In the fall of my senior year of high school, I had applied to colleges, and I was awaiting their answer. That is a time of anxiousness. Back then you waited for an envelope to come in the mail. I still remember the rule of thumb: a thick envelope was good news. A thin envelope was bad news.
In the midst of this, I remember a conversation with my Mom. She said that my grandma had called. Grandma wanted to know if I’d heard anything yet. When she heard the answer was “no,” Grandma assured my Mom that “she was praying for me.” I made some comment about really hoping God heard Grandma’s prayers when my Mom said something that caught me slightly off guard. She smiled and looked at me and said: “Grandma has said a lot of prayers for you over the years.”
What did that mean? Did Grandma know something that I didn’t know? Why me? What about my brothers? They need it way more than I do!
You see, it’s one thing to have someone pray for you. But it’s something altogether different, to know that someone else is praying for you.
Years ago, I was helping to provide leadership to a continuing education conference, focused on faith formation. I remember that it was just a few minutes before the band would go on stage to lead some music, and then I would go up, and speak to a group of probably around 250 pastors and faith formation leaders, who worked in ELCA congregations.
I was nervous…and I was busy. We were running around the ballroom, making sure everything was in place. Just a couple of minutes before the session started, in the height of the adrenaline rush, one of the musicians, a man named Richard Colligan, walked to the edge of the stage and gestured for me to come over. I was kind of rushed, but I did. He leaned down and said quietly to me, “it’s about to start. Would you like to pray with me before you come up?” “Ahhh…sure…”
And he did. He put his hand on my shoulder, and he prayed for me. He prayed that my words would reflect God’s wishes, he prayed for calm nerves, and he prayed for words that spoke of God’s love and truth…
And any anxiety…in that moment, it just melted. Now don’t get me wrong, it came back…but when it did, it was different. It was not the master of the moment.
You see, to be prayed for is one thing…to know you’re being prayed for is something totally different. I suspect that as people of faith, we all pray for others all of the time. But do those people know that they are being prayed for? That’s why I always encourage those praying, to tell those that they are praying for. I think it magnifies the power of the prayer.
In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus prays for his disciples. Let’s just stop for a moment and think about this for a moment. Jesus. He prays for his disciples. Right there in front of them!
What must it have been like for the disciples to have heard Jesus, who is God incarnate, God the Son, the Savior, the Messiah, praying to God the Father…for them! Because that’s what he was doing.
First, maybe just a little bit of context: This all happens just before Jesus was arrested. Jesus has been giving this long talk that we now call the “Farewell Discourse.” It’s like his last bit of advice…his last coaching…his last word to his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. And he ends his teaching with prayer.
And in this prayer, first he prays for himself. He prays to be “glorified.” That means he’s praying to be returned to the state of glory…that the resurrection would be followed by Jesus being with and alongside God.
And then he prays for his disciples. He prays for those that he knows he is going to leave behind. He prays that they have been well-prepared for what is next. He prays for their protection. And he prays that they too may know grace and joy.
And he prays for two things: He prays for unity for them, and he prays that they will know, and understand, that God is within them.
Now I’m going to give you just a bit of pastor insider-information here.
Whenever you hear a pastor pray, you can usually tell what they are thinking. For example:
- If in a prayer, you hear a pastor pray for unity, it’s probably because they think that there is a lack of unity.
- If you hear a pastor pray for peace, there is a good chance that it’s because they think that there has been too much conflict, or even violence.
- And when a pastor prays for health, it is because they believe that there has been too much sickness.
Jesus is a rabbi…a pastor…and the same is true for him.
And so Jesus is praying for unity for his disciples. Which means, he likely thinks that they might have a unity problem. And that wouldn’t be a surprise. The disciples had argued over which was the greatest…over who would be at Jesus’ right hand…over who was the favorite.
But even more, I think Jesus was praying for the disciple’s unity with God. Jesus asks that the unity he experiences with God would be expanded to include the disciples. Jesus has this visionary hope that his followers would be one with God, just as he is one with God.
Jesus is praying that his disciples, and God, be united in purpose, and in mission. So Jesus prays for unity.
Jesus prays for something else as well: He prays that the disciples would know…would know…that God dwells within them.
Our Gospel text for today ends on a kind of a sad note. In verse 11, Jesus says “I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and Father, I am coming to you.”
You see, the disciples don’t know how to continue Jesus’ mission in the face of his death and departure. And Jesus knows this. They will be dealing with the very real challenge of trying to live out a mission of love for the world, while feeling the loss of their leader. The hope comes in at the second half of this final verse. Jesus says: “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.”
Jesus is saying that his disciples, that we…we become the incarnate love of God. In our connection to God, we extend God’s mission. That’s why it is so important for the disciples to know that God’s Spirit is within them. If they don’t know that, then nothing else really matters.
I have always loved the Disney animated move, “The Lion King.” It’s a great story. And there’s this powerful scene in it, where Rafiki, the old, wise monkey, the storyteller, Simba’s guide, tells the adult Simba, who is grieving the death of Mufasa, his father, that he knows where his father is. Simba doesn’t believe him. Mufasa is dead. Rafiki takes Simba to a pool of water and tells him to look into it, and he’ll see his Father.
Simba complains, “That’s not my father, that’s just my reflection.” “No, look harder,” Rafiki says. As he looks, Simba begins to recognize his father in his own reflection. “You see?” Rafiki hums, “He lives in you.”
Have you had moments like this? When you recognize the trait of someone else…a parent…or grandparent…or a good friend…within yourself?
I have. As a parent, I find myself saying something and I realize that I’m channeling my Father. And at first I’m surprised…but then…then I realize that just maybe, it’s kind of cool…that he is still within me.
That’s what Jesus is praying about here. Jesus is praying because he is worried that the disciples will forget, that the Spirit of God dwells within them, and that to maintain their sense of unity with God and with each other, they need to remember this. If they cannot recognize God within them, they risk forgetting who they are, and what they are for.
So back to my original question: what must it have been like for the disciples to hear Jesus praying this…right there in front of them? How would hearing that prayer change their understanding of their role? How would it change their relationship with Jesus?
My friends, we too are Jesus’ disciples. And that means that Jesus prays this same prayer for us as well. And when we hear Jesus pray these words to God the Father, it cannot help but affect us, like it did those disciples 2000 years ago.
Jesus prays for unity. Jesus does this because we live in a time of division. Some historians argue that we are the most divided now than we have been since the civil war. We divide in our politics, our religion, our ethnicity, our sexuality, geographically…as a people, we cannot even agree on the best way to stop a pandemic. 8 weeks ago, we were so “together.” Now, not so much!
When Jesus prays for unity, Jesus is praying for us.
And Jesus prays that we, like those first disciples, always remember that God’s Spirit dwells within us. Jesus’ prayer is that when we look in a mirror, we don’t merely see ourselves with all of our flaws, problems, anxieties and issues. No, when we look in the mirror, we see the love, grace and Spirit of God reflected back to us.
In our baptism, God gives us this gift. We encounter the Holy Spirit, and that Spirit dwells within us.
And in these pandemic days, when life is difficult…and complicated…we need to remember this more than ever.
When you feel lost, aimless, and you forget who you are, remember that you are connected to God, a God who loves you. And remember that this God’s Spirit lives in you. And remember that it is in living out God’s love for the world that we have this incredible oneness, this unity with God and each other, that echoes throughout Jesus’ final prayer.
To be prayed for is one thing. To know you’re being prayed for, is something altogether different. Jesus prayed for his disciples. That means that at the end, Jesus prayed for you. And God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is with and within you, as you are with…and within…each other.
Thanks be to God!