“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” (John 16:23f.).
For the last three weeks our gospels have been from John 16. They have not been in sequence. We first read the middle, then the beginning and now the end. But there has been a thematic progression. First Jesus explained how the sorrow of the cross would give way to the joy of resurrection. Then he explained how the resurrection would give way to the ascension and the gift of the Spirit. The gift of the Spirit leads to today’s promise: our prayers will be answered.
The church, the Body of Christ, is the continuing presence of Christ in the world. If we take this literally, as we are supposed to take it, this has implications for prayer. Jesus always prayed with confidence. He knew the Father heard his prayer and he knew the Father would answer. His prayer at the tomb of Lazarus is instructive. St. John tells us,
Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me. And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth (John 11:41-44 KJV).
Through the Spirit, Jesus lives in us we live in him. Thus, we are able to pray in the same way he prayed. As Jesus said, “Ye shall ask in my name: and I say not unto you, that I will pray the Father for you, for the Father himself loveth you.” The prayer of the church is offered in Christ and through Christ with the confidence that the Father hears us just as he hears Christ.
This great privilege of prayer is expressed in the Liturgy when we are “bold to say Our Father.” Bold means confident and without fear. United with God through his Son by the Spirit, we can barge into the Holy of Holies, call God Father and start demanding things: “Thy kingdom come…Give us…our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses. Led us not into testing. Deliver us from the evil one.” This is not arrogance. It is the humble confidence that God is, truly, our Father in heaven.
The first petition of the Lord’s Prayer is the petition that governs all prayer in Christ. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” Prayer draws our lives into the kingdom and brings the kingdom into our lives. When we experience all of life–our vocation, our success, our failures, our sickness, our health and our death in the light of the kingdom, we are able to see how God is making all things new. We are filled with the joy and the hope of resurrection.
Misdirected prayer loses sight of the kingdom and tries merely to manage life in the world. It asks God merely to help us succeed in temporal tasks and put far off the day of death. It asks God to give us more of what this world has to offer and assesses God’s answers merely in terms of how we are faring in the world.
For example, we pray for healing through the sacrament of unction. However, our prayer is not merely that God will always take away sickness so that we can get back to ordinary life in the world. Some people see God as a kind of emergency room. When life is good, they do not offer themselves to God in thanksgiving. But when something goes wrong, they make haste to run to God so that he will fix it and they can return to their faithless life.
Prayer for healing “in Christ” is offered knowing that we are going to die and that some sickness or injury will be our last. Unction brings the kingdom into our sickness and our sickness into the kingdom so that our experience of the sickness itself is transformed. When there is physical healing, it is a foretaste of the resurrection. When there is not complete healing, there is, nonetheless, the experience of triumph. We who have the Spirit have already conquered sickness and death in Christ. “Though [we] were dead, yet shall [we] live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
We must bear in mind that Jesus made his promise about prayer to ten men who were murdered for their faith and one who spent much of his life in exile. We do not conclude that God failed to answer their prayers because they were not saved from their afflictions. God saved them through their affliction, not from their affliction–just as God saved Jesus through the cross, not from the cross. They apostles died triumphantly and, indeed, joyfully. None had regrets. None wondered why God was doing this to them. Through prayer, they experienced their lives and deaths in the light of the kingdom. They asked and received and their joy was made full.
St. Paul’s prayer did not fail because God did not remove his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). God showed him how God’s power was made perfect in Paul’s weakness. Through prayer, the thorn in the flesh was experienced in the light of the kingdom so that it became a means of grace and a source of joy. Through prayer, our afflictions are united with the cross and filled with the hope and promise of Easter. Our afflictions become means of grace. They are no longer the pains of death. They are transformed into the pains of birth. We can face them joyfully and expectantly.
To be sure, we ask for specific things in this world hoping that God will give them to us–and sometimes he does. But all prayer in Christ is an experience of the kingdom. Success and fulfillment are experienced as welcome foretastes of future glory, when all of our desires will be fulfilled. Disappointment and pain are experienced as the cross that is already full of Easter. As St. Paul says, “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
This is our salvation. We have been saved from the futility of life in a fallen world. Through prayer, we see that nothing about our life in Christ in this world is merely of this world. Through prayer we are able to taste eternity in time and experience right now the joy of the coming kingdom. This is why St. Paul teaches us to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This is why Jesus says, “Ask and ye shall receive that your joy may be full.”