The Day of Pentecost, rcl yr b, baptism of Rosalind
Sunday, May 19th, 2024
ACTS 2:1-21; PSALM 104:25-35, 37b; ROMANS 8:22-27; JOHN 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

that very Spirit intercedes

For ten days in 1995, the Hubble Telescope was pointed at a patch of sky near the Big Dipper that looks empty to our eyes. It looks black—like there’s practically nothing there at all.

What emerged, though, was extraordinary. There wasn’t nothing there at all—there was, actually, a whole lot of something. In the image that the telescope was able to take, Hubble found far more than just stars, even—it found galaxies. Three thousand galaxies.

Since then, and with newer telescopes, looking at other patches of empty sky, even more galaxies are being discovered. That’s all to say—where it seemed to us that there was practically nothing at all, there is actually a whole lot of something.

There’s something worth noting, something wise and clever about the Baptismal Covenant we are about to say together. The Covenant as a whole, with the baptismal creed followed by its six questions, invites us to see the connection between doctrine and ethics, it invites us to explore the bond between what we say about God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—to what we say about human living.

This is actually how we spend most of our time in baptismal preparation here at St. John’s. Baptismal prep revolves around this question: what does our trust in this God, as described in this creed, have to do with how we live?

And I’m going to follow Romans here, and help make plain the connection between prayer—something we promise in our answer to the first question in the Covenant when we say that we will continue in “the prayers,”—I’d like to explore the connection between continuing in the prayers and our trust in the Holy Spirit.

Because Paul makes quite an extraordinary statement in Romans 8, when he says about prayer that “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that [the] Spirit intercedes … for the saints.” Paul is pointing out that prayer isn’t me sitting up here praying, prayer isn’t you sitting in your pew or your armchair at home, prayer is first and foremost the Spirit praying within me, prayer is the Spirit praying within you, prayer is the deep quiet of the Spirit reaching out even when we don’t know what to say.

But there’s more here, if we were to look closely. Prayer has a Trinitarian structure for Paul. We don’t get all the bits in our reading, but elsewhere in Romans 8 Paul tells us that prayer is crying out to the Father like a burbling infant. (So imagine this: when Rosie burbles and calls out to Nathaniel or Hailey, Rosie is for us a model of prayer.)

So prayer is the Holy Spirit in you crying out Abba, Father like an infant; and in crying out in this way, the Holy Spirit bears witness, for Paul, that “we are children of God, and if children …[then] joint heirs with Christ.”

Did you catch that? The Trinitarian structure here? When we cry out  ‘Abba! Father!’ to God like a burbling infant, it is the Holy Spirit bearing witness … that we are children of God, and if children …[then] joint heirs with Christ.”

So don’t worry about understanding the Holy Trinity. Pray, because the Trinity is what structures the experience of prayer. Prayer—prayer as part of how Christians live is deeply entwined with how God acts within us in the person of the Holy Spirit, and how God acts in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

There’s more! Prayer in Romans 8 has to do not only with the Spirit, not only with the Trinity, but with the whole cosmos. The creation itself longs for the glory and freedom that is promised to us as the children of God. Creation groans for Paul as it waits with us for its redemption, the same sort of inward groaning, the same sort of deep sighing of the Holy Spirit that prays within us when we are at prayer.

In this way—if prayer is, at its heart, little more than inward groaning, deep sighing, or the burbling of infants—then prayer is as empty as the bit of sky by the big dipper, the bit of sky that the Hubble Telescope was pointed at. Prayer is emptiness—it is groaning, it is sighing, it is burbling.

But in that practically nothing of prayer, we find a whole lot of something—we find the Holy Spirit within us, and we find ourselves reaching out to God the Father like we reach out to a loving parent, and we are affirmed as children of God, siblings of Christ by adoption.

And in the practically nothing of prayer—the groaning, the sighing, the burbling—we then find the liturgy, we then find armchair prayers, and we find that deep, deep silence of God.

And in this practically nothing of prayer—the groaning, the sighing, the burbling—we find our own connection to a whole cosmos that is waiting too for release from its bondage to decay, just as we wait prayerfully, in hope, for what Paul calls the redemption of our bodies.

There’s one last thing to say. And you might guess—it’s about grace. I don’t know about you, but prayer? Well, I often think of it as a chore. “Go to church? Ugh, I’m so tired …this bed is so warm … maybe I’ll just sleep in?” Or when there’s something on my mind, and I have a sense that somehow I should pray about it … maybe I’ll just watch check out TikTok for a minute. (Insert your own media temptation here … mine is all the Frenchie content  on the dirty drain of social media that is called Facebook Videos.)

You see, we think prayer is something we do. We often think that prayer is human work, and a chore on top of it. But this is about as far from what Paul has to say in Romans as we can get. “ … that very Spirit intercedes,” the Spirit that “helps us in our weakness. We don’t pray—prayer is God the Holy Spirit praying within us.

How extraordinary is that—to say that prayer isn’t even something we do, but it is something that God the Holy Spirit does within me, and does within you—and all done within us according to the life of the Holy Trinity itself living its divine life in me, in you. And all done for my sake and yours, in witness to our salvation, the redemption of our bodies. And all this not just for our sake even—but for the sake of the whole cosmos!

All this in this practically nothing of prayer—the groaning, and the sighing, and the burbling—in this practically nothing of prayer we find our lives, along with the life of whole cosmos, caught up in the saving life of the Holy Trinity.

The Revd Cannon Preston Parsons PhD