EASTER V – Vocem jucunditatis
Introit: (Is. 48.20) With a voice of singing declare ye this, and let it be heard, alleluia: utter it even unto the end of the earth: The Lord hath redeemed his people, alleluia, alleluia. Ps. (66). O be joyful in God, all ye lands, sing praises unto the honour of his Name: make his praise to be exceeding glorious. Glory be … With a voice of singing …
Collect: O Lord, from whom all good things do come, grant unto us thy humble servants: that by thy holy inspiration we may think those things that be good; and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord: After seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart. And I will be found of you, saith the Lord: and I will turn away your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, saith the Lord; and I will bring you again into the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive. (Jeremiah 29.10-14)
Alleluia. Christ is risen, and hath shewed light unto us: whom he hath redeemed with his most precious Blood. Alleluia.
Epistle: Dearly beloved: Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. (James 1.22-27)
Alleluia. I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again I leave the world, and go to the Father. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus said unto his disciples: Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full. These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs: but the time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall shew you plainly of the Father. At that day ye shall ask in my name: and I say not unto you, that I will pray the Father for you: for the Father himself loveth you, because ye have loved me, and have believed that I came out from God. I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father. His disciples said unto him, Lo, now speakest thou plainly, and speakest no proverb. Now are we sure that thou knowest all things, and needest not that any man should ask thee: by this we believe that thou camest forth from God. Jesus answered them, Do ye now believe? Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. (St John 16.23-33)
“Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.”
The Fifth Sunday after Easter is known as Rogation Sunday, from the Latin word “rogare” meaning “to pray” or “to ask,” partly because it is immediately followed by the three Rogation Days: the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day. But it is called “Rogation Sunday” also because the principle of “Rogation” or asking (i.e., prayer) is introduced in today’s Gospel. Jesus says, “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you… Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.” The Rogation Days have traditionally been appointed as “Days of Solemn Prayer” (BCP, p. xiii), particularly for God’s blessings upon the spring planting. In earlier times, people observed Rogationtide by fasting in preparation to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, but in many places (and still today in some parishes) Rogation ceremonies would also include processions with litanies, psalms, and readings, not only through the freshly-ploughed fields, but also around the entire perimeter of the parish—a custom known as “beating the bounds”—embracing, as it were, the very geography of the parish and, by extension, the whole world, in prayer. These traditions serve as an important reminder that, even though most of us may be urban or suburban folk, we are still vitally dependent upon the land, and that the Christian Faith is essentially incarnational—that is, that God uses material things in order to communicate His grace to us.
We ought certainly to be thankful to God for every good and perfect gift He gives us; and to have the work of our hands blessed by God is a necessary part of our spiritual health, and renders our labours more fruitful and meaningful, particularly as we consider these earthly blessings in light of today’s Epistle reading and the definition given by St James of “true religion”: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. Whatever earthly blessings we may receive of God’s hand are not meant to be hoarded, but are to be shared with those in need. But in modern observances of Rogation Sunday, the emphasis seems to have shifted from prayer and gratitude to God for giving us the things we need, to a decidedly secular emphasis on the environment—a sort of divinely appointed “Earth Day.” Now while we are commanded to be good and responsible stewards of the earth—a moral imperative throughout the Bible—two problems present themselves in this contemporary rendition of Rogation Sunday. First, there is the problem of disguising self-righteousness under a cloak of false penitence, as entire congregations of affluent liberal urbanites are disingenuously bidden to collective repentance for “destroying God’s creation,” and “polluting the environment,” in effect saying, like the Pharisee in Our Lord’s parable, “I thank thee, O God, that I am not like other men.” Far better is it to repent of one’s own sins, than to make a show of repentance over the sins for which one really blames others! The second problem is that this whole focus takes us away from what today’s lessons are really about—putting our prayer and our faith into action.
Thus, Rogationtide is a good time to consider prayer: what prayer is, what it is not, and how we can better pray. It is crucial that we understand just what Christian prayer is all about. For many, prayer is simply a matter of asking God for this or that, according to particular conditions or emergencies. But prayer is something much more basic and much more radical than that. St Basil the Great writes:
Prayer is not made perfect by uttering syllables, O Brethren, but in the purpose of the soul, and in the just actions of a lifetime. Nor are we to believe that God has need of being reminded through our words. We are not to think that we complete our prayer by murmuring a number of syllables, but rather by the purpose of our soul, and in deeds of virtue extending into every action and moment of our life. Neither are we to think that God needs the reminder of our spoken words; rather are we to believe that He knows our need whether we ask of Him or not … Peace is the beginning of the purification of the soul, the tongue freed from speaking of the things of men, the eyes no longer dwelling on the beauty of bodies and the elegance of our surroundings, the hearing not undoing the strength of the soul through listening to melodies that were composed for pleasure, nor through the talk of clever and frivolous men, which more than anything else has power to undo the purpose of the soul.
It is of our very nature as Christians to be people of prayer, but as we learn from St Basil, prayer is, first and foremost, an attitude—an attitude of faith and trust. It is the habit of relating, the habit of referring all our thoughts, words, deeds, and circumstances to God through Jesus Christ. In the Epistle lesson, St James says: “If any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.” The Word of God is like a mirror—it shows us who we are, but more importantly, it shows us who God is. We are to see ourselves as reflected in His Word, and to frame our lives accordingly. Prayer is not some formula or tool to change the will of God. Prayer is looking into the mirror of the charity of God, and remembering, and being changed by what we see. By the Word implanted in our hearts, we are to be mirrors of the charity of God. In countless ways, in thoughts, words, deeds, and negligences, we sin against the love and grace of God. We look into that mirror, and forget. We must become doers, and not merely hearers, of the Word.
Throughout the Easter Season we have been reminded of the words of St Paul: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God” (Col 3.1). Paschal-tide teaches us that, while we live in the physical world, yet as heirs of Our Lord’s Resurrection and children of His Kingdom, we are to place our affections upon heavenly things, because our hope is not in this transitory life, but in the eternal life given by Christ. And at this particular time of the year, we are intended to meditate upon Christ’s Ascension to the throne of God in the substance of our human flesh, once again taking His rightful place at the Father’s right hand. The Gospel readings for these past three Sundays have come from John 16, part of Our Lord’s “farewell discourse” at the Last Supper. Last week, He promised that when He goes to the Father, He will send the Holy Spirit, the “Paraclete,” to be with His Church forever. Today He tells His disciples that when He returns to the Father, they will be able to pray to the Father in His Name. It is important for us to recognise that Our Lord’s return to the Father was not merely spiritual. Just as His resurrection was a bodily resurrection, so His ascension was a bodily ascension. The Incarnation has never ended. God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, became man, is man, and will be man forever and ever. Through His Ascension, our humanity has been assumed into heaven, and Jesus, as true Man as well as true God, is sitting “on the right hand of the Father,” where He “ever liveth to make intercession for us” (Heb 7.25).
“Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.” So, what exactly does that mean? Well, first of all, what does it not mean? “In Jesus’ Name” is not some magical formula that obligates God to answer our prayers. Nor does it mean that our prayers are invalid, or will not be heard, unless we conclude them with these words. Way back in Genesis chapter 4, verse 26, we read (according to most English translations): “then began men to call upon the name of the Lord.” But the Hebrew reads: בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָֽה – B’Shem Adonai, which unmistakeably should be translated: “in the Name of the Lord.” So, in using the phrase, “ask in My Name,” Our Lord Jesus is again telling us that “I and the Father are One”—“I AM THAT I AM.” We are instructed to pray to the Father in the human Name of that same Person who is the Eternal Word, who took into His uncreated divine Person our finite human nature when “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” yet is still One with the Father.
Our Lord Jesus overcame the separation between God and man due to sin, by dying, as a man, for our sins upon the Cross. The outstretched arms of our crucified Lord embrace the whole world in the very moment of the world’s rejection of the Truth of God. He overcame the separation between the Living God and our mortal state by overcoming death once and for all. As one Person complete in two Natures, Jesus Christ is our Mediator, and no one comes to the Father but by Him. That is true of our salvation, it is true of our worship, and it is true also of our prayers. To pray in the Name of Jesus reminds us that we need such a Mediator, because we are sinners. It reminds us that He died for our sins, rose again, and ascended into heaven. It reminds us that He is the one perfect Mediator between God and man because He is both fully God and fully Man, whose Name alone is given under heaven whereby we must be saved (Acts 4.12). “Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my Name,” He says. “Ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.” And, what are we to ask for? Above all, we are to ask for the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, to pray in Jesus’ Name means that we are praying with Jesus’ authority, and as His representatives. We are praying in union with Him, as members of His Body who have been united to Him in His death and resurrection. Prayer has traditionally been classified under four categories, each of which is essential to our spiritual growth and wellbeing: adoration, penitence, intercession, and thanksgiving. All prayer is to the Father, through the incarnate Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. In prayer, we enter into the mission of the Son, His coming forth into the world and His going back to the Father, having gathered the whole world with all its sorrows and tribulations into that bond of infinite and eternal love outside of which there exists only nothing. And, Jesus says, the Father loves us, because we have loved Jesus and believed that He came from God. Thus our faith in Jesus is the basis for our access to the Father. We cannot muster up that faith in ourselves, as we heard last week, but we receive it as a gift through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. The essential orientation of the Son to the Father in the Spirit is itself prayer. In Christian prayer, then, we are taken up into the very life of the Holy Trinity.
So, in order to pray “in Jesus’ Name,” our prayer must be consistent with His Will as revealed in the Scriptures. We cannot pray for something sinful or foolish and expect God to honour that prayer. Neither is prayer about letting God know what is going on in the world or in our lives as if He doesn’t know already, nor about trying to nag or convince God to be gracious and loving. Prayer is about our embracing God’s Will, not about bringing God around to ours. We pray always, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All truly Christian Prayer is ultimately the Lord’s Prayer, for the Head is one with the Body. So whenever we pray, Jesus is praying with us and in us. Thus, to pray “in Jesus’ Name” means to pray from a position of trust in Jesus and His goodness, seeking what God wants to give us; it means accepting whatever comes to us as coming from the hand of God, whether to correct us or to strengthen and enlighten us with a vision of His glory. Such prayer, Our Lord says, is always answered. “Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart” (Jer 29.12-13). Prayer is placing our lives in the perspective of God’s Word and God’s Will, lifting up all we are, all we do, and all our circumstances to Him. And as we hold them up before God in Jesus’ Name, we begin to see them differently. Our prayer does not change God’s eternal purpose, but it does change us. Prayer does not help us to get what we want; prayer helps us to want what we get.
Our Lord’s call to prayer in today’s Gospel is matched by James’ call to action in the Epistle: “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only.” James points out the difficulty we all have in taking God’s Word to heart and applying it in our lives—the difference between what we hear and what we do, between “the nobility of our Creed and the depravity of our deed.” Reciting the Creed is one thing; living the Creed is another matter entirely. That is James’ point: Belief, unless you live it, is only self-deception. And this is what our Collect is alluding to when we prayed: “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.” But while the worthiness and necessity of Christian charity is evident enough, we must not forget the conclusion to St James’ definition of “pure religion” (i.e., faith in action): “To keep oneself unspotted from the world.” Our life in Christ necessarily places us at odds with the world, because the world sees and judges according to a very different set of standards. But Our Lord warns us about this: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” In all our service to the world in Christ’s Name, we must not espouse worldly attitudes, values, and perspectives, but live in an attitude of perpetual prayer which seeks always the Will of God, conforms to the Word of God, and sees and evaluates all things from that viewpoint. Then we too, in His Name, overcome the world.
The essence of the Christian life is not in the observance of forms, rules, and standards, noble as these things might be, but in the continual awareness of our life as being lived in the presence of God, at every moment and in every circumstance, and in the steadfast willing of the Will of God. The perfect pattern of this is the prayer our Saviour Himself taught us—not just as a form of words, but as a state of life. But, as Robert Crouse aptly notes, “that state of prayer, that union of the soul with God, is not easily attained. It requires a thousand disciplines of discouragement and disillusionment to wean us from our worldliness. It requires a thousand repetitions of the lessons of the Gospel and the grace of sacraments, a thousand tribulations of the world, until we come to believe the word of God in Christ and to wait upon his Spirit.”
Our Lord concludes: “These things have I said unto you, that in me ye may have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer (i.e., take courage); I have overcome the world.” These words came just hours before He would be crucified, and the lives of the disciples would be rocked to their very foundations. Soon this Messiah they had hoped for and believed in would die a horrible death, and they would be living in fear for their own lives. Jesus wants us to have His peace, but we cannot have the peace of God until we have peace with God, and that comes through the finished work of Christ in His Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. As St Paul tells us in Philippians: “Be anxious about nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil 4.6-7).
We too live in a world of turmoil. Fears and anxieties plague us constantly, and wars are being fought all around us. Even in our own country, more and more evident is the war of ideologies and cultures. Some of us have gone through or are going through really rough and anxious times. We may feel overwhelmed with all the stuff going on in the world today, but when we pray “in Jesus’ Name,” He gives us His peace. From the world’s perspective that makes no sense. These situations do not simply evaporate because we pray. No, but Christ assures us that He has indeed overcome the world, and reminds us of the long view—the bigger picture, realising that God is indeed in control, even when all the evidence of our lives seems to be telling us differently. “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jer 29.11). The noted 19th-century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon 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 is the essence of Rogation Sunday: we can go to God in prayer in Jesus’ Name, because Jesus has demonstrated in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension that God is all-good, all-wise, and all-powerful, and that He loves us infinitely. Rogationtide embraces the entire world in prayer, even as Christ embraces the entire world upon the Cross, in the relationship of the Father to the Son in the bond of the Holy Spirit. So let us take courage, for Christ has indeed overcome the world!
“Set your minds on things above, not on things of the earth; for you have died, and your life is now hid with Christ in God.”
Christ is risen!
Collect: Almighty and merciful God, from whom cometh every good and perfect gift: Bless, we beseech thee, the labours of thy people, and cause the earth to bring forth her fruits abundantly in their season, that we may with grateful hearts give thanks unto thee for the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
May the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight:
And the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.