Text: John 16:23-28, 33
Today is Rogation Sunday, from the Latin word that means “prayer” or “asking” based on Our Lord’s statement at the beginning of today’s Gospel: “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.” Sometimes we forget that the English word “pray” has its roots in an older usage that simply means “ask.” Think, for example, when you hear in Shakespeare or at Renaissance Faires someone saying, “pray tell” or “prithee,” meaning “please tell” and “I ask you,” respectively. Today begins a mini-season of the Church Year called “Rogationtide,” a season that only lasts for four days, the period from Rogation Sunday until the Feast of the Ascension, which begins Wednesday night. Rogationtide is a period that has traditionally been set aside for prayer, especially prayer for God’s provision through the coming year. This is often marked by vesting the church in violet Monday through Wednesday, signifying Rogationtide as “days of solemn supplication” (as our Prayer Book puts it). Not quite fasting, but still solemn and prayerful in their nature. You’ll find the special collect, epistle, and Gospel for these days on page 261 in your prayer book, and I would encourage you to include them in your devotions for the next three days.
Other than the special readings, the Rogation Days were traditionally a time that marked the beginning of Spring, especially with prayers for the planting to be fruitful. In England it also became a time to revisit the parish boundaries, which developed into a custom called “beating the bounds” when the people would process around the parish boundaries with readings, the litany, and psalms. In England, the parish is more than the church’s property, but is the geographic area that the parish serves. Boundary disputes would be resolved, and issues of justice became emphasized. These customs are naturally rural or agricultural in their nature, a reminder that the Prayer Book’s tradition is essentially an earthy, incarnational (if you will) religion. Even though most of us are urban or suburban folk, I think it can be good to be reminded of our connection to the land, to God’s creation.
And believe it or not, this connection to creation also connects to the emphasis today’s Gospel also puts on Rogationtide: prayerful preparation for Our Lord’s Ascension. Let’s look at our Gospel: John 16:23 (page 176 in your Prayer Book):
[Jesus said] “Truly, truly I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father. In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.”
The Gospel readings from the last three Sundays have all been from John 16, part of Jesus’ discussion with the Apostles at the Last Supper. All three of those Gospel passages have been preparatory. Two weeks ago we read the passage that immediately precedes this one, in which Jesus was preparing them for the sorrows that would come because of his suffering and death, and also preparing them for the joys that would come because of his resurrection. Last week we had the first part of John 16, in which Jesus tells them that when he goes to the Father he will send the Comforter, a preparation for Pentecost. Today he tells them that when he goes to the Father, they will be able to pray to the Father in Jesus name. In all three readings we have this expectation that Jesus is going to the Father.
We’ll talk about this a bit more on Wednesday night when we celebrate the Eve of the Feast of the Ascension, but we need to recognize that Jesus’ return to the Father was not merely spiritual. Just as Jesus’ resurrection was a bodily resurrection, Jesus’ ascension was a bodily ascension. That is, just as he physically rose from the dead (remember St. Thomas doubting until he touched our Lord’s wounds?), so too did his physical body rise up to heaven. This means that one of us – a human being – is sitting “at the right hand of the Father” as we confess in the Creed. The incarnation never ended. God the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, became man, is man, and will be man forever and ever, world without end, amen.
This helps us to see why we pray “in Jesus’ name.” “In Jesus’ name” is not a magical formula that obligates God to answer our prayers. It’s not simply a liturgy we all use in extemporaneous prayer. No, it means that we are praying with Jesus’ authority. We are praying as co-heirs with Christ, who have been united to him by and to his death and resurrection in the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. In our Gospel Jesus said that the Father himself loves us, because we have loved Jesus and believed that he came from God. In other words, our trust in Jesus, that is our faith in him, is the basis for our access to the Father. You may recall that our Catechism teaches that faith is necessary to receive the benefits of Baptism and the Eucharist, that is, our new life and communion in and with Christ. And you may recall from Article X-XI that we cannot drum up that faith by ourselves, but we need God’s grace to have it in the first place. Even our faith, our trust in Christ, is a gift from God.
So, what does praying “in Jesus’ name” look like? Well, first, it needs to be consistent with his will as revealed in the Scriptures. We can’t pray for something sinful and expect God to honor that prayer. We can’t pray damnation on our brother and expect God to honor that prayer. We can’t pray for God to enable us in wickedness or foolishness and expect God to honor that prayer. The implication of that is that we will pray better when we know our bible better. And as we discussed in our 16-week class on W.H. Griffith-Thomas’ book Methods of Bible Study, the only way to know the Scriptures better is to spend time in them! That way we will truly learn what is good and beautiful and true (as St. Paul saith). This is exactly what our Collect is alluding to when we prayed:
O Lord, from whom all good things do come; Grant to us thy humble servants, that by thy holy inspiration we may think those things that are good, and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Second, it means praying from a position of trust in Jesus. We pray because we know his goodness. We pray because of what he’s done for us. We know we can trust him because he died and rose again for us while we were yet sinners, while we were yet enemies of God. We know we can trust him because he’s promised us eternal life and given us his pledge of it in the Word and Sacraments. This means that it is certainly appropriate to pray for little things. My mom always prayed for parking places when we were growing up, and that’s good because it was a result of her trust in her Lord. Pray for health. Pray when you travel. Pray for your children. Pray for the salvation and repentance of your friends and family and even enemies. Pray for good test results. Sometimes we’re too proud to pray for ourselves. This is a bad thing. Don’t be so self-centered that you only pray for yourself, but don’t be too proud or falsely humble to pray for yourself, as if your problems aren’t worth God’s time or as if you could take care of them yourself.
As a reminder, we have an excellent collection of stand-alone prayers in the Book of Common Prayer. Just after Morning and Evening Prayer is a section with all sorts wonderful stand-alone prayers and thanksgivings. In the back is a section of “Family Prayers” that have even more of this sort of thing. I was meeting with the folks that get together on Friday for intercessory prayer a few months ago, and it occurred to me how one could easily spend hours in intercession just going through those sections of the Prayer Book and applying them to people and situations in our lives.
Third, it means praying so that we may have peace. Jesus concludes our Gospel reading (and the chapter) with verse 33:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Some of you have gone through or are going through really tough times. Some of you know tribulation quite intimately. Some of you are mourning. Some of you have good reasons to be anxious. Some of you feel overwhelmed with all the stuff going on in the world. When we pray “in Jesus’ name,” he gives us his peace. From the world’s perspective that often makes no sense. After all those situations don’t usually disappear just because we prayed. But when we pray Jesus reassures us that he has indeed overcome the world. He reminds us of the long view. He helps us to be longsuffering, not faking a happy face, but realizing that Jesus is indeed in control, even when all the evidence of our lives seems to be telling a different story. I bet we could sit around a campfire all night taking turns telling stories of when Jesus gave us his peace despite the tribulations of life. And when life seems so hard that we can’t see his peace, those memories help us get out of bed in the morning. The help us get back on our knees in prayer. I’m reminded of the great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, who said, “God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart.”
Ultimately, that’s the lesson for Rogation Sunday: we can go to God in prayer in Jesus’ name, for Jesus’ sake, because Jesus has demonstrated in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension that God is good and wise and loves us. Be of good cheer, Christ has overcome the world.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.