(Creative Commons image by Christian Appelsved on flickr)
Dear Working Preacher,
What you do matters. I’ve said that before, and I’ll say it again.
Because it’s true. Through your preaching you help our people not just learn about the biblical story but live into it, taking it as their story that it might help them make sense of the lives.
And this week’s passage offers a powerful opportunity to do just that. We are, as you’ll remember, back on the night of Maundy Thursday, when Jesus gathers his disciples around him for a final meal. He washes their feet, setting an example for them. He shares bread and wine with them and then gives them a commandment to love another. And then he tries to prepare them for his departure.
In some ways, it’s an impossible task. They can’t comprehend what is happening; perhaps they can’t even hear him through their confusion and fear. And so when he has said all that they can bear, he promises them that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will come to them, remind them of what he’s said, and lead them into all truth.
And then he does one more thing. He prays for them.
One of the amazing things about this passage is that Jesus doesn’t pray only for them, but also for us.
The prayer is complex enough, even convoluted enough, that we can forget that it is a prayer. Indeed, we call it the “high priestly prayer” because it is not only intense, but also at portions – including in this reading – rather theologically dense. In some ways, in fact, it sounds more like a commandment – to be one; or more teaching – this time about his relationship with the Father; or even more promises – that they will one day be where Jesus is going and share his glory. But at heart it’s none of these things. It’s a prayer. It’s the prayer of one person praying for others, others whom he loves.
And that’s important. If you’ve ever had someone pray for you – not in general, but really just for you – you know what I mean.
About a year ago I was with a group of pastors for a conference and at one point we split up into groups of three, shared some of what was going on in our lives – the highs and lows and all – and then prayed for one another. To be perfectly honest, I was most comfortable when I was doing the praying. I don’t count myself a great prayer, by any stretch, but at least I had something to do. Being prayed for, on the other hand, left me vulnerable, exposed, with nothing to do but to receive the prayers of another. That was uncomfortable. But it was also ultimately quite powerful. It was a reminder that I don’t have to do everything, that others are there to support me, that I am not alone but am valued and cared for by another.
That’s what Jesus does here. He prays for his disciples. He senses their anxiety, confusion, and fear, and so he prays for them. He knows they can bear no more, and so he prays for them. He knows he will soon leave them, and so he prays for them. And as he does, and whether or not they understand everything he says, he tells them that they do not have to do everything or even understand everything. He tells them that he is there to support him, that they are not alone, and that they are valued and loved.
It’s a powerful moment. And one of the amazing things about this passage is that Jesus doesn’t do this only for them, but also for us. As Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…” And that includes us! We are the latest in a long line of persons who have been inspired and encouraged to believe because of the words and lives of those original disciples.
And what does Jesus pray for? “That they may be one.” That we may be one – one with each other, one with Jesus and the Father, one with ourselves. And that being one, we may have peace.
So my suggestion this week, Working Preacher, would be to invite people to hear these words of Jesus addressed to them today. To imagine – really, to know – that Jesus was praying for us all those years ago and continues to care for us, support us, and love and value us today. After doing so, invite people to take a moment to think about where they need to be one, to be more whole, to have more peace in their lives. And then ask them to imagine that Jesus is praying just for them and, indeed, for all of us.
You could always have people write that one thing down, even pass it in for you to read and pray about. Or you could have people turn to each other and pray for one another. That may be challenging and beyond the comfort zone of folks who have never prayed for another person aloud before. But even without those additional elements, I think inviting people to identify one thing in their lives that they would like Jesus to pray for and care about, and then promising them that Jesus does, in fact, care for them, could be quite powerful.
Whatever direction you go this week, Working Preacher, know that I am praying for you. For what you do is challenging, and at times exhausting, and always so very important. Thank you. Thank God for you.
Yours in Christ,
PS: Thanks again for your wonderful response to our spring fund appeal!
PPS: A few weeks back I shared a few thoughts on prayer on my blog and invited folks to respond. The 40+ responses were fascinating. I'll put a link here in case you're curious about what everyday Christians, as well as some of their pastors, were saying. :)
Questions for Easter 7 – John 17:20-26
- Notice that Jesus prays not only for the disciples, but also for “all those who believed on their account” – which includes us! What does it feel like to know that all those years ago Jesus was praying for you?
- Jesus prays for a profound kind of unity between himself and his Father and all of us. Have you had moments where you felt that kind of unity in your faith community?
Questions for Pentecost: John 14:8-17
- Philip asks Jesus to "show us the Father." At what times in your life have you very much wished you could just see God to encourage you in faith?
- Jesus responds that in seeing Jesus we have seen the Father. What does Jesus - the way he lived his life, his death, his resurrection - tell us about God?