When Jesus Prays, Sermon on John 17:20-26


My favorite assurance of pardon is this:
“Hear the Good News, Jesus Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns over power for us, Christ prays for us. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation, the old life has gone, behold a new life has begun.”

Each of these clauses are testimonies of God’s grace. – He died, He rose, He reigns and He prays. Dying and the praying are the two human acts and the rising and reigning are the two Godly acts. We will die and we all can pray. In our Gospel reading today Jesus is preparing his disciples for the very human experience of his death. These are his last words in the Gospel of John before his arrest and trial. This is a place of fear and unknown for the disciples. It’s not unlike going into a surgery in which the outcome is worrisome, or waiting for results of medical test. It’s a scary, vulnerable place to be.

It’s at this raw place of human vulnerability that Jesus offers a prayer. The prayer is not for himself, it’s for his disciples and it’s not just for the disciples who will witness his death, but it’s for disciples to come. He says, “I’m praying not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me.”

This is where we claim the statement that Jesus actually prays for us. Certainly the writer of John’s Gospel knew that there would be people who never knew Jesus personally who would follow him and believe him to be the Son of God.
Have you ever had anyone pray for you? It’s a profoundly vulnerable experience to have someone say, “how can I pray for you?” It’s not like asking, “how are you?” or “what can I do for you?” It goes deeper. It goes to your core. It addresses your soul. When someone says, “how can I pray for you,” they are asking you, “what does your soul need?” We neglect our soul. We abuse it. We shove it away in a shoe box under the bed. And so when somebody says, “how can I pray for you?” our dusty souls come out and are so needy for attention. Our souls don’t know how to respond at first, no one has ever asked us that before. No one has ever taken the time to look in on our soul, and so it’s a little scary, because if we let our soul respond, our soul may just run wild and get out of control.

Three weeks ago I went to a Presbyterian retreat for pastors called CREDO. It’s an opportunity for pastor’s to retool and reconstruct priorities in their vocation. On the third day, they offered a service of healing and wholeness. In four corners of the room, facilitators sat and waited to hear the prayers of pastors. It took so much courage for me to get up and go to a corner. When I got there, they asked me how they could pray for me. I was so touched by that question, it took only seconds for my soul to open up and cry out. Not for any particular reason other than that my soul needed to be heard and recognized.

A vulnerable reality about being prayed for is that the words that come from the one is praying are not our own. One time I went to visit someone in the hospital, offered a prayer and was told after the “Amen” that I didn’t ask for the right things. When people pray for us, they may pray what they feel we need, not what we feel we need. They may pray for patience, when we may want action. They may pray for forgiveness, when we may want justice. They may pray for unity, when we may want to get our own way.

And what does Jesus pray for when he prays for his disciples? “That they may be one.” That we may be one – one with each other, one with Jesus and God, one with ourselves. And that being one, we may have peace. Jesus says “the goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind, so they might be one heart and mind with us.”

What a lofty goal for the church. What a lofty goal it was back then and remains today. There are more denominations in our town then there are cereal boxes at the grocery store. Yet Jesus prays for unity. – Is that what we pray for? Is that the prayer we want from Jesus?

Where do we begin? Where do begin to strive for unity in a world so polarized and fractioned? I think we begin one relationship at a time.

Naomi Shihab Nye, the American poet born of an American mother and a Palestinian father, writes about Oneness in a story from the Albuquerque airport –

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed for four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,” said the flight service person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly. The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her–Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies–little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts–out of her bag–and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo–we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.This can still happen anywhere.
Naomi Shihab Nye Gate A-4 from Honeybee, c. 2008

Answer to prayer is always witnessed through acts of love.

And we discover in these acts of love our common humanity that not all is lost.

Writer Lauren Winner tells about her prayer life after her mother died. She writes, “sometime after my mother died, after I got married, I ceased to pray. That is I did not pray by myself. ‘Without prayer,’ Catherine Doherty once wrote, ‘the life of the Christian dies.’

“Her words scare me,” Winner writes, “ I have edged closer to them then I care to admit. She means that if you stop praying your spiritual life will shrivel up like a fruit. But her statement has overtones and I start to suspect that the reason my Christian life hasn’t completely conked out is that even when I am not praying, other people are praying on my behalf.” –Lauren Winner, Still: Notes on Mid-Faith Crisis. 2012. Harper Collins: New York.

And that my friends is why Jesus prays this prayer for unity at the end of John’s Gospel. Because he knows we need others to pray on our behalf. He knows that there will be times when we cannot pray for ourselves. When things are too hard, too painful and we cannot find the words to pray. In our unity, someone else will fill the void and pray the prayer we cannot.

There are prayers running through us and for us that we never know are taking place. It should compel us to pray in the same way. When we see a tired mother at Wal-Mart and we can tell she has had a hard day, say a prayer. When we see an ambulance race down the street, say a prayer. When we see a person on the street looking for food, say a prayer. When we see a friend struggling with their job, say a prayer. Pray for the farmer in the field, the solder in the desert, the defeated, the lonely and broken. Pray for those who you do not understand and do not like. It is in those silent prayers for the stranger that we become more aware of our common humanity, and thus become unified.

Now, if that’s not profound enough for you, here is the next piece of grace and good news – When you have no prayer to say, and even when you are sure no one else is praying for you, even then you are not alone, even then you are being prayed for – every step of the way. Jesus prays for you today.

Each of you received a rock this morning as you came in. It’s a prayer rock. It’s to remind you that you are grounded in someone greater than yourself. It’s to remind you to pray and that you are prayed for. In about 30 seconds I’d like to invite you stand and say to someone standing near you, “Remember, Jesus prays for you today” and then exchange rocks.

Friends believe the good news of the Gospel, Jesus died for us, he rose for us, he reigns in power over us, he prays for us. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old life has gone, a new life has begun. Know that you are loved, forgiven and freed. Go and be at peace.

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