Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pastor Alan Watt
The passage in today's gospel comes near the end of what is known as the Farewell Discourse. That is, it's the last things bore his death Jesus is sharing with the disciples At this point, though, he is no longer talking directly to them, but rather praying to God the Father. What I will talk about later, then, is the intimate nature of this prayer and now not only the disciples, but also we, can have that kind of relationship with God.
Before getting into this theme, however, I have a confession to make, and that is that John is not my favorite gospel, It's true. As far as Matthew does, I appreciate its focus on the establishment and growth of the church. What I like about Mark is it reads almost like an adventure story--very earthy and full of action. And Luke has a special emphasis on the poor and other outcasts and illustrates how much Jesus cares about them.
Then there is John-so different from the rest. A good part of it just doesn't do much for me. I don't feel that way because I'm still a bit crabby from my recent surgery, although that could have something to do with it! But seriously, on thing that bothers me is the way Jesus comes across in the Fourth Gospel. It's how he is often portrayed. compared to the others, he seems almost otherworldly, almost as if his humanness doesn't come through nearly as much as his divine nature. Yes, it's true--as in the other gospels--that he reacts with anger toward the moneychangers at the temple. And yes, when he sees the grief, the sadness in the eyes of Mary and Martha whose brother Lazarus has died, he too feels the same things--as recorded in one of the shortest verses in scripture, John 11:35:" (And) Jesus began to weep."
Yet in other places, in other circumstances, he seems to be emotionally removed from what is going on. He seems to be aove it all, as if the dynamics swirling about have absolutely no effect on him. for instance, when Pontius Pilate is questioning him and he will not answer, Pilate says "Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know...I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" Jesus finally replies,, "You have no power over me unless it had been given you from above..." To me at least, he almost seems too calm and cool, almost as if he's the one in charge, as if he's the one in control.
Then there are what are known as the "I am" sayings. While some of them sound reassuring such as "I am the Good Shepherd," others could almost be interpreted as boastful, like this one
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower...Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me....apart from me you can do nothing.
I would certainly be misinterpreting it but in words like these 1 could conceivably end up wondering whether Jesus has any real sense of humility.
Yet, in spite of all these things--in what may often seem on his part like stilted language and a detached, other worldly contenance--we see in the Gospel of John some of the most intimate dialogues between Jesus and others:
. His nighttime teaching session with Nicodemus the Pharisee.
. His midday conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well.
. His healing of the blind man, leading to a personal encounter in which the man, like the woman, declares in Jesus a newfound faith.
There are other examples of such dialogues, especially with the disciples, and, in his prayer to the Father,, we see his most intimate relationship of all--in which, anticipating the completion of the task God has given him and his leave taking from the world, he asks that the disciples may continue to be cared for.
How might we, in our own small ways, focus more on our own relationships with God and with other believers? For starters, how about strengthening, how about becoming more intentional in our common prayer life?
At the Last Supper, it must have been very powerful for the disciples to witness Jesus praying for them. I sometimes see that same dynamic today. When visiting a person in the hospital--whether before surgery or sometime later--I am often thanked after giving a prayer, although after all these years, I still do not regard myself as particularly gifted in that part of ministry. And when people's names are included in the bidding prayers at worship, I hear later--from them or a family member--how much it meant to them and how much they appreciated it. Such remarks remind me there is something very personal about being prayed for.
What if Christ Church were to have several persons whose special ministry would be praying for others? For fellow members and worshippers? For friends and neighbors? Coworkers? And any number of other individuals and also groups of people? In recent years, groups that do that have sometimes been known as "Prayer Warriors," because, I suppose, in their petitions to God they see themselves as waging war against the schemes of the devil--or at least against the forces of evil. If we had such a group, I don't know whether it would have to have such a names, which at least to me, sounds a bit too militant. But, for those being prayed for, to know that sisters and brothers in Christ were regularly coming together to lift up their names to God--during the week as well as Sunday morning--that could have powerful meaning for them. If, in the near future, we were to establish Bible studies hosted in people's homes, those also would be a good setting for such prayers.
Now--along these lines--one thing that needs to be mentioned is there can sometimes be a downside to such prayer. For himself, Jesus knew his disciples so well, so personally, that he could pray not only that they be protected from the ways of the world, but also be shielded from their very own weaknesses, their very own tendencies for to defeat themselves. What I mean is this: We all need the prayers of others, and so sometimes it's important for them to know us personally. And that may mean being aware not only of the good things about us, the positive things, but also those that are not-so-positive. The cliche, "Familiarity breeds contempt, "is exactly that--a cliche. But, like stereotypes, they do have a ring of truth about them. And so it is with this saying.
Welcoming prayer from others, then, might sometimes mean becoming vulnerable--letting down our guard--so that those beseeching God on our behalf may do it in a more complete way. And there are those of us who, by nature, resist that kind of care, that kind of intimacy.
For example, in spite of my public role as a pastor, I actually tend to be a fairly private person. That's just a part of who I am. And having previously served as an interim minister at churches often filled with conflict and anxiety, I've had good reason to be that way. If I were to share too much about myself, there were sometimes others who, feeling threatened by my role-especially those who had in an underhanded way pushed out their last regular pastor--would have been only too ready to exploit my openness in order to sabotage the work I was trign to do, that is, cleaning up and airing out some of the mess that had been going on.
So, it should go without saying it's vital that prayer groups hold in complete confidence whatever personal revelations individuals might share with them. I certainly do that, often asking those being hospitalized--or simply undergoing outpatient surgery--whether they even want to be included in Sunday prayers. Some of you might think that a strange thing, even in this day of social media in which a number of people seem only too comfortable in sharing all kinds of things about themselves. But even those whose lives appear to be an open book..they too keep private some things about themselves. And, in my opinion, that's as it should be.
This is some of what Jamie Clark-Soles, a professor of NT at Perkins School of Theology, has written a bout knowledge and love in today's reading:
(The Gospel of John) specializes in..language (having to do with knowing) and language (having to do with loving) because they go together, though it might (seem) counterintuitive to us. Our minds may assume the opposite, in fact--we take great pains to (avoid revealing) true knowledge of ourselves since we assume that the more someone knows the "real" me, the less love they will have for me. As knowledge goes up we often believe), love goes down; if we want love to remain high, then we'd better work hard (at) passing ourselves off as "loveable." (But this gospel) will not (tolerate) such notions. One cannot deeply love that which one does not know. And knowing depends upon a (genuine) relationship and regular encounter(s) with the (one which is loved).
On the deepest level, such a relationship is always between the individual and God. And, as Professor Clark-Soles, points out, we may see that in no better place than Psalm 139, parts of which I will now read:
O Lord, you have searched me and know me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up:
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea.
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me.
when none of them as yet existed.
I come to the end--I am still with you.
As God's one and only Son, Jesus also knows us--and still loves us. He also continues to pray for us, we who today serve as his followers, as his disciples. Among other things, he commands us to know, love, and pray for one another.