Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
I can still well remember in my early adolescence first discovering the Gospel according to John, chapter 15, from which this gospel passage just read comes. It was actually one sentence, just part of one sentence, that seized my attention, when Jesus says that “the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name….” Never mind the context of this particular phrase. What I was keen about was that I could get whatever I wanted from God: that “God the Father will give me whatever I ask.” I liked that. That really got my attention. Some of this, undoubtedly, was the residue of my child’s world being quite small and rather pampered and my often getting what I wanted. (To me, this made God a great deal like my adoring paternal grandmother.) Some of this fascination, in the prospect of getting whatever I wanted from God, was simply to survive adolescence. Our early teen years can be such a cruel experience, as we all know, and in my day I was desperately looking for some kind of power to face the teasing and competition and rejections that come with this awful adolescent passage of life. (Hearing Jesus say to ask for whatever I wanted or needed was like having a big brother in the sky looking out for me.) And I think some of the fascination with this particular phrase came out of my discovery that the world was actually much more complicated and chaotic than I had known as a child. Maybe God was actually with me, and that we could pull off together this thing called life? I need only ask. I liked that. I needed that. My problem was that I couldn’t quite get this verse to work.
I remembering hearing an interview of the outgoing Presidential Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer, on why his time as Press Secretary to George W. Bush was perceived by many as being quite successful. (Whether or not one agrees with the politics of the President he served, Mr. Fleischer generally gets high marks for the job he did.) Mr. Fleischer never spoke in his own name. He always spoke on behalf of the President: what the President thought; what the President wanted or hoped for or planned; what the President had said (or meant to say). And Mr. Fleischer attributed his own seeming success as Press Secretary in knowing well the President he served, not just what he thought but how he thought: his approach, his values, his priorities, his people. And Mr. Fleischer said his intention was always to operate on the principle of never commenting beyond what he knew was accurate or what he knew would be accurate as he spoke day-by-day in the name of the President. And Mr. Fleischer spoke with a recognized authority, in the name of his leader.
Which I think is the key in claiming this authority, this invitation that Jesus gives us, that the Father will give [us] whatever [we] ask in Jesus’ name. We must know Jesus to invoke his name. We must know the mind of Jesus, the heart of Jesus, the words of Jesus to speak in his name. The purpose, the goal, the reason in invoking Jesus’ name is for one reason: it’s for the sake of love, so that we may love Jesus, and be loved by Jesus and so that we may love others in Jesus’ name, that is, as Jesus loves them. If we’re to take Jesus’ invitation and ask for whatever it may be, our asking cannot be just on behalf of our own self, but on behalf of all whom Jesus claims, and all who claim Jesus. When Jesus speaks in this gospel, when he says ‘you’ – “whatever you ask” – this is not a ‘you-singular’ but ‘you-plural,’ “you all.” This isn’t about me; this is about us, what we collectively need. The founder of our own community, Richard Meux Benson, calls this “the relative life.” Father Benson says, “Your life must be a relative life. The moment you are imprisoned in your own self-consciousness, in your own separate individuality, in the selfishness of your own separate existence, you commit a worse suicide than taking the life of your body. You destroy the very life of your person.” Father Benson says that your person is a relative being, and you have no existence except when you ask and act on behalf of another… when you even live in that other.i
Curiously, the first lesson appoint for this liturgy, from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, turns most everything I have just said inside out. Here in this Isaiah passage, it is not we who are calling out to God, but rather God’s calling out to us. The prophet, speaking in the name of God, quotes God as speaking to us, quite tenderly, saying, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…. I will be with you.” Here the reminder of God who quite knowingly “created our inmost parts,” who “knit us together in our mother’s womb” and is “acquainted with all our ways.”ii
I remember asking God for a great many things. A great many things. That I would get an “A” on my geography test. That I would win the prize at camp. That Martha Eastland, with whom I was smitten, would think I was adorable. That Butch Hedricks wouldn’t beat me up after school. That my Aunt Ingeborg would get over her cancer. That I would make the cut on the basketball team, and get a uniform, but, please, also get to stay on the bench and not have to be in the lineup. I prayed almost without ceasing. I asked for everything and anything on my mind. It didn’t work most times. And so I got up early to pray. I stayed up late to pray. I clasped my hands when I prayed. I opened my hands when I prayed. I closed my eyes; I opened my eyes. I knelt beside my bed. I secretly carried my Bible to school in my backpack. I memorized Bible verses. I avoided cracks on the sidewalk. I avoided odd numbers. I promised to eat all my vegetables. I ate all my vegetables. I didn’t chew gum at school. I promised never to cheat. –It was like trying to open a safe which I knew was full of treasure. If I could only get the combination right, I knew I could make this verse work, that I could ask God for anything, and I would get it. And it didn’t work. Not often. It sure wasn’t anything to depend on, and I remember “dropping” this verse, like a fad. And I went on to other things… only to re-discover this passage many years later.
It was the context of Jesus’ promise that I only later discovered. The weight of what Jesus promises – that the God whom he calls ‘Father’ “will give you whatever you ask him in Jesus’ name” – the weight of the promise is not on the word “ask” but on two other words: the pronoun ‘you’ and the word ‘name,’ Jesus’ name. About the name….
There is an extraordinary amount of power that can appropriated in knowing someone’s name and then using it. To know someone’s name gives you a clear access to their identity and a claim on a relationship. To use someone’s name gives you the power of identification. And I suspect we all know when that power is misused. It’s when someone “name drops.” When someone feigns to know another person – who they are, what they believe, what they want or expect. If someone invokes the name of someone in higher power, but without the license to use that name, it will backfire, eventually… because someone always knows better… that this person whose name is invoked would not say that or could not have said that. It’s inconsistent or incongruous… and the pretender will be exposed.
I think there is a truth woven between these two scriptural images of who we are and what we are to become. On the one hand our having identity, of having reason for being, having claim on the name of Jesus only insofar as we live on behalf of others, that we live in others, that we abide with one another; and, on the other hand, that we have individual and eternal worth in the eyes of God, who knows and calls us each by name…. It seems to me the truth woven between these poles is that we can only find our own place in the context of life together. We cannot manufacture our own meaning. We need others to shine Jesus’ light and life and love into our own eyes to give us meaning, and we complete this meaning by reflecting this same light and life and love of Jesus into the countenance of others. It is a circle of belonging.
It seems to me that if our belonging is authentic, we find ourselves quite naturally thinking on behalf of the other or the others, whoever this may be. That we find ourselves carrying the other in our heart, thinking always about the other, during our waking and sleeping. Laying down our lives day-by-day in profound and simple ways. Bearing and invoking Jesus’ name on behalf of this other. Finding our place in belonging to the other… and at the same time finding our own identity, our own voice, our own authority and integrity when we’re least looking for it. I think that is a sign of belonging. For those of you who are married or in partnerships or know in some way what it is to belong, you will know what it is to risk losing yourself in the other, and in doing so to find yourself.
I would say that we take Jesus at his word, to ask away. Jesus assures us, “the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name….” My problem, in my adolescence, wasn’t that I was asking for too much; I was actually asking for too little. We need to know a great deal about Jesus – what Jesus would want for those for whom we pray – and then pray, and then to presume that Jesus will likely reciprocate, in asking us, asking you, to be a part of the solution.
i Quoted from Further Letters of Richard Meux Benson, pp. 36-37; 297.
ii Quoted from Psalm 139.
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