A Sermon for
the 5th Sunday after Easter:
"Doers of Easter: The Practicality of Prayer"
By Dr. Robert Crouse
"Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves." St. James 1:22Today is the fifth and last Sunday of the Easter season. It is sometimes called "Rogation Sunday", because it is immediately followed by the three Rogation Days, on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of this week. The word "Rogation" means "asking", or "praying", and those three Rogation Days are traditionally days of special prayer, particularly for God's blessing on the spring planting. In earlier times - and still today in some parishes - Rogation ceremonies included a procession through the fields, all around the boundaries of the parish.
Today is called "Rogation Sunday" mainly because of its proximity to those Rogation Days; but also, perhaps, because the theme of "Rogation", or "asking", is, in fact, introduced in today's Gospel lesson:"Jesus said unto his disciples, Verily, I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, ye shall receive, that your joy may be full".Thus, today's Gospel, with its emphasis on prayer, anticipates and introduces the theme of Rogation.
But, to understand more fully the meaning of today's lessons, we must also think about them in the context of the Easter season more generally, because they are the conclusion of a series of Easter lessons, which set before us the meaning of Jesus' Resurrection, and the implication of that for our own new life in him. That series of lessons is an answer to the question, "What does it mean for us to be risen with Christ?" If you have followed these lessons thoughtfully week by week (as I hope you have), you will have noticed that the Gospel lessons present, step by step, Jesus' own teaching on the meaning of his Resurrection, while the Epistle lessons seek to show us how that meaning is worked out in the practicalities of our own Christian life. Thus, we are shown, in practical terms, just what it means to "seek those things which are above".
The Epistle lesson for today, as also for last Sunday, comes from the Epistle of St. James, which is the most intensely practical book in the New Testament. Its emphasis is upon behaviour rather than upon belief; and for that reason, some Christians have found it offensive. Martin Luther, for instance, called it an "Epistle of straw", because it seemed to him to exalt good works at the expense of faith. But, really, St. James' point is that genuine faith is not just abstract belief, but is necessarily expressed in the way we live. "Yes, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?" (2:18-20).
The point is really very simple: saying the Creed is one thing; living the Creed is something else. Acknowledging the fact of Jesus' Resurrection is one thing; living in ourselves his risen life is another. That is St. James' point; and in today's Epistle, he warns us about self-deception in this matter. "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only deceiving your own selves." Belief, unless you live it, is only self-deception.
Well, just how are we to be doers of Jesus' Resurrection - doers of Easter - and not hearers only? What does it mean to be doers of Jesus' risen life? The answer is there in our Easter lessons, for us both to hear, and to do: "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things; for you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God". (Col. 3:1).
"Set your minds on things above". There is revolutionary, practical advice, for you and for me, for every one of us here in this Church today. "Set your minds on things above" - make your practical judgements, measure your attitudes, your objectives, the details of your behaviour, in that perspective. "Set your minds on things above" - is not that to live one's life in a new and very unaccustomed way?
But, as St. James reminds us, the scope of self-deception in these matters is vast. "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves". The grip of worldliness is very strong upon us all. We hear the word of God, and carry on our lives as though we had never heard it. It is only by serious, deliberate, and ultimately habitual measuring of our lives in the perspective of God's word and will that we can become doers and not just self-deceiving hearers. You can be a casual hearer; but you can't be a casual doer, because that it nothing but self-deception.
The basic, fundamental element is doing God's word is prayer; because prayer is precisely that measuring of our lives in the perspective of God's word and God's will. Prayer, you know, is not just asking for this or that; prayer is essentially the lifting up to God, our conscious relating to God, of all we are, of all that goes on around us, of all we do, of all that happens to us. We lift it up, we hold it up before God, as today's Gospel tells us, in Jesus' name, and thus we see it, we understand it, in a new way, in a new perspective. It does not change God's eternal will, but it does change us.
We lift it up, we ask it, in Jesus' name. That is to say, with the sacrificial obedience of Jesus, we offer it to God, we submit it to God's will. Such prayer, says Jesus, is always answered: "Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you...ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full". What we ask in Jesus' name, we ask in perfect submission to God's will; and in God's will - not in our own restless desires and whims and fantasies, but in God's will - we have our answer and our peace. As last Sunday's Collect put it, our hearts will "surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found."
The essential practicality of Christian life is the practicality of prayer. St. James, at the end of today's Epistle, gives us a definition of pure religion: "To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world". The practicality of charity is evident enough, and the necessary expression of living faith. But don't forget the conclusion of that definition: "To keep himself unspotted from the world". That is to say, Christian practicality requires that we not succumb to worldly attitudes and judgements and perspectives, but live, rather, in the perspective of habitual prayer, which seeks always the things above, and sees, and judges, and measures all things from the standpoint.
Our new life in Christ, our Easter life, insofar as we are doers, and not just hearers, places us at odds with the world, because the world sees, and judges, and measures very differently. Jesus warns us about this in today's Gospel: "In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer", he says, "I have overcome the world." We, too, with him, overcome the world, precisely by the practicality of prayer. Amen. +
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