Our scripture today provides us with a fine glimpse into the life of the early church, at its very start. The community has experienced profound moments, their teacher was publicly sentenced to death, mocked and abused and many of those that now gather were there as he drew his last breath under agony. They respond by doing two things; staying together and devoting themselves to prayer. They have experienced the worse and yet they have sensed his presence with them. They felt the emptiness of the tomb, felt him beyond his death and sensed him at the table breaking bread. Now they, are confident in the remarkable life beyond death and they name it in keeping with their Jewish roots, Jesus ascends into clouds. They have been in grief one moment and awe the next and what do they do; they return to the upper room together and they pray. Their lives have been turned upside down and they do two things...they stay together and they pray.
At first glance this circle looks like maybe 11 men that have been on the road with Jesus for some time. But then our author Luke (that's right the same guy that wrote the Gospel and created a John sandwich Christian Scriptures) adds the women to the mix and this likely includes Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and Mary the mother of James. Luke has named these women before (Luke 8:3) as the ones who provided for the community out of their resources, they had accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem and they had set out to care for Christ’s body at the Tomb and thus they become the first witnesses to his resurrection. These ladies are important and if you read not only Luke, but Matthew and Mark, it is typical that while the male disciples bumble through the teachings Jesus offers the ladies get it. Luke continues, not only are the key women leaders there in the Upper Room but Mary, the mother of Jesus, is there along with his brothers. We know as the story of Acts continues that James the brother of Jesus becomes the principal leader of the church in Jerusalem and while this isn’t named explicitly in the Biblical narrative, we shouldn’t imagine this church as just a room full of 15 men and a few leading ladies. These men, particularly, Jesus’ Brothers were first century Jewish men, they were likely married and where they go, their families go too. See if we open the verse just a little wider to the possibilities that our ancient host left unspoken because it would have just been extra detail to the reader, we see that this Upper Room might have had 100 some folks of all ages gathered in close to pray and to wait until they sensed the spirit of God urging them down the road.
The other detail that might have just bogged down first century readers but would have been helpful, at least in my opinion answers the question, what does it mean that they devoted themselves in prayer. See I can infer from just a few chapters later what staying together means, it means sharing everything they have in common. It means becoming a household together. It means one purse and common meals. It means when someone gets sick the others give or do what they can to take care of them and it means that what you bring in through work takes a life beyond your grasp and it takes care of other. But devoting themselves to prayer, that is more difficult to pin down.
The early church folks are talking about prayer in this way all the time. Jesus frequently says when you pray, when you fast, when you go to synagog but only once does he say this is a good prayer to pray. Paul says pray without ceasing but he doesn’t give us tips on what that looks like when you are walking verse running, in a meeting or cooking dinner. They baked bread without giving us the recipe and fished without telling us about the bait and so we must go exploring as well for the how too of prayer.
So we search, but we needn’t look far, just a verses away is a piece of the Psalms. Peter is quoting the Psalms, just as Jesus had done before him. Jesus quoted the Psalms and the prophets through out his ministry, in moments of deep pain he claims the words that have long sustained his people. In moments of deep joy even his mother Mary sings a song of praise that had been on Hannah’s lips many generations before her. Jesus knows the words of the prophets and quotes them at every turn. This early community of followers, knew the scrolls read at the temple. They took the words of scripture to heart. Perhaps when we look for the recipe we shouldn’t make it to hard. Jesus had a prayer book, the Psalms. He had words to meditate on for his journey with the prophets. He participated in his faith community and took these sacred gifts to heart. These scriptures and prayers formed a foundation that a community in the midst of joy and pain can take comfort in. They made space for their minds to be at peace and their hearts to be opening the scriptures in ways that connected them with God.
See for a good number of us, we learned that prayer was something that happened with our eyes closed and our hands clasped as we kneeled a the side of the bed. Perhaps you like me, fall asleep in prayer and feel a little guilt when your mind wonders. But clearly the people who lived long before us imagined prayer was a little more than closing your eyes. The community that followed Jesus prayed so they could open their eyes to God’s presence all around them. They prayed because they had profound moments where they sensed God. They named this as seeing people walk again, in people feeding one another in a hillside and in Christ taking on the suffering of the cross. We may not name our moments of sensing God in the same way as the people before us, we may not name God in a burning bush or a beloved teacher ascending into the sky on a chariot of clouds. But that does not mean we do not sense God. It means we must start looking. It means we can start with prayer so we can open our eyes to the beautiful moments of graces and compassion all around us and seeded within us.
May it be so.
Rev. Debra McKnight