June 1, 2014
When I announced my decision to go to seminary, the various people in my life responded in different ways. Generally, people were happy for me and excited to see me discerning this call. Some were concerned, as it turned out unnecessarily so, about me getting through the Presbyterian language requirement. Could I pass Hebrew and Greek? A few were unsure about a woman going into ordained ministry, but they loved and supported me anyway. However one response was true across the spectrum of reactions from my family and friends; the minute I decided to pursue a call to ministry, everyone else forgot how to pray.
My father, who I’ve heard offer beautiful, articulate prayers before meals at family gatherings, couldn’t wait to hand those reigns to me. Suddenly, at every family gathering I was the designated pray-er. My adopted family in Richmond summoned me to pray at every event and occasion. I usually spent Thanksgiving at their house, but one year while I was still in school, I spent it with some seminary friends instead. My second family was sad that I wouldn’t be with them, but they were even more concerned about who would say the prayer before the meal. The “professional pray-er” wouldn’t be with them.
Peoples’ belief that I have a felicity for public prayer is flattering, but answering a call, going to seminary, becoming ordained does not mean that public prayer comes easily to me. One of my first decisions when I became a solo pastor was that I would force myself to lead the prayers for the people portion of our worship service extemporaneously. No script. Up until that point, I’d written out at least an outline of my prayer, and then I’d fill in the blanks with any prayer request I received. It was a scary decision to make, but I believed then, and still do, that it was a discipline that I needed to stick with. I can honestly say that almost 19 years later, it hasn’t gotten any easier or less scary. I can do it. I can pray in public. Sometimes I can even pray with some eloquence, but it does not come easily.
But I have learned that whether or not I make it through my public prayers with lilting prose or fumbling inadequacy, it doesn’t matter so much how I pray as to what I pray. This is not a sermon about what prayer is or what prayer does, but it is about what prayer can convey. Of course if we want an example of a prayer that is not eloquent, then we should not look to Jesus’ prayer for the disciples in today’s gospel passage.
Jesus’ prayer is eloquent. And, typical of John’s gospel, it is metaphorical and bears layers of meaning. The context and setting of the prayer is important to understand. In scholarship terms, it’s called the “Priestly Prayer” or the “High Priestly Prayer.” That’s eloquent terminology for an eloquent prayer. But what is a priestly prayer? It’s an intercessory prayer. Jesus is praying on the disciples’ behalf. He is praying for the disciples, not because they cannot pray for themselves. They can. But this is a prayer of protection, guidance, love. What’s interesting to me is that Jesus is not off praying by himself somewhere. That is where we often find Jesus praying. He goes off alone, away from the disciples, away from the crowds, and prays. But in this passage, the disciples are with him. They hear every word.
This prayer comes at the end of the last meal Jesus shares with them. Soon he will be arrested, tried, convicted, crucified, resurrected. As I’ve said in past weeks, it is odd to have a pre crucifixion passage on the last Sunday of Eastertide. Not only is it the last Sunday for this resurrection season, this past Thursday was Ascension Day. Next week, Pentecost. Jesus should be up in heaven, not sitting at table with his disciples, praying.
Yet as we’ve also heard these last weeks, this is Jesus’ long goodbye to the disciples. There is no ascension in John’s gospel. We read about the Ascension in passages like the one we have from Acts. But John is different. In John Jesus makes several post resurrection appearances, gives Peter both a word of grace and forgiveness and instruction. Makes one final comment about the Beloved Disciple, and that’s it. End of the gospel.
From the story of Jesus’ ascension and certainly the story of Pentecost that we will read next week, the torch is now passed to us. While we tend to think of the resurrection as the end of the gospel, it’s really just the beginning. In light of that, it does seem fitting that on this Sunday, when we officially leave Easter, prepare for the coming of the Spirit and consider the Son’s ascent to the Father, that we read this public prayer of Jesus for his disciples.
So what does this prayer say? Jesus speaks of being glorified; his glory and the Father’s glory. I don’t think that the word glory as Jesus uses it is just about shining splendor. In the story of the Transfiguration, the disciples do see Jesus literally shining, but they also get a glimpse of his true nature. So when Jesus prays about his glory and God’s glory, I wonder if he’s speaking of the revelation of God and Son. After all, his time in our midst was about doing just that: revealing God, showing God, making the love of God physical, tactile, embodied, incarnate. So in this hour of crucifixion and resurrection, that revelation of God, that glorification of God is reaching its fulfillment.
And in this glorification, Jesus also speaks about eternal life. “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
This is a different way of looking at eternal life, isn’t it? Eternal life isn’t just the life in heaven. It is more than just the life after this life. It is found in knowing God and in knowing Jesus. Eternal life comes about through relationship with God. Eternal life, then, is now. That doesn’t detract from our belief in Heaven, in the life we wait for after this one. Jesus ascends into the heavens to be in Heaven with God. Perhaps it is only when we reach that life after life that our relationship with God is complete and perfect. But that doesn’t lessen this understanding we have from Jesus’ prayer that the foundation of eternal life begins now. Just as the kingdom of God is already in our midst, so is eternal life.
Jesus prays for the relationship his disciples have and will have with God. And Jesus prays for the relationship his disciples will have with one another.
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
In other words, community. Relationship with God, Father and Son, and community, communion with one another. It seems to me that if our relationship with God is the basis for our eternal life, not only in some distant time, but right now; then the community we build with one another is our reflection of the kingdom, which is not just a far off place, but a realm and reality that is also with us right now.
So what would it mean for us to begin each day with the awareness that we have already begun our eternal life and inhabit the kingdom now? What would it mean for us to open our eyes in the morning recognizing that not only are experiencing this reality but that we give a glimpse of this reality to others? How would we see other people? Speak to them? Treat them?
When Jesus prayed this prayer for the disciples, he knew that soon they would be without him. With the ascension, Jesus is no longer physically on this earth. The coming of the Holy Spirit will embolden them, embrace them and undergird them with the spiritual presence of Christ. But the physical presence, as the disciples knew him, will be gone. So Jesus prayed for them. He prayed for their understanding. He prayed for their protection. He prayed for them to be in relationship with God as he was in relationship with God. He prayed for them to be in community with one another, to be one as Father and Son were one.
And I think that just as Jesus prayed for the disciples, he also prays for us. In one of my favorite Assurances of Pardon found in our Book of Common Worship, we hear these words of grace, “Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us.”
Christ prays for us. What a word of hope that is. What a word of good news. Christ prays for us. Just as Jesus prayed for the disciples, he prays for us. I believe that his prayer for the disciples, that they would have understanding and relationship with God, that they would be protected and have community and communion with one another, is his prayer for us as well.
So what would it mean for us to begin each day, with the knowledge that in our relationship with God, we have found eternal life? What would it mean for us to open our eyes with the understanding that in our community with one another, we reflect the kingdom of God to others? What would it mean for us to not only know these truths, but to also believe to the depths of our being that Christ is praying for us? How will we speak to others knowing that Christ is praying for us and for them? How will we see others knowing that Christ holds us all in his prayers? How will we treat others knowing that Christ prays for our protection, for our strength, for our lives, for our community, for our love for God and one another?
Christ prays for us. In this we find strength to be Christ’s body in this hurting world. Christ prays for us. In this we find courage to be witnesses of the gospel. Christ prays for us. In this we find hope. In this we find hope. Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.