Grace and peace to you, from God our Creator and from our Lord and risen Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
What does it feel like when you know someone is praying for you?
I remember a few years ago, when my Father was hospitalized. He was sick with the same infection in his lungs that Jim Henson of the Muppets died of. So you can imagine that my family was pretty stressed. I was leaving church one Sunday after worship to go to the hospital to see him when a woman in the congregation, this wonderful, faithful, older woman named Ruth, stopped me to ask how Dad was doing. We talked for a minute, but I’m sure it was pretty obvious that I was anxious, and in a hurry. As I said goodbye and began to walk to the car, she stopped me again, walked over and put her hand on my arm. She said: “I’ll be praying for you and your Dad.”
“Thanks!” I replied. “I appreciate that.” And I started walking. But she didn’t let go of my arm. She looked me in the eye and said: “No, really, I’ll be praying.” “”Thank you,” I repeated. “No, really I will. I promise.” And she let go of my arm, gave me a hug and then shuffled on her way. As I walked to the car, I found myself tearing up. Do you know what it feels like to hear that people are praying for you, and meaning it? I was, like many of us, used to the casual comment, “I’ll keep you in my prayers!” But to have someone make eye contact, look you in the soul…and pledge it. In all honesty, it can make you feel a bit vulnerable, or even uneasy. But there is also this feeling of well-being that flows over you because you know you are not alone, that someone cares for you and you know that God is there in the midst of it all.
Sometimes words like this are unexpected. I have had emails telling me that someone thought of me and is praying for me. It gives me a lift to hear that, even when there is nothing weighing on me at the time. And then there are the times when I am feeling stressed, or burdened, and need those prayers, but didn’t know how, or hadn’t even thought to ask for them. But then people tell me they’ve been praying for me, and it’s like cool water on a hot, hot day.
I remember driving back from visiting someone in the hospital in Robbinsdale once. I drove past this small church. On their sign was the simple message, “Pray for Ellen Smith. I didn’t know Ellen Smith, and I didn’t know the source of her concern but I remember thinking about her at different times during the day, imagining how old she was, what her concern might have been and during the whole time lifting her up in prayer. I suspect I was not alone. And I was reminded of how prayer draws God’s people together.
There is a Lutheran pastor in the Twin Cities whose daughter died violently some years ago. I’ve heard him speak about his experience. He said that after it had happened, He found it impossible to pray. He went about his ministry feeling empty and without anything to give. He felt tired, and frayed. Sharing his pain with another pastor, he opened up about his apparent loss of faith and inability to pray. His friend told him, “Well then, your friends will pray for you until you can pray for yourself again.” And they did. As his healing took place, he began to understand that he was not abandoned and eventually he found his faith…and he was able to pray again. Prayer for someone else can be like giving them a blessing; especially when they know about it.
In our home, when we say our prayers with the boys before bed, we make that same sign on their foreheads. It is the last thing we do at night. It is a blessing and a prayer for God’s presence, for safety, for Sam and Nathan to be protected and kept Holy by God.
Some good friends of ours had the custom of making the sign of the cross on the forehead of their son, Peter, when he left the house for school every day. It was a family practice. Then it became a habit. One day, Peter was in a rush to get off to school and ran up to his Mom and said, “Do me quick and then I can go!” He had come to expect that blessing and prayer and wanted it for this particular day with all its busyness. If our children are to live and grow in their faith, they need our prayers, and they need to know that we are praying for them.
Yes, there is power in prayer; both for the one who prays, and for the one who is prayed for. No, we don’t understand it; it is a part of the mystery of God. But we believe it is real. And I believe that power is magnified when a person knows they are being prayed for. So imagine, what must it have been like for Jesus’ disciples to actually hear him praying for them?
In today’s gospel, we are at the end of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse,” his final teachings, that we’ve been working our way through for the last few weeks. Jesus is closing these teachings in prayer. He knows that he is about to leave his disciples and they are being sent out into the world to do his work.
In some ways, this prayer is like Jesus’ last will and testament. Jesus blesses and prays for them, asking for protection; asking that God would “sanctify” them; that is to make them holy, protect their souls.
I think it’s interesting, because Jesus is drawing together two ideas: First, that it is God’s Word, the Greek word is Logos, that makes the disciples Holy. And it is the Logos, the Word, that sends them out into the world to sanctify it, to make it Holy. And Jesus is that Word, the Logos. Jesus says in verse 14 that “I have given them your Word.” I have poured myself into them. In this prayer, Jesus is irreversibly bonding himself and his disciples. As Jesus is holy, Jesus makes the disciples; Peter, James, John..and all the others…holy.
And Jesus makes his followers holy not just for the sake of being holy…but for the sake of the world. It is all about mission. Jesus uses the phrase “in the world” thirteen times in these fourteen verses. And Jesus’ prayer is a prayer of preparation for sending out his disciples into the world. He prays for their safety…he prays for their spirits…and then Jesus sends them.
Imagine what it must have been like for the disciples to hear him pray that, for them.
Imagine, the wonder of Jesus praying for us. The Son of God, the one who came to save the world, does not limit his prayers to the 12. As he sent them, he sends us out in mission, and as he prays for them, he is praying for you and me; praying for our safety, praying for our souls. Jesus is the one who then sends us to carry out mission: to serve the poor, to bring comfort to the sick, to pray for those in need. We, as his disciples, are included in his prayers.
He said “Sanctify them, make them holy in truth; your Word is truth.” Jesus’ prayer for us is to have the courage to do what is right, even when it’s hard. It is to speak up against bullying, to choose not to get caught up in the materialism of our culture, to stand against racism, to dare to be different, to work for peace and justice in the face of a culture that says to look out for yourself.
I love the way one of my seminary professors translated this part of Jesus’ prayer as “God, make them weird.” That is very close to the truth. To be a child of God and live that way in our culture is seen as weird. The values we want to teach and live by are different from those of the mainstream culture. Jesus’ prayer is a prayer for us think differently.
This is my prayer for each one of us. I pray that we would fully embrace our identity as children of God and seek to live within it. My hope is that as a church, we would all pray for each other so that we might have the courage to live differently in our culture. Ron Rolheiser in a recent article says it this way, “Faith must be expressed publicly, in colorful, romantic ways. We must stop building ‘boring churches’ and build churches that wildly colorful, and that express public faith.”
When we live this way…when we remember that Jesus’ prays for our safety and our holiness, it cannot help but change us.
- It draws us together into community
- It draws us closer to God
- It opens our hearts to those in need
- It changes how we pray, how we read scripture, and how we worship; and,
- It moves back into the center of our lives our faith, which sometimes gets crowded to the margins by all of the competing things that we have to tend to.
Faith is a gift of God, nothing we do creates or delivers it. But once given by God, we get to make the choices that allow that faith to be nurtured.
Remember that Jesus prays for you. Jesus wants us to live as children of God and promises to give us the strength to face whatever comes.
- Remember to pray for those around you. Pray that we will be protected in our faith and that we will “sanctified” even if that means that we will need the courage to become a little weird.
- Remember that we are to bring light and life to a world that can seem dark.
- Remember that Jesus prayed for us and that all the power of God is with us.
When we live lives that are made holy, sanctified by God through Christ Jesus, we will no longer be surprised when someone tells us that they are praying for us. No, we will actually come to expect it. Because we will also be praying for them, and because we will have confidence that Jesus’ prayer for his disciples…Jesus’ prayer for their safety…for their holiness…Jesus’ prayer: it is for you.