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Jesus Who Prays For Me

(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

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Spokes on the Wheel

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(a sermon for May 8, 2016, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on John 17:20-26)

As it’s just us here this morning, I think it’s safe to let you all in on a painful little secret: Christians sometimes don’t agree on things (now don’t go and say anything about it; I wouldn’t want this secret to get out!).

It’s true: we Christians talk a good game about unity and “the church universal,” but so often it’s conflict and disunity that seems to take a prominent role in our life together.  Never mind the fact that there are now more than 250 separately organized denominations in this country alone, each one with its own spin on the truth of the Christian faith; or for that matter, that there are countless independent congregations across the fruited plain that exist out of disagreement on some point of theology, church doctrine or, quite frankly as the result of deep division over the color of the sanctuary’s new carpeting!

The story goes, for instance, that there is a church in the Appalachian Mountains that has long been known as the “No Ice in the Summer Southern Baptist Church.”  It’s named that because sometime late in the 1800’s a well-meaning parishioner came to his hometown church and told of an incredible “miracle of God” he had recently witnessed in the city: an ice-making machine that was capable of producing ice even in the heat of summer!   He spoke to the congregation about the wonder of such a thing and tried to persuade them as to what a blessing this could be for them as a church.  However, the hill people of that congregation, believing that such a thing was a violation of the natural order and thus could only be the work of the devil, steadfastly refused to accept what he had to say.  Before long, the congregation was solidly split between “ice” and “no ice” people, to the point where the latter group left to form a new church:  “No Ice in the Summer Southern Baptist Church.”

Now we might well laugh at something like that, but isn’t that the irony of who we are as the church;  that despite the beauty and vitality of our faith and service to God in Jesus Christ, it is nonetheless true that sometimes we have a hard time getting along!   We get territorial with one another; we lay claim to certain seats and certain positions and certain traditions and then dare anyone to cross into our particular space.  Sometimes we don’t share as we ought, we’re petty about things that ultimately don’t matter, we don’t always work and play well with others (especially those we perceive as dwelling outside of the circle), and more often than we’d like to admit we hurt each other; mostly inadvertently but sometimes in a very calculated kind of way.

And the thing is… none of this should shock or surprise us in any way!

And that’s because we Christians are not perfect, and churches will always be far from perfect because the church is made up of sinful people; or to put it more simply, we’re human! Moreover, it would be foolish of us to think that all we Christians are always going to be on the same page about everything; always of one mind, one direction, one course of action.  Certainly, as good as I think we are around here, our congregation’s not like that, and I dare say there’s not a single congregation anywhere that can lay claim to that kind of all-encompassing unity.

Which, when you think about it, makes it all the more interesting that when Jesus prays for the church – and for you and for me – as he does in our scripture reading this morning, he prays “that they may all be one.”

Once again this week we’re turning to part of what are known as “the Farewell Discourses,” the last things that Jesus had to say on the eve of his betrayal and death.  And so what we’ve shared from John today is Jesus’ own prayer, prayed with all the hope and love and intensity and anguish of that moment of his life.  Jesus is looking toward the future; his own, certainly, but more pointedly that of his disciples and the church that is to come out of his death.  “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,” he asks his Heavenly Father, and at first read it does seem as though Jesus is asking that which we know by our own experience in the church is impossible: a single community that walks, acts and thinks in lock step with one another.

But look again, and you realize that there’s more to Jesus’ prayer than that; that he’s saying something about what this unity is about, as opposed to what the church is supposed to look like.  What we find is that there is not only to be a purpose to our unity, there is a progression about it:  yes, we are called to closeness with one another, but in fact, we are to be as close to one another as Jesus was to his Father in heaven; and that closeness is to be so evident that the world might see and believe:  “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me… and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  In other words, what Christ was praying for was that his disciples – and indeed, each one of us – should find our unity in closeness to him; and in that closeness, in our oneness to Christ, we find unity with one another:  “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.”

Now, if like me you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind around an idea like that, think of it this way:  on a wagon wheel or a bicycle tire, there are spokes that all go out from the center of the wheel.  Think of the center of that wheel as being like God, in that it is the central hub that holds all the spokes together and thus keeps wheel strong and solid.  At the outer circumference of the wheel, the spokes are spread out at wider intervals from one another, but as you get closer and closer to the hub these same spokes also get very close to each other.  To put this in terms of geometry, it does not matter where two objects are on the circumference of the circle; for as they move toward the middle, they also move toward each other.  So it is for you and me as concerns our relationship with God.  We are spokes in the wheel of life, friends; as we spread out into the world, sometimes we find ourselves far removed from each other.  But no matter where we are in life, as we move closer to God we cannot help but draw closer to one another.

So it turns out that true Christian unity does not come about by our own human effort, nor does it exist in our being exactly the same on every issue that confronts us.  As it turns out, unity is a gift: the direct result of the love that can only come from God.  What is it that it says in the first Epistle of John? “We love because he first loved us.”  (1 John 4:19) It’s love that brings us closer to God, and as we grow closer to God we do find unity with one another.   And as that unity finds its expression in the depth of our caring for one another, in the difference it makes in the world and in individual lives, we become a witness to all the world of Christ’s glory and God’s love.  We become the testimony to the truth of what we proclaim!

So ultimately, you see, it doesn’t matter so much that we church people don’t always agree on every point; but… and this is important… it does matter how we go about disagreeing.  To put this another way, it is of lesser importance that we differ on small points of theology or doctrine or structure or even vision, but it is crucial that we have a common understanding of what it means that God loves us, and that we, too, should love one another.  Our unity will not be determined by the decisions we make, but in the ways we choose to live with each other as we are making those decisions.

A few years I was asked to officiate at a wedding where while the bride and groom were very much in love, the families of each were not yet exactly sure how to approach each other.  Part of that had to do with the fact that the families had quite literally only just met on the week before the wedding; some of it was geographical, as the groom’s family were from the deep south and the bride’s family were born and bred New Englanders; and, to be honest, a good deal of it had to do with race, as the groom and his family were African-American and the bride’s family were about as “white Anglo-Saxon protestant” as it gets! So there was, to say the least, some tension on both sides of the wedding aisle as these two diverse family traditions were blending into one!

But it happened that the groom’s father was an elderly evangelistic preacher of the African-American tradition; for years he used to do tent revival services throughout the south, and though his failing health had precluded him from officiating at the wedding he did agree to stand before the bride and groom and offer up a blessing for their marriage.  I’ve got to tell you, it was one of the most stirring and eloquent evocations of love and faith that I’ve ever heard; moreover, it was rich with the language, and cadence and tradition of the black church, which is not something you hear a whole lot of in the State of Maine!  And as a preacher, I loved it; I mean, even after he was finished, I remember thinking, never mind the bride and groom, you just keep going! (In fact, I went up to him afterward to thank him for taking part in the service, and told him that he could preach in my church anytime he wanted, and I’ll never forget his reply:  “Son,” he said, “I’m retired!”)

This man said all the things to the couple that you might expect: about love and compassion, patience and forgiveness, about the important role of Christ as the third partner in a marriage.  But then he said something else I’ve never forgotten, something that in fact I’ve taken to saying to couples myself; however, in this case it was clear as he looked around the sanctuary he was not merely speaking to the bride and groom, but to both of these families who were struggling with this new found relationship:  “And if you’re gonna disagree,” he said, in a wonderful slow southern drawl, “disagree agreably!

That’s right, you know?  Isn’t that what marriage, or for that matter, any loving relationship all about; to address the inevitable conflicts of life with the same loving compassion with which we greet its joys?   And isn’t that also central to the church’s mission?  How could anyone who is loved by God and knows that Christ dwells within them act any differently?  To disagree agreeably; to let our lives be grounded in God’s purposes first; to let God inhabit our thoughts and actions, and to shine through our words and deeds:   this is what it means for us all to “be one.”   And it is in that kind of life, wholly devoted to God’s love and purposes, that we see his glory in our lives, in our world and in his church.

The thing is, you know, I believe it’s true what the Psalmist has said:  “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.”  (Psalm 133:1) Despite our rugged capacity for being human and our occasional stumbling, it is a wonderful thing that in infinite love, God has brought us together as his people in this place.  It is incredible to me the things that happen here; the insights that arise and the healing that takes place wholly because God has worked in and through the lives of those who sit in these pews.

It makes me realize that when Jesus prays “that they may all be one,” he’s not simply offering up an intercession for peaceful coexistence, but for God’s glory to be seen in what it is we do here; it’s for our witness as God’s people in this place to shine forth as a beacon to those who need that light and love in their lives.

So might it be, beloved.  So might it be with God’s blessing on the road ahead.

AMEN and AMEN.

c.2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2016 in Church, Discipleship, Jesus, Sermon

 

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