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Seventh Sunday of Easter
Pastor Eric Deibler
- Acts 16:16-34
- Psalm 97
- Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
- John 17:20-26
As people of faith, we face a lot of challenges. The greatest challenge we face is also the one that is at the core of who we are: our challenge is not just to learn about the biblical story but to live into it. To make it our story, so that it might help us to make sense of our lives. And this week’s lesson gives us an opportunity to do just that.
Let’s set the scene. It’s Thursday evening, the night on which Jesus will be betrayed, handed over to his enemies, deserted by his friends, tried, convicted, and ultimately crucified. And knowing all that is to come, he gathers his closest friends, offers them parting words of encouragement and hope, and then prays for them. He prays that they may endure the challenges that come their way. He prays that they may discover strength in their unity. He prays that they will be drawn together as one as Jesus and the heavenly Father are one. And then he prays not only for them, but for all for who will believe in Jesus because of their testimony.
Jesus gathers his disciples around him for a final meal. He washes their feet, setting an example for them. He shares bread and wine with them and then gives them a commandment to love another. And then he tries to prepare them for his departure.
In some ways, it’s an impossible task. They can’t comprehend what’s happening. They might not even really hear him through their confusion and fear. So, when he has said all that they can bear, he promises them that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will come to them, remind them of what he’s said, and lead them into all truth. And then he does one more thing. He prays for them.
As prayers go, it’s complex, even convoluted enough, that we can forget that it’s a prayer. In fact, it’s called the “high priestly prayer” because it is not only intense, but also at times, rather theologically dense. It almost sounds like a commandment – to be one! Or more teaching – this time about his relationship with the Father. Or is it more promises – that they will one day be where Jesus is going and share his glory.
But at heart it’s none of these things. It’s a prayer. It’s the prayer of one person praying for others, whom he loves. And that’s important. If you’ve ever had someone pray for you – not in general, but really just for you – you know what I mean.
About a year ago I was with a group of pastors for a conference and at one point we split up into groups of three, shared some of what was going on in our lives – the highs and lows and all – and then prayed for one another. To be perfectly honest, I was most comfortable when I was doing the praying. I don’t count myself a great prayer, by any stretch, but at least I had something to do. Being prayed for, on the other hand, left me vulnerable, exposed, with nothing to do but to receive the prayers of another. That was uncomfortable. But it was also ultimately quite powerful. It was a reminder that I don’t have to do everything, that others are there to support me, that I am not alone but am valued and cared for by another.
That’s what Jesus does here. He prays for his disciples. He senses their anxiety, confusion, and fear, and so he prays for them. He knows they can bear no more, and so he prays for them. He knows he will soon leave them, and so he prays for them. And as he does, and whether or not they understand everything he says, he tells them that they do not have to do everything or even understand everything. He tells them that he is there to support him, that they are not alone, and that they are valued and loved.
It’s a powerful moment. And one of the amazing things about this passage is that Jesus doesn’t do this only for them, but also for us. As Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…” And that includes us! We are the latest in a long line of persons who have been inspired and encouraged to believe because of the words and lives of those original disciples.
And what does Jesus pray for? “That they may be one.” That we may be one – one with each other, one with Jesus and the Father, one with ourselves. And that being one, we may have peace.
We are now in church because someone told us about Jesus. Whether it was a parent, friend, grandparent, pastor or whomever, someone told us about the good news that in Jesus we see that God loves us all, and inspired by this promise and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we came to believe. And someone told the person who told us. And someone else told that person. And someone told that person as well…and so on and so on, all the way back to the testimony of these disciples who, despite their fear – both this evening and on Easter morning – nevertheless moved out of the closed room in the promise of resurrection and began to share the good news of Jesus with others. When Jesus prays not only for these disciples but for those who believe because of them, he’s praying for John’s original audience and for all Christians ever since, all the way up to you and me.
All too often, Scripture can seem like a story told about people living such a long time ago that we may wonder what it has to say to us today. But in a few passages – especially in John’s Gospel – there are little doors that open up to invite us into the story itself, and to be active participants in the ongoing drama of God’s love for all the world. We got one of those doors a few weeks ago when Jesus, in his encounter with Thomas, blessed all those who believed in Jesus even though they/we hadn’t seen him. And that included John’s community and us. And now we get another, as we hear Jesus on this significant night take time from everything else he was doing and had to say to take time to pray for us.
We need to hear, to really hear these words of Jesus addresses to us today. What does it mean to know, to really know – that Jesus was praying for us all those years ago and continues to care for us, support us, and love and value us today. I’d like to invite you to take a moment to think about where you need to be one, to be more whole, to have more peace in your lives. Write that one thing down, and when you come forward for communion, place it in the baptismal font. I will take them with me when I leave here, today, and during this week, I will pray for you. You can keep it anonymous if you want to. Or, you can put your name on it. But either way, I will hold it in confidence and I will pray for you this week. And remember that just as I will be praying and caring for you this week, so too will Jesus to pray and care for you.
As you leave here, today, remember this: That on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus prayed for you. And Jesus continues to walk with you. Jesus will accompany you through anything that may come. Jesus will hold onto you through the highs and lows of this life, even through death to new life. This is the promise of resurrection.
It’s crucial for us to return to Jesus’ prayer again, and again. Because it describes his hope, his vision, and his picture of what we, his followers, are to look like and how we are to live our lives together. It is very clear that his words are meant for everyone – then and now – as he prays for “those who will believe in me” through the words of the disciples. It is a prayer for community.
Jesus prays that, “all may be one.” To be a follower of Jesus is to be a part of a greater whole. According to Jesus there are to be no solitary Christians or spiritual “Lone Rangers.” Within that community the prayer is for unity: “that all may be one.” Does that mean we all have to get along all the time? Does that mean we all have to agree all the time? Of course not. We are one in Christ whether we agree with each other or not. We are one in Christ whether we like one another or not. To become a part of Christ is to become a part of the community; a part of the one. Jesus’ prayer reminds us that our unity, our “oneness” is to be a sign to the world of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
Oneness and unity is about love. And if you have been a part of a family, a member of a church, or a community, you know that within that love there can be disagreements and squabbling. We are human. But the mystery of the incarnation is that God desired unity with us so much God became one of us. And in that moment we were drawn into the oneness of God.
The disciples were in the time between the Ascension and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. We are in the time between the first and second coming of Jesus Christ. And in the meantime, we continue to work to embody the oneness that Jesus seeks for us. And we pray for one another as Christ himself prays for us. AMEN