David A. Davis
October 1, 2017
They call it “the priestly prayer.” This prayer Jesus offered, tradition calls it “the high priestly prayer.” Jesus’ longest prayer recorded in the gospels. Here in John the prayer comes after Jesus final words, his last teaching to the disciples. The prayer comes after “Let not your hearts be troubled” and “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” and “Peace I leave with you” and “Abide in me as I abide you” and “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” The prayer comes after Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, after he celebrated the Last Supper. The night of his betrayal and Jesus prayed. The night before his death and Jesus prayed. It was the same night he begged the disciples to stay awake with him. It was the night of his anguish.
The night, according to Luke, that Jesus’s sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground while he prayed. It was the night he prayed that God would let the cup pass from him. Matthew tells that Jesus threw himself on the ground in prayer. “Yet not what I want but what you want.” It was that night. This prayer. “Jesus looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come…’”
In that hour, the hour, Jesus praying to God on behalf of others. That’s the priestly part. Jesus praying for the disciples whom he had called. The ones he loved. And Jesus praying for “those who will believe in me through their word.” Jesus praying for those followers yet to come. For all who will hear and believe. For future generations. For the great cloud of witnesses. The communion of saints. Jesus’ prayer for the church. On that night, amid betrayal, arrest, denial. With his arms about to stretch to embrace the world in his death on the cross, on that night, Jesus prayed for you and Jesus prayed for me.
Like the time when you were a child and you could hear a voice at bedtime coming from your grandmother’s room while she was staying at the house after a fall. You stopped to listen and realized she was praying, she was praying for you. Like the saint of the church now in a care facility whose body is failing but not the size of his heart. At the end of your visit, he takes your hand in his, hands big enough to almost wrap around twice and he tells you he prays for you every day. Like the person at work whose email flashes with a note, a request from the prayer chain at the church. Right there at the desk so as not to forget later, the head bows and the eyes close, the name is lifted up to heaven. Like the child who won’t let you leave the bedside until you say all the names with her, like the young adult in church you saw adding names to the prayer list on his phone, like the hospice patient, when asked what she would like to pray for, pretty much names everyone except herself. Jesus prayed for you and Jesus prayed for me.
“That they all may be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they all be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me… I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me….so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Jesus, God, and us. That we might all be one. That’s what Jesus prayed.
Since the earliest church fathers, theologians, philosophers, thinkers, and skeptics have tried to wrap their minds around Jesus, God, and their “oneness.” The pathway leads to discussions of the Trinity and the fully human, fully God part of Christ’s being and uses words like hypostasis and homoousios and perichoresis. All complex terms used to try to understand the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The earliest creeds of the church address the “oneness” of Jesus and God. The Nicene Creed, coming from the Council of Nicea in the year 325. You’ve heard the language. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father.”
But that night, that night, that hour, in that moment Jesus wasn’t offering a philosophical discourse or a theological dissertation or even a creedal statement. It was a prayer. He was praying for you and praying for me, praying that in and through us, the world would know of God’s love.
Today is World Communion Sunday. A day to live into those words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel: “People will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God.” A day to imagine believers of every kind and in every place lifting the cup and breaking the bread. As we affirm in the Apostles’ Creed, “one holy catholic church.” Beyond Roman Catholic. Beyond Protestant– Catholic. Universal church. One. God. Jesus. The church. One. Of course, long before the Reformation, now 500 years ago, the church of the east and the church of the west were moving in different directions in practice, in theology, in belief. Ever since, such fragmentation defines the Christian Church in the world. “One” in not so much. Sort of like the man rescued from a deserted island all by himself after 30 years. The rescuers found two churches. The man “that’s the one I built. I built the second one after I left the first.” Some would suggest that the multi-faceted landscape that defines the church in the world must be disheartening to Jesus. I tend to believe Jesus understands us better than that. That he understands what it means to be human.
Besides, on that night, that night, that hour, in that moment, Jesus wasn’t offering an ecclesiastical organization chart. He wasn’t speaking of sacramental theology. He wasn’t looking to the far horizon of 2000 years later in church form and structure and belief. He was praying. He was praying for you and praying for me, praying that in and through us, the world would know of God’s love.
The current issue of The Christian Century includes an excerpt from a forthcoming book by a pastor entitled Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church. A work of fiction, it is a collection of written correspondence between a Presbyterian pastor and a small church called the Granby Presbyterian Church. The exchange begins when the PNC, the pastoral nominating committee, decides to write a letter to potential candidates. That first letter reads in part like this: “We do have a few questions for you. Perhaps we’re foolish, but we’re going to assume you love Jesus and aren’t too much of a loon when it comes to your creed… I’ll be up front with you: we don’t trust a pastor who never laughs. We’ll put up with a lot—but that one’s a deal-killer.
“Here are our questions… Is our church going to be your opportunity to finally enact that one flaming vision you’ve had in your crosshairs ever since seminary, that one strategic model that will finally get this Church-thing straight? Or might we hope that our church could be a place where you’d settle in with us and love alongside us, cry with us and curse the darkness with us, and remind us how much God’s crazy about us?… Will you love us? And will teach us to love one another? Will you give us God—and all the mystery and possibility that entails? Will you preach with hope and wonder in your heart? Will you tell us again and again, about ‘the love that will not let us go,’ not ever? Will you believe with us—and for us—that the kingdom is truer than we know—and that there are no shortcuts? Will you tell us the truth—that the huckster promise of a quick fix or some glitzy church dream is 100% crap?….” In other words,” they wrote, “do you really want to be our pastor?” They wrote about Jesus, God, the church, the congregation, and the pastor being one.
One candidate wrote a very long response. The excerpt implies it was the beginning of their new pastoral relationship. In that long letter, part of what the pastor wrote was this: “I committed my life to walking alongside people whom I hoped to call friends. I committed to learning how to help people pray. I determined it would be my job to simply recount over and over again that one beautiful story of how Love refused to tally the costs but came for us, came to be with us, came to heal us. I took ordination vows and promised that though I might be asked to do many things as pastor, I would always do one thing: I would point to God. And I would say one simple word: ‘love’. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that lots of church don’t actually want a pastor. They want a leadership coach or a fundraising executive or a consultant to mastermind a strategic takeover… In this scheme there is little room for praying and gospel storytelling, for conversation requiring the slow space needed if we’re going to listen to love.”
Jesus, God, and us. That we might all be one. That’s what Jesus prayed. On that night, that night, that hour, in that moment Jesus prayed. It was a prayer. He was praying for you and praying for me, praying that in and through us, the world would know of God’s love.
Jesus on the unity of church. Jesus on his unity with God, the one whom he called Father. Jesus, God, the church, you, me, and love. It sounds like a pretty low bar. A low ecclesiastical, theological, intellectual, ministerial, missional bar. But don’t be fooled. There is absolutely no higher bar. Love. Just look around. It’s a very high bar. That in and through us the world would know of God’s love.
I am persuaded, not to sound too much like the Apostle Paul, I am convinced that every Sunday morning when we gather in this place there is someone, every Sunday there is someone, maybe just one person, someone in the sanctuary longing to be reminded, needing to be assured, hearing for the first time, hoping beyond hope to be told today that God’s love is for you. That God loves you. The second grader struggling each morning because you’re convinced this year’s teacher doesn’t like you very much. The retired one wondering if you will ever feel needed again. You who were raised in a home where everyone kept score, including God, even though you figured out a long time ago score-keeping isn’t helpful in relationships or in faith. The one with the broken heart wondering whether anyone will ever love you again. The student convinced no college will want you and why would God either. The brooding thinker among us who long ago cast off any trappings of faith or things eternal so God couldn’t possibly anything more than a long lost lover who won’t have you back.
Those among us who’ve been told by some of the loudest Christian voices that they’re going to hell because of who they are. Or those who have been drowning far too long in the tepid waters of phrases like “it must have been God’s will” and “hate the sin, love the sinner” all the while growing distant from a God you’re left to conclude is punishing and one to be feared. The spouse and parent here every Sunday for the sake of the family, who deep down just figures that when it comes to all this stuff, “yeah, I was never good enough.”
Every Sunday there’s someone here in this room who longs to be told of God’s love for them. That’s where it has to start. Helping the world to know of God’s love. It starts with knowing God loves you.
Jesus, God, and us. That we might all be one.
That night, that night, that hour, in that moment Jesus prayed. He was praying for you and praying for me, praying that in and through us, the world would know of God’s love. Praying that you would know God loves you just as much as God loved Jesus.
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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