1Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.
2How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?
How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? Selah
3But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.
4When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Selah
5Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.
6There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”
7You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.
8I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.
The sermon series we’re doing right now is about becoming the church. We started that broad topic the week after Easter by reflecting on how the disciples recognized the risen Jesus when he broke bread, and how we still meet Jesus in the sacrament of communion. Last week we looked at Jesus’ time with his disciples after he rose from the dead. He taught them how to understand the scriptures so they would be ready for their mission to share the good news of God’s love with the world.
This week we’re talking about prayer, both how we connect to God on our own, and how the church as a community connects with God to strengthen it for its mission. First, a little background for our passage.
The story of Acts starts right where Luke’s Gospel leaves off. Jesus has risen meets his disciples. He gives them a mission to proclaim the good news of God’s love to the whole world. Then he rises into heaven and the disciples return to Jerusalem to wait for the Holy Spirit. Fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus the Holy Spirit appears in the room where they are praying and fills the disciples with power. They minister to those around them, telling the good news in every language. As people hear the story of God’s love in Christ, they join the disciples in following Jesus.
While many believe, not everyone is happy with this new movement of faith. Like with Jesus’ teaching, many of the religious leaders are not comfortable about what the disciples had to say. They thought with Jesus’ death they had finished with his disturbance, but as the disciples keep preaching about Jesus, it’s clearly not done.
One day Peter and John were walking into the temple when they saw a man who couldn’t walk begging for help. They healed him in Jesus’ name and the man not only started walking, he also ran and jumped with joy. A crowd gathered to hear how this miracle had happened. Peter explained that it wasn’t because they were more holy or wise than anyone else, but because of the power of Jesus Christ.
As the crowd gathered, the religious leaders noticed what was going on, so they arrested Peter and John. The next day they interrogated them about what had happened. Peter told the story of healing the man through the name of Jesus and went on to proclaim how God’s love was working through Jesus even though the leaders had killed him.
The leaders weren’t thrilled with that accusation, but they also couldn’t think of a way to punish Peter and John since they had just performed an obvious miracle in public. The situation was difficult because they couldn’t deny what had happened, but they wanted to minimize the impact and keep people from talking about Jesus. So they ordered Peter and John not to talk about Jesus anymore.
Now, Peter and John were like most people. They preferred not to be beaten and threatened, but they also had a clear calling from Jesus to spread the word, and God’s power was working through them so they knew they were on the right track. So they were honest with the leaders. They told them God had commanded them to keep preaching about Jesus, so even though they heard the leader’s command, they had to follow God’s calling instead. With that, the leaders beat them and sent them on their way. That’s where our story for today picks up.
23After they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, 25it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant: ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? 26The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.’ 27For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
29And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, 30while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.
There are times I have a hard time relating to the early church. There’s a power in their faith life that I have never experienced. I’ve never prayed and felt the Spirit shake the room. I’ve never healed anyone through prayer, at least not in such an obvious way. It’s easy to feel a great distance between the power of the early church and the lack of drama in my own spiritual life.
At the same time, what I love about this passage is that the disciples are honest, humble and very clear about their role. They look right at the threats against them. They know that the religious leaders can kill them or beat them or lock them in prison. They don’t ask God to protect them from danger. Instead, they ask for boldness to speak God’s word courageously in the face of danger.
They don’t ask for eloquence, or persuasiveness, or church growth. They don’t ask for fame or comfort or long life. They know what their mission is: their mission is to share the story of Jesus and the love of God with the world. They don’t know how the story is going to go from there, but they are open and available to God’s plan.
There are a lot of things we can focus on when we talk about prayer, but today I want to look at prayer as openness to God in word and action. We don’t have to know where we’re going as a congregation or as individuals, but if we want to be faithful to God’s calling, we need to be open to God’s leading along the way. Part of how we do that is with specific moments of prayer. It’s helpful to set aside periods of time to talk to God and to listen to God.
Often in my own life that’s frustratingly quiet. I don’t hear God’s voice or see visions of where I’m being led. But when I make space to quiet myself, sometimes I find that I just know things. Sometimes one path I’ve been thinking about feels right. Sometimes in a conversation I find myself saying the right words, even if I didn’t know they were right before they came out.
Other times our prayer is more the spirit with which we approach life than specific times of prayer. If we approach our life as ministry and with a spirit of prayerful openness, we’ll often find doors opening that we didn’t expect. The trick here is not getting too caught up in our own plans.
At the same time we open ourselves to God and loosen our hold on our own plans we also need to trust ourselves. That seems like a paradox, but it isn’t. If we’re open to God, God uses every part of us for ministry. Sometimes we over think spiritual life. We imagine it’s difficult to figure out what God wants us to do. We say we long for more clarity or we wish God would speak to us the way God spoke to the early Christians.
The truth is we usually know what we’re supposed to do. God has already showed us by teaching us about faith and scripture throughout our life. When we get to a specific decision we usually know what is the right decision. Call it intuition or moral instinct or God’s guidance, the truth is the same. Many decisions are pretty clear when we really look at what’s happening in a situation. Sometimes we make a decision more complicated because we aren’t sure we want to do what we should do. We know deep down, but we subconsciously don’t want to know.
Sometimes I discover that clarity through reflection, but more often through action. When I go through the day open to God’s plan, I find opportunities to share God’s message of love. A few months ago one of my patients looked at me in the line at the emergency room at Rochester General. He was lying on the stretcher and we were waiting our turn. I don’t remember what we were talking about but he suddenly asked me if I was a Christian. I said I was and he asked me to pray with him. So I took his hand and we prayed out loud right where we were. A few years ago that would have terrified me; it still makes me a little self-conscious. But the truth is that God uses our openness for ministry even when we least expect it.
Other times someone else will give me exactly the message I need to hear, not because I’m looking for it, but because my ears are open. Sometimes it’s a line from something I’ve read, or a voice on the radio. Sometimes I’m looking for something one place and it shows up somewhere else. The key in listening seems to be openness: letting enough space into our plans for God’s unexpected wisdom to show up.
The key in speaking is what the disciples prayed for: boldness. In our words we can go wrong in two different ways, we can be so sure we’re right that we aren’t open to an unexpected truth, we’re not open to someone else’s perspective. On the other hand, we can be so afraid of being wrong, so unsure of ourselves or so afraid of upsetting someone else that we keep the truth we know to ourselves. Either way we fail to be the best we can be. We fail to be the person God made us to be.
Sometimes the whole Presbyterian sermon thing seems too cerebral. So let’s bring this down to earth with an experiment this week. Each morning when you wake up this week pray this prayer: “God, guide me to love, openness and boldness today.” Then pay attention as you go through the day. Notice opportunities you have for sharing God’s love in words or actions. Notice things people say that might open you up to new possibilities. Notice chances you have to tell the truth and notice the fears you have that try to hold you back. Try that experiment during the week. As you do, I’d love to hear any reflections you’d like to share.
So what does this have to do with prayer? Prayer has two sides and both are crucial. We see the disciples praying a great prayer, a prayer to follow their calling. That active talking and listening to God is one side of prayer. The other is behind the passage itself and that’s prayerful action. When the disciples go about their daily lives they do it with a prayerful openness. Maybe that’s what Paul means when he tells the Roman church to pray without ceasing. Prayer isn’t just talking to God, it’s also living with openness. Our prayer experiment is designed to tighten the connection between our prayer and our action.
The other experiment in prayer we’re going to do is about bringing more openness and participation into our prayer in worship. You’ll see what I mean in a moment. There’s a disastrous myth in our church and culture that you have to know how to pray. The truth is that we all know how to pray, even if we don’t know we know. The one prayer almost everyone knows is the prayer we say together each week, the Lord’s prayer. In it we pray for the things we need. Most importantly, we pray for God’s will to be done. On the surface it seems strange to pray for God to do what God wants to do. In practice, if we pray that seriously we are aligning ourselves with God’s purpose in the world. We’re not just praying for God to do what God wants to do, we’re also praying to become part of God’s will coming true in the world.
And when we join our actions with that great prayer we are living the life we were made for. We make our life a great cycle of prayer and action where our active prayer time shapes our decisions during the day and our actions feed back into conversation with God in prayer. There’s tremendous power in that prayer cycle because, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, we give up our plans and take up God’s plan. Some parts of that are scary, some are exciting and many are joyful. So God, give us boldness for our journey with you.
Thanks be to God.