Dear Working Preacher,
It’s time to talk about prayer. Not so much between you and me. I’m relatively confident you know what you’re doing. But with our people. Because I’m equally confident that they are less sure about what they’re doing when it comes to prayer. Oh, that’s not to say that our people don’t pray, or don’t know how. Of course they do. Just that maybe they’re never totally sure they’re doing it right, or that they do it as well as they should. Ever notice that almost any time you’re invited over to someone’s home for dinner you’re invited to pray? Or how no church meal or function really gets started until the pastor prays? Yeah, it’s something of an occupational hazard, I guess, becoming the professional prayer. But the unintended consequence of our professional competence is that the rest of our folks have lost opportunities to practice their own prayer life and grow in both their competence and confidence. So let’s remedy that somewhat this week.
Not that I’m suggesting a topical sermon on prayer. I’m not a huge fan of thematic sermons because they sometimes create a distance between us and the stories of the Bible. But given that this week’s Gospel passage is drawn entirely from one of Jesus’ prayers, the opportunity to talk about prayer seems too inviting to resist. So in response to this invitation, three things about prayer that might be good for our folks to hear.
1) You can pray anytime.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus prays — in the morning, in the evening, in the middle of the night. On a mountain, on the plain, when it’s dark and when it’s light. Inside, outside, alone or with friends. In thanksgiving, in distress, and toward all kinds of ends. Point being: prayer isn’t only for church, or for mealtime, or for before bed. You can pray anytime, anywhere, for any reason … and God is always eager to listen. Driving a truck for work or the kids home from school. While brushing your teeth in the morning or your hair at night. While doing errands or playing croquet. Before a meeting for work or with friends. You can pray anytime. Sounds simple enough, of course, and it is. But that’s part of what many of us are missing in our prayer lives, I think: the sense that prayer wasn’t intended to be extraordinary, saved for certain places or times or reserved only for really important moments. Prayer was meant to be ordinary, part of the fabric of our daily lives. So perhaps rather than call this the “high priestly prayer” — which of course reinforces the idea that prayer is extraordinary — we should just call it “Jesus’ prayer for his friends before he leaves them.” Because that’s what it is.
2) Prayer is about what’s on your heart.
Again, dead simple. And, again, easy to forget. When you read Jesus’ prayer in John, it’s easy to get a bit hung up on all the highly relational language of “mine” and “yours” and “they are in me as I am in you” and all the rest. But all of that language simply signifies the tremendous intimacy Jesus shares with the Father and that he is inviting his disciples into. Beyond that, this prayer is simply Jesus sharing what is most deeply on his heart at the moment — that he is coming to the end of his earthly mission, that God would see him through to the end, and that God would take care of his friends now that he has to leave them behind. “What should I pray about?” some of our folks may at times wonder. The answer is easy: whatever you’re worried about, or thankful for, or need support with. In short, whatever is on your heart.
3) We never pray alone.
You have to read a little further to get the full picture on this one. But already we see in these verses that Jesus is praying not on his behalf nor even on the behalf of the world, but that he prays for his disciples. And when you go a little further — to verse 20 — we hear Jesus say, “And I ask not only on behalf of these” — that is, his disciples — “but also on behalf of all those who believe on their account” — that is, all Christians since then … including us! When we pray — whenever we pray — we do not pray alone but know that Jesus is praying with us and for us.
I find that last observation particularly important. If we at times struggle with prayer, might we simply tell Jesus our difficulty and trust that he prays for us? Which puts me in mind of a way to put into practice our insights about prayer. Last week I suggested putting 3×5 cards in the pews for people to write down someone or something they have lost and mourn. This week, I’d counsel doing the same, but on the card write down one thing they would like Jesus to know about, one thing they would like Jesus to pray for, one thing they would like to commit to prayer. It can be anything — small or big, mundane or grave, thanksgiving or concern. Again, invite people to write that one thing down. Then decide whether you want to a) pass them in with the offering and know that Jesus is praying for these things; b) collect them in a basket, put the basket at the back of the sanctuary, and invite people to take a card on their way out and pray for that one thing all week; or d) take the card with them and use it to focus their prayers this week.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what you do , Working Preacher. In fact, that’s part of the point: there is no right or wrong way to pray. There’s just prayer. And this week we hear Jesus doing just that and get a chance to share and practice our prayer life with our people so that, as Jesus prayed, we may all be one.
Know as you prepare your sermon this week, Working Preacher, that I am praying for you, that you may sense the Spirit of Truth working in and through you. For what you do matters, and I am grateful for your faithful labor.
Yours in Christ,