A Witnessing Prayer
A sermon on John 17:1-11
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.]
This week I happened across a silly video on social media promising to “decode” Southern sayings for those of us who are from other areas of the United States.
According to the wisdom of the Holderness Family, if it sounds too nice, you should be suspicious.
For example, the apparently thoughtful “bless your heart” is actually a polite way of demeaning your intelligence, and “aren’t you precious” is an emphatic insult.
And then there’s “I’ll pray for you,” which the video presents as a way of communicating that the speaker has grave concerns about your life choices.
Now, I’m not from the South, but I did do some time in Fundamentalist Evangelical subculture, so I have some experience of being “prayed at”… prayers, or promises of prayer that feel a lot more like judgements than loving intercessions.
I have FEELINGS about this kind of prayer… the kind of prayer that seems less directed to God and more directed to the purported object of prayer.
I experience such prayer as a form of passive-aggressive communication that has the added bonus of being immune to objections because how can we tell someone not to pray for us?!
Maybe all of that is why I had a bit of a hard time this week getting excited about today’s gospel reading. Because it’s a prayer, yes…but it also seems to be more about stuff that Jesus wants to say to his followers than stuff he really wants to say to God.
I mean, “Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
… Who talks to their parent that way? About themselves… in the third person?
It feels pretty clear that this prayer is still very much for the disciples’ ears, and biblical scholars agree with me, because this prayer is categorized as the final portion of Jesus’s “Farewell Discourse” his final teaching to his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion.
I can’t be the only person who kind of hates the idea that Jesus’ final words to his closest friends are a lecture dressed up like a prayer, can I?
Thankfully, the podcast that is the topic for our Balcony Conversation after worship today challenges us to take a look at the way our unintentional biases might be impacting our actions.
That discussion is about a specific pattern related to racial prejudice among White liberals, but the principle has broader application: good intentions aren’t enough… unintentional prejudices of ANY kind can still have harmful consequence.
Which, applied to my reaction to today’s gospel, translates as:
“my righteous indignation about the way that some religious subcultures misuse prayer as a means of manipulation may be rooted in a loving motive (that embraces open, honest communication and nonjudgment), but if the result is me tuning out Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, we have a problem.”
So, in light of that corrective, I find myself looking at today’s gospel with fresh eyes:
eyes that can at least consider the possibility that a prayer can be a real prayer AND a teaching at the same time…
that Jesus can be asking God’s help in drawing his disciples into the vision Jesus has for their life and ministry once he departs, even as he seeks to share that vision with them.
In that light, I see something very different in this passage:
I see Jesus offering his disciples an experiential lesson,
narrating the truth of his own identity and relationship with God so that they can understand their own identity in him;
and asking God’s blessing and protection on their mission as a way of calling them into that mission with the assurance that the work is already done in them by God.
I see a lesson that IS a prayer that begins to be fulfilled in the praying.
Because hearing such a prayer prayed for oneself is already a transformative experience.
And in reading this prayer that way, I find myself, much to my surprise, wanting to do the same thing!
Wanting to finish my sermon with words spoken to God, even though you all are meant to overhear them as well.
Wanting to… I hope not pray AT you, but to include you in the intended audience of MY prayer for you and for our community.
In doing so, I am VERY clear that I am NOT Jesus. I cannot speak with his authority or claim the oneness of mind and purpose that he has with God.
Nor am I praying at the same kind of “hour” that frames Jesus’ intercession: I don’t anticipate being snatched away from you anytime soon and I certainly hope I’m not preparing for intense personal suffering.
But I do want to solicit God’s help in calling you into the fullness of your identity.
And I do want to ask for God’s blessing and protection on your mission as a way of encouraging you to embrace that mission.
So, with the devout hope that there is nothing passive-aggressive about what I am about to pray, and with the clarifying context that this is NOT a way to communicate judgment of this community, in any way, I invite you to listen in, as I pray.
Nurturing God, Jesus our Teacher and Guide, Spirit of Wisdom and Grace, please hear my prayer for the people and community of Abiding Peace.
I know that you already know them far more completely than I ever can.
I have listened to their history, and cherished the chance to get to know their stories past and present,
but you have known each of them from their mother’s womb and you are the one who called them together into this community. You know how very precious they are.
You have given me the opportunity to pastor them, to love them and to teach them (as well as to learn from them). And I believe it is you who has inspired me to speak to them of their identity as WITNESSES.
Each of them individually, and also this community as a whole, has powerful stories to tell.
They have experienced your love, your provision, your healing, your challenge, and your transformation.
They are here because they know you and they know you make a profound difference in their lives.
AND, they don’t always know how to talk about you to anyone outside the church community.
If I'm honest, I often don’t know either.
Jesus, you and your disciples were faced with a time when witnessing to your truth brought intense persecution.
Our time is different. We are more likely to get a reaction of apathy, or disinterest, or maybe even pain and anger from those whom your church has hurt with messages of judgment and rejection.
It’s a different challenge than your first disciples faced, but we still need your reassurance that you have, indeed, given us the words to speak, and that the love we want to bear witness to is true and powerful enough to make a difference in this broken world.
And, so, I am asking you on behalf of this community, the ones you have given me to lead, that they would know who they are and that they would be empowered to fulfill your mission for this church.
Teach us how to share the story of your love in ways a needy world can hear.
Guide us in stewarding the resources you have given us to support the things you want us to do.
Protect us from the tensions that could divide us and make us one in you.
I ask this the name of Jesus, who has taught me how to pray. Amen.