Easter 7 – 5/16/2021 – St. Paul’s
For the seventh Sunday after Easter, the Revised Common Lectionary always gives us a portion of Jesus’s High Priestly Prayer, the culmination of his farewell discourse to his disciples. The setting is 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 offered them urgent words of instruction. Time is running out, and Jesus knows it.
The atmosphere in the room, if we take the liberty of imagining it, is quiet, tender, anxious, pensive. Jesus is troubled, full of pain at the prospect of saying goodbye to his friends, and the ardor of his words and gestures is the ardor of a lover. Even as he knows that his life on earth is drawing to a close, he yearns to remain in communion with his beloved.What would you do in such a moment, if you were Jesus? If separation loomed, if there was so much more you wanted to say and do, if the letting go felt like it would split your heart in two — what would you do?Jesus prays. In the final moments before his goodbye, he looks toward heaven and prays. Can we pause for a moment, and consider how remarkable that is? That God prays?
I’ve heard some people call the high priestly prayer the other Lord’s Prayer — the one we don’t memorize and recite on Sunday mornings. It’s certainly not polished and poetic like the Our Father. It doesn’t flow, or cover its bases with anything like efficiency — it’s long, rambling, and rather hard to follow. In fact based on this prayer, I wouldn’t ask Jesus to say the prayer before we eat. If you ask Jesus to pray the table prayer, you need to be ready to keep your eyes closed for a long time; at least if he prays like he did in John 17. Jesus’ table prayer goes on for twenty-six verses! This isn’t God is great. God is good. Let us thank God for our food. Amen. Let’s eat. Besides, when Jesus prays in John 17, they’ve already eaten the meal! And though the disciples are meant to overhear the words, Jesus’s tone has an urgency and passion to it that is achingly private. Jesus isn’t engaging in a teaching moment with this Lord’s Prayer; he’s rending his heart.
I am asking, Jesus says. How surprising is it that God incarnate spends his final moments with his friends in humble supplication on their behalf? Knowing full well the trials and terrors that lie ahead, he prays into uncertainty. He hopes into doubt. He trusts into danger.
Today, in these few gospel verses, we hear Jesus at prayer. And it’s an intriguing prayer, for it includes three distinct petitions that touch our lives and invite us to pray the same way.
First, on this night before his crucifixion, he prayed for his friends. O Holy Father, he cried, protect them…. He knew they would need that prayer in the coming days. He knew that the cost of being one of his followers in those early days would be high. He knew there would be times when his disciples’ lives would be in danger. He knew there would be times when they would be tempted to run. So he prayed for them. But, notice, he did not pray that they would be released from these problems, but only that they would be strong. He did not pray for escape -no one escapes the trials of life–but victory. He prayed, I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
- In his book, Den of Lions: Memoirs of Seven Years, Terry Anderson tells of his captivity in Beirut for those years. He admitted that he, a lapsed Catholic, was made strong because of prayer. About a month after his captivity he and the others were given Bibles. With nothing else to do, he read and reread it. He was especially drawn to the apostle Paul who struggled with his weakness, imprisonment, and pride just as Terry did. Through Paul’s struggles Terry was able to express his love for God. His only prayer was to ask for patience and strength to endure whatever came, the precise prayer Jesus prayed for him. His trial went on for seven years. He did not escape it. He was made strong through prayer. Jesus had prayed for him.
That raises the first question. Who in your life needs to be made strong? Whom do you need to pray for, not that they escape life’s hurts, but that they be made strong? Perhaps you might pause briefly and say their names to yourself and present them before God. If the first thing
Jesus prayed for was that his friends would be made strong, the second thing Jesus prayed for was that his friends would be united
- A man named Tony Campolo tells a story about being at a worship service where a man prayed aloud for a friend. Dear Lord, he said, you know Charlie Stoltzfus. He lives in that silver trailer down the road a mile. He’s leaving his wife and kids. Please do something to bring the family together. The man prayed again, repeating the location: the silver trailer down the road a mile. Annoyed, Tony wanted to say, Enough already. Do you think God’s asking, ‘What’s that address again?” Anyway, after the prayer service, Tony was driving home when on the turnpike he noticed a hitchhiker. He decided to give him a lift. My name’s Tony, Campolo said. What’s yours? Charlie Stoltzfus, the hitchhiker said. Campolo was dumbfounded. It was the young man for whom the prayer had been offered. Campolo got off at the next exit. Hey, where you taking me? asked the hitchhiker. Home, Campolo said. The hitchhiker stared in amazement as Tony drove right to the young man’s silver trailer. That afternoon that young man and his wife gave themselves to each other and to God.
Who in your life needs to be united? who is alienated from you or the family or their family? What about the unaccompanied minors in our country at this time? You might pause briefly and say their names to yourself and present them to God.
The third thing Jesus prayed for was not, this time, for his friends, but for himself. And that’s significant. It was an important prayer. He said, I consecrate myself for their sakes…so that they may be consecrated in truth. The word consecrate means to make holy and so Jesus in effect is praying, I make myself holy in order that my disciples may be holy. He knew there was no other way. He himself must be grounded in virtue and truth if they were to be. It’s as simple and demanding as that. And there’s the impact for us. We must make ourselves holy so that our friends, our children, our family, our co-workers, our classmates may be holy. There’s no other way. It’s like what Booker T. Washington wrote in his autobiography: The older I grow, the more I am convinced that there is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women. So, too, there is no other way to instill virtue and holiness than to have contact with holy men and women. Consecrate yourself in truth.
- The actor Jimmy Stewart once wrote in a McCall’s magazine article that the center of his universe as a boy was the family hardware store and, more importantly, the man who ran it, his father. He said that all his life his father had a great influence on him. One example was when Jimmy’s bomber squadron was preparing to go overseas during World War II. Before departure, Jimmy’s father embraced him and slipped a letter into his pocket. It read, My dear Jim boy. Soon after you read this letter, you will be on your way to the worst sort of danger… .I am banking on the enclosed copy of the ninety-first Psalm. The thing that takes the place of fear and worry is the promise of these words… I can say no more… .I love you more than I can tell you. Dad. Those words of the ninety-first Psalm? You will be safe in God’s care; his faithfulness will protect and defend you… God will put his angels in charge over you to protect you wherever you go.
His dad was holy – consecrated himself – so that his son might be holy, have values.
Do you know this Jesus, the one who pleads so earnestly? Most of us know the Jesus who teaches, heals, resurrects, and feeds. But do we know this one? This vulnerable, tenderhearted lover who in this scripture passage does the single hardest thing a human being can do? He sends his cherished ones into a treacherous world on nothing but a hope and a prayer. He entrusts the treasures of his heart to the vast mystery that is intercession.
Jesus says in his prayer: I am asking. As if to say: 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 love of mine can hold and guard and save. I am asking.
Asking is the last thing he did before his arrest. The last tender memory he gave his friends. He didn’t awe them with a grand finale of miracles. Neither did he contemplate their futures and despair. He looked up to heaven with a trembling heart, and surrendered his cherished ones to God.
Jesus asked because he loved. May we do likewise