On Behalf of All of Us

Posted: June 5, 2019 in Uncategorized

On Behalf of All of Us

June 2, 2019

John 17:20-26

The Revised Common Lectionary reading from John this week gives us a portion of a prayer by Jesus. It is thought to be the culmination of his farewell discourse to his disciples In the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday.  Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet, foreseen Judas’s betrayal, predicted Peter’s denial, promised his disciples the Holy Spirit, and suggested that it might be that time is running out.

In the final moments before his arrest, he “looks toward heaven and prays.”  This prayer is commonly known as part of the high priestly prayer and by some as the other Lord’s Prayer — the one we haven’t memorized and recited on Sunday mornings.  It’s certainly not polished and poetic like the “Our Father.”  It doesn’t flow, or cover its bases efficiently.  It’s long, rambling, and rather hard to follow.  And though the disciples are meant to overhear the words, Jesus’s tone has an urgency and passion that is achingly private.  It seems that here Jesus isn’t engaging in a teaching moment with this Prayer; he’s rather rending his heart.

A Debie Thomas of a blog called Journey with Jesus writes that she sat with the words of this lectionary reading for a long time waiting to see what words and phrases would stand out. She says that she didn’t expect anything to come and was surprised when the words ‘I ask’ lept out at her. I was reminded as I read this that that is the way Jesus lived. He asked the questions, His answer to many requests was another question. He very seldom gave an answer and if he did it was always followed up with a question.

In Debie’s case the question she was encouraged to ask was “What does it mean that Jesus spends his final moments with his friends in humble, anxious supplication?”  We have the Jesus who healed the sick and fed the hungry and raised the dead, and we might ask; “What does it mean that that same Jesus ends his ministry by asking into uncertainty?  Hoping into doubt?  Trusting into danger?

It seems that in an outpouring of words and emotions, Jesus asks God to do for his followers what he himself cannot do.  To be for people in spirit what he can no longer be for us in body. “May they be in us,” he prays. May they all be one.  May they know the love that founded the world.  May they see the glory of God. This is less about calling for a supernatural God above, to do the magic Jesus can’t do and more about his acknowledgement that in and through the unity of humankind the more than, the Spirit and source of transformation is in the admitting of one’s limitations and accepting the life of uncertainty.

In his book entitled, Tokens of Trust, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, describes the strangeness and wonder of this Jesus who prays: “Yes, Jesus is a human being in whom God’s action is at work without interruption or impediment.  But wait a moment: the Jesus we meet in the Gospels is someone who prays, who speaks of putting his will and his decisions at the service of his Father.  He is someone who is in a relationship of dependence on the one he prays to as Father.  In him there is divine purpose, power, and action; but there is also humility, responsiveness, and receptivity.” Williams is acknowledging the importance of Jesus as revelation of divine purpose and power and action and he is a human being who lives with humility and uncertainty.

Do we know this Jesus, the one who pleads so earnestly?  We can very likely say that we know the Jesus who teaches, heals, resurrects, and feeds because our tradition has developed this, over hundreds of years.  But do we know this Jesus?  This vulnerable one who in this passage does the single hardest thing a friend, a lover, a spouse, a parent, a child, a teacher, a pastor ever does? It sounds harsh but in recognizing his limitations, his humanity this Jesus sends his cherished ones into a treacherous, divisive, broken world on nothing but a hope and a prayer?  Another way of saying this is to say that he entrusts the treasures of his heart to the vast mystery that is intercession?

Put yourself in Jesus place and you might be saying to your God, “I don’t know what you will do with my asking.  I don’t know how or when or if you will answer this prayer.  I can’t force your hand.  But I am staking my life and the lives of my loved ones on your goodness, because there’s literally nothing more I can do on my own. I have come to the end of what this aching love of mine can hold and guard and save.  I am asking”.

To me this seems to be asking us to ask what role prayer plays in our world, a world rife with tragedy, injustice, and oppression? Is this prayer of Jesus in his circumstances, the immanent arrival of his possible demise or imprisonment,  reminding us to ask the hardest questions we can think of about God — questions we don’t know how to answer. Does God intervene directly in human affairs? Does his intervention — or lack of it — depend in any way on our asking? Can prayer “change” God? Big questions yet questions that need to be asked if we are to be responsible human beings. But lets put those down for a bit and return to the place Jesus finds himself in.

We have in traditional words the immanence of Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles. This is the situation of our text meaning and as many of could perhaps say our beliefs about prayer have changed a lot over the years. Many of us were raised to believe that God intervenes very directly in human affairs, and that intercessory prayer has powerful and undeniable “real world” effects. As a child, we might have believed with all our heart that prayer heals diseases, prevents car accidents, feeds hungry children in far-away countries, fends off nightmares, prevents premature death, and “stops the bad guys.”

As a teen and young adult for many of us, much of that certainty collapsed under the weight of life experience — some diseases didn’t get better, car accidents happened, we have nightmares, babies starved, young people died, and “bad guys” won the day.  When we asked our elders to explain these discrepancies, some gave us two answers: The first is that we need to pray with more faith, and the second is that sometimes God’s answer is no. Both of those answers might have struck us then — and now — as too simple to be true or alternatively pretty lame.

Today, we live along the borders of a more complicated world. we have friends and family members who pray for parking spots, lost house keys, Rugby victories, and Grammar Zone admissions for our children. But we also have friends who avoid intercessory prayer on principle, convinced that the true purpose of prayer has nothing to do with asking God “for stuff.” In their words: “He’s God.  Not Santa Claus.” While not making that dualistic response, I can identify with the questions about intercessory prayer. I remember being challenged at Knox that intercessory prayer should not contain requests for what i think other people need. That made interceding for others very difficult.

It seems that the challenge of intercessory prayer is that it’s subjective. What looks like God’s “yes” in our eyes might easily look like God’s “no,” God’s silence, or even God’s non-existence in other eyes. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “The meaning we give to what happens in our lives is our final, inviolable freedom.” When is an “answer to prayer” really an answer? When is it coincidence? Randomness? A trick of the light? The truth is that we can’t say for sure. Not in this lifetime at least. Not without losing our freedom.

So why do we pray?  One answer is that we pray because I am compelled to do so. Because something in me cries out for engagement, relationship, attentiveness, and worship. We pray because our soul yearns for connection with an, Other, whom we name God, and it seems that, that connection is best forged in prayer. With words, without words, through laughter, through tears, in hope, and in despair, prayer holds open the possibility that we are not alone, and that this broken, aching world isn’t alone, either. We pray, as C.S Lewis writes, “because I can’t help myself.” Because “the need flows out of me all the time — waking and sleeping.”

Well, here we have a reasonable answer. But maybe this week’s Gospel reading offers us another one: Maybe we pray because Jesus did.  We ask because Jesus asked.  Asking is perhaps the last thing he did before his arrest.  The last tender memory he bequeathed to his friends.  He didn’t awe them with a grand finale of miracles.  Neither did he contemplate their futures and despair.  In traditional words we might say; He looked towards heaven with a trembling heart, and surrendered his cherished ones to God. He was as uncertain as the rest of us.

A final line this morning might be to say that he asked questions because he loved too much not to.  What better way to walk the Jesus Way than by honouring the minds ability to find the questions that matter, to live the questions because that acknowledges the uncertainty that is only recognised through the questioning and to explore the adventure of being human with humility and courage because that is what Jesus did. Amen.

 

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