[Jesus] came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”Luke 22:39-42
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.Philippians 4:6-7
Prayer was absolutely crucial to the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ when he physically walked upon the earth. Throughout the gospel witness, there are mentions of Jesus stealing away to a quiet place in order to pray, often taking his disciples with him. Here in these verses from Luke 22, we find Jesus on the very eve of his betrayal, arrest, and brutal execution fervently praying for God’s will to be done. And Jesus continually urged his followers to be constant in prayer – teaching that is eloquently summed up by Paul in his letter to the Philippians, in which he urges them: Don’t worry about anything, but take everything in prayer to God.
I know it’s the sort of thing you expect a pastor to say, but prayer is absolutely central to the path of discipleship. And I’ll be the first to admit that I mostly know that this is true because of how much I find myself struggling to stay centered and grounded when my own prayer life is inconsistent – which it usually is. But prayer is central to discipleship for many reasons:
Prayer is an expression of trust in God’s faithfulness and goodness – like Jesus’ prayer here, on the Mount of Olives. Jesus – fully human, remember, not just divine – knows what *he* wants: he doesn’t want to drink this cup of suffering! Yet look what he prays: Not my will, but yours be done. He trusts that God’s will is ultimately for his good and for the good of creation, even in this difficult moment. We “let our requests be made known to God,” as Paul writes, because we trust that God wants good things for us. And even when it seems like our prayers go unanswered – when our loved ones lie dying or the world seems to be on the brink of war – we keep praying anyway: we pray in defiance of the brokenness of this world. We pray with trusting faith that bears witness to the better world that God is bringing into being.
Prayer helps bring us into greater awareness that this is, indeed, what God is doing. Prayer gives us fresh eyes to see the ways that God is at work in the world all around us; it helps us attune our hearts to catch the signs of the kingdom breaking into this world little by little. And prayer helps us attune our hearts to God’s heart. By regularly connecting with God through prayer, we build up our relationship with God – especially when our prayers move beyond a one-sided string of requests to a true conversation: prayers in which we are sometimes silent and still, listening for God to speak to us, and trusting that God will.
And prayer is a path of transformation. Often the most powerful way that God responds to our prayers is not by changing the world, but by changing us. God meets us in prayer with unfathomable love and grace and mercy – which often has the side effect that we become more loving and gracious and merciful ourselves. Prayer opens us up to a more expansive and inclusive vision of the world as God dreams it, often drawing us beyond our own wants and needs to a greater awareness of the needs of others – even opening our eyes to the ways that we ourselves may become the answer to someone else’s prayer.
In times of uncertainty, like the ones we’re living in, prayer is essential for helping us find our way forward into the future God is calling us into. Let this be a season of renewed prayer for us all. And as we pray, may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard all our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.
First published in St. John’s March 2022 newsletter.