asked for? Not fame or fortune. He asked for wisdom (1 Kings 3:5–14). His prayer, along with the Psalms and everything else in God’s Word, should be a model for (or even the content of) our own prayers.
Prayer such as this rises before God as fragrant incense and pleases Him. God never tires of hearing such prayers. It’s not like God will ever stop you in the middle of a prayer to say, “Hey, could you repeat that? You were starting to bore me and I got distracted.” You’ll never spend 15 minutes in prayer only to realize the call got dropped 10 minutes ago.
You can pray with boldness and confidence because it’s a privilege Jesus bought you with His own blood. He said, “The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father.” On the cross, that’s exactly what He has done. His death testifies plainly to the Father’s love for you. By His death, your idolatry and neglect of prayer is forgiven. The cross is what makes prayer possible. And when your prayers fail, know that Jesus’ never do. As St. Paul says:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words… If God is for us, who can be against us?… Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us (Romans 8:26, 31, 34).
Soli Deo Gloria
+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. John 16:23–33
Rogate, 2015: In Jesus’ Name
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