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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Prayerful Role Model - 01/10/2016

When I was in seminary, one of my areas of academic focus was on interfaith studies. For  a long time, I had been interested in how the three religions that stem from Abraham – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – related to each other now and historically. I wanted to know more about how they are similar and how they differ. The three are very different in some key and very important ways.

These three religions also have similarities, especially in a critical way that I have found is helpful to remember. In all three religions of the Abrahamic tradition, at the foundation of all else, is what we know as the two greatest commandments: to love God above all else and to love neighbor. Any Christian or Muslim or Jew who is acting out or speaking words that go against these two greatest commandments is operating on the fringe. And in a time when far too many throw around words of division and war in the name of a religion, whether it is to “prove” their religion is the right religion, or to “prove” another's religion is the wrong religion, I find that remembering this is very helpful in discerning who is actually speaking from a heart centered on God's grace and God's love for this world.

My emphasis on interfaith studies was very fruitful.  I trust it will come out in different ways as I continue to grow as a follower of Jesus and a pastor in the Lutheran church. This is one of those times it comes out, ironically, on this week when we remember the baptism of our Lord, something that is unique to the Christian calendar … an event that is part of our season of epiphany because that veil between us and God is quite thin … thin enough for God to break through and reveal to us that this relatively unknown teacher of God's radical love for the world is the son of God, the Messiah.

What prompted this recollection of my interfaith studies is one of the details the gospel writer uses in describing Jesus' baptism.

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, ...” (3:21a)

Jesus was baptized and he was praying. The detail that he was praying in response to his baptism is a detail that is only found in this gospel.

This brought me back to a class I took in my senior year called “Jesus and Muhammad.” My classmates were mostly other Christians, but we had a few Muslim students studying with us, and the course was co-taught by two professors, one Christian and one Muslim. During the semester we together looked at how Jesus and Muhammad have been portrayed in art and literature and scholarly thinking and writing through the centuries.

I'll never forget that first class meeting. First we Christians were asked to offer, off the top of our heads, who Jesus was to us. The list began as you might expect … “God,” “Son of God,” “Redeemer,” “Immanuel,” “the Messiah.” As we got going names and identities like “man,” “politician,” “peace maker,” “rabble rouser,” and “my buddy Jesus,” filled out the list.

Then the Muslims were asked to do the same for Muhammad, who in Islam is the greatest and most revered prophet of all time. That list also began as one might expect – “prophet,” “model.” And it included some of the same things that were on the list for Jesus … “man,” “politician,” “peacemaker,” “rabble rouser.”  

When we were done and I compared the lists, I was really surprised, and maybe a little embarrassed, when I realized the we Christians hadn't listed “model,” as a name for who Jesus is to us. Certainly, that is one way many of us think of Jesus … I would venture to guess that Jesus as model is the whole idea behind the  “What Would Jesus Do” movement of the 90s. So I'm not trying to say we don't view Jesus as a model. I think we definitely do, but I wonder if we couldn't be more explicit about it – more concrete in how we understand that … more clear that Jesus is the example we follow for how we love God above all else and how we love our neighbor.

Perhaps one reason we may shy away from seeing and speaking of Jesus in this way is because he is God too. Muslims don't have that complexity to deal with in the person of Muhammad. While they understand Muhammad to have been an extraordinarily holy person, he is viewed as a human being through and through.

Our understanding of Jesus, on the other hand, is that he is both God and human being at once and inseparably.

That complicates matters a little because we want to be careful not to imply that we believe we can model Jesus and then be on the same level as him. How could we see Jesus, truly, as a role model and not, in the process elevate ourselves to his level and God's level? It can feel like it comes a little uncomfortably close to breaking the first commandment. “You shall have no other gods” includes acting, ourselves as though we were God. It is something we have known to be careful about since Eve and Adam and that Tree of Knowledge incident.

But, as I was boldly reminded in that interfaith classroom, we do have a wonderful model for the human walk in Jesus, who, after all, is as fully human as he is fully divine. He does astounding things as his divine self, indeed, but our biblical texts also give us a portrait of Jesus that we do well to imitate.

And that is what we have here in the detail of Jesus' baptism from Luke, where our baptism and our prayer lives are also firmly and powerfully linked to one another.

Prayer is a central element in the life of Jesus and his followers in Luke and in Acts, which is widely believed to have been written by the same person as Part Two of Luke. The whole story of Jesus, according the the Gospel of Luke, begins with the prayers of the people to God at the time when the births of John the Baptizer and Jesus were foretold. And throughout the story, Jesus' prayer practices show us how important prayer is in his relationship with God. By the time we get to Acts, we see that the disciples have become a praying people too. They follow the example Jesus has set for them and pray together as they make decisions and then as they take the Good News of Jesus Christ to all with ears to listen.

We continue this tradition as today's followers of Jesus and messengers of the Good News. As I was thinking about this link between being baptized and prayer this week … this example set before us by Jesus as model for humanity ... naturally I noticed more when I felt drawn to pray and when others talked about praying. It came up a lot. On Tuesday morning a group of Eden’s faithful gathered for prayer group where names and situations were offered up to God. On Wednesday, I went to a community meeting that, following in the tradition of Jesus, was opened in prayer. Wednesday night the confirmation class led a beautiful worship service that was full of prayer, prayers of thankfulness and prayers of concern. Afterward one of the students asked me to add someone she loves and is worried about to the prayer list. By Friday I had been asked to start up the prayer chain for a second time for a community member who is dealing with serious health issues.

This is so clearly part of our identity as followers of Jesus and for many, many of us as people baptized into Christ's church in the world. Recognizing that prayer is such a natural thing for so many people of God gives us hope in a world where we can so easily wonder if there is any hope at all.

It's helpful though to be quite intentional when thinking about how we use prayer and seeing Jesus as a model in this way. For one thing, hopefully being more aware of how we model our walk on Jesus' walk will lead us to be even more prayerful.

It also leads us to think about that connection between prayer and baptism and how it served to deepen Jesus' relationship with God … and, by extension, how it deepens our relationships with God.

The gospel writer shows us the outcome of being prayerful in response to baptism too. “The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (vs. 21b-22)

What our worthy role model is showing us is that when we pray, when our response to being a baptized child of God is to offer our lives – all that we are thankful for and all that troubles our hearts – to God in prayer, God hears us. When we continue to celebrate baptism in our church today and affirm that we as people of God promise to support and pray for the baptized in their new lives in Christ, God hears us and breaks in to our lives. Through our prayers we make room in ourselves for the Holy Spirit to descend like a dove and dwell in our words and our body language, in our choices and our interactions.

We make room for God's desire to take shape in us and through us, to know in ourselves and to make known to others how God sees us. We model ourselves as best we can on the example our Savior has set for us and live confidently in the message we have from the prophet Isaiah today, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. … Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” (Isa 43: 1b, 4a)


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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