Message for Easter 7 on John 17:1-1-21 given on May 16, 2021 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. This sermon and other worship services can be seen on YouTube.
And you thought the pandemic was hard! Before we have even figured out how to be back in the building, we have received an unsolicited offer to sell it and our property to a growing church in the area. We face challenging days ahead as we struggle with a proposition few congregations ever must consider. This will take even more spiritual resources, and greater depth than we anticipated having to muster at this moment.
We thought we mustered all we had to, to get to today—and you truly did amazingly well! So, we hoped for a season of simple moments of relief, salve to the soul, a joyful sense of communion, and soaring spirits as we sing together even masked, as Dale plays the organ—and we do feel that today.
But after a year of getting used to spending time alone and isolated, we enter a process that will require more togetherness than usual, more conversation, more interaction, and more patient listening than we have done in 14 months. The Council has set forth a thoughtful process with expansive time for questions, research, answers, ideas, discussion, and more discussion, so we have time to be in community again. This is very good.
We are also going to need more than good process. Our Gospel reading from John offers us that something more.
In John 17, Jesus offers us a way to pray through this summer, through this process, to give us what we need to listen to God, to discern God’s will, and to be centered in Christ. Did you know that there is no version of the Lord’s Prayer in John? Did you know that there is no Garden of the Gethsemane prayer in John where Jesus asks the cross to be taken from him? There is neither of these prayers in John—there is only this prayer—called the “high priestly prayer” as Jesus prepares his disciples for his death and departure. Many of us repeat Jesus words in Gethsemane for our suffering to be taken away. Many of us pray the Lord’s prayer every day and we of course say it every Sunday in worship. But Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is not a common way for us to pray at all. It is, however, an essential way for us to pray in the coming weeks and months as we discern God’s future for us.
What is so different about this prayer, making it so uncommon, or perhaps even uncomfortable? The first person Jesus prays for is himself. Jesus prays for his ministry, what he has done, what God has asked him to do, and this present moment he has come to. Jesus asks for God’s presence, love, affirmation, power, embrace in the present moment that God has brought him to, so that he can continue to fulfill all that God has sent him to do.
Have you ever put yourself at the top of your pray list, before anyone or anything else? We tend not to do this because we think others are in more need than we are. Imagine doing this just for a moment. How does it feel? To ask God to be with you in the present moment so that you can faithfully do what God wants you and calls you to do. What if the primary purpose of your prayers is simply this: to experience God’s love, affirmation, power, and embrace? Carmelite nun Ruth Barrow expands this understanding of prayer—putting ourselves first as Jesus does so that we might be changed by God’s love:
What do we mean by prayer? Almost always when we talk about prayer, we are thinking of something we do and, from that standpoint, questions, problems, confusion, discouragement, illusions multiply. For me, it is of fundamental importance to correct this view. …prayer is essentially what God does, how God addresses us, looks at us. It is not primarily something we are doing to God, something we are giving to God but what God is doing for us. And what God is doing for us is giving us the divine Self in love….Divine Love desires to communicate Its Holy Self to us. Nothing less! We must realize [therefore,] that what we have to do is allow ourselves to be loved, to be there for Love to love us. . . . True prayer means wanting GOD not ego. Prayer, from our side, is a deliberate decision to remain open to the inflowing of divine love.
This is why Jesus prays for himself first. To ground himself in God’s love—to ground himself in eternal life. At the beginning of John 17 Jesus describes eternal life as living in a relationship with him and knowing God now: “3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
In addition to good process, when all of us pray for ourselves first, receiving the divine outpouring of love, grounding us in God rather than our own ego and preferred outcomes, we will bring our best selves to our shared discussions.
The second petition in Jesus’ high priestly prayer is to pray for his disciples. Jesus prays for their protection from evil, for their unity, for their sanctification in the truth, and for their joy. Jesus knows he is going away and is sending the disciples into the world with the power of the Holy Spirit to live out a relationship of eternal life with God in a world that rejects and resists such radical, all-encompassing love. Their mission is to make real John 3:16—to show forth that God so loves the world that he sent Jesus to embody that love.
So, Jesus prays for their relationship with God and their community to be protected from temptation, from evil, from all the forces that defy and rebel against God and that thwart love. Jesus prays for their faith to be deepened and sanctified, and the truth of their beliefs to be strengthened. Jesus prays for the close union he experiences with God and with the disciples to also bring them the same joy of communion, so that the people of faith would endure the challenges of life together as one community.
As we think about the challenges of the coming the weeks—the discussions and the decisions, what are the gifts we need to pray for in each other, in our fellow disciples and in our community members, so that we can remain protected, strengthened, united, and even joyful that we are together? This is not a rhetorical question! What do we need to pray for, for each other? [Response: understanding, patience, listening, compassion, empathy, discernment, hope, faith that God is with us, gratitude for those who came before us]. Doesn’t it feel better to come to the meeting next week knowing everyone is praying for you to have these gifts?
This is why Jesus prays for his disciples second—rooted in his loving union with God, he extends this loving union into loving Communion with his disciples who manifest his love and spirit in their life together—so our second prayer in the coming weeks after we pray for ourselves and receive God’s love, is to pray for each other and our communion together.
The third petition is Jesus’ high priestly prayer is to pray for the new believers who will come to faith through the mission of the disciples. Jesus is praying for the future church that does not yet exist, but will surely come to be. Jesus was praying for us, and here we are! (Did you get that?!) Jesus prayed for us, and here we are! Even though Jesus is leaving, even though the world resists God’s love, even though there may be evil to battle, even though there may challenging days and questions ahead, God’s mission has a church in the world, and that church has a purpose—to share the love of God in Christ Jesus.
So, the third group we are praying for in the coming weeks are those for whom St. Luke’s exists—new believers who will come to faith because we are faithful to the Gospel. We are praying for new believers, we are praying for families with children who want to raise them in an inclusive community, we are praying for spiritual seekers, we are praying for believers who never felt welcome anywhere, we are praying for people who are lonely and need community, we are praying for people who never felt loved by God, we are praying for people who are ready for their spirits to come alive.
The future focus of St. Luke’s is not about the physical location or the specifics of this or any other building-–those are tools for the mission. As we pray for the new believers, for the mission God calls us to, and receive more clarity about that, I am confident that the answer about the right tools for that mission will become clear.
Jesus’ high priestly prayer invites us to pray for ourselves first, opening ourselves to the inflowing of God’s love for us and work in us, grounding us in eternal life. We go from union with God to communion with each other as we pray for the gifts of wisdom, patience, listening, empathy, understanding compassion, hope in others as we discern and discuss together. Finally, we pray for the new believers—the people and the mission to which Christ calls us—embodying John 3:16 in the Richardson community and beyond.
As we offer these prayers, we trust that Jesus prays with us. He prayed for us as the future church—we are the evidence of his answered prayers. Jesus prays with us now as his disciples of today, as we join him in mission for the next future church.