Dear Working Preacher,
I’ll ask you again to do both me and you a favor by reading just beyond the bounds of the appointed lectionary passage. A few weeks ago I asked you to start a verse earlier; this week I’ll invite you to read a verse or so longer. Why? Because reading just a little further may just help connect us more meaningfully and powerfully with Jesus.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think the passages we call the “farewell discourses” (John 14-16) and, today, the “high priestly prayer” (ch. 17) are among the most difficult to preach in the New Testament. Why? Because they are so unbelievably, thoroughly, and even densely theological and sometimes, quite frankly, metaphysical. Take today’s reading for instance:
I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.
All this talk about you and me, they and the world, mine and yours and all the rest gets confusing, sounding almost more like a McCartney-Lennon song (with the emphasis on Lennon — remember “I Am the Walrus”?) than it does the Bible. So what’s going on? What’s the point to all this tightly woven theologizing?
Two moves will help. First, let’s recall the context. It’s Thursday night in this part of John’s account, the evening before Jesus’ crucifixion. He knows he will soon be leaving his disciples to fulfill his mission and wants them to be prepared. And so Jesus has been teaching his disciples across chapters 14-16 about his nature, mission, destiny, and about their role and future in all of this. Now, in chapter 17, he prays for them.
And what does he pray for? Not that it will be easy. He knows it won’t. This world is captive to a spirit alien to God’s spirit. It is animated by a sense of scarcity instead of abundance, fear instead of courage, and selfishness instead of sacrificial love. Jesus — the one who came to bring abundant life, does not run away in the face of danger, and lays down his life for the sheep — offers an alternative spirit and reality. This is the reason the world (kosmos — John’s word of choice for the spirit and power that is hostile to God’s good intention to love and redeem all) hates Jesus and will hate those who follow him. So Jesus doesn’t pray that it will be easy, but rather that God will support the disciples amid their challenges and that they will be one in fellowship with each other and with Jesus and the Father through the Spirit.
But Jesus doesn’t only pray for his disciples back then. And this is the second move it’s important to make and what requires that we read just a little further: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (John 17:20-21a). Who are “all those who believe in me through their (the disciples’) word”? Yeah, we are. That’s right, Jesus, on the night before his death, prays for us.
And what does he pray for? The same things — that we may find God’s support and encouragement and that we may be one in fellowship with each other and God. And, of course, these two things go together — as we gather together to hear God’s Word and to remind each other of God’s promises, we are not only drawn together in deeper fellowship but also find the strength and courage to face the challenges that come from living in the world and bearing witness to the alien and alternative gospel of grace, abundance, courage, and love that is ours in and through Jesus.
When we think of the Lord’s Prayer, we of course think of the prayer he taught his disciples and that we say each week. But there’s a way in which this scene gives us another Lord’s prayer, the prayer our Lord prayed — and is still praying — for us: that we might find the strength we need and be one. That, I think, is unbelievably cool.
In light of this other Lord’s Prayer, here’s my suggestion for this week, Working Preacher. After sharing a bit of the context and content of Jesus’ prayer, tell people — show people — that Jesus is praying for them. All the way back then Jesus was praying for them and — you know what? — he still is. Each time we read this, in fact, we are reminded of Jesus’ constant care and concern and compassion for us and of God’s love for all the world (the same kosmos, by the way, that shows us so prominently in these passages is the word at the heart of John 3:16!). This, indeed, is the work of the Paraclete, the advocate and comforter: to remind us of Jesus’ active and ongoing love and compassion and to draw us more deeply together.
So after all this, ask folks what they want Jesus to be praying for them right now. We don’t get any sense that we’ll be taken out of this world, or that all our problems will suddenly vanish, or that being a faithful Christian will be easy. But in light of that, what do we want Jesus to know, what do we need, what do we want Jesus to pray for? Is it patience to be a better parent or friend? Is it encouragement amid a difficult chapter of our lives? Is it courage to stand up to a bully in the classroom or befriend a friendless kid at school? Is it joy in the face of the loss of a parent or the end of a relationship? Is it hope when we feel like we’ve got no options left? Is it companionship at a time of loneliness? Is it healing of body, mind, or spirit? Is it forgiveness…or the ability to forgive another? What? What do you want — what do we want — Jesus to know about and pray for?
To draw us more deeply into this passage and Jesus’ promises and presence, I’d suggest passing out 3×5 cards. (Actually, I’d suggest cutting them in half to make them easier to carry.) Pass these cards out either at the beginning of the service or at this point in the sermon and invite people to write down one word that captures what they want Jesus to pray for. You could, of course, have them write out a whole prayer, but I think they’ll know the larger content of the prayer and writing just one word might help them feel a little less vulnerable. Then invite them to take that card with them — carry it in their pocket or purse — and pull it out from time to time during the coming week to remind themselves that Jesus knows their need, that Jesus cares about them, and that Jesus is praying for them.
Perhaps they can also reflect during the week on their prayer, their need, and Jesus’ response. How, that is, do they sense Jesus being a part of this concern and area of their lives and how might God be responding to their prayers. It will be helpful at this point to remind them that one of the ways God responds to us is through each other, through the company of broken and forgiven people we call the church. That’s part of Jesus’ prayer that we may “all be one.”
Indeed, if you feel your people may be ready for this, you might even, after they’ve written out their prayer, have them turn to each other and share just that one word with another person — whether or not they choose to explain it — and then have a short time where people join Jesus in praying for each other. Or perhaps you could set up prayer stations around the church so that right after the service individuals, if they choose, could visit with someone, share their need, and have someone pray with them in the spirit of Christ.
You’ll know how much you want to do and how far to run with this, Working Preacher; I know that. For now, I just want to revel in the fact that Jesus, all those years ago, was praying for us, for all of us who have believed because of the word that came down from the disciples across the generations and now has been shared with, and entrusted to, us. You are both the recipients and stewards of that word, and I want you to know that I am praying for you as well, that you might be renewed in your calling and strengthened for service.
Yours in Christ,
PS: This week I’ve started an occasional series on prayer at …In the Meantime and in the first post I offer some thoughts both on prayer as mystery and Jesus’ prayer in this week’s passage.