What Would Jesus Pray For? – John 17.20-26

May 12, 2013 – Seventh Sunday of Easter

The gospel reading this morning from John comes from the very end of what scholars call Jesus’ Farewell Meal and Discourse. It begins in chapter 13 with Jesus celebrating the Passover meal with his disciples and washing their feet. Then, knowing his death lies ahead, Jesus tells his disciples what he most wants them to know as preparation for the time that is coming soon when he will no longer be with them. We hear Jesus say, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” “I am the vine; you are the branches.” He also says in several different ways that the Holy Spirit, the counselor, will be with the disciples when Jesus returns to God.
Then in chapter 17, where we find ourselves this morning, Jesus turns away from the disciples and speaks to God. Jesus prays for himself, for his disciples and then for those who will come after his disciples, who will come to believe, to trust in Jesus, because of the subsequent witness of the disciples. That is, he prays for us.
Now remember in John’s gospel, Jesus addresses God primarily as father. It’s a term of intimacy and closeness as a beloved child to a beloved parent. Because that also applies to a mother as well, I’ll read use father and mother in the reading.

[Read John 17.20-26]

If I were Jesus and I was at the end of my conversation with them about everything they would need to know when I was gone, I would give them a quiz. Or at least a fill in the blank summary of my main points. Or I’d give them a little flash drive with power point slides from my presentation and a bonus video of what I said set to some funky mash-up music. I would want to make sure they got that it was so important for them to remember what I said when I was gone. They could ask me questions now when I was still with them but before long they were going to be on their own and what would they do if they didn’t really remember what I’d said?
The writer of John’s gospel does not make note of any hand outs. No quizzes. No reports turned in by the disciples. Someone took some notes because we have this narrative in the gospel but it came probably decades after Jesus lived.
Instead of making sure his disciples had the Cliff notes they would need after his departure, Jesus prays. That’s how he winds up his farewell remarks. He’s said what he needs to say to the disciples and now he turns to talk to God.
And the disciples, and us all these generations later, get to listen in.
It is as if Jesus is standing in the center aisle where Mark, Madison and I stand each week as part of the prayers of the people. The part where we offer words on behalf of all of us, lifting up people and circumstances about which we are concerned and giving thanks for all that is good and beautiful and holy in the world around us. In this part of John’s gospel, Jesus stands in our midst and prays for us.
“Jesus hands those whom he loves back to God and holds God to God’s promises for this community.”1 He entrusts the future to God. He doesn’t give an end of the semester exam or ask for the disciples to write a paper on his main points because he trusts the future to God. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have any part in the future but, as John scholar Gail O’Day says, as she reflects on this passage, “The future of the church ultimately does not depend on or derive from the church’s own work, but rests with God.”2

This is so freeing because  it means it’s not all about us. The Book of Order, the first part of the Presbyterian Church’s Constitution says, “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world, for its sanctification and for its service to God.” In praying for us, Jesus gives us what we need.
And what does Jesus pray for, for us?
He prays that we would be one.
He doesn’t pray that we would remember everything he told the disciples. He doesn’t pray that we won’t make a mess of the church. He doesn’t pray that we will do everything right.
He prays that we will be one.
What does it mean for the followers of Jesus to be one? Jesus prays that we would be one as he and his heavenly parent are one. John’s gospel is all about making the connection between Jesus and God. When we see Jesus, we see the one who sent Jesus. When we see Jesus acting, it is God whose actions Jesus embodies. When we hear Jesus talking, it is God’s word that Jesus speaks. Not in any kind of science fiction “pod person” sort of way; as if God took over Jesus’ body and made him a automaton. The incarnation–Jesus, the Word of God who became flesh and made a home among us–is the tangible, presence of God with us. To see Jesus is to see God. To know Jesus is to know God.
It is that kind of oneness that Jesus prays for his followers; that Jesus prays for us. That when people look at us, they will see Jesus. And specifically, see the love of God in Jesus. The love God has for Jesus and the love Jesus has for us.

Regrettably, that has not been our strong suit. The whole history of the Christian church is rife with anything but evidence of the love of Jesus. Even today, isn’t it easy to criticize other followers of Jesus? We’ve sort of made a habit out of it. Just listen to most any conversation among church people–liberal or conservative, downtown or suburban, little church or mega church. We are so fast to criticize others; to point out how we are better than them.
This isn’t just our problem. In the 6th century, Dorotheus of Gaza, a monk and abbot, said of his monastic community, “We remain all the time against one another, grinding one another down…Each considers [his or her self] right and excuses [themself]…all the while keeping none of the commandments, yet expecting [our] neighbor to keep the lot!”
What was Dorotheus’ wisdom in this situation? To pray. Especially a difficult and humbling prayer such as, “‘O God, help my brother, and help me through his prayers. [O God, help my sister and help me through her prayers.]’ In this prayer, Dorotheus says, we show sympathy and love for those with whom we’re in conflict, and also acknowledge our need for compassion in return.”3
It is not easy for us to be one–to share in the loving unity that God and Jesus share–as a witness to the world of God’s love. It is difficult even in our closest relationships. It is difficult in our families; in our churches; in our communities. It’s not difficult all the time but I can certainly think of plenty of times where I have failed miserably–and probably you can too.
I take comfort in this last part of Jesus’ time with his disciples that he doesn’t give an assessment of one more thing that we don’t do well or even one more presentation about love but instead, he holds us in prayer. Praying that we might live the life of love as he lived in God’s love and God’s love lived in him.
So, I wonder, what is it that you need–or our community needs–to be one, to be more whole, to have more love?
And now, can you imagine the risen Christ praying for you? Praying for us? For exactly what it is that we need?

* * *
1 Gail R. O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p797.
2 Ibid.
3 The story of Dorotheus comes from Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), p274.


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