**I just returned home after attending the annual Apprentice Gathering. This year’s theme was “The Joy of Kingdom Living,” and all the large group gatherings and workshops focused on the six traditions of Christian spirituality outlined by Richard Foster in his 1998 book Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. In keeping with this year’s theme, I thought it might be worthwhile to post a series of sermons on the same subject I preached back in the spring of 2012. Each week during the series, I included a bulletin insert with some suggestions for trying the practices of each tradition, based on suggestions at the end of each chapter of Foster’s book. This is the first week’s sermon, on the Contemplative Tradition.
April 15, 2012
Luke 11:1-4; John 15:1-11
According to the book of Acts, the first place we were ever called “Christians” was Antioch—the city in which was located the vibrant, multicultural church that ordained Paul and sent him out to proclaim the Gospel throughout the known world. What we know from other sources is that at first, “Christian” wasn’t a compliment. It meant “little Christ,” an imitator of Christ, and in the Roman world in which Acts took place, outside the churches, at least, Christ wasn’t exactly someone worth imitating. He’d been crucified as a revolutionary, his followers scattered in fear.
Rome, of course, had no use whatsoever for the rumor that he’d been raised from the dead and walked among his followers for some time afterward. But the church went right on trying to imitate Christ anyway.
It may not originally have been a compliment to call us Christians—little Christs, imitators of Christ—but it is exactly what we’re supposed to be. Disciples of Christ are students of him, learning from him what it means to have a relationship with God, trying to figure out how to act more like him every day—even though our world is much different from the one in which he lived.
As we read the Gospels, we discover that, among other things, Jesus had a very rich prayer life. There are lots of places in the Gospels—especially in Luke but we see it in all four—where we’re told that Jesus went off by himself to pray. His prayer life was impressive enough that his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, and he gave them a model prayer, a version of which we say together here every Sunday—the Lord’s Prayer. He gave other instructions, too, about persistence in prayer, and about praying because we trust God to meet our needs.
But even more important than the specific prayer he taught us is what we see him doing: praying all night before choosing the Twelve who would make up the inner circle among his followers; going off by himself to recharge after having been exhausted by healing and teaching; even pouring out his fear and agony to God at Gethsemane, and finally coming to a point of relinquishment, where he moved from “Let this cup pass from me” to “Thy will be done.”
Throughout Christian history there have been six major streams of spirituality, six major ways people have sought to imitate Christ and live as his disciples in the world. They all flow out of Jesus’ life, all six in balance in a single life. This is our goal; while some Christian spiritual movements have overemphasized one stream over the others, Christian spirituality at its best holds all six in balance in our lives, just as they were in Jesus’ life.
Today we begin with the contemplative stream of Christian spirituality. I’m not sure that Americans are terribly fond of contemplation—we tend to use terms like “navel-gazing” or “daydreaming,” and prefer that folks knock it off and do something constructive. In this case, we’re talking about prayer—but I don’t know that that’s necessarily any more popular. It really does look a lot like sitting and doing nothing.
If we want to justify prayer, we a lot of times feel like we need to be able to show results. I told you not too long ago, I think, about a church group Fred Craddock once encountered, a prayer group that kept track of the things they’d prayed for, and noted when their prayers were answered. When Fred met them they were getting ready for a party to celebrate their thousandth answered prayer. What they’d been asking for, and apparently getting, were things like new cars, better jobs, even fur coats.
Fred wondered whether anyone had ever gone to that group and said, I’ve been praying for this thing for thirty years, and nothing has happened. Are those prayers wasted because they’re not answered?
Is prayer just about asking for stuff? How else can we keep track of measurable results—another thing we Americans tend to want to see out of anything we do?
Our second Scripture reading for today, from John’s Gospel, doesn’t include anywhere the word “prayer.” It does say something that seems to support what the prayer group Fred talked about was doing, though. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you.” Well, doesn’t that say that we should get whatever we ask for in prayer? New cars, better-paying jobs, fur coats, you name it—doesn’t it say that if we ask for it God has to give it to us?
I’m afraid not. It’s considerably more complicated than that; we’re not assured here that God is the great vending machine in the sky, where we just punch in the right codes and out pops exactly what we asked for. That’s not what prayer is all about, but this passage does tell us why we pray—and what results we can expect from a prayer-filled life.
As I mentioned, this text doesn’t actually include the word “prayer” in it anywhere, but it’s still about prayer. Jesus encourages us in this passage to live a life connected through him to God. The best way to keep that connection alive and vital is through prayer—not just prayer in the sense of asking God for stuff but prayer in the sense of making time simply to be with God, to try to encounter God through Scriptures, to be quiet so that God can speak to us. Yes, we sometimes pour out our hearts before God; sometimes there are things we need to ask God for, and sometimes there’s nothing else to say but “Thank you.” But prayer sometimes is quiet contemplation, as two people who love each other very much sometimes just enjoy sitting together, not talking but simply basking in their love for one another.
And about those measurable results? I wouldn’t want anyone to leave here with the impression that prayer is only a holy waste of time, just something we do so we feel better. Nor, however, are we all going to be able to throw a party to celebrate our thousandth answered prayer request. That’s not the kind of measurable results Jesus is talking about in this passage.
But just as a branch connected to the main plant will live and bear fruit, as we connect to God through Jesus we also will bear fruit. We bear the fruit of love, of service, of mercy, of joy. We become the light of the world. Others see us and know there is something different about us, and perhaps they want to have it, too; and because we are connected to God through Jesus, we can tell them about that and help them get connected, too, so they can also bear the fruit of love, service, mercy, joy, even light.
But what about that part where Jesus says we’ll get whatever we ask for? Well, I think there’s a qualifier there: if we abide in Jesus, and take what he has taught us to heart, if we maintain the connection through him to God, by nurturing a prayer-filled life, then the things we ask for will be things that are in line with God’s will. Maybe as we abide in Jesus and let his words take root within us, we will ask less for fur coats and new cars, and more for justice, and mercy, and peace. And God will be more than pleased to answer those prayers.
The measurable result of a prayer-filled life is that we bear fruit for the sake of God’s kingdom. The fruit we bear is holiness—the second stream of Christian spirituality, which we’ll explore next week—as well as the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, which we’ll take some time to consider when we get to the charismatic stream of spirituality. The fruit we bear is deeds of justice and mercy—which we’ll think about when we get to the social justice stream a few weeks from now—and it is the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ, as we’ll learn when we get to the evangelical stream of spirituality. And the fruit we bear is a life in which Jesus Christ is made known, as we grow more and more like him every day, incarnating his love in our world right here and right now.
But a life filled with prayer—a life like Jesus’ own, as we discover in the Gospels—is the foundation for all the other aspects of the Christian life. So we begin there, and we begin this week with a few exercises that I hope won’t be too burdensome, but might help us deepen our prayer life. Take a moment to look through them, if you haven’t already, as we move toward our hymn of invitation and commitment.