Has anyone ever prayed for you?
I mean, out loud? In
your presence? Where you
could hear every word they were saying?
It happened to me once.
I was in the hospital, having the only surgery I’ve ever had
in my life. I was in
that area they call pre-op, waiting behind a curtain for the
orderlies to come and take me away.
I was trying to be brave, but I really didn’t know what I was
in for. And then Pam
Cobb showed up. Pam was
the Director of Missions for the Baptist association in Henry
County, Kentucky, one of only a handful of women who had been
appointed to such a position at that time.
I had been one of the
pastors who had lobbied for her appointment.
She was a member of my church, and a good one.
I thought she could do a fine job as DOM.
Some people complained that she wasn’t all that personable,
that she did well with the administrative side of things, but when
it came to the other side—the personal, pastoral side—her skills
were lacking. I don’t
know if that’s why she came to see me, I don’t know if she was
trying to prove somebody wrong, but it didn’t matter: she came.
She visited with me for just a few minutes and then offered
to pray for me and I have to tell you, I felt myself lifted up by
her prayer, lifted right up into God’s presence, and suddenly I knew
that whatever happened in the operating room, I was going to be all
And I was.
That was twenty five years ago, but I’ve never forgotten it.
It’s one of the reasons I try to make sure that if someone in
this congregation is having surgery, someone goes by and says a
prayer with them beforehand.
It doesn’t have to be me: it could be a deacon, a member of
their Sunday school class, or one of our other pastors, but I want
to make sure that somebody prays with them, mostly because of how
much it meant to me when I was getting ready to have surgery.
Now, before I start getting phone calls I probably need to
confess that we are not always successful.
Sometimes, during knee replacement season there are more
surgeries than we can staff.
But when we can, we try to get somebody there.
It means so much to have someone pray for you, and to pray
out loud, so you can hear what they are saying.
That’s what we have here in John 17: Jesus’ prayer for his
disciples. And unlike
the other Gospels Jesus doesn’t go off a stone’s throw away to pray:
he does it right there at the supper table, where all the disciples
are gathered around, where they can hear every word he says.
Think how much it would mean to hear Jesus pray for us, his
modern-day disciples, and say: “They have kept your word, Holy
Father; they are yours; protect them in your name.”
But if you had asked those
disciples afterward what Jesus had said I’m not sure they would have
been able to repeat it.
It’s like that sometimes, in those holy moments: we feel everything
that’s going on around us but we may not remember a word that was
said. I sometimes
present the bride and groom at a wedding with a full manuscript of
the service because I’m pretty sure they won’t remember what was
said. Sometimes you can
tell just by the way they look into each other’s eyes.
And those disciples: they may have been so overwhelmed by the
idea that Jesus was praying for them that they didn’t remember a
thing he said.
But somebody did.
Whoever wrote the Gospel of John was paying attention, scribbling
notes like mad as Jesus prayed.
Maybe that’s why some people assume he was the disciple Jesus
loved. He wrote down
every word of that prayer so that we can read what Jesus prayed for
his disciples then and imagine what he would pray for his disciples
now. There is so much
I’d like to say about this prayer, but one of the things that has
caught and held my attention is the phrase, “finishing the work.”
“I glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me
to do,” Jesus says, and it made me wonder: what work was that?
The best answer I’ve been able to come up with is a line from
the very beginning of John’s Gospel, where the author says that
Jesus came to his own people and his own people didn’t accept him,
“but to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave
power to become children of God.”
This was his work, according to John: to give people the
power to become children of God.
How did he do it? He
came to live among us, to love us, to reveal the heart of the
Father. But then, when
his hour had come, the real work began, and as far as we can tell in
this Gospel his work was to die for us, and then rise from the dead,
and then ascend into heaven.
It wasn’t just dying (that might have only kept us from
perishing), and it wasn’t just rising (that might have only given us
eternal life), it was also
ascending: entering into the eternal presence of the Father, and
making a place for us there.
I’m not sure I’ve ever understood it in quite that way before
but my friend Karoline Lewis has changed my thinking on this
subject. She has
persuaded me that these three things—dying, rising, and
ascending—make up the final work of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel: that
this is what he does when his “hour” finally comes.
I’ve pictured it like this: Jesus coming into the world through
the Incarnation; spending those years among us to show us the heart
of the Father, to prove to us his love; and then—through his death,
resurrection, and ascension—making a way from earth and heaven so
that all who receive him, who believe in his name, can follow him
through that opening to be with him forever.
That was his work, and his disciples got to see more of it
than they wanted. Just
after Jesus said that prayer for them he was arrested, tried, and
crucified. Some of them
were standing close enough to hear his final words from the
cross—“It is finished”—but maybe he only meant that that part of his
work was finished. There
was still the rising to do, and three days after his death he did
that. But when Mary saw
him in the garden and tried to hold onto him he told her to let go
because he still had work
to do. “Go and tell my
brothers I am ascending,” he said, “To my father and your father; to
my God and your God.”
It may have been only after his ascension that they had time to
reflect on his work and to remember the words of that prayer.
The way Luke tells the story,
they spent ten days in that upper room, waiting and praying for the
promised power from on high.
They would have had plenty of time to think about his
crucifixion, his resurrection, and his ascension.
They would have had time recall the words of his prayer.
Maybe that disciple was there who had written it down, and
maybe at some point they asked him to read it aloud.
Let me do that now, and let me ask you to listen as if Jesus
were praying just for you:
[read the Gospel lesson]
Did you hear Jesus praying that you might have eternal life, and
that you might have it by knowing the only true God, and Jesus
Christ, whom he sent?
Did you hear him asking the Father to protect you?
Did you hear him pray that we might all be one?
Those are wonderful words, but that’s not all of the prayer.
It goes on from there.
In fact, the entirety of John 17 is this “high priestly
prayer,” in which Jesus intercedes on our behalf.
He prays that the Father would sanctify us.
He prays that we might have joy, and that our joy might be
full. He prays that the
love with which the Father has loved him might be in us.
It’s a beautiful prayer, a powerful prayer.
It can move you almost to tears.
It can even move you to action.
In John 17:18 Jesus says, “As you have sent me into the
world, so I have sent them into the world.”
Which suggests that we have some work to finish as well.
A Lutheran minister named Bradley Schmeling (rhymes with
“mailing”) tells a story about a worship service he planned for
Ascension Day. He said
his church didn’t usually observe Ascension Day.
It always falls on a Thursday and people don’t usually come
to church on that day.
But he was presiding at a ministers’ conference and the first day of
meetings was scheduled for a Thursday which just happened to be
Ascension Day. He
thought he should do something, but wasn’t sure what to do.
He talked to some other ministers and one of them remembered
an ancient tradition where the Paschal candle, the one that is kept
burning all through the Easter season, is snuffed out on Ascension
Day. He writes: “This
seemed too literal to most of the group—a ritual extinguishing of
the presence of Christ among us, nothing left of the light except an
unfortunate wisp of smoke curling its way to the ceiling.
I imagined everyone at the worship service standing there
staring up as the smoke disappeared into the hotel ballroom HVAC
But it’s tempting to think of it that
way, isn’t it? That
Jesus came and went. And
for all the beauty and power of his prayer it is a little too easy
to believe that it’s all we have left: words, mere words, that curl
toward the ceiling and disappear like a wisp of smoke.
But listen to what those crazy Lutherans did: as that
minister had suggested they snuffed out the Paschal candle, but
before that a liturgical dancer moved through the room with a basket
full of smaller candles.
She lit them, one by one, and gave one to each person in the room.
As she did someone dimmed the lights, lower and lower, until
the room was almost dark.
And then, with a flourish, she bowed to the candle, and
snuffed out its light, and the smoke curled up, and the lights went
off, but as those Lutherans looked around they saw that it was lit
up by all those little candles, and the faces of all who held them
were glowing with a holy glow.
That may be as clear a picture as we get in this life of what
Christ has done for us.
He came to us, loved us, and set us on fire with the light that he
was. He died for us,
rose again, and made a way between earth and heaven, so that someday
we can follow him into the Father’s eternal presence.
For now, here we are, sent as he was sent, to light up the
world he loves.[ii]
“And now I am no longer in the
world, but they are in the world,” Jesus prays.
“Holy Father, love them, protect them, make them one, so that
the world will know that you sent me.”
And the world may be looking at us even now, to see if
anything they have heard about Jesus is true.
What will they see?
Bradley E. Schmeling, “Living by the Word” (Christian
Century, May 28, 2014), p. 20.
Karoline Lewis says, “It is, perhaps, one of the most
relevant and truthful definitions of what Pentecost is
supposed to be as disciples of Christ. Jesus is no longer in
the world. The incarnation is over. Jesus has been
resurrected. He ascended to the Father from whence he came
(1:1). But we are still in the world, Jesus’ works
are now in our hands (14:12), and Jesus is counting on us to
be his presence in the wake of his absence” (21:15-17).
Working Preacher website.