John 17.20-26
"Talking with God"
May 8, 2016
Cary G. Speaker, D.Min.

If you take a red letter edition of the Bible and flip to chapters 14-16 of John, those pages are almost totally red. One of the clever Bible teachers I sometimes quote, Frances Taylor Gench, plays on the phrase “worthy is the lamb,” and says, “In John, wordy is the lamb.”  The farewell of Jesus to his disciples is parallel to Moses farewell to Israel before they cross into the Promised Land without him. Jesus prepares the disciples by reminding them of all the things that are important. Moses’ farewell led to the emergence of Joshua as the new leader of Israel. The prophet Elijah is taken up into heaven by a fiery chariot and Elisha follows as the new prophet of Israel. When Jesus departs his earthly life the Holy Spirit comes to enliven the church.

Think about this: which would you rather have?  Jesus telling you what to do, or Jesus praying for you?  This is not a trick question. You get both. But which would you rather have? 

Do you often think of prayer?  Is prayer a part of your life?  I am not thinking about the throw away prayers our culture uses. Someone finds a parking place right in front of the entrance to Wal-Mart and mumbles, “Thank God.”  The football player scores a touchdown and crosses himself. The baseball player hits a home run and points skyward.  Local or national politicians gather for a prayer breakfast that has little to do with prayer and is mostly politics.

Our worship and the entire life of the church is based on prayer. Our worship is centered on and by prayer. There are formal times of prayer in worship, but there are hymns, anthems and scripture readings that can be thought of as modes of prayer. One day Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray and he began like this, “When you pray, pray like this . . .”  That prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer. This long farewell address in John, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, ends with a prayer that is overheard by the disciples.

Do we pray like Jesus?  Do we pray for unity?  Do we show our unity as Christians, just as Jesus and his Father are one?  Can we lay this Jesus prayer alongside our prayers as the measure of our prayers?  Every time we end our prayers with, “in Jesus’ name,” are we praying like Jesus? 

Take a step back and look at the context of this prayer. Jesus is with his disciples, moving toward his violent, horrible death on the cross. That is the setting for this prayer. If we attempt to put ourselves in Jesus’ place, we might imagine praying a different prayer. Knowing the violence and brutality that await Jesus, we might pray for ourselves. We might pray at least to not prolong the suffering, maybe even for some means to avoid the suffering. But Jesus prays for the disciples – for us.

Can we be honest?  I am not asking for a show of hands, but most of our prayers are for ourselves. We pray for healing and peace, and many prayers for our children. But be honest, those prayers are really mostly about us. Jesus prays for others.

My first experience as an interim pastor was in 1977. I alternated the style of my Prayers of the People. Every-other Sunday I would write out the prayer and stick to my script. On the alternate Sundays I asked for requests and took notes while the requests were spoken by the congregation and then included those requests into the prayer. After several months of taking requests I noticed something. The prayer concerns were for our families, only those within the congregation. Most of the prayers were for physical illness. Is illness our only concern?  Do our families and friends within the congregation set the boundaries for our love and care for others?   At that time, I was too young and inexperienced to know how to handle such a revelation that indicated the egocentric personality of that congregation. I, therefore, stopped asking for prayer requests.

When most of our prayers are for our own safety and comfort, I am concerned about the health of the church. I believe that the focus on us suggests that we have lost a vital sense of mission and even Christian vocation. If we had a vibrant sense of mission, we would have more prayers for the courage to witness to our faith. If the Holy Spirit was leading our mission would we not pray for more love for those in the world who have not heard the story of Jesus?  If we were a vibrant mission focused church would we not pray for more compassion in our hearts so that we would not be consumed with our own needs, but rather feel love and concern for others. We might not be so consumed with our own aches and pains if we had a more vivid sense of being on Christ’s mission, even with our aches and pains.  

Jesus prays for unity. How many people have turned away from Jesus, not because of some defect or inadequacy that they see in Jesus, but because of the feeble witness of the church?  Those poor souls look at the typical church that prays “in Jesus’ name,” but they do not see Jesus in the congregation. What they do see in most congregations is backbiting, dissension, divisions, competition and even cruel behavior. They do not see much of Jesus the Redeemer in the unredeemed life of the average congregation. Thank God we are not the average congregation.

I hope this sends a chill down our collective spine. What the world knows about Jesus comes through the church. Jesus is praying for those who will come to belief through the witness of the church. We need Jesus’ prayers. Not because the world is so pagan or unbelieving, but because the “average” church is so far removed from the spirit of Christ. I believe that is one of the reasons Jesus prays for the church and not individuals. Our prayers are filled with first person singular pronouns – I, me, my. Jesus prays for the collective. Jesus prays for all of us.

I know that it is difficult to go against the dominant message of our culture, which is individuality. But one of the biggest problems in the church today is that we think and act as individuals rather than collectively. We have accepted a “pop” version of Christianity that preaches a “me and Jesus” theology. That is not Biblical. I think about theses things. It is my job to think about this. I know that most of you do not. I think about our collective witness, our working together to improve our life together. I pray for the internal health of this church, for the life of this “body,” and our collective witness.

Our unity, our love for one another, and our peace are all gifts from God. These are the life and death matters of the church. To be sure, the purpose of the Christian life is not simply to cultivate our own solitary spiritual garden. Our spiritual garden is for the benefit of the community.

Here is the good news – in so many ways, Jesus’ prayer has been answered. After all these years, we are still here. Maybe we are not completely unified. Certainly we are not completely faithful. But there is at least a bit of love, some sense of community and at least a little faithfulness, all of which must be gifts from God. Every time the church rises above being merely a gathering of like-minded and fairly likeable people and becomes the “body of Christ,” we give thanks to God.  Jesus has not left us alone. Jesus has prayed for us. Jesus is praying for us. We believe that Jesus continues to pray for us.

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