By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
It’s hard to read this passage from John’s gospel without feeling a bit guilty. After all, it’s a very intimate moment between Jesus and his heavenly Father, as Jesus prays. Jesus knows, of course, that he is about to die on a Roman cross. That is the backdrop to all that he says and does in these his final moments prior to his arrest and conviction. And, it is what he ironically refers to in his prayer as his “glory.” His “glory.”
Imagine. He is about to give up his life, and he calls it his “glory.”
But then again, we wouldn’t know that if we weren’t eavesdropping on his private prayer with God. And that’s where our sense of guilt comes in. It’s as if we are listening in on this intimate conversation between Jesus and his Father, and there’s something in us that tells us we’ve no right to do that. Our mama taught us better than that.
When I was young, because we lived outside the city limits, our telephone was on what was called a “party line.” Some of you remember those days, don’t you? For the rest of you, you need to know about this if for no other reason than to realize just how far we’ve come. Being on a party line meant we had to share our phone line with other local families.
It begs the question: how did you know when the call was for you? Well, each household had a distinctive ring, not unlike cell phones today. A long and a short ring, and it was for you. Two long rings and it was for another household. That’s the way it worked. So when the phone rang and you knew it was for one of the other families sharing your line, you weren’t supposed to pick it up.
You weren’t supposed to pick it up. There was an ethic involved in being on a party line.
But if you weren’t so ethically inclined, you could listen in on the private phone conversations of the other families. One of our neighbors in particular enjoyed doing just that. You could tell – you could just tell – when she was eavesdropping.
Phone calls are one thing, prayer is another. Is there also an ethic when it comes to prayer?
Well, maybe this prayer of Jesus is not so private after all. You see, Jesus is talking about his followers. And notice what he says… “I ask not only on behalf of these,” referring to his disciples, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…” Jesus is praying for all the generations of believers who will come to faith through the witness of his disciples. In other words, Jesus is praying for us! So, maybe it’s not so bad after all that we’re listening in on what he has to say, because if he’s praying for us, it’s good for us to know we’re being prayed for.
Not only that, but just a few moments ago we had the morning’s pastoral prayer. It was addressed to God; yet, you were allowed to listen in, were you not?
It’s kind of like the children’s sermon. For you first-time visitors, we usually have a children’s sermon in our worship, but this morning we obviously had a lot of other things going on. So, we decided to forego it this time.
By its very nature, this is a time for the children. Yet, Leann – and occasionally others who do it – also wears a microphone. Does she do it so the children can hear her? No, of course not. She’s standing right in front of them. Leann wears the microphone so the rest of us can hear. But it’s a sermon for the children. Why are we allowed to hear it? Because sometimes the gospel is heard best when it is overheard.
That is the nature of Jesus’ pastoral prayer. He intercedes on behalf of his disciples, and allows them to listen in on the conversation he is having with his heavenly Father. Why? Because there is tremendous value in knowing you have been prayed for.
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One of the couples in our church in Florida were snowbirds from Pennsylvania. That meant they spent their winters in Florida and summers in their native state up north. One year, just as it was time for them to return to Florida, we received word that their adult son had been critically injured in an automobile accident. We prayed diligently for our friends and their son and his immediate family.
Several weeks later, the evening worship service had already begun when the doors opened and they walked in. They had just gotten back into town and without unpacking a bag headed straight for church. As they made their way in, I looked into their faces. Suddenly, I was struck by a realization I had never before experienced. I mentioned to the congregation that they had come in, and then I said, “I want you to look at their faces. Those are the faces of people who know they have been prayed for.”
Our worship service this morning has been filled with prayer. In addition to our regular practice of opening with an invocation and the voicing together of the Model Prayer, we have prayed for our graduates. We have asked God’s blessing on the McGhee family as we’ve dedicated Anna Claire and Logan. And, as we always do, we have spoken the morning or pastoral prayer.
All these prayers have been offered in the name of Jesus and to our heavenly Father. Yet, we’ve all listened in because not only is there value in knowing we have been prayed for, prayer by its very nature – especially prayer in worship, and even more especially intercessory prayer in worship – is communal. It involves the faith community, you and me.
Why is that so? Well, I have a theory. Notice that Jesus prays for his disciples. Then, he prays for those who will believe in him through their witness. And what does he ask for on their behalf? That they be one, that there be unity in their hearts.
That they be one.
Maybe Jesus asked for this because he knew it would be the hardest thing in the world for his followers to do… to be one in spirit and purpose. There are only eleven of them left. Judas, the betrayer, has gone off to claim his blood money. And even the ones remaining are in a fog as to what Jesus truly wants them to do. They’ve all got their own ideas, their personal agendas. Who knows what will happen after Jesus is gone from them. So Jesus asks his heavenly Father that his followers be one in spirit and purpose.
Evidently, he knew how hard it would be for them to be of one heart. That’s certainly been borne out through history, hasn’t it? You got your Catholics, you got your Baptists. Look at the signs in front of the churches dotting our landscape, and you will find such odd names as Methodist and Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Orthodox. You got your Church of God in Christ (or COGIC, for short), and you got your Assemblies and Agapes.
And even when people claim the same name, it doesn’t mean they’re on the same page. Jerry Falwell died this week, as you all know. He bore the name of Baptist, but there are probably not many in this place today who would say that his kind of Baptistness represents who you are.
Yet, Jesus prayed that his followers would be one.
Taking all this into consideration, you might be led to think that God decided not to answer Jesus’ prayer, because oneness is hardly our strong suit. But let’s not blame our divisions on God. The reason we are not one is because we’re so doggedly stubborn in maintaining what we believe. E. Stanley Jones, the famous evangelist, once said, “Talk about what you believe and you have disunity. Talk about Who you believe in and you have unity.”1
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis and hanged just a few days before his camp was liberated by the Allies. Yet, he said, “I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me. In intercessory prayer the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died.”2
“I ask not only on behalf of these,” Jesus said in that prayer we have been privileged to overhear, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”
To pray like Jesus is risky, for to pray like Jesus is to pray for what God wants. And what God wants may not only be different from what we want, it might run completely counter to our desires. After all, despite the best prayers of Jesus, he still died on a cross. To pray like Jesus is risky.
Nevertheless, if we are to pray as Jesus prayed, we must ask to be made one in spirit and in purpose. And if God, in his mercy and grace, chooses to hear our prayer and grant it, think of the possibilities that would come our way.
Lord, make us one… not that we have to believe the same all the time, but that together we believe in You all the time. In Jesus’ name we ask this, Amen.