What do you think prayer is all about?
You might say it’s about asking for guidance or requesting help - for yourself or for someone else who needs it.
Or you might say that prayer is about asking forgiveness for the things we have done wrong – and for the good things we have failed to do; or that prayer is about counting our blessings and saying ‘thank you’ to God.
If you pick up any popular magazine that runs articles on health and wellness, or if you read any of the major news websites that feature the same kind of stories you will often read that “prayer and meditation” are good for you, that they make you calmer, more centered, can even lower your blood pressure and possibly prolong your life.
Well, all of this is true, but this is not what the disciples were doing in that upper room when they gathered and prayed after Jesus’ ascension.
The disciples had returned to Jerusalem from Mount Olivet, where they witnessed Jesus’ ascension, and they had heard him promise them the power of the Holy Spirit, and charged them with being his witnesses.
In fact, the picture that Jesus was that the disciples were to begin their mission of being Jesus’ witnesses right there in Jerusalem and then spread out to the kingdom of Judea, to Samaria (that place so problematic to first-century Jews) and then out into the Roman Empire – the far-reaches of the civilized world.
The disciples had been walking with Jesus for three years, watching, listening, learning from him, being sent off on short-term mission projects.
They had lived through the painful and dramatic experience of Jesus’ arrest and death by crucifixion, and had then been astonished and elated at his rising to new life on Easter.
Then for the next forty days the Risen Christ appeared to the disciples many times – talking with them, eating with them, making final preparations for them to take up the work that he was setting before them.
And now that Jesus had ascended the disciples went back to Jerusalem, to that upstairs room – the one where they had shared the Last Supper, the room they had fled to after the crucifixion, the same room where they gathered on Easter evening when Jesus appeared to them, and the same place where a week later Thomas made his declaration of faith when Jesus told him to touch the wounds in his hands and his side.
This upper room had been a place of worship and shelter and fellowship and safety all through their two-month sojourn in Jerusalem.
And it was there that they gathered once again after the ascension, devoting themselves to prayer as they waited for the promised Holy Spirit.
So the question is: what was this prayer that they were engaged in?
It was a prayer of expectant waiting on God – a prayer of listening, of being open to what God was going to do next whenever that “next” was going to be.
It was also a prayer of worship that drew Jesus’ followers together: the Twelve, the women, his mother Mary, his brothers; they were united in their waiting and listening.
This intense and focused prayer of expectation opened up a space in their hearts and in their midst for the Holy Spirit to come, almost like a spiritual convection that would draw in the power of the Spirit.
Or another way to describe the disciples’ prayer is that it was concentrated enough to harness divine energy, the way a magnifying glass held in the sun over a piece of paper or a pile of tinder can create fire.
This is probably not the way most of us think of prayer.
We want to draw close to God – but not too close!
We come to God with our list of wants and concerns and needs – and most of them are certainly worth praying about.
But the kind of prayer the disciples were engaged in during this time between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was filled with an intense and expectant longing to be open to whatever God was going to do next with them.
It’s not that the disciples were any more “spiritual” or special than we are, but they had gone far enough down the road with Jesus that there was no turning back, no putting on the brakes at that point.
And so they prayed – intensely, fervently, with eager longing – waiting on God.
And really, that is the kind of prayer that Jesus invites us into as well – to pray with focus and expectation that we may be receptacles of the Spirit, channels for God’s energy and purpose.
But this kind of prayer is risky, because we don’t know and we can’t predict how we might be changed by coming so close to God; after all, look at what happened to the disciples!
And yet this kind of steady, focused prayer is the way we will grow to be more like God, the way we will know best what God plans and purposes and intentions for us are, and then be given the power to complete those plans.
It’s not a prayer of emotions or feelings, necessarily, but rather a prayer of full attention and concentration on God and than waiting with a calm openness for God to act.
This time after the ascension, this Ascensiontide, is an example, and a reminder, and an invitation for us to enter more deeply into prayer to our Ascended Lord – and then wait to be empowered for the mission Jesus has in mind for us.
Let us pray.
Come down, O love divine, seek Thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with Thine own ardor glowing.
O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.
O let it freely burn, til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let Thy glorious light shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.
And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace, till he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling. Amen.
-- Bianco da Sienna, Hymn 516
Victoria Geer McGrath
Seventh Sunday of Easter: the Sunday after the Ascension
June 5, 2011