Ask Me for Anything

Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter 
Year A (Acts 7:55-60; John 14:1-14)
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”  Do you believe this?  That’s a question we wrestled with in Bible study earlier this week.  How many of us have experienced suffering or have witnessed the suffering of a loved one and prayed and prayed to God for the suffering to stop – for a cure to be found, a treatment to work, a heart to start beating again? How many have prayed for the financial resources to endure the economic hardships plaguing our nation, for an end to violence in our schools and on our streets?  And how many of us have felt our prayers falling on the deaf ears of a God who promises to answer our prayers?  At one time or another, I would venture to guess, that every one of us has had that experience.
Some suggest that if we just have patience, God will eventually answer our prayers,  that the answer to our prayers is merely a matter of timing – our timing versus God’s timing – the answer to our prayers is just around the next corner.  But once that heart has stopped beating or the money has run out and the house is in foreclosure, doesn’t it seem that God has somehow failed us? and that no amount of time can heal the wounds of a God who allows us to sit and wait, to struggle and suffer?   Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”  What a tall order that is in a world such as ours.  And what a tall order for the early followers of Jesus.
The story of Stephen demonstrates the challenge.  Stephen is one of the “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” chosen to oversee the daily distribution of food to the widows among the community of the faithful.[1]  He is described in the Acts of the Apostles as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” “full of grace and power,” and able to do “great wonders and signs among the people.”[2] He spoke with “wisdom and the Spirit” and “his face was like the face of an angel.”[3] As he is described in Scripture, there can be no doubt that Stephen was a believer.  Perhaps because of his deep faith, or at least due to his unwavering commitment to publically sharing the gospel, Stephen garnered the attention of some members of the synagogue in which he preached.  These men, Acts tells us, began to stir “up the people as well as the elders and the scribes,” setting up “false witnesses who said, ‘This man [Stephen] never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’”[4] 
Given the opportunity to respond to these charges, Stephen remains steadfast to his faith and shares his witness through the stories of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon.  Of each of these forebears in faith, Stephen speaks of the ways in which the people around them persecuted them, rejecting their message, and in so doing, rejecting the will of God.[5]   Of Moses, Stephen says:
“He is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living oracles to give to us. Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him; instead, they pushed him aside, and in their hearts they turned back to Egypt.”[6]
Each of these ancestors in the faith, persecuted in their own time, have come to be understood by the community of faithful believers as the heroes of the faith, the persons who moved the faithful forward from one generation to the next.  And in this line of heroes stands Stephen, one called to proclaim the good news of Christ, himself persecuted – indeed, stoned to death by members of his own community.  And I cannot help but wonder, do Jesus’ words find Stephen in this moment? “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” For the super-human strength of character which Stephen shows in this final moment is paralleled only to that of Jesus in his final moment. Stephen cries “out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’” just as Jesus cried out in his final moment, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” [7]
“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”  Taken out of context this verse seems to give us carte blanche to quite literally ask God for anything.  Several years ago, my sister overheard her oldest daughter (my godchild) praying in her bedroom, “Dear God, please teach me how to whistle.” This heartfelt prayer of a 4 year old seems answered. Olivia can whistle with the best of them.  For many, this understanding of prayer is carried with us well into adulthood, leading to heartache when the prayers go unanswered.  And so we must put the verse back into its context – as part of Jesus’ instructions on how to follow Jesus. 
Jesus tells the disciples, “you know the way to the place where I am going.”[8]  Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way.”[9]  Thomas is looking for the road map, the GPS coordinates that will get him to the place where Jesus will be.  But Jesus replies with words familiar to all of us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”[10]  I am the destination.  I am the journey.  I am the map.  The question is not, “Which way to the place where Jesus is going?” but rather “How do we get where Jesus is going?” And the answer is by following “the way, and the truth, and the life” – the way that Jesus’ lived, the truth to which Jesus points, and the life that Jesus calls each of us to live – it is by following Jesus, that we can rest assured that we are already in Jesus just as Jesus is in the Father.  And when we live in Jesus, we live in God; and when we live in God, our will is aligned with God’s will; and when our will is aligned with the will of God, our prayers are aligned with God and are answered.  It is in this context that Jesus says,
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”[11]
The verses must be read together.  The promise is not that every prayer under the sun will be answered.  Instead it is a promise that rests in the understanding that prayers which are prayed in the name of Jesus are prayers that glorify God.  And, that prayers which glorify God are those which ask for God’s guidance in doing the works that Jesus does – in following the way, the truth, and the life.  And the promise is that in these prayers we will not be disappointed. 
Like the early followers of Jesus – like Stephen - you and I will endure the suffering of the world – sickness, death, financial difficulties, and so on.  But, if we follow the way of Jesus – as Stephen so boldly did – our hearts will not be troubled and we will find ourselves praying not for ourselves but for those who persecute us and for the institutions that push individuals aside.  Let us kneel down with Stephen and cry out with loud voices, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” – do not hold the sins against the people, the systems, the institutions that push us aside.[12]  Lord, give us the strength and courage to believe in you.

[1] Acts 6:1-6.
[2] Acts 6:5, 8.
[3] Acts 6:10, 15.
[4] Acts 6:9-14.
[5] Acts 7:2-51.
[6] Acts 7:38-39.
[7] Acts 7:60; Luke 23:34.
[8] John 14:4.
[9] John 14:5.
[10] John 14:6.
[11] John 14:12-14.
[12] Acts 7:60.