"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

In Jesus' Name We Pray ...

          On my first day of clinical pastoral education at the hospital, I remember being led, with shaking knees, onto the floor where I was to serve as chaplain. After glancing at the brand new badge hanging around my neck, the brisk and busy head nurse called out to the others around the nurses’ desk: “Hey, everybody, the new chaplain is here!” Instinctively, my eyes darted around the room …. A chaplain? Where?” And then it hit me, as my stomach flip-flopped and fell to my feet, “Oh, she means me. She thinks that I’m their chaplain. That would be funny, if it weren’t so frightening. I’m just a French teacher. What do I think that I am doing here?! How am I going to help these sick people?”
          Called by God to participate in God’s healing, restoring mission in the world, we often feel like I did at that nurses’ desk. “Who am I to speak and act for God? What authority do I have? What power? I am just little old me, out here trying to do the right thing.” In our lesson from Acts, Peter and John are accurately identified in v. 13 as “uneducated and ordinary men,” yet they have been sent by Jesus to bear witness and to heal. They have miraculously healed a lame man and then, faced with prison for their actions, they have spoken with great power and wisdom before all of the Jewish leaders. They don’t claim responsibility for the good deed that they have done, however. When challenged about how and why they are able to do such mighty acts, they answer that they are acting “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”
          “In Jesus’ Name, we pray.” We say a version of this phrase all the time ourselves, don’t we, at the end of every prayer? As Christians, as “companions of Jesus,” we pray and we act in Jesus’ Name. But what does that really mean? Do we really mean it, when we say it? Don’t we sometimes forget that we are not acting in our own names or in the name of our favorite cause? I thought about the self-understanding of our mission trip group from St. Thomas and the Cathedral as we worked down in Alabama a few weeks ago. We helped people to establish themselves in safe homes in the midst of a dangerous world. We bought and planted them a flower garden. We took time on dull, repetitive tasks because we cared about the family who was to live in that house. We took our vacation time and drove long hours to do some good deeds. Some of us here today contributed generously from our bank accounts so that our parish could engage in this helpful work. But did we consciously do all of it “in Jesus’ Name?” Were we just “helping people,” or were we acting for Jesus, with the power and authority of Jesus? If I had asked our Youth, or even our adult volunteers, why we were down in Alabama building houses, I’m not so sure that they would have thought to say that they were acting “in the Name of Jesus Christ.” That sounds so un-Episcopalian, so full of certainty and evangelistic fervor. After all, we wonder, does it even matter in whose name we do it, as long as it gets done?
I think that some of us, while finding our motivation in a desire to love as Jesus loves, shy away from an overt “acting in Jesus’ Name” because of the intolerant attitude that this expression has fostered in certain Christian circles. In verse 12, Peter proclaims, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” This verse has often been used, as one Christian blogger writes, “as a bludgeoning weapon of Christian dominion”[1] rather than as a powerful ground of self-understanding. In our prayers, he points out, we often use it as a meaningless kind of magical incantation, as if adding “in Jesus’ Name we pray” to our petitions will make our wishes come true. At the same time, the phrase is also used “as a slogan for intolerance regarding other religious paths.”
“This verse in Acts proves that there is salvation in no one else,” we often crow! “We have the monopoly on healing and reconciliation, and if you don’t come to God through our Jesus, then you will roast in hell.”
 Jesus’ Name, however, is not a crutch that we borrow or a ruler that we grab in order to measure others. It is, instead, a gift that we are given, a gift that grows out of our relationship with Jesus. Peter and John received the Holy Spirit from their risen companion Jesus at Pentecost and were thereby empowered to go out into the world to heal and to make whole. We receive the gift of the Holy Spirit at baptism, when we are “sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” We are baptized in Jesus’ Name. From then on, we are given new garments to wear; we are clothed and sent out into the world to bring healing and forgiveness of sins, just as he was. To act or to pray in Jesus’ Name is not a judgment on the identity of others; it is the recognition of the new identity that is given to each Christian in baptism.  As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, for Christians, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
When we act in Jesus’ name, writes Rowan Williams, we are “traveling in borrowed clothes under an assumed name, the name of Jesus … We may look ridiculous or pathetic in our borrowed finery, these ill-fitting trappings of a spiritual authority that belongs to Christ alone.”[2] We may feel like imposters, as ill-equipped to bear the Name as I felt to wear that chaplain’s badge on the first day of CPE. But God sends us out anyway, and the results of our labors—whether we deem ourselves successes or failures—rest in God’s Glory, and not in our own.
          I like William's "borrowed clothing" metaphor. When one is a petite woman, it is hard to fit into clothing made for big, tall men. Whenever I don borrowed vestments, I feel like I did when I was a little girl playing dress-up in my daddy’s jacket. My elderly mother spoke truth through her dementia when she announced, after seeing me parade down the aisle with a group of male colleagues, “Anne, you are just too short to be a priest!” My hands get lost in the satin folds of my chasuble; I trip over every stole I’ve ever owned; and the heavy folds of brocade bunch and slide around my neck. You all and the Vestry have been very kind in offering to alter my vestments here at St. Thomas … But perhaps it has been fitting that, at least for awhile,  my vestments don’t fit. It is perhaps good for me, and for all of us, to pull and tug at our spiritual garments while remembering that we are “imposters” in borrowed clothing, living under an assumed name, the Name of Jesus.
          On the mission trip, as we were working on the house one day, an ambulance, sirens blazing, pulled up to the house next door, and we watched as an elderly gentleman was taken out of the house on a stretcher. His family sat huddled on the porch, looking lost and dejected and hopeless, and we stopped our work to gawk at them. I said a silent prayer for the man and turned back to my painting, when one of the young people came up to me and asked with concern, “Shouldn’t we go over there to the house and offer to pray with the family?” My first thought was, “Oh no, they will think that we are one of those church groups who force their beliefs on others. Besides, they might yell at me and tell me to go away.” But watching the genuine love on the girl’s face, I was instantly ashamed of myself. With a shudder, I got my shy little priest’s body over to that porch and said a prayer with a grateful, if surprised, family, and it was a blessed moment of healing.
Peter, in his speech to the Jewish leaders, quotes Psalm 118, a verse that is the most often quoted verse of Hebrew Scripture in the New Testament[3]: “the stone that was rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.” God takes the imperfect rejects ….the Prodigal Son, the crucified messiah, the unwed teenage girl from Nazareth, the stuttering Moses, the second-born sons, the sinful King David, the small parish, the much-too-shy priest, you and me …. and God makes them the centerpiece of God’s plan for the restoration of the world. There is salvation—healing—in no one else but broken little you and me, wrapped up in the Holy Spirit, dressed up in the robes of the Resurrected One, and bundled on out the door to heal and serve, not in our names, not in the name of the Church, not in the name of human rights or good behavior, but in the Name of Jesus Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being.

[1] D. Mark Davis, “Left Behind and Loving It,” found at http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/04/most-misused-scripture-in-world.html.

[2] Rowan Williams, “True Deceivers,” in A Ray of Darkness, 162.

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