How quickly do we pass over the prayers of Jesus and choose the commands of Jesus so as to construct our Christological portraits as well as what we think Jesus wants us to believe and do? Makes sense. Commands are easier to live by. They make us feel productive. Being told what to do, especially when it comes to faith, is often far more comfortable than having to interpret the words of Jesus embedded in the realities of the lives of the disciples or our own. Or, we find ourselves drawn to the stories of Jesus to discover what best to believe about Jesus. But I am not sure that we immediately consult Jesus’ prayers to determine our theology.
We’ve convinced ourselves that prayer is simply conversation with God, even for Jesus, After all, prayer is too personal for any kind of deep or substantive theological assertions, right? Prayer can’t possibly correlate with our creeds. Prayer can’t possibly sustain or reflect our doctrines. Prayer can’t possibly coincide with our confessions. And why? We are too busy asking, requesting, complaining, praising, beseeching, intercessing, to imagine that our prayers are windows through which to recognize what’s at stake for us theologically. But of course, any kind of dialogue with our Creator begins with assumptions about who we believe God to be.
So perhaps, this is an opportunity to invite reflection on prayer that our people may have never considered; that how we pray, for what we pray, our prayer language, are all indicative of our suppositions and expectations of God.
And if we grant that to be true, we should then ask, what does Jesus’ prayer assume about God? What does Jesus suppose about God? What does Jesus expect of God that he would want his disciples to remember about God in this prayer just before his arrest in the garden? We cannot forget that remarkably, the disciples overhear Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John. This is no private prayer. There is no agony, no “let this cup pass,” no “why couldn’t you stay awake?” but a most rare moment when the disciples, when we, get to listen to Jesus’ praying for us.
A rare moment indeed. We say, “I’m praying for you,” but for whom we are praying doesn’t always get to hear our prayers. We hear, “I’m keeping you in my prayers” but we don’t always get to hear the content of those prayers. Maybe this week you might encourage your parishioners to write out and send their prayers to those for whom they are praying.
Overhearing Jesus’ prayer, what do the disciples learn? Clearly, more than could ever be covered in one sermon! Dear Working Preachers, you need to choose which verse reveals the one truth about God that your people need to hear this week. Or, what is the one truth that resonates with you this week? But even more so, you need to recapture the experience of the disciples, the experience of listening to Jesus pray to God, for them.
What they learn about God is also in what they feel in the moment. You see, in the end, sermons are not a point to be remembered but a presence to be experienced. It won’t do to explain for what Jesus prays. Your preaching will need to be such that your people can feel, deeply, every word of the prayer.
How does this happen? Let’s consider John 17:3. “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Anyone ever heard of it? A few, perhaps. But, it’s not one of those verses that shows up on poster board at a football game or on tracts handed out on a street corner.
But, it’s no accident that Jesus’ definition of eternal life is located not in his teaching but in his praying. It’s also no accident that on this last Sunday of Easter Jesus’ definition of eternal life is not limited to our future resurrection. Jesus wants us to hear that knowing God, being in relationship with God, is our promised possibility of eternal life here and now; that this knowing of God is exactly what eternal life feels like.
And “knowing God” is not a mystery here, which is why this definition shows up in this prayer. Jesus’ ministry in John has been about revealing what a relationship with God looks like, feels like, tastes like, sounds like, smells like. Jesus has not simply manifested truths about God — Jesus has been the presence of God. Eternal life feels like relationship. Eternal life feels like being loved. Eternal life feels like abiding in the arms of Jesus. Eternal life feels like belonging. The disciples could not know what this feels like until this point in the story.
The power of prayer is never just to trust in its efficacy. The power of prayer is also to trust that what is being said is efficacious on its own.