Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sermon: "Prayer" (John 17:1-11)

In the 17th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus prays.
His prayer takes up the whole chapter.
It’s 26 verses long; we heard 11 of those verses.
Let me set up the scene…
Jesus gathered his disciples together for one last meal - the Last Supper. They ate.
After the meal, Jesus got up from the spot where he was reclining, took off his robes, grabbed a servant’s towel, tied it around his waist, filled a washbasin with water, and went around behind the disciples and began washing their feet.
It was a strange thing.
President Trump is finishing up an international trip to five different countries. Can you imagine President Trump rising from his spot at one of the banquets he’s attended, putting on an apron, and taking the place of one of the servants, serving the others who are present?
Jesus is master and teacher and Lord, yet that’s what he did.
When Jesus was done, he removed the servant’s towel and put his own robes back on. He went back to his place and began speaking.
He spoke about being a servant. He spoke about betrayal. He spoke about loving one another. He spoke about peace. He spoke about trials and persecutions.
He spoke about a lot of things.
And then he looked up to heaven. And prayed.
Prayer is a fascinating topic to me. Sometimes, it’s downright baffling. And the fact that Jesus prayed, with words that could be recorded, is even more incredible...
Maybe he didn’t exactly pray this way - the way John describes. How does John know how Jesus prayed, anyway? I doubt that, as soon as he started praying, the disciples said to each other: “Hey, you got a pen? Somebody should be writing this down!”
What we have here is more likely what Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan would call a parable about Jesus. Literally true, word-for-word? Perhaps not.
But true, nevertheless.
It’s true, because it gives great insight into what the author of this gospel believes were the main concerns of Jesus, the things that were really on his heart.
It’s true, because it shows how the early Christian community interpreted Jesus’s mission and ministry a generation or two after the crucifixion and resurrection, when this gospel was written.
It’s true, because it contains deep spiritual meaning that has proved itself across thousands of years...
Jesus prayed. Those two words still amaze and confuse me. “I and the Father are one,” Jesus said. “I am in him and he is in me.” So why did Jesus need to pray?
I don’t know, but if Jesus did need to pray, then how much more important it is that we pray!
And we do pray. We pray in worship. We invoke God’s presence at the beginning of worship. We sing songs that are often in the form of prayers to God. We share joys and concerns and then spend more time in prayer. And then we gather around the table, where we pray yet again.
And in our prayers, we give thanks to God. We pray for peace. We pray for healing. We pray for many things going on in our community and in our world.
When Jesus prayed, his prayer was for his disciples. “I’m praying for them,” he said. “I’m not praying for the world; I’m praying for them.”
This part of Jesus’s prayer, when I first read it, disturbed me. It almost contradicts the all-inclusive Jesus I like to preach about, the Jesus who loves everyone and prays for everyone.
“I’m not praying for the world. I’m just praying for my close friends. My buds. My pals. My homies.”
(That’s an ancient Aramaic word. Homies. Did you know that?)
“I’m just praying for them. I’m not praying for anyone else. Just them.”
This disturbed me.
Some people, when scripture disturbs them, they ignore it. But I’ve learned that in wrestling with difficult scriptures, unpalatable scriptures, I usually come away blessed. I usually come away with a greater appreciation, if not understanding, of what it is saying.
So instead of ignoring this little bit of scripture that I didn’t like, I pondered it. I let it take up residence in the back of my mind for awhile.
In doing so, I was reminded that, often, the way New Testament writers used the word “world” is a little different than the way we use that word today. When they spoke of the “world,” they were referring to the way things are now. The was in contrast to the way things could be.
So you have the world - this world - with all its sinful ways; and you have the new world - a new kingdom - when sin is replaced with love.
That helps me. A little. But I’d still like it if Jesus prayed for the world. I mean, he was so helpful to so many people throughout his ministry. Not just his disciples. Not just the children of Israel. Not just Jews who pray towards Jerusalem. But all sorts of people.
And his birth was heralded by magi from the east. And his message was received by an Ethiopian from the south. Paul took his message to the north and the west, all the way to Rome. And according to Luke, Jesus’s followers are to proclaim the good news from their doorsteps to the ends of the earth.
Yet in Jesus’s longest recorded prayer in scripture, he refuses to pray for the world.
Here at Bixby Knolls Christian Church, we spend a lot of time praying for other people. Neighbors. Friends. People in our community. People all over the world. North, south, east, and west. We pray for the hopeless, we pray for the sick, we pray for the hungry, we pray for the sinners, we pray for those who don’t know Christ.
How often do we pray for ourselves? How often do we pray for our church?
I don’t mean that we should pray that we might get everything we could ever want. O God, help me get that job, help me get that loan, help me get the car I want…
But at the same time, I remember King Solomon, who prayed for wisdom. Do you know the story of King Solomon asking for wisdom? A Bixby Knolls business on Atlantic Avenue has a giant mosaic on the front of its building depicting a scene from that story. Have you seen it?
Solomon asked for wisdom. His prayer was for himself, but it was one that glorified God.
Can we pray for ourselves in ways that glorify God?
That’s really all I want to focus on today. How can you pray for yourself in a way that glorifies God? How can we - together - pray for our church in a way that glorifies God?
Look at how Jesus started his prayer; the first words of his prayer are: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you.”
The church is the body of Christ. Let us pray that God may be glorified in us and through us. Let us pray that God may be glorified in and through we who are the church.
Let us pray without ceasing. Prayer, I think, is too narrowly defined. Prayers of words, with eyes close, head bowed, are impossible to pray without ceasing. But keeping our eyes open to God is something we can do all the time. Being aware of wonder, fostering a sense of gratitude…
All this brings glory to God.
Let us glorify God by being people of prayer.
Let us pray that we may glorify God in our lives.

We’re going to pray as a congregation in a few minutes, but first, I want to remind you that next week is Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is the day on which the Spirit came upon the believers; those gathered felt the rush of a mighty wind, and saw what looked like little flames above each person’s head; and they began to speak in different languages, enabling them to share the good news to all people in all lands, to the ends of the earth.
It was a day that changed everything.
Next week, we are also having a service of baptism. Two of our young people plan to be baptized next Sunday during worship.
To be baptized means committing yourself to the way of Jesus. To be baptized means making Christ a priority for you, the one priority above all others. To be baptized means that, for you, everything changes.
It is an exciting time to be part of Christ’s church. Scary, but exciting. Because the church is going through a major transformation. Scholars point out that a change like this happens about once every 500 years! The last time it happened was the Reformation.
So those of us who are baptized into the church today have the opportunity to help shape what the church will look like not just in our lifetimes; the church that we help create will likely have an influence on the next 500 years of Christianity.
Like I said: exciting. And scary.

If you want to formalize your commitment to following the way of Jesus by being baptized, I would love to talk to you. I’d love to go out to lunch with you today, or grab a cup of coffee one evening this week, so that we can talk about it. I’ll even treat if you don’t have the money. Just let me know before you leave today: “I want to be baptized. I want to be part of the church. I want to commit myself to following the way of Jesus.”

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