“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
Jesus makes a big promise to the disciples – and therefore to us – in this morning’s gospel. Ask me for anything, I will do it. Anything, we might ask? Anything at all? I am sure we can all come up with plenty of asks, especially now. Can we end the quarantine? Can I get my job back? Can I see my parents safely? Can we find a vaccine – like, yesterday? Can the schools re-open? Can the schools not re-open anytime soon? (After all, the questions we ask are a matter of perspective.)
But seriously, Jesus – anything? That’s a huge promise. Many of us have turned to God in times of grief or trauma, or when life was rocky. Did we always feel that promise came through? Were all our asks answered? We’d probably say no. At least, they were not answered the way we’d hoped.
The most important part of that line from Jesus is what we skipped over just now. They are the words “in my name.” Context matters, here: In this passage, Jesus speaks first about the good works we all might do – in Christ’s name. Not just works that are in line with what Jesus accomplished, but even “greater works than these,” he says, as God’s people. The name of Jesus, in other words, the lessons he left with his followers, can do far more good than one single person. As a collective, as a community, we are more powerful than as individuals. As a community, when we do the work of the Gospel, it comes true. The relationship is clear: when we do good works in the name of Jesus, good works are returned to us.
So, what does it mean to ask in the name in Jesus? What would those questions look like? We might wish that God would change the world, or fix every problem, but even when Jesus walked on this earth, that didn’t happen. Jesus couldn’t erase disease or poverty or injustice, but he did fight against them. He didn’t save every person he might have, but he tried to help them. He didn’t eradicate hate or sexism or racism; he responded with love.
When Jesus tells us – ask anything, and I will do it – we understandably crave for that to be literally true, that every need and desire we have might be answered, every problem solved. We might hope for a world where some benevolent higher power would come and wipe out our viruses – but where would that influence stop? The flood story of Noah is the ultimate cautionary tale – the world that did not prepare for disaster, a lesson many would argue that we continue to fail to learn. We wait and watch while climate change happens. Despite the knowledge that another deadly virus was inevitable, we didn’t stock up on the equipment we needed. Even knowing that early intervention is what prevents mental health issues from worsening, we react too often only when crisis starts.
But the flood story of Noah is also a cautionary tale about the relationship we want with God and the pact we want with Jesus. The flood was an extreme reaction, and a terrible solution. But it also reset God’s relationship to humanity. That story in our gospel ends with God’s promise not to bring about another flood as a correction for humanity’s mistakes. Our mistakes are our own; our relationship to God is one of choice and free will. Jesus, in the gospel, also reminds us of that inherent freedom in our relationship with him. Jesus goes first to prepare the place for us; he extends an invitation, not a command. You know the way, he says. And when Thomas, protests, he reminds the disciples: if you have been paying attention, you have the directions. “The one who believes in me will do the works that I do,” Jesus says. What we say and do may be influenced by others, and by society: what we believe is truly private, one thing entirely in our control.
Jesus is not promising to make the world perfect; Jesus promises us that if we follow the instructions of the gospel, we will make the world better. Jesus isn’t promising to answer our every prayer the way we want him to; he is promising to help us find peace and resilience when we ask him to help us, guided by the gospel. So, we ask Jesus not to change the world with a magic wave of his hand. We ask Jesus: How can I understand? What might I do better? How can I help? How can I make things different next time? How can I find peace?
Jesus has already answered us; he has already kept the promise. It waits to be discovered in the story of his life. We can understand by listening. We can do better by trying. We can help by serving. We make things different by remembering. We can find peace by loving.
There is no easy answer to the problems we face. Surely one clear lesson we have learned from this pandemic is complexity. But the promise that Jesus offers us – ask anything in my name, and I will do it – is that if we hold fast in our discipleship, we also hold the power do great works. In doing them, our prayers are answered.