Whatever you ask in my name…
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Today’s gospel reading is an astounding bombshell of revelation in the unfolding narrative of John. It is in fact the source from which we get most of the evidence in scripture for a Trinitarian understanding of God. As such, it’s a mine-field. I don’t feel quite up to explaining the Trinity today. As our good vicar noted just yesterday morning, quoting one of her seminary professors, anyone who talks about the Trinity for more than thirty seconds has almost certainly committed a heresy. I’m not going to lay money on that, and I have seen some explanations of the Trinity that actually seem to me to make some sense without straying into doctrinal train-wrecks. One of the best of them is Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker. I recommend it — at least as much as I’ve read so far. I got started on it not too long ago, and I’m not finished with it.
But rather than risk bringing down upon my head the fuzzy fury of the Episcopal Inquisition, let me turn my attention instead only to a small part toward the end of that passage. In it, Jesus gives the apostles — and perhaps us — instruction on the matter of prayer. What he says there seems very straightforward and hard to misunderstand…but for the fact that it doesn’t seem to correspond with my experience. Does it with yours?
While not at all to be confused with holy writ, the writings of Mark Twain do contain some trenchant insights on one thing and another. Chapter III of Huckleberry Finn begins as follows:
Well, I got a good going-over in the morning from old Miss Watson on account of my clothes; but the widow she didn’t scold, but only cleaned off the grease and clay, and looked so sorry that I thought I would behave awhile if I could. Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way.
Now I’m going to venture a guess that most people here have had something like Huck’s experience. You don’t have to admit it openly, but I suspect most of us have prayed for things — either physical things like Huck’s fishhooks, or other things, like the recovery of a sick friend — that haven’t actually come about. That being the case, those of us who were raised to take every point in the Bible as both literal and true might find today’s reading from the Gospel of John to be a bit of a stumbling-block. It’s certainly one of a number of things that edged me slowly but inexorably out of a more fundamentalist understanding of the scriptures myself. John tells us that whatever we pray for in his name, we’ll receive. And yet, apparently, to quote the song, it ain’t necessarily so. That’s a problem, it seems to me.
There are several ways of dealing with this discrepancy.
Miss Watson’s response to Huck Finn is in fact too often the one people resort to: it’s not an answer to the question at all, but an attack on the person who asks it: “…she said I was a fool. She never told me why…” Though this seems to be more and more the way our society deals with problematic questions, I don’t think it’s acceptable. Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher. But it certainly seems to me to torpedo any very fundamentalist approach to scripture: if one is going to insist that every word of the Bible is absolutely true and also subject to an ordinary common-sense interpretation, then it ought to be true in a common-sensical way. While calling someone a fool for challenging it may be a way of deflecting an argument, it doesn’t answer it at all.
Only slightly better is the argument that Jesus makes this all dependent on the “If you believe in me” condition, and that hence, if I don’t get what I’m asking for, it’s because I wasn’t believing well enough, or praying hard enough. This is, of course, what many other people would argue. It makes it a problem about a defect in me. I have a sufficient supply of defects, of course, thank you very much, but it looks like the fine print in the contest rules that makes sure that nobody ever actually wins the prize. If God only answers the prayers of flawless people, that’s not much different from answering none of them, is it?
Moreover, it does seem to me to skate rather close to something like a doctrine of salvation by works. What is initially set out as an instance of divine grace becomes, on the strong form of these terms, merely a test of my ability to believe, where the definition of that belief is left tantalizingly but perennially just beyond my reach. I don’t know about you, but when I encounter such things in an area other than Christianity — Scientology, for example — I tend to write them off as a scam. I’m not sure I can honestly think of them differently just because they’re flying the Christian banner.
To push the case a little further, in all this world, full of the faithless, the faithful, and the ultra-faithful as it is, surely someone must be praying with a pure heart and a correct attitude (if such a thing is achievable) for the end of the current pandemic. And yet the thing goes on. It’s possible, I suppose, that of almost eight billion possible prayers, none has been offered by a genuine believer…but I have to say that if that’s the case, the odds of my being or becoming such a believer are pretty slim, and I’m not sure that this whole prospect is anything more than a bad advertising come-on. Plenty of people prayed for the end of the Black Death too, back in 1348, and it went on to kill about a third of the population of Europe.
The other possibility, of course, is that the gospel is just wrong. I wasn’t willing even to entertain that notion in my earlier years, but I’ve become more tolerant of it since, because I don’t think that an error in some part of scripture necessarily vitiates the whole of it. That’s probably a conversation for another occasion, though. All I will say about it here is that it’s a position you can hold and still be a Christian. Nevertheless, I think a more honest approach to the scriptures is not merely to dismiss them, but to try to understand what they’re saying.
So what do we do with this?
I think there are at least two explanations that at least partly dismantle the apparent contradiction between what Jesus says and our practical experience of prayer. One is the argument that this promise was given to the apostles specifically and exclusively. That is, what God gave them was unique to them, peculiar to their own place in human history, and not something guaranteed to all Christians throughout future time. If so, then, well, that’s expired, and we’re on our own.
That seems possible, and yet it’s curiously unsatisfactory to me. Certainly if it’s true, it has virtually no contemporary relevance to us or to our ways of praying. After all, unless we’re seriously off in our understanding of such things, there are no apostles currently alive. (I know of one Christian group that believes that there are, actually, but I have a great many other issues with them, and don’t think I buy that either.)
The other thing is this little phrase “I will do whatever you ask in my name.” That seems to me to require some definition. What does it mean to ask something in Jesus’ name? If you’ve been around Christians of various different persuasions for very long, you’ve surely run into some who close their prayers with a formulaic “In Jesus’ name,” as a way (apparently) of tapping into this guarantee. I’ve done it myself. Preparing this sermon, though, has caused me to rethink what I mean — or ought to mean — when I say it.
Let’s examine that. If all one needs to do is append this little phrase, doesn’t this make prayer something like an attempt to operate God, as if he were some kind of divine vending machine, or a genie in a bottle? If God is manipulable in this way — that is, if he becomes a functionary for you or me just because we’ve said a certain phrase, how is that different from getting a superpower just by saying a magic word…like maybe “Shazam”, for those of us of a certain age? And if so…does that sound like the way God works? I don’t think it is. There are, of course, traditional theories that define a whole category of magic as theurgic, which is to say, “god-compelling”. They have, however, very little traction in the orthodox Christian tradition. (They are much more common in esoteric Christian belief, which tends toward Gnosticism; there are similar connections in Kabbalistic Judaism. I don’t think we can find any evidence, however, in either the Old Testament or the New, that God submits to being used that way.
And really, if you think about it, how could it make sense for that to happen? God is God, not just an infinite extension of human power. The very fabric of reality would come unraveled if it were otherwise. After all, if Tom prays for x, and Jim prays for not-x, what’s going to happen? If both sides in a war pray (earnestly, as I believe often happens) for victory, who’s going to win? If Peter and Paul disagree and pray about it, whose position will carry the day? We know from the book of Acts that the answer is not “both of them”.
I bring these issues up not just because they’re amusing to think about — though I admit that they may be. Yes, I have a mind that wanders toward the whimsical end of the spectrum when probing questions like this. But I raise the issue here not just for the sake of humor but because a reductio ad absurdum is one of the better ways to address a problematic question. If we want to understand what praying in Jesus’ name looks like, one of the ways to narrow that down is to ascertain what it doesn’t look like. It seems quite obvious that, whatever else it may be, it’s not about magically entrapping God in a promise. There are lots of myths in the Greek tradition in which gods get trapped by their promises; especially if they swear by the river Styx, they’re stuck following through on it, whether they want to or not. They make a blank-check sort of promise, and then whoever has received it proceeds to make the gods do what they least want to do. The gods make this blunder routinely. You’d think they’d learn.
But you don’t find much of anything like that in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Our understanding of God is very different, and it goes all the way back. I think instead we need to look at this as part of the wider tradition of prophecy in the Old and New Testaments. Despite popular usage, a prophet is not defined one who predicts the future. Though they do that sometimes, that’s neither neither necessary nor sufficient to qualify one as a prophet. The prophet is the one who speaks for or on behalf of God. The signature phrase of the true prophet is not “Here’s what’s going to happen tomorrow,” but “Thus saith the Lord.” The prophet speaks in the name of the Lord in that sense. It’s not actually a super-power, and it’s not something over which the prophet typically has any say. He’s told what he’s to say, and he says it, usually after a bit of grumpy negotiation to try to get out of it. (The job of prophet is not usually considered a plum position. Prophets have an unfortunate way of being killed on the job, or persecuted in a variety of unpleasant ways.)
But I think it’s under this rubric that we have to understand the idea that someone — anyone — can be praying in Jesus name. The one praying is not just using a formulaic phrase to call God to account and to get his own way. God has not pre-approved a no-limits charge account. Instead he is speaking on behalf of Jesus. That’s not something that can be achieved merely by rubber-stamping the phrase “in Jesus’ name” at the end of a prayer. It comes because we are charged with speaking and praying in accordance with the will of Jesus — who is God — in the first place. Otherwise one isn’t really acting in Jesus’ name, or really praying in Jesus’ name: one is merely a would-be magician trying to conjure up a superpower.
We live in a culture obsessed with superheroes and superpowers, and it’s rather strange. They have come to take a very prominent place in our entertainment, even though I don’t think most of us actually believe that they are possible. I think that some Christians are still kind of clinging to that option, though, under this peculiar rubric. But really that’s not how it works. Even in the Harry Potter universe, most of us are still muggles. In fact, I think by the clear light of day, it’s pretty obvious that there are only muggles out here.
I’m not actually arguing that the supernatural is impossible. There seems to be significant evidence for it. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, after all, as Paul says, our faith is in vain. That’s not in accord with the normal operation of natural processes. But I have to think that God has not given it to you or to me, or to any other person, to decide when the laws of nature will be superseded, suspended, or set aside. That’s his decision. After all, he made the laws of nature. He and nature have a special relationship.
What this leaves me with is the intriguing challenge of trying to determine how we can actually pray in Jesus’ name, then. I’m not sure I have a tidy answer to that. I’m willing to say that I suspect some of our prayers really are framed that way, especially when we are praying for — and actively working to bring about — the glory of God and his kingdom on earth. That at least seems part of the specification we get here in John. Beyond that, I think it’s something we can explore further.