Sunday 8th May 2016, Easter 7, morning

Acts 16:16-34; John 17:20-26

by Revd Chris Palmer

Today is the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Evangelism. It’s happening throughout the Church of England. And it’s an initiative of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. Different parishes are doing different things to mark the week. And here in our parish, we’ve produced a booklet like this (I hope you’ve got one). It’s got prayer resources for individual prayer each day. And on the back it’s got details of our services when we can pray together. We’ve also set up prayer spaces in each church. Here at Holy Trinity, we’ve got lots of resources in the prayer corner. And the prayer spaces will be open for 30 minutes before each service listed here.

But instead of turning this sermon into a notice, I want to talk about what is prayer and what is evangelism. Let’s start with prayer.

I think prayer is giving time to consciously be with God in a way that gives God our attention and love. That’s a broad definition. But you’ll notice that it’s not reliant on words, or asking, or speaking. These things all belong in prayer, but are just one way of expressing our prayers. Prayer can be wordless – simply meditation that holds the heart and mind in a focussed way. Prayer can be with others or alone. Prayer can follow traditional practices – repeating well known prayers, using a rosary – or entirely free and new. But the key things are to give God time, and give him our conscious attention and love.

I think I’ve been more reticent than I should about encouraging people to put aside real time to pray. I’ve been persuaded by some people’s talk of being too busy and having no available opportunity. But of course, there is time to pray. There are 24 hours in each day. It’s not that we’ve not got time. It’s that we make the other things we fill those 24 hours with a higher priority.  So the first question is, do I want to make prayer a priority?  And, if so, how will I do that? (rather than, can I do that?)

One thing we often say when encouraging people to develop a Rule of Life is, don’t set yourself up to fail. So rather than making grand plans for years to come., make a plan for this week only. During this Week of Prayer, what time will you give?

Then as well as giving time, it’s also about giving our attention and love. This in many ways feels more difficult still, because we are consumed with distractions. Nearly all of our distractions are either a panicky way of trying to control our world – going over the details of something that’s troubling us – or a compulsive way of avoiding our world – going off into fantasy land because it’s more comfortable than our reality.

Prayer is the place where we no longer try to control or try to avoid. We can come with our real lives and sit before God, looking lovingly into the eyes of God who holds our gaze, who loves us with our problems, and reassures us that we are of infinite worth – which is what I think eternal life means.

I think we see just this conscious attention and love in Jesus’s prayer in today’s Gospel. He is absorbed with his relationship with God. ‘As you Father are in me and I in you…’ this is the basis of Jesus’ being and relating. And he allows this in prayer to extend to those he’s praying for – you and me. ‘As you Father are in me and I am you, may they also be in us… I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…’ This prayer is not a way of manipulating God – as if such a thing were possible – though I have heard people bargain with God. It is simply being with God and bringing the world along with us.  That really is prayer – it is intercession – it is relationship – it is desire – it is surrender – it is hope.

What about evangelism, then? Evangelism is not a common word in most churches – this one included. I think we’ve somewhat fearfully handed the word over to churches that call themselves evangelical. But at root the word means simply ‘Good-news-ism’. Sharing the message by the quality of our living and speaking – that God loves the world, and has lived that love in Jesus, and invites us into relationship with him, which is to a gift of the Spirit. OK, we could put it in many different ways.

I think every Christian actually has two stories to tell. We have the story which we all share. The story of Jesus, of his living and dying and rising, as the expression of God’s love. And then we have our own story, the story of what God has done for us. This will be different for everyone, and it’s been a privilege over some years here to hear many of your stories – sometimes in one to one conversations, sometimes in people standing up in Lent talks or other settings.

One of the intentions of this Week of Prayer is that we will have the confidence to tell our story to others, not only inside the church but outside. For many Christians this is the scariest thing. We feel vulnerable, or open to ridicule, or worried that we’ll be labelled a nutcase, or accused of proselytising. It’s true that it’s possible to witness to Christ in a way that is disrespectful of others, imposing, superior, and arrogant. But if you’re worried about that, probably you’re not in danger of it either.

Outside of church, among your colleagues and friends, who knows that you’re a Christian? Would you be able to tell them? How would you tell them in a way that is appropriate and doesn’t seek to control them? And if that feels difficult, then this week is a week simply to pray for that confidence. In giving your attention to God, ask for his strength and courage to speak for him. This is not the same as screwing up your mind to force yourself – that’s not prayer. It is about loosening the anxieties that make it hard, and opening ourselves to God’s spirit.

Jesus says in the reading, ‘As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ So that the world may believe. It’s as if Jesus says that when our lives are rooted in God in Jesus, then we become natural witnesses, nurtured to show that God is loving the world in Jesus, simply as we live. This is not a forced or artificial quality, it is simply being who we truly are – God’s children, living in love of him, showing our love for him.’

Of course, there are moments when the gospel demands courage of us, because the Gospel means liberating those exploited by others. We see this in today’s reading from Acts, when Paul confronts those making a quick buck out of this vulnerable young woman. Speaking the Gospel will include challenging unjust power, as for Paul it also means singing God’s praise in prison. There is not only one model of evangelism.

So this week – prayer and evangelism – and we bring these two together. I encourage you to join in fully, as we allow God’s spirit to flow through us and out to his world.