Sunday, May 12, 2013

Heaven, Prayer and Influences

May 12, 2013 –– 7th Sunday of Easter
Acts 7:55–60 / Revelation 22:12–14, 16–7, 20 / John 17:20–26
Heaven, Prayer and Influences

The three readings for today all mention a common theme:
––Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven...
––Most of John’s Revelation is a vision as he looked to heaven.
––Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed....

As Christians, we are to keep [our] hearts on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. We’ve just celebrated the Ascension, emphasizing this. How do we keep our eyes on heaven while we live among the distractions, both pleasurable and painful, of this world?

One way is to know that Jesus has prayed for us. The Gospel tells us he prayed for those who will believe in me. The night before Jesus went to the cross he was looking ahead and anticipating our faith as we gather here today in his name. St Paul tells the Romans that Christ Jesus, who died––more than that, who was raised to life––is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. The letter to the Hebrews says Jesus is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them (Heb 7:25).

But to be honest, this is rather abstract. The world’s distractions are tangible and close. What does it mean that Jesus is praying for us? What does it mean to keep our eyes on heaven? On this Mother’s Day I want to share with you one tangible way Jesus’ prayer has affected my life. (You see, we are surrounded with answers to Jesus’ prayer –– we just need to cultivate the faith to see them.)

One reason I am here proclaiming the Word of God is my mother. I learned to recognize words at age four and was able to read by age five because Mom read Bible stories to me every night from the time I was barely able to understand. As I grew older Mom would tell me she had prayed for me every day and given me to Jesus from the day she discovered her pregnancy. Each day I would see her kneeling by her bed with her Bible open as she spent 30-40 minutes in prayer. As I look back now, I realize that the true meaning of goodness was programmed into me by my mother’s day-to-day modeling. In the words of a Charles Wesley hymn, she had a sensibility to sin, a pain to feel it near. Jesus’ prayers were being fulfilled in my mother, and it was affecting me.

There was a time when I didn’t like that. I was 13... 14.... 15... and thought that church was something invented by old people to keep young people from having fun. Mom observed my rebellious spirit, and I know she prayed for me all the more. Before I turned 16 her prayers joined with those of Jesus and my wandering heart was captured by the grace of our Lord. I surrendered as fully as I knew how and soon had a call for vocational ministry.

As I followed that call over the following years, I always knew Mom was praying for me, my own family, and my ministry. I had been a pastor for twenty-two years when Mom was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. We all knew it was a matter of time.

This became another occasion for Mom to be the instrument of something deep in my spirit. I had preached the gospel for over two decades –– the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. Yet those things –– like Jesus praying for us –– can seem removed from “real” life when everything seems normal. Faced with the death of my mother, I knew in the core of my being that I truly believed those things I preached. I knew Mom would go to be with Jesus, and that someday I could see her again.

Something else happened. As soon as she died I thought, “I’ve lost the daily prayers of this godly woman who has been so powerful in my life.” It was only a nanosecond when I knew that was not true –– her prayers for me would now be more powerful than ever.  I also realized I had come into an inner understanding of the Communion of the Saints. That was not part the tradition which had formed me. I knew “about” it from my theological studies, but suddenly it was real.

It was only a short time after that when I began to hunger for a deeper prayer life for myself, and from that I was introduced to praying The Liturgy of the Hours. I had no idea at the time, but the Lord was setting me up for my journey into the Catholic Church.

A few months after coming into the Church I was on EWTN’s The Journey Home. Near the end of the program there is a time for people to call in with questions. I had told a bit about my Mom’s influence, and one listener asked what I thought my mother would think about my journey. I replied that the deeply-Southern, provincial woman my mother was in this life might not understand, but that the person she is now had helped pray me into spiritual renewal and a hunger for the fullness of the Church.

So I say again on this Mother’s Day something I said earlier: One reason I am here proclaiming the Word of God is my mother. And one reason Mom was such a powerful Christian influence in my life is that she responded –– as I have since tried to do –– to the prayer Jesus prayed on that night before he went to the cross: for those who will believe in me.... that they may be brought to perfection....

What influences has the Lord put in your life to make his prayer for you a reality? How are you responding to him so that you can be a godly influence for someone else?

Mother’s Day should cause us, as Christians, to think about who we are and what we model. Today’s texts show us we are called to be people who are looking to heaven. There are helpers all around us if we have the faith to see. This is part of Jesus’ prayer.

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