Sunday, May 20, 2012

I Am Praying For You: Sermon on John 17:6-21

Scripture can be found  here.

“I am praying for you.”

How often have we heard that sentence spoken to us? How often have we said it ourselves? Or written it? Or posted it on a Facebook wall?

“I am praying for you.” What does that mean, exactly?

Almost 15 years ago I had some emergency surgery, the kind of situation where I didn’t show up for my weekly Bible study and that was how my friends found out I was in the hospital. This was the period just before I went to seminary, and the Bible study in question was heavily populated with pastors.

After the surgery, back in the recovery room, I had what was, for me, a very strange experience. I would open my eyes, and there would be a pastor, leaning over me, and offering to pray (which offer I gladly accepted). Then I’d drift off, only to awaken again, some undetermined amount of time later, to the vision of another, different pastor, also leaning in and asking whether we could pray. This happened four or five times… not sure how many, honestly, what with the drugs and all. But I am sure of one thing: in my state, which was one of fear and pain, I was moved nearly to tears by the praying presence of folks I’d considered “friends,” but whom I’d never quite envisioned in this particular role in my life: praying for me, in the recovery room. It was powerful.

And just to be clear, I have had equally overwhelming experiences of being prayed for in other contexts as well. You have prayed for me, many of you, and that experience, of knowing you are praying for me also moves me more than I can say. It moves me every time.

“I am praying for you.”

When we say those words, we may have all kinds of different intentions about them. It may be that we intend that the person or family or situation will be a part of our early morning or midday or late evening devotions, as we sit in a rocker in our living room, or a chair on our front porch, a candle lit, scriptures read. We intend to hold them in our hearts. At its best our prayers reflect the prayers described by Julian of Norwich, who said, simply, “I look at God, I look at you, and I keep on looking at God.”[i]

And what often happens is this: the moment after we say, “I am praying for you,” we shoot what some call an ‘arrow’ prayer to heaven: “God, help her.” “God, bless them.” Or, we may raise their names here, in church, during our prayers of the people, or in a small group, or with a prayer partner.

“I am praying for you.”

In our gospel passage it is Jesus who is praying. When we say “the prayer Jesus prayed,” most of us think of the one with its roots in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, that concise, perfect-for-every-day-prayer, that asks for daily bread and forgiveness and that God’s reign come among us: the one we know by heart (and will say together in a few minutes). That’s the one we know as “the Lord’s Prayer.”  This one is very different. This “other” Lord’s prayer is John’s presentation of what Jesus said to God on the night of his last supper with his disciples, the night he would be betrayed by his friends, the night he would be arrested. Jesus prayed this prayer on the night before he died.

“I am praying for you.”

The other gospels depict Jesus praying the night before he died—arrow prayers. Prayers that amount to “Help.” “Please.” “Don’t let this happen.” “Take this cup from me.” And, ultimately, “Your will be done.” This is a very different prayer. In this prayer, Jesus is praying for his disciples.

“They were yours, you gave them to me,” Jesus prays [John 17:6]. And “I came from you” [John 17:8]. And “All mine are yours, and yours are mine” [John 17:10]. This is not an easy prayer to follow at times, andI have to confess, when I was reading this on Monday, the first thing that came to mind was “I am the Walrus”; based on my reading this week, I was not alone in that.[ii] But if we stick with it, we realize that in this prayer, as he looks ahead to the time when he will not be physically present with them, Jesus is asking God for some very basic help for his disciples: He is asking that they might have strength, that they might have joy, and that they might be one: united. Together. [John 17:11,13, 21]

And if we read all the way to the end of the passage, we will find something startling. These “disciples” for whom Jesus is praying…? They are not limited to the twelve gathered around the table with him, or to the larger crowds who followed him as he preached, healed and taught. “I ask not only on behalf of these,” Jesus prays to God, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” In other words, us. You and me. Those who believe, through the word of Jesus’ witnesses and followers—it worked like those old shampoo commercials. “I told two friends, and they told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on…” and then you and I were gathered together on an unseasonably hot day in May to learn that, on the night before he died, Jesus prayed for us.

“I am praying for you.”

Jesus prayed for us. He prayed that we might have strength, and that we might have joy, and that we might be united, together. That we might be one.

What does it mean, that Jesus prayed for us? Well, in the gospel of John have a Jesus who is very willing to talk about himself, to explain himself, unlike the other, more cryptic, even secretive Jesus of the synoptic gospels. Here Jesus is constantly telling us who he is. When the Samaritan woman at the well hints around that Jesus just might be the Messiah, he confirms, “I am.” He then proceeds to show and tell what that means, exactly. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says, while feeding the crowd of five thousand people. “I am the light of the world,” just before he gives sight to the blind man. “I am the gate of the sheep,” and also “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the true vine,” Jesus says. “I am the resurrection and the life,” and also, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Jesus’ words, these “I am” sayings, are hearkening back to something ancient, and profound, and even a little shocking. They recall a conversation by a burning bush, long, long before Jesus’ time, when a refugee named Moses asks the voice that is speaking to him, “Whom shall I say sent me?” And the answer is, “I am; I am who I am” [Exodus 3:1-14].

“I am,” Jesus says, over and over and over throughout the gospel of John. “I am” one with the Father. “I am” the way, and the truth, and the life.

“I am praying for you.”

What does it mean that the one who claims such intimacy with God, whose life reveals such oneness with God, is praying for you, and for me? What does it mean that the one who says, “I am,” is praying for you?

What would you like it to mean?

I went to North Carolina in March for a continuing education event called “Sacred Listening.” It was about group spiritual discernment, listening together for God’s voice. The kind of thing we do together as followers of Jesus, or members of a church. One of the phrases used by our instructors stayed with me—haunted me, really. They talked about listening for “the prayer of God in us as God would have us care for ourselves, [and one] another…”[iii]

What is the prayer of God in us? What is the prayer of God for us?

I would like you to try something. I would like you to close your eyes, if you feel comfortable doing so, and I would like you to let your breath become quiet and regular. Know that God is present, active, and loving. Rest in the love of God. Breathe in the love of God. Know that you are God’s precious and beloved child.

Now, in the quietest and deepest place in your heart, hear God’s voice calling you by name, asking, “[Your name], what do you want?” And listen for what bubbles up, from that deep place within you. What is your deepest longing? What is God’s deepest longing for you?

Does your deepest longing have to do with your body, with your health? Does it have to do with someone you love, or with someone whose relationship with you is broken? Is your deepest longing on behalf of someone who is suffering—whether you, or a loved one, or a whole country, or population? The poor, the lost, the lonely? Is your deepest longing something you fear to admit, something you are afraid to bring into the light for the changes it will make, for the upheaval it will cause? Let it come up and let it come out. Share it with God, with the “I am,” who is praying for you, and who, we must believe, already knows it anyway.

This is the tricky thing about relationship, real relationship with God—or, with anyone, for that matter. There is God’s longing for us, God’s prayer in us. And there is our prayer, the deep desires of our own hearts. And the only way to be in real relationship—with anyone—is for both sets of desires to be made known. It is just as important for us to be listening to the prayer of God in us, to let ourselves be what one of my teachers called “a sufficiently large, open and vulnerable container for God,” as it is for us to reveal to God (and to ourselves) the things that matter the most to us, the cries that rush to the surface when we allow ourselves the stillness to hear them.

“I am praying for you.”

Jesus prayed for us, and is praying for us still. The one who says, “I am the light of the world,” prays that light in us and for us. The one who says, “I am the bread of life,” still seeks to nourish us with himself. The one who says, “I am the good shepherd,” does not leave us alone, and knows our voices, and listens for our prayers, even as we listen for his.  Rest in the knowledge of this. Bask in the joy of this! Jesus prays for us still, that we might have strength, and that we might have joy, and that we might be one. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i]  Rose Mary Dougherty, Group Spiritual Formation
[ii] David Lose, “The OTHER Lord’s Prayer,” Working Preacher at Luther Seminary, May 13, 2012.
[iii] Dougherty, 20-21.

1 comment:

  1. I am so humbled by this, to understand the Great I Am prays for me. Usually it is me asking for something or someone. Thank you for opening my eyes this day. In Jesus' Holy name, Amen.