Prayer is Not Nothing: Pentecost Homily

For nine days the Holy Apostles and 120 others are in the upper room praying. From the outside, it looks like the ascension of Christ has left them bewildered, lost, and timid. It looks like they’ve withdrawn, that they are isolating themselves from the world and the world’s events. From the outside it looks like the Holy Apostles and the 120 others are doing nothing.

But prayer is not nothing. In fact, gathering to pray is what Christians do when they are waiting on God. Waiting not on God’s special word or guidance, or for Him to reveal His will. That sounds too much like God being our server, our waiter. But when we pray to our Father, we are children waiting for Him to know and see and do what is best.

“I waited patiently for the Lord.” That is Our Lord’s prayer, penned by King David. “I waited patiently.” In prayer. And here’s what we say: “O Lord, let it be thy pleasure to deliver me: make haste to help me, O Lord.” We’re not making demands, but entering into a conversation in love, asking our Lord, when He sees that it is good, to act for the benefit of all others. In our impatience, we beg our Father to make haste, to act quickly. But we are also content with the timing and the means He chooses.

Ask the faithful who gathered in Otranto or Lepanto in the 15th and 16th centuries. These cities were under attack. The soldiers and men of the city acted boldly to defend the city. And the rest did not cower in fear. They went into their churches to pray. For prayer is not nothing. And prayer does not have to be an act of fear. It can be an act of courage. In Otranto, the courage of prayer led to the martyrdom of all those praying in the church. The Lord acted by embracing the sacrifice and prayer of the faithful. In Lepanto, more than the tactics and bravery of the soldiers, more than human power and might, the courage of prayer led to the defeat of the Ottoman army.

Prayer does not give us the excuse to do nothing. Because prayer is not nothing. And, more than we believe, prayer accomplishes greater things than our voices or our actions.

True prayer. Prayer that is not an act of desperation or an act of last resort. But prayer that is an act of faith and love. The trust that God does care and will act. And the love which sacrifices our ideas of how things oughta go as we wait patiently for the Lord to act.

Not a one-off prayer. Not a quick ‘help me Jesus’ prayer. But a true, earnest, from the heart prayer. A prayer that begins with, and borrows the words of Jesus in the Psalms, and then builds on them both to ask God to help us see and understand what He is doing; and then also waits patiently for the Lord to act. Confident that He knows both the means and the time better than we, in our short-sighted view.

That’s what the Holy Apostles and 120 others are doing for nine days in the upper room. They’re not wringing their hands, unsure what to do next. They’re not indifferent. They are praying. They are patiently waiting for the Lord to act.

And Our Lord hears our prayers. And He acts. On His timetable, not ours. When He has arranged persons and events to the greatest advantage. Our Lord will not be pushed by our pushiness, or persuaded by our demands. Which is why prayer is an act of faith. And love. The faith that is sure God will come through when He determines; and the obedient love which follows where He leads.

The Apostles and faithful saw this prayer of faith and love, this patient waiting, when they looked back on the Passion of the Christ. In that moment, as Christ was being brutalized and executed, the Apostles could see nothing but their fear. And their impatience drove them away from their Lord. And led to despair and apathy. “They forsook Him and fled.” Not just physically. They also fled emotionally, mentally, and spiritually; into themselves, into their own fears. For these Apostles could not believe, they would not believe, that Jesus’ prayer in the garden had led Him (and them) to that moment. But now more than 40 days later, with the hindsight of faith, immersed in conversation with their Lord for nine days—now they saw where the prayer of faith and love leads; that the dark struggle of faith emerges into the light when immersed in prayer.

These days of prayer; these days of patiently waiting for the Lord to act; these days which seemed over-long—these days give the Holy Apostles and the 120 others the courage and boldness they needed. Not just to speak, but to keep speaking in the face of threats. Not just to stand up for a truth or principle, but to stand within Truth Himself, within the One whose outstretched arms on the cross embraced even these men and women who had fled when He most needed them; who had doubted and wouldn’t see His deliverance; and whose unbelief and hardness of heart He rebuked just before He ascended.

The answer to these serious prayers of the 12 plus 120 led trembling men to acts of great boldness. The answer was the Holy Spirit who gave girls as well as boys, the married and the unmarried, the slave as well as the free,  the courage to demonstrate, even in the face of hostility, their faith in the risen Christ which was active in their love for all humans, whether old or young , male or female, Jewish or gentile, slave or free, rich or poor. For the gospel does not speak only to certain people. It points out sinful actions, but it does not condemn. It judges right from wrong, but it does not seek vengeance. The gospel seeks to welcome all—all—into the embrace of the holy church.

The unity this Spirit delivers invites and urges us to bear with one another in love. Which means to bear with the bearable; to stand, sit, and kneel beside those whose views we can’t embrace. Because the Holy Spirit unites us, not in an agreed set of propositions or ideals or viewpoints. Rather, the Holy Spirit is given to unite us together in Christ Himself. And, since we have received that Spirit—since the Lord’s Spirit testifies to our spirit—this then should also be our goal: “bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

The prayers of many have led us to today. Perhaps your prayers, like mine, have faltered during this long Lent. Perhaps we have been so caught up in ourselves and our own emotions that we’ve wasted this 80-day gift that the Lord has given us to draw nearer to Him.

Whether diligent or lax, whether faithful or apathetic, today let us lean without hesitation on the prayers of the Holy Apostles and the other 120. They prayed for the Spirit to gather Christ’s Church. And now, even with limitations, we are gathered.

Let all of us enter, therefore, into the joy of the Lord. Whether first or last, whether wavering or confidence—receive your reward. Those that have fasted and those that have disregarded the fast, today all is forgiven. Those that have been judgy and those that have been compassionate: today Our Lord welcomes you. The table is rich-laden. Feast royally on the Lord who gives His Body and Blood to unite, to sanctify, and to increase your faith in Him and your love for all humankind.