The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A, St. George’s Church. Nashville

Father, I thank you for having heard me” (Jo. 11:41).

In the 2013 film Gravity, actress Sandra Bullock is an astronaut who’s in extremis. There’s been a terrible, traumatic accident that has left her cut off, hurtling in orbit around the world in grave danger of her life. Her only contact is with ghostly, flickering radio voices and a “virtual” George Clooney, a fellow astronaut who is probably a figment of her own imagination.

So, push comes to shove and Bullock’s character falls apart. Understandable: the cold night of space surrounding; the beautiful blue orb of earth so nearby but so far away. “No one will mourn for me,” she cries, “no one will pray for my soul.” “I’ve never prayed in my life, no one ever taught me how,” she says, miserably. Note that: No one ever taught me how. Worth the price of admission.

In our Gospel today, we encounter Jesus at a moment of crisis: not the crisis of his life (though that’s coming), but at a crisis in the life of the household at Bethany, where Mary and Martha are mourning their lost brother Lazarus. He’s been dead for four days; the sisters had hoped that Jesus would arrive in time to heal him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jo. 11:21 & 32): it gets repeated twice, first on the lips of Martha and then of Mary. Where have you been, Jesus? Why didn’t you save him?

These too are prayers of a sort; the kind of prayers that people in crisis pray: prayer in the fox hole, prayer in the hospital ward, prayer for those we love who are far away and in trouble. There’s faith here, too: Martha tells Jesus, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him” (Jo. 11:22). She believes; she knows that Jesus can save her brother. That, of course, is exactly what happens in our Gospel today. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.

It’s curious to me that we never actually hear Jesus pray in this crisis. We hear him pray in the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel, in the high priestly prayer that he prays for those who believe in him at the supreme crisis of his own life, but we do not hear him pray in today’s Gospel. The text assumes that he prays, but we only hear Jesus giving thanks to God for having heard his prayer. “Father, I thank you for having heard me” (Jo. 11:41), he says. He actually gives God thanks before Lazarus revives, before he comes forth from the tomb. But we don’t actually hear the prayer, though it’s clear that Jesus has prayed. “I knew that you always hear me,” he says (Jo. 11:42).

Our Gospel reading today underscores the certainty of Jesus’ prayer. Jesus is giving thanks even before the miracle takes place. We don’t hear the prayer, but God certainly does. For our part, our prayers are uncertain, most of the time; we ask in faith, not in the fullness of certainty. In our prayer we seek to be obedient to the will of God (the flip side of faith: what St. Paul calls in Romans “the obedience of faith”) but we’re not there yet. We seek to follow the example of Jesus’ own obedience. Like Mary and Martha, we believe, and we seek from Jesus what we cannot deliver for ourselves. We turn to God in faith.

“I will do whatever you ask in my name,” Jesus says a little later in the Gospel (Jo. 14:13). “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (Jo. 15:7). Earlier, Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (Jo. 4:23). Jesus’ words are an invitation to faith, to pray to God in his name, in spirit and in truth, and believe that the prayer will be answered.

The early Christian writer Tertullian, reflecting on the power of prayer, asked his readers, “What will God refuse to the prayer that comes to Him from the spirit and in truth…?” According to Tertullian, prayer is able “to recall the souls of the dead from the very path of death, to make the weak recover, to heal the sick, to exorcise demons, to open prison doors, to loosen the chains of the innocent. It… remits sins, repels temptations, stamps out persecution, consoles the fainthearted, delights the courageous, brings travelers safely home, calms the waves… feeds the poor, directs the rich, raises up the fallen… and supports those who are on their feet. Prayer is the wall of faith, our shield and weapons against the foe… Hence, let us never set forth unarmed. Let us be mindful of our guard-duty by day and our vigil by night… What need, then,” Tertullian adds, “is there of further discussion of the duty of prayer? Even our Lord Himself prayed” (On Prayer, 29).

Jesus has taught us how to pray, even if nobody else has, through his own prayer, obedient and certain. These are times made for prayer, these times of the Coronavirus; times when uncertainty is rampant, and different, competing versions of reality flicker across our screens. The difference between the real and the unreal is not always clear in the midst of the crisis. What does it mean for us? Where can we turn for help? In these uncertain times, we can turn to God in faith, in our own extreme situation, in the crisis of our lives, in sure and certain hope that God is faithful to us and will hear what we ask in Jesus’ name.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee