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For Sunday June 2, 2019

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)


Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 20-21
John 17:20-26

For the seventh Sunday after Easter, the Revised Common Lectionary gives us a portion of Jesus’s “High Priestly Prayer,” the culmination of his farewell discourse to his disciples.  The setting is the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday.  Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet, foreseen Judas’s betrayal, predicted Peter’s denial, promised his disciples the Holy Spirit, and taught them as if time is running out.  Which it is. 

In the final moments before his arrest, he “looks toward heaven and prays.”  I’ve heard some people call the high priestly prayer the other Lord’s Prayer — the one we don’t memorize and recite on Sunday mornings.  It’s certainly not polished and poetic like the “Our Father.”  It doesn’t flow, or cover its bases efficiently.  It’s long, rambling, and rather hard to follow.  And though the disciples are meant to overhear the words, Jesus’s tone has an urgency and passion that is achingly private.  Jesus isn’t engaging in a teaching moment with this Lord’s Prayer; he’s rending his heart.

In preparation for writing this essay, I sat with the words of the lection for a long time, waiting to see what words or phrases would stand out.  I didn’t expect the magic words to be, “I ask.”  But those are the words that caught my attention.  What does it mean that Jesus spends his final moments with his friends in humble, anxious supplication?  Jesus who healed the sick and fed the hungry and raised the dead.  What does it mean that that same Jesus ends his ministry by asking into uncertainty?  Hoping into doubt?  Trusting into danger? 

In an outpouring of words and emotions, Jesus asks God to do for his followers what he himself cannot do.  To be for us in spirit what he can no longer be for us in body. “May they be in us,” he prays. May they all be one.  May they know the love that founded the world.  May they see the glory of God.

 He Agonia.

In his beautiful book entitled, Tokens of Trust, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, describes the strangeness and wonder of this Jesus who prays: “Yes, Jesus is a human being in whom God’s action is at work without interruption or impediment.  But wait a moment: the Jesus we meet in the Gospels is someone who prays, who speaks of putting his will and his decisions at the service of his Father.  He is someone who is in a relationship of dependence on the one he prays to as Father.  In him there is divine purpose, power, and action; but there is also humility, responsiveness, and receptivity.”

Do I know this Jesus, the one who pleads so earnestly?  I think I know the Jesus who teaches, heals, resurrects, and feeds.  But do I know this one?  This vulnerable one who in this passage does the single hardest thing a friend, a lover, a spouse, a parent, a child, a teacher, a pastor ever does? Sends his cherished ones into a treacherous, divisive, broken world on nothing but a hope and a prayer?  Entrusts the treasures of his heart to the vast mystery that is intercession?

I ask.  As if to say: I don’t know what you will do with my asking.  I don’t know how or when or if you will answer this prayer.  I can't force your hand.  But I am staking my life and the lives of my loved ones on your goodness, because there’s literally nothing more I can do on my own. I have come to the end of what this aching love of mine can hold and guard and save.  I ask.

To wonder what role prayer plays in our world, a world rife with tragedy, injustice, and oppression, is to raise the hardest questions I can think of about God — questions I don’t know how to answer. Does God intervene directly in human affairs? Does his intervention — or lack of it — depend in any way on our asking? Can prayer "change" God? 

 Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles.

As has been the case in many areas of my faith life, my beliefs about prayer have changed a lot over the years. I was raised to believe that God intervenes very directly in human affairs, and that intercessory prayer has powerful and undeniable "real world" effects. As a child, I believed with all my heart that prayer heals diseases, prevents car accidents, feeds hungry children in far away countries, fends off nightmares, prevents premature death, and "stops the bad guys." As a teen and young adult, much of that certainty collapsed under the weight of life experience — some diseases didn't get better, car accidents happened, I had nightmares, babies starved, young people died, and "bad guys" won the day.  When I asked my elders to explain these discrepancies, they gave me two answers: 1) You need to pray with more faith, and 2) Sometimes God's answer is no. Both answers struck me then — and strike me now — as lame.

Today, I live along the borders of a more complicated world. I have friends and family members who pray for parking spots, lost house keys, Little League victories, and Ivy League admissions for their children. But I also have friends who avoid intercessory prayer on principleconvinced that the true purpose of prayer has nothing to do with asking God "for stuff." In their words: "He's God.  Not Santa Claus."

 Jesus Praying sm

The challenge of intercessory prayer is that it's subjective. What looks like God's "yes" in my eyes might easily look like his "no," his silence, or even his non-existence in yours. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, "The meaning we give to what happens in our lives is our final, inviolable freedom." When is an "answer to prayer" really an answer? When is it coincidence? Randomness? A trick of the light? The cost of our liberty — a cost God daily chooses to endure — is that we can't say for sure. Not in this lifetime.

So why do I pray?  One answer is that I pray because I am compelled to do so. Because something in me cries out for engagement, relationship, attentiveness, and worship. I pray because my soul yearns for connection with an Other who is God, and that connection is best forged in prayer. With words, without words, through laughter, through tears, in hope, and in despair, prayer holds open the possibility that I am not alone, and that this broken, aching world isn't alone, either. I pray, as C.S Lewis writes, "because I can't help myself." Because "the need flows out of me all the time — waking and sleeping."

That’s a reasonable answer. But maybe this week’s Gospel reading offers me another one: I pray because Jesus did.  I ask because Jesus asked.  Asking is the last thing he did before his arrest.  The last tender memory he bequeathed to his friends.  He didn’t awe them with a grand finale of miracles.  Neither did he contemplate their futures and despair.  He looked up to heaven with a trembling heart, and surrendered his cherished ones to God.  

Jesus asked because he loved too much not to.  May we bravely and humbly do likewise.

Debie Thomas:

Image credits: (1) Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA; (2); and (3) Peace and Strong Coffee.

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