The Holy Gospel According to John 17:6-19
When I started my first job as a pastor, I quickly learned that the congregation had two prayer lists. The first, was much like you find in the back of your bulletin, a list of folks who were either members or friends and family of members of our congregation who needed prayer both as a thanksgiving for the goodness in their lives, or because they were in need, and whether it was grief, or fear, or illness, it felt important to be lifted up in prayer by the congregation.
But, the other prayer list was what I came to think of as the “private prayer list,” a list of people that wanted me to pray for them, but didn’t want anyone else to know. They certainly didn’t want to hear their name read out in worship during our prayers of intercession, or listed in a newsletter. Sometimes this was because something that felt private was happening to them, a relationship was ending, or they were making a big decision they weren’t prepared to share. But, other times, the private prayer list seemed to be a function of just not wanting to bother others with their “problems.” For some, there was some sense that asking for prayer ought to be reserved for people who were in real need, and their needs, no matter how significant they might appear to an outside observer, felt like they would be a burden on others.
At the same time, I wonder if part of their reluctance to name their needs in our community stemmed from the knowledge that being prayed for is an intensely vulnerable experience. Not only are you acknowledging your deep need, a need that you cannot solve on your own, but you are hearing your own name in the mouths of others, and with that can come the fear that they might judge you, or dismiss you, or half-heartedly acknowledge your need. Add to this, that sometimes hearing a community of people say your name, and come before God asking something on your behalf is not just a vulnerable experience but also an incredibly powerful one. Like all times when we expose our innermost selves to others, it comes with both honest fear and immense possibility.
As we enter into our texts for this morning, I need to tell you that our gospel readings for the last few weeks are from my least favorite gospel, the Gospel of John. I struggle with these texts, and often want to just focus on one of the other readings, because the Gospel of John is so full of Father this and Father that, over and over. Half the time, I have to run my finger along the text while I am reading it because it is so circular and kind of like, “abide in me, I abide in you, they abide in this, these others did not abide” and on and on and on, I get lost in the sentences.
But this day, for whatever reason, as I encountered this text from the Gospel of John it sounded more tender to me than I had heard it in my ears before. This is part of a larger section often called the “Farewell Discourse,” because Jesus is, obviously, saying farewell. You have to go pretty far back in the gospel of John to even know where Jesus is when he is talking and who is speaking to, but all of the texts we have been reading for the last few weeks are basically Jesus’ last words on Maundy Thursday. He is gathered in an upper room with the disciples, and he begins to tell them all the things they need to know before he leaves them.
It doesn’t really seem like an Easter message does it? For us, in the season of Easter, it seems much more fitting to hear stories about what happened after the tomb was found empty, but instead we are stepping back to the days before Easter and hearing what Jesus told those disciples to remember after he was no longer with them.
This upper room is filled with confusion. This a pretty long monologue, and it is only punctuated by moments where the disciples voices break in to the text as they turn to each other and say, “what does he mean by this? We do not know what he is talking about!” Jesus has told them that Peter will deny him three times, he has told them that he is leaving, and the air is thick with the uncertainty of the future. So, what is the point of reading this during this Easter season?
What does it feel like to know that Jesus prays for you? Right here, written in the text, between all these Father God this and Father God that, Jesus is not just praying for the disciples, but as Jesus will say only one line beyond our text, “for all those who will believe in me through their word.” Yep, Jesus is reaching out through time, and praying for us, gathered here. That we would be one, that we would be protected and safe even as we live in a world both desperately needs a word of grace and also seeks to reject it at the same time. That we would know we are God’s children, that we are held in the hands of God. All these things, we can overhear Jesus praying for us. Asking God that we, sitting right here in Logan Square, might know truth, and peace.
But part of why we get caught up in these long discourses is that Jesus, understandably, knew that once he was gone, things were going to get a little messy. A little confusing. And perhaps all these disciples gathered to break bread in this upper room are going to be a little unclear about how to move forward. To all of that, confusing and fear, Jesus simply prays for them, and for us. He doesn’t do some kind of miracle, or extraordinary act, he just prays.
And when we get a peek into Acts, we get a sense of just how unclear things really are. We have been bouncing around the books of Acts throughout this season- going from the disciples locked in an upper room for fear of what is going on out in the street, to Philip encountering an Ethiopian Eunuch in a carriage on a dusty road, and now, we are back in time, right after the crucifiction. The disciples encountered this Risen Christ, and then were called out to see Christ ascend into heaven. They’ve gone back to Jerusalem, but now, given the events of holy week, there are only eleven of them. Judas has met an untimely end after betraying Christ, and so these eleven disciples are left wondering who will fill his spot. You see, having twelve disciples was kind of significant, not only because they were often just called “the twelve” and when you show up with only eleven that seems sort of odd, but because the twelve disciples also reflected an ancient relationship with the twelve tribes of Israel.
In a time for us of special elections, one might expect that this gathering would be pretty fraught and tense. One might expect that there would be campaigning and some back room deals, perhaps someone giving a speech about why they might be the best person to take over the empty seat. Most of us, especially as residents of Illinois have heard stories of what happens when there is a power vacuum. Deals get made. Seats get sold. Corruption begins to breed and fester. Because when confronted with an empty spot, all too often, it isn’t the Holy Spirit that seems to be working, but something entirely different.
Yet here we are, in the story of Acts, and this is how God chooses to call the person who will become a new disciple. You’d think there would be some kind of fire descending, or maybe the heavens would be ripped open, or maybe a dove would descend. We’ve seen that kind of calling in the gospels. But, this is just ordinary. Two people get named, because they were around when Jesus was with them. They assembly prays, they basically flip a coin, and then there is a new disciple.
As the transitional pastor here, I’d like to assure you that the work of calling a new pastor is going to be a lot fancier than that. But, that wouldn’t really be true. Yes, the call committee most likely won’t be flipping a coin to determine who will be the best fit for this position, but they will be doing this kind of ordinary work. That is how God works in this early part of Acts, just showing up in the prayerful meeting of people who are seeking a new person to lead. Here in Acts they gather together and pray, and then they simply decide. And, in that ordinary way, God is working.
God is working, because all the way back, we hear that Jesus has been praying for us, putting us on the kind of prayer list that is so close to God’s heart. Praying that we will be safe. That we will have the strength to do the work. That we will speak truth. That we will stay together, even when being together is hard. We hear Jesus praying for the disciples then, for the disciples gathered together trying to find someone new, and for us, right now, as you, too try to discern who God is calling to the ministry here at St. Luke’s.
It seems like it should be flashier. Maybe louder, or more intense. As a professor of mine says, “this is just a bunch of earth bound people doing the work of heaven.” Our way here is different than the ways of the political world, or the ways of a world that elects the loudest or the most powerful. Because we, draw on these stories of those who have gone before, who simply pray, and with that prayer, trust. Trust that God has been praying for us, that God has been hearing our names, hearing our story in the mouth of Jesus, with a prayer that we would be safe and protected. That we would be together, that we would be truthful, that we would carry on when all we have left of Jesus is the words of his prayers.
What does it feel like to know that Jesus prays for you? That Jesus prays for you right now, in the midst of this time of transition, in the midst of our human lives, as we do sacred work? May you feel, even when uncertain, even when anxious, even when scared, that you are held, most tenderly, in the prayers and the hand of our God. Amen, and thanks be to God.