1 John 3:16-24
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
April 25, 2121
Praying – that is, having a conversation with God – involves many activities other than asking God for things – praising Him, for example – but it certainly does involve asking.
So what kind of hope should we have in asking God for things? Today’s scripture encourages us to have big hope, for it gives us a big promise. It says, “We receive from [God] whatever we ask.” But it says that on the assumption that we live in a certain way, that “we obey [God’s] commandments and do what pleases him.” The promise applies only to those who meet that condition.
Apparently, just as praying affects our living, our living affects our praying. How faithful we are in our living determines how fruitful we are in our praying.
John, the author of the letter from which today’s scripture lesson comes, is also the author of the fourth Gospel. John’s letter echoes many of the themes of John’s Gospel; and this particular passage from John’s letter echoes many of the themes of the Gospel’s 15th chapter.
In John 15, Jesus addresses His disciples just after the Last Supper and just before His praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, where His suffering for us will start. Preparing His disciples for His Passion, Jesus says in John 15:13, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Today’s scripture lesson from John’s letter begins with John’s saying, “We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Such love was the “new commandment” Jesus gave given His disciples right before He spoke about laying down His life for them and right after He during the Last Supper washed their feet and told them to “love one another just as I have loved you”. The love He commands is a love that gets down and dirty even to the point of cleaning stinky feet and sharing “worldly goods” such as water, bread and a physical ability to take care of peoples’ physical needs.
John’s letter says that by so loving – “not in word or speech, but in truth and action” – we “reassure our hearts before [God]”, however our hearts judge us, and we gain “boldness before God”: that is, the confidence to believe that nothing is too wonderful for God to do for us, and to make big requests of Him in expectation of His giving us “whatever we ask”.
The 14th, 15th and 16th chapters of John’s Gospel record Jesus’ repeating this big promise about prayer, in different forms, three times in a row. He says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name,” then “the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name,” and finally “if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”
Does that mean I can ask God to bring me a winning lottery ticket or insure the Dodgers’ beating the Giants each time they play? Of course not! The promise pertains to prayers prayed “in Jesus’ name”, the name John in his letter urges us to “believe in”. So what does it mean to believe in and to ask “in Jesus’ name”?
Some people act as if it is to do some holy name-dropping and to tag on the end of prayers the magic formula, “in the name of Jesus”. What kind of ridiculous, puny God would that make a difference for!
Consider then how, in other contexts, we use the phrase “in the name of”: “In the name of our long friendship, please forgive me!” “In the name of family harmony, be kind in your aunt!” “In the name of compassion, be as generous as you can.” To ask “in the name of” is to invoke a higher authority and to ask for something on behalf of, or for the sake of, that authority.
The name “Jesus” in Hebrew means “God saves”. Therefore to pray in the name of Jesus is to pray for the sake of His saving purposes, on behalf of His loving agenda, and in line with His caring character and priorities. It is to defer to His higher authority and make His desires and goals our own, obeying His commandment to love as He loved. It is, as both John’s Gospel and John’s letter often repeat, to “abide” in Him. Furthermore, it is, by that abiding in Him, to allow Him to abide in us; and, by that allowing Him to abide in us, to allow His Spirit to make our wishes and His wishes one and the same.
If we are in that spiritual place, we can rest assured that, when we truly pray in Jesus’ name, we receive “whatever we ask” because our requests come from Jesus as much as from us. As St. Therese of Lisieux once put it, “The Lord gives me whatever I want, because I want whatever He gives.” The Lord gives us whatever we most want when we most want what He wants, at whatever time and in whatever form He wants, in the trust that what He wants is better for us than what we first wanted.
Let us then pray with bold assurance for the passions and plans of Jesus to be fulfilled, as we do our part in their fulfillment by obeying His commandments. Then we will see the mountains of hatred and injustice moved, and the waters of love, righteousness and peace roll down like an ever-flowing stream!