John 17:1-11; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
Jesus Prays for Us
Last Thursday we celebrated Ascension Day. (And if you haven’t seen the video of the service yet, I encourage you to do so, or go to the website and read the printed version of it there.) We recalled in our meditation then a very precious truth. Jesus Christ is not only king. He is also our Great High Priest. This means that he represents us before God. He pleads our cause before the Father. It’s natural, especially when times are difficult, to assume that God’s hand is against us. But for us nothing can be farther from the truth. God is for us. God loves us. If this were not so, then how could have Christ our brother been received into the very presence of God himself? From there he will never be put out. There he always speaks to God on our behalf.
People boast of having friends in high places. By this they mean people of power and influence who can help them realize their ambitions in life. But we have a friend in the highest place. His name is Jesus. In him we have an ally and an advocate, one who is in our corner. When the chips are down, it is helpful to have this before our mind’s eye when we cry out to God in Jesus’ name.
The gospel lesson designated for this Lord’s Day reinforces this very precious truth. It illustrates the point that Jesus does in fact make intercession for us, that he does in fact plead our cause before the Father. In fact, Bible students, when referring to this lesson, call it the high priestly prayer of Jesus. Let us recall that in the preceding chapters of John’s Gospel, Jesus shared intimate conversation with the disciples, initiating them into the very mysteries of God’s inner life. He sought to comfort them in their sadness when they realized that their teacher and Lord and friend was about to depart from them to go to the Father. Now Jesus turns to God to pray for them. And it will be worth our while in the few minutes we have reserved for our meditation to make a few observations here.
The first and most obvious one is this: it is Jesus Christ himself, the incarnate Son of God, who prays! No doubt we struggle in our prayer life. And why? We don’t have the time. Or we are not disciplined to use the time we do have. Or we don’t really know what to say when we pray. Or when we do manage to find words, we don’t feel that God hears us anyway. Or when we do ask God to give us our heart’s desire, we don’t receive it. Most of us I am sure can relate to what I am saying. For all these reasons and more, prayer is a struggle for us.
To be sure, prayer was a struggle for Jesus. We have only to recall his anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Lord, if it be possible, take this cup from me. Yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). In his great love for us, he chose willingly to make our sufferings his own, including our struggle in prayer, which indeed can be a source of great suffering.
But let us remember this: the one who prays here is the one and only Son of God, who rests in the bosom of the Father (Jn. 1:18). Between them is perfect, unbroken communication. “The words that you gave to me, I gave to them,” Jesus affirms in his prayer (17:8). This echoes what we read together earlier in this Easter season. Remember that Jesus tells Philipp: “The words that I say to you are not my own, but the Father who is in me is doing his work” (14:10). And even earlier in John’s Gospel, to those who would not believe in him, Jesus said: “I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has commanded me what to say and even how to say it” (12:49). The Son listens to the Father, and relays to us what he has heard.
But not only does the Son hear all that the Father says to him, but the Father hears all that the Son prays to him. Recall earlier in Lent when we read about Lazarus. When Jesus was about to call out Lazarus from the tomb, he looked up to heaven and prayed aloud: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that You always hear me, but I say this for the benefit of the people standing here, so they may believe that you sent me” (11:41-42). Only after praying to God did Jesus raise up Lazarus from the tomb. That Lazarus came out confirmed for everyone standing there that the Father answered Jesus’ prayer.
The Father always hears and answers Jesus’ prayer. There is perfect accord between Father and Son. We can always find comfort in this truth, because even at this moment the glorified Christ, our Great High Priest, is praying for us at the right hand of the Father in accordance with our needs. On Ascension Day, we learned that the Father indeed answered the first petition that Jesus offers in his prayer: Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world began.” The glorification of Jesus is what Ascension Day is all about.
The second observation is this: Jesus prays for others. Here it’s the disciples who are the object of Jesus’ prayers; later it will be all those who came to believe in him through their message. We may pray for ourselves, especially when our circumstances are dire. We may even pray for others who share their prayer requests with us, but do we always remember to pray for them? Or if we do, do we give those requests the proper attention? Again, it is worth repeating: we are the objects of Jesus’ attention and his prayer.
We learn here that it is the Father’s will to give us eternal life. The Son carried out this will by giving eternal life to all those whom the Father gave to him, beginning with the disciples. This is eternal life: that we may know the God to whom Jesus is praying, the only true God, and the one whom God has sent, Jesus himself (17:3). Jesus has revealed to us this God. That is the work that God sent him to do.
Jesus is asking God on our behalf. What exactly is he asking God for? He is asking God to protect us. In this world we will have trouble, we will suffer loss, including one day the loss of our own lives. But nonetheless we are secure in the Father’s hand. The Father is greater than all. Through the Son the Father has given us eternal life, and no one or nothing is strong enough to snatch us out of his hand (10:28). After what we have said about how the Father always answers the prayer of the Son, we should find real confidence here. God will protect us in answer to the prayer of Jesus.
Let us make a final observation. Jesus prays for the unity of all those who belong to him—first for the disciples and later for all who come to believe in him through their message. We don’t have to belabor the obvious. We live in a very divided nation. Some had hoped that a global crisis such as the one we are now facing would bring us together. To be fair, we have seen people come together and help each other. At the same time, our political leaders have used the crisis to score political points against their opponents, aggravating our divisions.
The church, however, means to be an alternative. The church comes from God, who lives and reigns as Father and Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The church is meant to reflects its trinitarian origins. The theologian Miroslav Volf speaks of the church as made in the image of the Trinity. That explains why Jesus prays that it be one, just as he and the Father are one. This tells us that the divisions that exist among us are unnatural. They cannot belong to the essence of the church, which is to be one, just as the Father and the Son are one. Later in the prayer, in verse 21, which was not included in our lesson today, we learn that the effectiveness of the church’s witness in the world depends on her unity. “may they be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in You; that they also may be one in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me.”
Jesus prays for us. The content of his prayer in our lesson shows us that he wants us to live fully, live confidently, and live together in peace, in eager expectation of all that God has in store for us. This is how we accomplish the work that he has given us to do. Together—that’s how we as the church witness to the love of God for the world.
In the pandemic we can only imagine how many prayers have been going up to heaven. In their fear, frustration, loneliness and grief people everywhere are crying out to God. There is real suffering out there. Our epistle lesson teaches us that not even followers of Christ are spared from suffering. If we include ourselves among the suffering, as I’m sure many of us do, we ought to commit ourselves to our faithful Creator, cast our anxieties upon him, and trust in him to give us strength. And we should be praying for one another, especially for those whom we know are suffering among us. And then we should also be praying for others in the world.
But our praying for others depends on the vitality of our own prayer life. Do we have a vital prayer life? Or is our prayer life on life support? Do we really believe that God hears our prayers? Are we really confident enough to go before him with our requests?
It seems to me that those who pray can be classified into at least two types. First, there are those who in their pain cry out to God. They hope there’s a God out there. And if he is out there, they hope that he cares enough to help. Second, there are those who pray to a God made known to them in Jesus Christ. They know that in Christ they have a teacher and Lord and friend who prays for the them. They know that in Christ they have a merciful and faithful high priest who has passed through the heavens and is seated at God’s right hand, making intercession for them. They know that through Christ they may approach God’s throne of grace boldly, to receive mercy and to find grace to help them in their time of need.
I want all of us to belong to this second type. When we know all that God has given us in Christ, it will transform our prayer life. And we need this transformed life always, but especially in these difficult times. Amen.