Sunday, June 11, 2017

In Jesus' Name

In Jesus’ Name
John 14:1-14[1]
Prayer is a puzzle to most of us, I think.  I’m not sure many of us even know why it is that we pray.  In this self-oriented culture of ours, some people pray as a form of sanctified wish-fulfillment.  They think they can put a prayer coin in the slot machine and have all their dreams come true—if they pray the right way. Then there are others who reject prayer altogether as a remnant from the days when people thought God was directly responsible for things like the weather.  They see it as just a mind game we’re playing with ourselves.  I think the solution to the problem of prayer lies somewhere in the middle between self-interest and cynicism.
Nowhere does the problem of prayer appear so acutely as in the promises that if we pray with enough faith, we will be granted “anything” we want. This is especially the case with praying “in Jesus’ name.” I think for most of us, “in Jesus’ name” has become just a way to end a prayer. But stories of the Apostles doing amazing things “in Jesus’ name” make us at least wonder if there’s something more to it than that. And the promises in John’s Gospel that if we ask anything “in Jesus’ name” it will be granted to us create the impression that praying “in Jesus’ name” is some kind of method for guaranteeing we’ll get the outcome we want. From that point of view, it sounds more like magic than prayer to me.
I think if we look at this promise in the light of its context, which is always a good idea when approaching the Bible, we’ll find a very different meaning to praying “in Jesus’ name.” Our lesson for today contains a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples concerning whether or not they truly believed that he was who he claimed to be and what he was doing was the Father’s will. Jesus provoked this discussion by saying, “If you know me, you will know my Father also” (John 14:7). That was a difficult thing for any Jewish person to comprehend in that day. I’m not sure it’s gotten any easier for us. I think Jesus recognized how difficult a challenge that is for faith, and he called his disciples to “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” on the basis of the works he had done (John 14:11).
It is this dialogue that leads up to the promise that the Father will grant them anything they ask in Jesus’ name. And yet, it’s important to note that the point of this passage is that if Jesus’ disciples believe in him they “will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these” (John 14:12). I’m not sure which one poses a greater challenge for faith: really believing that Jesus is one with the Father, or really believing that that our faith will enable us to do “greater works” than he did! I think it’s challenging enough to hope that we could do the works that Jesus did. But to do “greater works”? I’m not sure I have that much faith.
It’s in that context that Jesus promised “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). I think Jesus probably knew that his disciples were having a hard enough time believing all that he had done. Most of his work with them involved helping them understand what he was doing, because it was not at all what they had expected. In that light, I would think he also knew that they felt overwhelmed by the statement that they would do “greater things” than Jesus had done.
I think that is the basis for Jesus’ promise, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:14). He was reassuring them that they could ask for the insight, the faith, the courage, and the strength to do the “greater things” that he promised them they would do. Think of it: how else could “the Father be glorified in the Son” than for Jesus to empower his disciples to continue to do the work he had begun. In a very real sense, the story of disciples’ ministry in the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament shows us how they did just that. What they did “in Jesus’ name” was to continue his work of bringing the peace and justice and freedom of God’s kingdom to those who needed it most.
Unfortunately, many believers have separated this verse from its context and turned it into a means for getting whatever they want. People who call themselves “Christian” pray for all kinds of things in Jesus’ name: from healing, to help making ends meet, to the perfect mate, to a house on an acreage, even to things like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. That’s what happens when you pick and choose verses from the Bible. Some of this is legitimate, especially when it involves meeting basic life needs. But there’s a big difference between what we need and what we want.
The lesson the Gospel has for us this week is that praying in Jesus’ name primarily involves praying for his work to be fulfilled through us. I want to repeat what I said last week: in all of this, I don’t think the lesson is that we shouldn’t pray for our needs or even at times our desires. What is more natural than to turn to our creator and redeemer to express the deepest desires of our hearts?  But Jesus’ approach to prayer suggests that the desires of our hearts ought to be shaped not by the values of our culture, or our own selfish interests, but by the principles of the kingdom—compassion, peace, justice, freedom, and new life.  I think when our prayers “in Jesus’ name” are shaped in this way, we will be praying for God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done. When we do that, we can pray with the confidence that God will hear and answer in a way that best promotes his purposes in our world. When we do that, then we’re praying in Jesus’ name.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/14/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

No comments: