Tuesday, March 3, 2015

In Jesus' Name

This post first appeared as the cover article in our parish newsletter, The View. To learn more about St. John's and to read the rest of the newsletter, please click here.

Back in 2002, as a part of campaign finance reform, candidates for public office were required to say at some point in their advertisements, “I am So-and-So, and I approve this message”—a line usually placed at the end of the commercial. That reform was supposed to discourage negative campaigning by forcing candidates to link their names and faces more closely with the advertisements they ran, but it had a different effect on me: it changed the way I hear people’s prayers.

After the inundation of political commercials that accompanied that first post-McCain-Feingold campaign cycle, I started hearing the conclusion of individuals’ prayers as if a tagline had been stuck there on the end because it was required by some religious authority. I pray this prayer in Jesus’ name. We ask these things in the name of Jesus. I checked with Jesus, and he approved this message.

Of course, those words were nothing new. Christians have been offering prayers in the name of Jesus Christ from the earliest days of his movement. But the advent of this new political tagline drew my attention to the way we invoke the name of Jesus in our prayers. To my ear, dinner blessings and other spontaneous prayers, when ended with any form of “…in Jesus’ name,” took on an artificial quality. I began questioning the link between that practice and the content of the prayers being offered. What does it really mean to ask for something in Jesus’ name? Are we simply sticking those words on the end of our prayers out of habit? Do we say those words because Jesus told us to? Or do we think that they make a difference in the way God hears our prayers? Could it be that those words change the way we approach God? Might they even be a prayer in themselves?

There is a tradition in Christianity that any request made of God in Jesus’ name will be granted. I suppose that this is based on a selection of verses in which Jesus encourages his disciples to believe in the power of prayer and the faithfulness of God who answers those prayers. In Matthew 18:19, Jesus says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” In Mark 11:24, Jesus says, “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Then, in John 14:13-14, Jesus says, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” As any twelve-year-old boy can attest, however, this does not mean that asking God for a Ferrari in Jesus’ name guarantees the delivery of an Italian luxury sports car. What, then, did Jesus mean? Why does he encourage us to ask for things in his name?

Two weeks ago, I led a bible study on John 15:1-17—the passage in which Jesus identifies himself as “the true vine.” In the course of that discussion, we debated the merits of asking for something in the name of Jesus, and I quickly found myself at odds with most of the class. Using viticultural imagery, Jesus urges his disciples to remain connected with him just as a branch remains attached to a vine. Without the vine, the branches can bear no fruit, but, when they abide in the vine, branches are given everything they need for fruitfulness. In verse seven, Jesus offers his disciples a clarifying promise: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” The “wish” that Jesus invites us to bring before God is not akin to the wishes granted to the holder of Aladdin’s lamp. Instead, they are the heartfelt desires of one who remains indivisibly attached to the source of all life—the vine through which our fruitfulness is possible.

Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” But what do the prayers of one who abides in Christ sound like? What are the wishes of one who stays fully connected with Jesus? “This is my commandment,” Jesus says in verse twelve, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” If his words were truly to abide in us, we would love one another with the same sacrificial love that he had for the world. Surely that kind of love manifests itself not in prayers for health and wealth but in heartfelt, heartbroken prayers for the poor, the downtrodden, the mournful, and the outcast. In other words, if you want to be sure that God will answer your prayers, start by praying for the sorts of things for which Jesus himself would ask.

When you say a prayer, do you think about what it means to offer that prayer in the name of Jesus? Do you say the words “in Jesus name we pray” because you think God is more likely to answer your prayer, or do you say those words as a way of asking God to be sure that what you request reflects your identity as one who abides in our Lord? Perhaps we should stop ending our prayers with that familiar tagline and, instead, begin our supplications with those words. Maybe that would make space in our prayers for the holy and powerful name of Jesus shape us and our requests, molding them into the prayers that Jesus would have us pray.
Almighty God, to whom our needs are known before we ask: Help us to ask only what accords with your will; and those good things which we dare not, or in our blindness cannot ask, grant us for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. (BCP p. 394-95)

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