(a sermon for May 13, 2018, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on John 17:6-21)
What a feeling it is to realize that you have been prayed for.
It’s been almost 20 years now, but as you can imagine, the events surrounding our oldest son’s first surgery for the removal of a pituitary tumor are still indelibly etched in our family’s collective memory. All of it: from the discovery, after a long search, of the tumor itself and the decision that something akin to brain surgery (the first of what turned out to be four such procedures over the next ten years or so) would be necessary to remove it; through the countless doctors’ appointments, consultations and follow-up visits; and leading up to all those horrible hours spent in hospital waiting rooms waiting for news. It was a difficult situation, to say the very least; and this is to say nothing of the hard realization that all the medical advances in the world mean nothing when it’s your kid being wheeled into the operating room!
But that said I also have to say that what I also remember about that time was being awed, amazed and utterly humbled by the prayers being prayed for our son. Now, we knew that our families and our friends would be praying for Jake as he was going through this, and that of course meant everything; and given not only that we were members of a close-knit church family but also that I was pastor of that congregation, we were very grateful to know that the church would be praying as well! But I guess what was surprising was the depth, intensity and the utter expanse of that prayerfulness; as revealed by the women who gathered in the sanctuary on the morning of the surgery so that they could pray together at the exact moment the doctors were operating; or as evidenced by the prayers coming from the people in other churches in town, as well as from those at Jake’s school, others throughout the community and even from perfect strangers (!) who would came up to us in the supermarket to embrace us and let us know in a variety of ways that they’d been praying for us.
Friends, over the course of several months we got cards and letters from people we hadn’t heard from in forever or barely knew at all; and not only that, but also notes from churches out of town (and even out of state!) who wished us well and who wanted us to know that Jake’s name had been brought up in prayer concerns during morning worship! I think my favorite, however, were the cards and pictures that came to us from an anonymous someone in Connecticut – we never did find out exactly who – but which was always signed by their cat, “Mittens;” as in, “Mittens is praying that Jake feels “purr-fect” very soon!”
It was amazing, it was uplifting… and it mattered. It not only offered up to us a large measure of comfort and encouragement at a time when it was sorely needed, it also revealed something to us of the love of Christ in the midst of all our worry and stress. All those prayers, no matter what their shape or form, made a real difference in our lives; it was such an incredible feeling, and so very important for us to know that our son was being prayed for; that Lisa and I and our whole family was being prayed for; and that there those out there who cared about us and who loved us and, moreover, who trusted God to hear them and respond to them as they prayed for us!
Those who have been there know what I mean when I say that this was life-affirming and in many ways, life-changing; and that’s why we should never underestimate the meaning of what we do together in our prayer time every Sunday morning. There is power in prayer, and there is love expressed in the act of prayer; which is what makes it all the more remarkable to discover through our text for this morning that in the midst of those final moments just before the events of his crucifixion begin to unfold; even as, as David Lose puts it, he is “anticipating an immediate future that will include betrayal, trial, condemnation, beating, and execution,” Jesus stops everything to pray or those he loves… for his disciples… for those closest to him… and for you and me.
This passage from John’s gospel we’ve shared this morning continues on with what’s referred to as Jesus’ “farewell discourses,” but biblical scholars and church theologians often talk about these verses from the 17th chapter as being Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer.” This is a reference to Old Testament tradition, in which the temple priest would go into the “Holy of Holies,” which was the central-most part of the temple, so to offer up prayers of the people and bring a sacrifice as a payment for their sins. In our Christian faith, of course, we understand that Jesus stands as a mediator between God and ourselves; offering up the one, true sacrifice – himself – as the final and complete payment for our sin before God. So… the tradition of the church has always held that this prayer of Jesus in John’s gospel represents Jesus acting as our temple priest; quite literally standing before the throne of grace offering up prayers for his people in preparation for the sacrifice that’s to be made.
And that’s certainly true; in fact, these are verses central to our whole understanding of Christian theology; in particular the idea of Christ’s atonement for our sin, all for the sake of our salvation before God! But I also have to say that because of how incredibly rich and dense the language in John can sometimes be, we can easily miss how very personal a prayer this is. I mean, think of it; Jesus is speaking these words to his heavenly Father just prior to that moment in the garden when Judas and the soldiers come to arrest him. Jesus knows that his hour is nigh, that very soon now he’s going to have to leave his disciples; and so he wants them to be prepared for what’s going to happen next. Actually, you know, if you read all through these “farewell discourses” in John, you realize that up till this point, Jesus has been giving his disciples a whole series of last minute teachings – about his nature, about the sure and certain hope of life eternal, about peace that the world can’t give nor take away, and about the disciples’ own mission of love moving forward; three chapters’ worth of these teachings in John’s gospel (!) – but now, the lessons are done and in these last few moments before what’s destined to happen happens Jesus needs to pray for them!
And it makes sense; after all, these are the ones who have been the ones closest to Jesus, and these are the ones – whether they understand it or not at this point – who will carry on his ministry! Certainly Jesus wanted his disciples to have the protection and the assurance of God the Father in every uncertain moment that was to come to them, in the days and years to come. So yes, he would pray for them, which in and of itself is an act of great love and affection; but – and this is important – it turns out that it’s not just the disciples that he’s praying for… Jesus is praying “not only on behalf of these” but also “on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,” (vs. 20) and that includes you and me, “that they may all be one.”
And I don’t know about you, but the very idea of it fills me with awe: that the very same Jesus who in his moment of deepest despair would seize that time to pray for his disciples is also the Jesus who prays for me!
And what a prayer it is! It’s certainly not a prayer that all will go easily for his disciples, because Jesus knew it wouldn’t; that it couldn’t! It’s interesting to note that all throughout this prayer, Jesus talks about how the “world” that hated him would also hate his disciples “because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” The Greek word that’s used here for “world” is kosmos, which more than just suggesting the physical nature of the earth, really means that which is totally alien and hostile to God’s intention to love and redeem all; in other words, Jesus knows that there will always be that “dark side” of humanity who will hate them simply because of who – and whose – they are!
So Jesus doesn’t pray that all will go along without incident, devoid of any difficulty or conflict in their lives ahead; but rather that they, and we, might always be protected by the power of God’s name, “so they can be of one heart and mind” just as Jesus and his heavenly father were of one heart and mind. And his prayers of intercession build from there: praying that more than simply having protection from their troubles, “they may have [his] joy made complete in themselves,” as they go forth with God’s word on their tongues and in their lives; praying that because of this they not be lost as Judas had been “so that scripture would be fulfilled;” and praying finally, and above all, that they may be sanctified – that is, consecrated, made holy – “in the truth;” which is God’s word.
And that’s important, too.
For what Jesus understood would be true for his first disciples would also be true for any of us who are followers of Christ: that the very nature of being his disciples, of adhering to the Word they’d received from him, would mean living their lives as outsiders, living “in the world but not of the world,” and yet because of this, having a clear purpose and mission for life itself; to be made holy for what we do, or as the word from the original Greek, hagios, suggests, to be “set apart for sacred use.” Jesus – the Jesus who prays for me and for you – prays that in and through all our journeys and all our trials and all of our crises of life and even faith we might be set apart by God himself for sacred use!
It’s a big prayer; really, there’s no other way to describe it. But in the end, you see, what it all comes down to is while that life is difficult, full of the unexpected, the unimaginable and very often the unmanageable, our Lord, in infinite love and care, has prayed – and is still praying – for us: that we might find the strength we need to get through; that we might glean joy in the midst of sorrow; and that we will be made aware in ways both large and small that we are not, and have never been alone in the struggle. Jesus prays for us with the same constancy of care and compassion as that of the one who knows us the best; he shows us the deep and abiding love of God who brings to us life both abundant and eternal; and he assures us that even right here and right now, in the midst of it all, we’ve been set aside for a sacred purpose.
What a feeling it is to realize that you have been prayed for.
I wonder what Jesus is praying for in us today. Maybe that we find the strength, the encouragement or the patience to get through the stress and uncertainty of whatever it is we’re having to face at this moment; a medical issue, perhaps; or a “rough patch” in a relationship with a loved one, a friend or co-worker? It could be that Jesus is praying that we find the courage we need to stand up in the face of injustice (both personal and societal), or that we might we finally get some sense of healing of mind, body, spirit… or all three at once. Maybe he’s praying that we have the grace to receive and accept the forgiveness we’ve needed for so long; or else that we figure out that what we really need to do is to be more forgiving of others! Maybe Jesus is simply praying that we’ll stop for a moment, and pay attention… pay attention to God’s presence and power, and remember how much we’re loved.
Whatever the need happens to be today, friends; know that Jesus already knows, and that he’s praying for you and for me; and that we are the recipients and the stewards of that truly amazing grace.
There is power in his prayer; there is power to comfort us, to strengthen us, and to move us through the joys and struggles of this life… and I pray that each one of us here today might be strengthened and renewed by the power of that prayer.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry