I used to belong to a community that had healing prayers every Wednesday at a midday Eucharist. I never liked to go forward myself, but I was happy to see so many other people go forward for prayers. Honestly, for the longest time, I did not really understand the whole process. Were the same people so sick they needed prayers every week? Were they having prayers for themselves or for other people? And I had no idea what the priests were saying to them or what they said to the priests. I was so intimidated by the whole process that I usually just sat in my seat and prayed for those going forward.
Then one day, some stuff was going on in my life I felt overwhelmed by and I finally stood up and got in line with all the other people. I was so nervous. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to tell the priest my whole story, or if I was supposed to ask for something specific, or if I was just supposed to bow my head and wait for the priest to pray. When I finally reached the priest, he looked at me expectantly. I mumbled some prayer request that was super short and in no way indicated why I really needed prayers. But then the priest did something extraordinary. He prayed for me by name and was able to craft a prayer so thoughtful and generous, that I felt like he could see into my soul and understand what was really weighing me down. By simply saying my name, I felt known, cared for, understood, and seen – really seen – for the first time in a long time.
I suspect that is what the disciples are looking for at this point in our narrative. For weeks, Jesus has been making resurrection appearances, teaching the disciples, and talking to them about next steps. These weeks have been reassuring, lifegiving, and invigorating. What seemed to be a massive disaster is now a holy victory. But then, just days ago, Jesus finally leaves them for good as he ascends into heaven. Before he goes, he tells them to wait for the Spirit to clothe them with power. We are told they disciples return to the temple, praising God, but in our Acts lesson today, the disciples are busy figuring out their leadership plan. You see, the establishment of twelve disciples was important to the ancestral roots of the twelve tribes of Israel. The disciples want to be ready to “witness the messianic kingdom inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus.” [i]
This is what we all do when we are scared. We busy ourselves. Jesus tells the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit, and what do the disciples do? They start developing a leadership plan, thinking about their presentation to the faith community, and organizing themselves. None of these things were things Jesus told them to do. In fact, Jesus told them to wait. But we are not very good at waiting. I remember last summer when the Vestry finished our needs assessment about child care and adult day care in Upper James City County, the conclusions were clear. Both were needed and anything we could do would be a help. When we finished that final assessment, I remember thinking, “Now what?!? How in the world are we going to actually do something about either of these issues?” When we left that meeting, I sensed we all walked away with the same sense of dread. The community had spoken, but we had no idea how to live into God’s dream for us. It was like looking over a great chasm with no way to cross over. I remember wondering what other work we could do to prepare ourselves for something like that. But I also remember being so clueless about what would come next that I kind of just looked to God with a sense of panic, wondering, “Now what?!?”
That’s why I love the gospel lesson from John today. The lesson from John does not fit chronologically with where we have been in the Luke-Acts story. John’s gospel today includes the words of Jesus’ farewell discourse before his passion. These last verses of John 17 are a part of a prayer that Jesus says after an extensive time of teaching. The words we hear today are not the words of a desperate prayer said in private by Jesus to God. The words we hear today are words of prayer said for and about the disciples – said right within their hearing. The words are not particularly pretty. In typical John form, they sound circuitous and repetitive – so much so, they can be hard to really hear. But if we listen closely, Jesus’ words today are an impassioned prayer for the personal care and safety of the disciples, so that the disciples can feel empowered to go out into the world under God’s protection. “This is not Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray. This is not only a personal prayer or privatized piety. After betrayal and predicted denial, after concerned questions and foretold rejection, the disciples do not need another lesson, another miracle, another example. They need exactly what Jesus does, because Jesus knows — for Jesus to pray for them.”[ii]
Jesus’ prayer is like the priest’s prayer at that healing service. Jesus sees these scared, confused, anxious disciples and he prays for them by name, reminding them how they are loved, calling down God’s motherly love for the disciples, and asking for a sense of empowerment for each disciple. Although his prayer is not said in those days between the Ascension and Pentecost, the disciples could stand to remember this moment as they wait. When we steer far from God’s providence, and we start to busy ourselves to hide our anxiety, these are the words we return to to steady ourselves. Jesus’ words today, called the High Priestly Prayer, are the words of a priest – calling us by name, naming our specific anxieties before God, soothing us by their healing power, and calming us so that we might be able to go out into the world.
But Jesus’ words are not just the words of a priest. Jesus’ words today are the words of all the faithful – said on behalf of another we name, said in the confidence of a child of God, said in the presence of one receiving prayer. We can give away the gift of prayer and blessing the disciples needed too. You may not feel comfortable praying aloud with another person yet. If so, a prayer, using the person’s name and praying as Jesus does for that person is fine. But Jesus’ words and actions for the disciples today embolden you to do what Jesus does. You can ask the other person if you might pray for them – and pray with them right then and there: whether you are praying for your own child and the concerns they have just voiced to you, whether you are praying for a friend who has finally confessed what is on their heart aloud, or whether you are praying for an acquaintance who cannot express their heart, but who is speaking to you because they know you are a person of faith and they need a priestly prayer from Jesus. Any of you who have gathered at the side altar for healing prayers, or who have had your name called aloud for prayer knows the power of this work.
Normally, I commission you at the end of every sermon – giving you a task to do out in the world, bringing the good news of God in Christ into the broken world. But on this Sunday between the Ascension and Pentecost, I invite you to take Jesus word’s seriously: to pray while you wait for the empowerment of the Spirit. This is not an invitation to look busy or to use action to cover anxiety this week. This is an invitation to be present every day, looking around you for those who need your prayer, and then offering that personal, named prayer for those in your path. As Jesus prayed for the disciples, as the disciples prayed for those with whom they shared the good news, so we continue the age-old practice of deep, personal, abiding prayer with others. Those prayers for the disciples are prayers for us – Jesus prays for us today.[iii] Our invitation is to give that comforting, loving, emboldening gift to others. Your words, your calling another by name, give them power to sit and wait for our God too. Amen.
[i] David S. Cunningham, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 528.
[ii] Karoline Lewis, “Prayers Needed,” May 6, 2018, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5147 on May 9, 2018.
[iii] David Lose, “Easter 7 B: Prayer is Love,” May 10, 2018, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2018/05/easter-7-b-pray-is-love/ on May 10, 2018.