A Prayer for the Church
We pray for our loved ones and we pray for world peace. We pray for favorable weather and we pray for victories in baseball games. We pray for those who have died and we pray for those who have given birth. We pray. We implore God to hear our cries and we ask God to care for and uphold those whom we name in our prayers.
Jesus also prays. He prays to The Father, asking the Father to care for and uphold those whom he names. Toward the end, he will pray for those who persecute him. He will also pray that the cup which he has been given might be taken from him. Those prayers come later in the story; when crisis is at hand, at a crisis moment when we would expect a person to pray.
But Jesus’ prayer life was well established long before he arrives at those urgent moments. And in those “non-crisis” moments, what Jesus prays for is us. He prays for those who were and who would become a part of the Church.
John 17 is often referred to as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. It is his plea to The Father that those who follow might not be divided, might not be lost, might be filled with his joy; and might be sanctified in his grace. Jesus prays for the Church. And in his prayer he identifies those characteristics which make us more than a voluntary association of individuals. He speaks to that which makes us The Church - his bride.
Jesus prays: protect them … that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
Being “one” is very important for the body of Christ. Being one, means that we do not disregard how our thoughts and actions affect others. Being one means we share a common destiny and more importantly that we realize this and act accordingly. Being one means seeing ourselves as part of an organism – which when separated dies; rather than as a part in a machine which can be removed and replaced by another – sometimes even increasing the machine’s efficiency. But we are not a machine, we are an organism. Our future and our fate are inextricably tied to that of our fellows. We are one; not individually one, but one with those who share this common identity.
Christians are not independent agents, free to have our own personal relationship with God while ignoring those around us. There may be theological differences; and preferences for one worship style as opposed to another may lead us to gather in differing buildings on Sunday mornings. But Christians, followers of Christ, are to be “one”, united in our common calling and united in our devotion to Christ.
Jesus finishes his prayer, goes to the Garden of Gethsemane and is crucified. But he rises from the grave and he ascends on high. In these acts, he makes us one. It is no longer a hope, expressed by a departing Rabbi. It is an acknowledgement of what God has done. We are one. And even when we discuss issues which have the potential to divide, we must remain one.
Jesus continues to pray. He says to the Father, While I was with them, I protected them in your name ... I guarded them, and not one of them was lost. Jesus prays that the disciples may never become lost; that they will never venture too far outside the protective realm of the Church. Jesus asks God to protect them and prevent them from being lured into false teaching or improper living.
I can’t remember anyone, in my 33 years of ministry, who came to me to tell me that they had decided that they are going to fall away from the church. Folks don’t report, or display an intentional turning away from the Church and the community of faith. They may leave one congregation to join another – having identified a part of the body of Christ which does speak of God and worship in a style more fitting to their own experience of God - but they don’t usually report deciding to stop coming. Rarely do persons “leave” - instead they simply become "lost." A new schedule, a different job, additional responsibilities, moving into a new house or buying a place on the lake, enrolling the kids in soccer/baseball/gymnastics - these are the reasons why folks find themselves separated from the church. New habits form; old preferences change – and as a result folks simply come less, then care less and eventually the cease to think less of this as a place where they belong. They become "lost."
Remember the image Jesus uses, as he looks over Jerusalem and speaks of his desire to gather its inhabitants. He speaks of a mother hen who gathers her brood under her wings. Jesus' prayer is that those whom God has called will forever nestle, as baby chicks, under the protective wing of a loving mother hen. There, God will protect us and prevent us from ever becoming lost.
A third petition which Jesus offers is for those who rest in God's care to be filled with joy. Jesus prays: "I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves." You will notice that he does not pray for their happiness - he prays that joy may be made complete in them.
In his last published book, Joseph Sittler writes of the difference between joy and happiness. Sittler points out that happiness is dependent upon the ups and downs of our life. Happiness is very fragile and easily taken from us. We are happy when life treats us fair, when we accomplish that which we set out to do, or when our friends do not disappoint us. Should things not go well, should our plans be thwarted - we are no longer "happy". A very fragile and delicate thing - this happiness.
Joy is quite different. Joy is the confidence that our lives have meaning and purpose, regardless of whether happiness is a part of our day. Even when we are overcome by adversity, boxed in by demands, frustrated with our own ignorance - even so, we can still be filled with Joy. Joy has a permanence. It is long lasting; it is not easily destroyed.
Jesus’ final petition is for sanctification. Jesus prays that those who follow him might be sanctif(ied...) in the truth. Falsehood abounds in our world. It is attractive, enticing, and alluring. More often than not, it is that which is false which catches our eye or causes us to pause. Remaining sanctified in the truth is a difficult thing.
"Truth," in the manner which Jesus speaks, differs from the way we might use the word. Truth is not simply that which is true or that which can be proven. Nor is it some fundamental ideal. Truth, in the New Testament sense, is that which is in accordance with the hope and promise of God. The Truth is God's hope for our lives, God's desire for us. It is God's prayer offered within our own lives. Jesus prays that the disciples might be sanctified in truth; that in truth they might be dedicated to the service of God and God's people. To live in the truth is to live in the very heart of God.
We will continue to pray for the newborns. We will always offer our prayers for the sick and ill. At no time will we cease to pray for those who are in distress or those who are in harm’s way. We will pray for the lost and lonely. We will pray for the broken hearted. But as with Christ, so too must we pray for the Church, for the communion of Saints who bear his mission and proclaim God’s Word. We pray for oneness; we pray that no one might become lost; we pray for joy; and we pray for sanctification in the Truth.
This Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. Thus it also becomes our prayer.