The Fifth Sunday after Easter


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O Lord, from whom all good things do come,…
James 1:22-27
John 16:23-33

The final portion of Jesus’ final farewell discourse before its summary in Chapter 17 contains a number of enigmas. First, what should the Disciples ask of the Father? Jesus says that previously they have asked nothing in his name but now they must ask that their “joy may be full”. The Old Testament in general depicts people as being fatalistic rather than intercessory: the patriarchs regretted their lack of children but God announced their change of fortune on his own ‘initiative’ rather than in response to prayer. The great prayers, such as the Psalms, praise God, regret misdeeds, ask for peace of mind and, above all, ask for revenge on (uncircumcised) enemies but they are largely devoid of the kind of intercession to which we are accustomed. If we take the ACTS acronym (adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and intercession), the OT put least emphasis on the last.

Secondly, matters are not made easier when Jesus says that he has finished with proverbs and will now speak plainly. The disciples acknowledge this which enables them to affirm their belief that Jesus “came from God”. Thirdly, this happy, if illogical sequence is then capped by Jesus making two apparently contradictory statements: that his followers will be scattered and abandon him; but that he has said what he has to bring them peace. No matter, he concludes, for he has “overcome the world.” The discourse also implies the forthcoming ‘Ascension’ without being specific which is an indication of the reason for its place in the Lectionary. In order to grasp the complexities of the Farewell discourse we have to see it entirely as a theological understanding of the Trinitarian economy and its relationship with the church and the world. Trying to understand it from the point of view of the listening disciples yields nothing but bewilderment: they would not understand the activity of the Trinitarian Economy until Pentecost and its aftermath; and they would not know what to ask for until their mission began. Yet even as late as Acts, the traditional priorities of Jewish prayer persist.

James provides a clue to the change of priorities; ever practical, he unites religious observance with the performance of good works. Although this connection was integral to Jewish life it was at once purer and simpler than the Christian perception because, devoid of any clear belief in the after-life until the development of Inter Testamental Pharisaic thinking, devout Jews performed good deeds for their own sake without any thought of ‘banking’ them as credits towards eternal life. It was that very ‘banking’ which had triggered Luther’s protest against Rome and it partly explains Luther’s reaction against the ‘efficacy of good works’ and the unpopularity of James during the Reformation.

The Collect, in identifying God as the source of all “good things”, leads us to the conclusion that we can only ask for the good and that only God can determine what that means. When we intercede we are consciously laying our concern before God and saying, in effect, that he alone knows what is good for us and those for whom we pray. Intercessory prayer is, to a great extent, prayer that reminds us of our own obligations and weaknesses so that when we pray for a sick person we are reminding ourselves to visit them. In a very basic sense, we should ask for nothing to which we are not prepared to contribute ourselves. In other words, as James would put it, prayer (or faith) is not a substitute for action.

Just as the disciples have no tradition of intercessory prayer so, conversely,, our prayer tradition has become over balanced in that direction so that the word “prayer” is used to mean to make a request. This calls to mind the most famous incident of OT personal intercession (prompted by God and not by Solomon) when God asks Solomon what he wants and he (wisely) opts for wisdom. That is a high standard against which to judge our own efforts.

One imagines that if the Disciples had understood Jesus they would have asked for the kind of things we, rather than Solomon, ask for. It is understandable that people who are involved in the complexities of mission and compassion should lead to intercessory prayer; our first instinct when we see a suffering child for whom the doctors can do nothing is to pray to a remarkable recovery or a swift end to earthly life. There is nothing wrong with this as long as we are clear that we are not lobbying. To attribute a trivial success to prayer leaves us with the uncomfortable corollary of having to attribute the failure to achieve something trivial as a failure in prayer which brings prayer as a whole into disrepute.

John uses the term “world” in its three senses of being shorthand for wickedness, as a neutral term and as the fruit of the Creator. In his final, triumphal phrase we are to understand that the Crucifixion overcame evil. Different explanations of how that came about account for the Reformation suspicion of James. We are not caught up in the same controversy and almost invariably take to philanthropy more easily than theology but in order to maintain our relationship with God we need a secure and balanced theology of prayer. Unlike the Disciples, we are looking back at John’s complex discourse from a Resurrection standpoint from which we ought to be in a much better position to know how and for what to ask the Father.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Is there a conflict between faith and good works?
  2. Is philanthropy a form of prayer or can it become the source of pride?
  3. Explore different sense of the word “good” and the concept of “the good”
  4. What did Jesus mean by “I have overcome the world”?
  5. Write a prayer which specifies the role of the intercessor, Jesus as the intermediary and God as the recipient.

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