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January 21, 2018

“Why We Pray”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Ephesians 6.18-24

Acts 1.1-14

January 21, 2018

            There are times in our lives when a friend or family member goes through a difficult experience and we do not know how to respond. We want to be active and try to change what we can about the situation. When someone has cancer, when a child dies, when there is tragedy or some other challenging event, we might feel helpless. We cannot cure the cancer or bring back the child or change the outcome, so we scramble to be present in any way possible – reaching out through meals and a listening ear. We cry with them. Often when sending cards, we say “you are in my thoughts and prayers.” These words can seem so empty – like we are doing nothing – but prayer can be so powerful. When sent with actual prayers, it does make a tremendous difference.

            Then, there is the other side of prayer – when the idea of prayer isn’t enough, and is used as an excuse for inaction. Any time we have a national tragedy and politicians or leaders cover it with prayer only, as if there is nothing they can do, we can become frustrated and feel like prayer is being used as an excuse to do nothing. Harvard Divinity School professor Stephanie Paulsell recently wrote an article in Christian Century about such politicians and how they have tainted the phrase “thoughts and prayers.” After the horrific shooting in Las Vegas there were many people who criticized the use of this phrase because it became a cliché rather than a spiritual response.[1] Instead of taking action, making policies or challenging the way things are done, it is assumed that well-meaning thoughts and a quick pause will alter the way people act. At times it seems like people use this phrase in the same way they might say, “well, it is what it is.” Sometimes, “it is what it is” because we refuse to act and make a difference. Maybe it doesn’t have to be as it is, because God is waiting for us to be transformed so we can transform the world.

            Both passages we read today include prayer. I’m going away from lectionary today, which might be obvious since we’re talking about Jesus’ ascension before Lent has even begun – but bear with me. First, we study the passage from Acts. The author or Acts was the same author of the Gospel of Luke. This is a second book, a continuation of the Gospel. The author addresses both books to “Theophilus,” which was not a specific person, but literally translates as “loved by God” or “one who loves God.” So, this book is written to all of us.

This is not the first time the author writes about Jesus’ ascension into the clouds, but is a recap of an event already addressed in the Gospel of Luke. However, there are some discrepancies. Here, Jesus ascended approximately forty days after the resurrection. In Luke it appears to have happened the same day he rose from the dead.[2] We might not be surprised by discrepancies in the Bible, but when written by the same person, it does seem odd.

The disciples are asking questions of Jesus, perhaps understanding that they only have a few more moments with him. They are anxious because they will be alone when he leaves. Yet, Jesus tries to reassure them that God will send the Spirit and they won’t be alone. Then, he is taken up into the clouds, and the disciples stand in awe. “Why do you stand there looking up?” these two figures in white ask them. In some ways, this seems like a natural reaction! I have never seen anyone who was not a CareBear whisked away by a cloud, so if I saw this in my daily life, I’d probably stop and stare, too. The point the figures make, though, is that the disciples cannot stand there with their mouths gaping open forever. When something significant happens – positive or traumatic – we can only stand there for so long before we must take action. We can only weep for so long. We can only wait for so long for Jesus to return and make a change. We can only stand in awe for so long. We can only hear about one tragedy after another before finally asking, “When will this end? What needs to change?”

The disciples go to pray. They do not go off by themselves, but welcome all people who are willing to sit with them. They pray together, constantly. This passage is about Jesus – because all our scripture comes back to God or Jesus or the Spirit – but it is also about the disciples, and ultimately how they respond to God. Without Christ, they must find a way to fulfill their calling and Christ’s mission.[3] The way they process this at first is in prayer. They are able to speak to God, to one another, and to process what has happened and how they will move forward.

The disciples did not stay behind closed doors. If they had, we wouldn’t be in church today. They spread the word. After Pentecost, in Acts 2, the people shared food and experiences and community. They chose to walk together in life and be present with one another. Terry Tempest Williams, an activist, wrote about prayer by saying, “I choose not to look away…For me, that is contemplative prayer.”[4] For an activist, and for Christians, I would argue, it means witnessing to the hurt, the pain, and being present with people who are struggling. Prayer looks like being in solidarity with people; being in community.

In the Ephesians passage, we are reading right after the passage about putting on the “armor of God.” This is the end of the letter to the Ephesians, offering continued prayers, and asking for prayer, as well. To request for prayer is very important. We have to ask for prayers, because we need it – we need God’s help and strength. We need to let others know that we need God’s help and strength.

Prayers do not just end injustice and pain, though. The world does not just magically change. We are changed through our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. When we are changed, we respond. The disciples were changed – transformed, even, after witnessing the ascension. We are changed every time we gather together to pray. God moves in us through prayer, opening our eyes bit by bit to God’s Word.

Origen of Alexandria, who wrote in the third century, stated that “prayer does not immobilize us; it activates us.”[5] We must take action. We have to write to representatives to make a change. Alter how we spend our time and money for fairness and equality for people. Our lives cannot stay the same because God moves within us and encourages us and shows us that peace and love are possible, even in a hurting world. As a response to God’s love for us, we must show love to the world. In response to God’s Word to us, we must use words to make a change. In response to God’s grace, we must show grace, as well. When we pray, something changes within us. We are motivated and inspired by the Spirit.

So, I implore you to pray without ceasing. Be filled with God’s Spirit, and challenged by God’s Word. Find strength in God’s word – a strength that helps us in even the darkest of times. Pray for your family, for your neighbors, for your church, for your enemies, for your leaders, and those you don’t even know. Be blessed through prayer, now and always. Thanks be to God. Amen.    


[1] Stephanie Paulsell, “Thoughts and Prayers” in Christian Century. November 22, 2017, Vol. 134, No. 24, p.35

[2] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993), 267.

[3] Jeffrey D. Peterson-Davis, “Acts 1.1-14” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 504.

[4] Paulsell, 35.

[5] Ibid., 35.