In our reading from the book of Acts this morning, we read about what may have been the first congregational meeting in the history of the Christian Church. The meeting was called to elect a new leader, to replace Judas. There were two candidates, both well qualified. Both had been with Jesus from his Baptism, through his ministry, to his death and resurrection.
They cast ballots to elect their new leader who would be part of the inner circle. Would it be Joseph or Matthias.
But before they cast their ballots, they prayed. They prayed that God would guide them to elect the right person, the one God would choose. This is not unlike our own tradition. Most meetings in a Presbyterian Church are opened with a prayer, often asking God to guide those attending the meeting to discern and do God’s will.
The congregation at that first meeting did not leave this decision to human minds. They did not leave the decision to chance. They prayed for God’s guidance and had faith that God would guide them to make the right choice. Matthias was elected and joined the other eleven Apostles.
In our reading from the Gospel of John, we find Jesus praying for his disciples, his followers. He is praying for their safety as they are sent out into the world, to keep them safe from the evil one. Jesus emphasizes that he and the disciples are not of the world, but are in the world.
Sometimes, it is nice to escape from the world for a while. People go on vacations to do exactly that, and although they are still in the world, they are away from their world, from the routines of their lives. It is good to get away now and then, to leave our familiar lives behind and do something new, or visit some place different from where we live, or to see people we do not see often.
Some folks take very expensive vacations and stay in the best hotels and eat at the best restaurants. They travel first class. Others may want to vacation in a more rustic setting, perhaps away from hotels and restaurants. Perhaps they will rent a cabin or vacation in an even more primitive setting by camping.
The desire to get away from it all is a strong desire for many and is perhaps just part of living in a society such as ours, with all its pressures and business. But the desire to escape the world in which we live is not new, nor did it begin in the United States, it has been part of human nature since the beginning.
Our Christian faith may intensify our desire to escape the world and its pressures. When we get a glimpse of what is good and holy, when we visualize what the kingdom of God may look like, we may desire a different lifestyle. We may not want to immerse ourselves in luxurious hotels, or find solitude in the woods, but instead we may long for community. We may long for a community of people who share our faith and also want to immerse themselves in their faith away from the influence of the world.
Our faith’s history is filled with communities such as this including monasteries, convents, retreat centers, communal living, and reform movements. While each of these communities has its own identity and characteristics, they all strive to create a community that is unencumbered by the worlds influence.
It seems the Johannine community was created out of this same spirit, to be immersed in the Christian faith apart from the worlds influence. In ancient times, there was much opposition to the Gospel, and groups like the Johannine community were increasingly in conflict with the authorities. How nice it would be for them to be able to gather with their own group, to share stories of their remembrance of Jesus, to sense his presence when they ate together, and to enjoy fellowship with each other and not have to defend their beliefs against a hostile outside world.
But, the truth is, we do live in the world. There are some hearty souls who live off the grid so to speak, who live a self-sufficient lifestyle away from society, who hunt and fish for their food, and barter for things they need. But most of us live in the world and have jobs and responsibilities that require us to keep our jobs. And while we have to be in the world, we do not have to be of the world.
In fact, Jesus is quite clear that we as Christians are to live in the world, that there is in fact no escape from living in the world. Not being of the world means that the world does not shape our beliefs, our identity, or our values. These are shaped by our relationship with God with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ prayer he says to God, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” Jesus wants them to be in community, to immerse themselves in their faith, but not to abandon the world. Jesus also knows firsthand the struggles they will face, the conflict they will face from the authorities, and asks God to protect them.
Jesus offers an alternative to fleeing from the world. The holiness they wanted is found through the action of God and immersion in God’s Word. Jesus redirected them from escaping from the world, to finding what they need in God’s Word.
Near the end of today’s reading Jesus says in his prayer “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” This could serve as a reminder to all of us that Jesus did not flee the world, but engaged the world as a model for us to follow.
The Bible doesn’t talk about Jesus taking vacations from his ministry, but it does tell us that Jesus would take time to be alone with God and pray. Praying is a fundamental part of our spiritual practices. For many it may be the only spiritual practice they use. It is a way we communicate with God, it is a way we praise God for all God has done for us, it is a way we give our burdens to God when they are too much for us, it is a way we ask God to intervene in our life or the life of others, and it is a way we listen for God’s Word to us.
Praying does not always change the circumstances in which we find ourselves. But prayer does change things. God may change our circumstances, or perhaps God will change us. When we pray, we open ourselves to God’s pruning. We open ourselves to God’s comfort. We open ourselves to God’s guidance. When we have a healthy prayer life we can see things differently than we could before. Our minds and our hearts are opened to new possibilities. We can see solutions to our problems that were hidden from us before. Prayer changes us, and prayer changes others.
While serving as a chaplain in the cardiac units at Christiana Hospital, I met hundreds of patients and their families, many times under very difficult situations. Some were devout Christians, some were not, some didn’t believe at all. Those who believed, whether they were Christian or followed another faith, seemed to benefit from prayer and wanted prayer.
I remember one patient who was an elderly woman, a devout Christian, and who was not doing well. I went to visit her and found her son in the room with her. We talked for a little while and I learned he was Muslim. As our visit was coming to an end, I asked her if we could pray together. She wanted to. Her Muslim son stood up and held my hand and bowed his head in prayer with us. Perhaps he did this out of respect for his mom Perhaps he needed prayer as well as he faced the possibility of losing his mom. As I left, he thanked me for the prayer.
There have been numerous studies that show prayer helps people heal, both physically and mentally, and hospital chaplaincy programs exist because people’s faith matters and prayer matters, and prayer changes things.
Jesus prayed for his disciples, that they would be protected as he sent them into the world. This prayer could be for us also, as Jesus calls us to go into the world and serve God by serving God’s children.
Prayer changes things and often changes us. I encourage you to pray often, taking some quiet time away from all the noise and business of our world and just spend some quiet time with God. Jesus calls us to be in the world, but not of the world, not influenced by the world, but to stay focused on the model that Jesus provided with his own life.
Let us pray:
Your blessed Son before his passion
prayed for his disciples that they might be one,
as you and he are one.
He prayed for their protection
as he sent them into the world
to proclaim the coming of your kingdom.
Grant that your Church,
being bound together in love and obedience to you,
may be united in one body by the one Spirit,
That the world may believe in him whom you have sent,
Your Son Jesus Christ our Lord;
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and forever,
Amen and Amen.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!