Sermon St Mary’s Marlborough, 2nd June 2019
Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost
This year is the third year in which Churches throughout the world are joining in an initiative called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. It started in 2016 as an invitation from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to use the eleven days between Ascension Day and Pentecost as a time to renew our commitment to prayer. Since then, the initiative has grown into a worldwide, ecumenical movement with Churches from over 65 different denominations in 114 countries around the world. One can wonder of course if it is a good thing to even have 65 different denominations, but it shows the scale of the movement.
Traditionally, Christians have focussed on the renewal of prayer during the time between Ascension and Pentecost, following the example of the first disciples. As it is written in the first chapter of the book of Acts: [After the Ascension, the disciples] “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” Prayer has been at the heart of the Christian Church since the earliest days.
But what do we do when we pray? That also is a question that has preoccupied Christians throughout the ages. Thomas Aquinas, amongst others, wrote about prayer, discussing for example whether we should pray for our enemies, whether prayer should last a long time, what we should ask in prayer, and the different types of prayer. However, here, I’d like to explore briefly the question not so much what we do when we pray, but what we expect when we pray.
The question what we expect is more personal than the question what we do when we pray. Whereas in answering the latter we can hide behind theology, when it comes to our expectations, we inevitably have to say something about ourselves. For each of us, our expectations are shaped by our experiences, by our upbringing and circumstances in life. So in a way, we each need to answer that question for ourselves, and I would encourage you to give it some time over the next week.
And thus, I would like to change the question once more. Not asking what we expect when we pray, but wondering what we can expect when we pray. The answer I would like to suggest this morning is that we can expect to be surprised. The way I learnt this lesson I remember vividly. I was working in Berlin, and had not anticipated the long winter months with lots of snow. Used to cycling to work, I usually took my bike to the metro station, and quickly it was in a state of decay.
One morning, my chain broke as I arrived at the metro station, so I knew I would have to walk home in the evening. Being a scientist at heart, I remember saying to myself “I will not pray for it to be fine tonight, because that’s not how prayer works”. Coming back after work, I decided to put my theory to the test and to my surprise, my bike was fine and I was able to cycle home.
The incident has stayed with me, not making me to expect any miracles, teaching me to be open to surprises. I still don’t pray for my bike, but I do hope that my prayer and the prayers of the Church, prayers for peace, for unity and for reconciliation will surprise me one day. What you expect when you pray, I cannot answer. But I can say that we all can expect to be surprised. That expectation is called hope, and hope is what we have through faith in our risen and ascended Lord.