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The Power of Jesus' Prayer

I thought I might try something new for this blog and see how it goes. My new idea is to try to write something every day based upon the lectionary reading from the Bible for that day. My plan is to follow the lectionary Gospel reading from Sacred Space, an online devotional resource I have been using for some years. On some days my thoughts may be brief, on others I may have a sermon I have preached in the past on the particular lectionary text. So I begin today with one of those longer pieces. Let me know what you think....

I want you to imagine for a moment some great historical person, perhaps even someone from the distant past, someone you admire. Perhaps it is a great leader like George Washington or Eisenhower. Maybe it is a great writer or thinker, like Socrates or Shakespeare. Perhaps it is a humanitarian like William Wilberforce or Florence Nightingale. Do you have that person in mind?
Now imagine further that historians have recently uncovered some hitherto unpublished manuscript in which this great historical figure mentions … you. That is right … you. How does that make you feel?
It should make you feel very important, special, valued. That is also how you should feel as we read the closing of Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17:20-26, because in these verses he is praying for you and me. Hear the words of Jesus….
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.

In these verses, Jesus is praying for you, and for me, and for all those who have and will come to faith in him through the message carried forth by his disciples. In fact, in these verses Jesus prays for the whole world.

Now, it would be easy to cast this aside as mere sentimentality, unless we stop and think about who is praying these words. What I mean is this: we have probably all heard a child pray something like, “Dear God, bless the whole world. Amen.” That is a lovely, generous, and touching prayer for a child to pray. However, as adults we know that the whole world is not blessed. Thus, in the end it would seem this child’s prayer is sweet but merely sentimental and ineffective.

Thus, we need to stop and think about who is praying this prayer. It is Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus whom we have seen performing great signs, great miracles in this Gospel of John. It is the same Jesus, the one who has made seven great “I AM” claims, the Jesus who has taken on the prerogative of doing and saying the kind of things only Yahweh gets to do and say in the Hebrew Scriptures. This Jesus is praying for the whole world.

While we may understandably doubt whether a little child’s unreflective, sentimental prayer will ever make a difference in the world, we should (if we have read and understood anything of the Gospel of John) pause and think: “Maybe, just maybe, Jesus’ prayer will make a difference.” Perhaps this prayer matters.

Thus, having paused to think about this, let us think a little further along the lines of what Jesus prays for in these seven verses. There are three things.

First, Jesus prays for the unity of all who will come to believe in him through his disciples’ testimony.

The unity for which Jesus prays is a supernatural unity. It is the same unity shared by the Father and the Son. It is a unity achieved only as we are in the Father and the Son. Therefore, it is a unity brought about, not by human effort, but by Jesus giving us the glory given to him by his Father.

Second, this unity is a tangible one. The unity for which Jesus prays brings about change in the world. “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
We cannot produce the unity Jesus prays for by our own human efforts; nonetheless, the world needs to see this unity in us. It must be a visible unity. The world needs to see the love of God at work in us and through us.

This leads to a third aspect of the unity Jesus prays for: it must be “worked out” in mission. We achieve unity as we work side by side as Christians, carrying God’s love to the world. Jesus’ prayer speaks of his disciples carrying a message. As we carry this message to the world, and as we live out this message before the world, then God, in his grace, will work this unity in and through us.

Pastor Lee Eclov writes,

A young friend called me to say she’d admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital. While she was there, I visited her when I could. One of my visits was on Good Friday. I asked her if she’d like for me to bring Communion to her. She said she would and asked if some of the other hospitalized Christians could join us.

On that spring afternoon, five or six of us gathered in her room and shared the sacred meal. I think it was the most meaningful Communion service I ever shared—half a dozen strangers, each scarred by heartache, sitting helpless in a locked ward.

Yet Jesus was there because we were there as his beloved. He was not only among us, but he was there within us. Even as broken people, we were one with each other. We were strengthened by his presence; we were healed, in a way. We were nourished, washed, and rejuvenated all because we had Communion.

What a picture that is of the unity for which Jesus prayed! As I look at my own life and the world around me, I tend to think we are all living in a psychiatric ward. Yet, in the midst of the craziness, God has called us into a relationship with himself through his Son Jesus Christ. That vertical relationship also leads to a horizontal one—it leads us into the family of God, the Church. As we commune with God and one another through Christ, we can present a great picture, dramatic evidence of the love of God, to the world.

That makes me wonder: what are the other patients on the ward thinking as they witness our communion? Asking that question leads to the second thing Jesus prays for: Jesus prays that the world will believe through our unified witness.

“May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me … May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

As Bruce Milne has written, “The heart of Jesus is as wide and broad as the heart of the God who so loved the world as to send his only son.”

Jesus doesn’t simply pray here for the Church in some exclusive sense, he indeed prays for the whole world, not just the people alive in the world in AD 30, but all those who will ever live. He prays that the whole world will come to believe in him through the witness of his followers.

However, this raises the question: how are we to be his witnesses? How exactly do we go about it?

I love the answer of Emmanuel Suhard, a French Cardinal of the Catholic Church, who lived from 1874 to 1949. He once wrote,

To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.[1]

The mystery God calls us to live out is the mystery of a family. The kind of witness Jesus wants is not simply that of one person here or there going and telling one other person about him. The witness Jesus calls us to live is one we must live out as a team. Often our unity with other Christians is the greatest witness to the world.
Roger Frederickson, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, recounts how a congregation he served once shared in a public service of reconciliation with another congregation more than twenty years after a bitter split. Frederickson writes of that worship service:

As we sang, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” many people embraced in the crowded sanctuary and their tears of gratitude and joy were mingled. The next day on the street people stopped some of us saying they had heard the “good news”. The message we proclaimed had become … credible.

Jesus longs and prays for this kind of unity for us as believers. Furthermore, Jesus prays that our unified witness will win the world to himself. Finally, Jesus prays for the completion of his work.

The third aspect of Jesus’ prayer for us goes like this:

Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.

Bruce Milne describes this prayer most eloquently when he writes:

‘With me’ is the language of love. The beloved longs for the lover’s presence. So Jesus, in these final moments, as the last grains of sand trickle through the hour glass before his rendezvous with darkness, gazes across the rolling aeons of the future and anticipates the embrace of his beloved bride in the glory that is to be.

That will be heaven, when God the Father finally and forever joins us together in Christ at the wedding supper of the lamb by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Meanwhile, we struggle along through this vale of tears, attempting to live out a unity that is, in fact, still very broken, and a witness to the world that is still very weak. It would seem that Jesus’ prayer for us two thousand years ago, has still gone largely unanswered. Perhaps Jesus’ prayer is, after all, not very far different in its sentimentality or ineffectiveness, than the child’s prayer, “Dear God, bless the world. Amen.”

But is this the whole truth? Can any of us truly claim that we have seen the end of the story?

Jesus prays this beautiful prayer on Thursday night. On Friday, he goes to the cross. On Saturday, he lays still and dead in the grave. But on Sunday, he strides forth from that tomb alive.

Just so, the Church today often seems to be in a perpetual Holy Saturday. The world often accounts us as dead in the tomb. But if Jesus’ story teaches us anything, it shows us that God has many surprises still up his sleeve. And maybe, just maybe, one of those future surprises will be his people: renewed, reinvigorated, resurrected, united with one another and in Christ. And if that happens, then perhaps the world will truly be won to him. Perhaps Jesus’ prayer on Thursday night will prove to be powerful and real after all … in an everlasting Sunday.

We are a people who live by faith, not by sight. We are a people who live by hope.

John Shea expressed it well when he wrote,

Now there was only the morning and the dancing man of the broken tomb. The story says he dances still. That is why down to this day we lean over the beds of our babies and in the seconds before sleep, tell the story of the undying dancing man, so the dream of Jesus will carry them to dawn.[2]

[1] Lee Eclov, Vernon Hills, Illinois; source: Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection (Eerdmans, 2010), p. 185.
[2] John Shea, The Storyteller of God


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