Wednesday, January 30, 2013
On Weeks of Prayer, Communion, and Fasting, Part 2
This is Part 2 in a three-part series on my experience of Prayer Week 2013. (See Part 1 for more details.)
Prayer Week in our fellowship involved increased times of gathered and personal or household prayer, some folks trying out fasting, and a concluding communion service the follow Sunday. These practices pushed me into some deep reflection on love, ours for God, God's for us, and our love together for the world.
I talked about this love and these practices on three consecutive Sundays. Here I'm returning to these topics, rehashing what I said and pushing deeper into each topic.
Week Two: Meeting Jesus in Prayer and at the Table
Something seemed right about ending a week of praying together with a Sunday morning eating together in memory of Jesus. As I prayed through the week, my conviction grew stronger and stronger that prayer and communion should go together in the life of our fellowship right now.
My mind also kept returning to the story of Jesus, now resurrected, surprising his listless disciples on the beach with hot breakfast on the beach. This passage isn't quite a communion story (though it echoes the eucharist in many ways), and prayer certainly isn't its main concern. Perhaps because my heart was in the last chapters of Jn for Prayer Week or perhaps because the Spirit had something important to say, but this story became the center of my meditations on prayer and communion for Sunday morning.
Praying over the passage, over the communion liturgy (which circled around 1 Cor 11, Jn 14, and Lk 15), and over the circumstances and hearts of our fellowship, I began to see that prayer and communion overlap in three significant ways.
1. In both prayer and communion, we encounter Jesus. Believers have long debated how exactly we meet Jesus at God's dinner table. But whatever the encounter's mechanics or metaphysics, we can't deny that in sharing in this bread, this cup, we encounter Jesus.
Prayer, too, whether we're conscious of it or not, is always in Jesus' name. We seek God's face, and we find the Incarnate Son. We seek God's goodness to heal our diseases, God's wisdom to direct our steps, God's justice for the oppressed, God's forgiveness for our guilty hearts, and we find that all these things come to us in the person of Jesus. (See Jn 14.6-9)
(We could also say that when we go to God in thanksgiving, the very things we're giving thanks for have already faced us with Jesus. Both John and Paul say that Jesus is the order, the wisdom, the logos that secures goodness, order, shalom in the universe--whether that goodness be a warm dinner or a miraculous healing.)
2. Both prayer and communion strengthen our love for fellow believers. I saw this firsthand as our fellowship gathered in small groups to pray for one another on Wednesday night. (Thank you, Cindy, for leading us in that exercise.) Text messages, emails, actual face-to-face conversations followed up these shared prayer requests. Prayer increases our stake in other people's lives.
I find this morning by morning as my book of Common Prayer asks me to voice "Prayers for Others" before reciting the Our Father. Those I pray for work their way into my heart, and I find myself calling them up or sending an email to them.
Paul told the Corinthians that their eucharistic fellowship should reflect their true heart-felt fellowship with one another. For this lack of "discerning the body of Christ" to be present in those sisters and brothers eating with them, Paul said some were sick, even dead. Remember, Paul's teaching on the Lord's table in 1 Cor 11.17-34 comes only two or three paragraphs before his instruction about the church being one body made up of many members in 12.12-31.
If we are to eat this meal as a true testimony to the Messiah who submitted even to crucifixion to reconcile us to God (and one another), we must no longer be wrapped up in our own concerns but begin to privilege more the concerns of others (Phil 2.1-11).
3. Both prayer and communion send us out to love and serve the world. We share with one another at the communion table to proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Cor 11.26). This meal is a witness to one who has begun to renew all things and who will return to complete that project. If we share with him at table, we must also share with him in life. He cared for the lonely, healed the sick, cast out evil. If we eat his food and look forward to enjoying the shelter of the homes he is preparing for us, we must live by his rules, after his example.
More fundamentally for me, communion is about a renewal, a recommitment to our discipleship. Every time I stand receive this bread and wine, I remember the promise I made with baptism. Jesus said, "Follow me," and I got up and followed.
Among the things that the example of the New Testament teaches us about prayer, perhaps one is that prayer is as much listening for God to speak as it is talking to God. Think of the the pre-Pentecost prayer meeting (Acts 2). Think of the one in Antioch (Acts 13): As they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I've called them." So after they prayed and fasted, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
Praying to God means, in part, being ready for God to use us to answer our prayers.
All three of these dynamics are at work in Jn 21, even though neither prayer nor communion show up in the story. The disciples encounter Jesus on the shore. (Picking up week one's themes, Jesus shows them his goodness by filling their nets and bellies, even while there are deeper needs that won't be addressed until after they've finished eating.)
After the breakfast meeting, Jesus calls Peter aside. Peter needs relational repair work with Jesus. While Jesus was on trial, Peter had sworn by heaven and earth that he didn't even know who Jesus was. Jesus addresses that by asking Peter three times if he loves him. Jesus pushes Peter to a stronger love. (Although Jesus is the fellow believer in question here, the principle holds that an encounter with Jesus results in stronger commitment to right relationships within God's family.)
This encounter not only offers reconciliation; it also gives Peter a task: "Care for my flock." We think of Peter's commission primarily in terms of pastoral care of believers (a strong love), but this task had a strong missionary aspect. Jesus predicts at the end of the chapter how Peter will die: a martyr in Rome, far, far away from the shores of Galilee. Earlier, he was a guest in the first Gentile convert's house in Caesarea and a minister to the fledgling congregation in Antioch. Jesus sent him out to the nations.
In my view, Jn 21 opens the shared dynamics of prayer and communion beyond Prayer Week, church services, or focused times of prayer. Paul says, "Pray continually." It seem that we could continually, at any moment, meet Jesus, find him calling forth more love, hear him sending us to do something new. The spiritual and sacramental practices train us for a spiritual and sacramental awareness of all of life. Jesus may be standing on the shore, if only we have eyes to see him.