WHAT WOULD JESUS PRAY FOR?
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
May 8, 2017; 7th Sunday of Easter, Year C
Isaiah 49:13-16; John 17:20-26

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe
in me through their word, that they may all be one.”
John 17:20-21a

You’ve all heard the slogan, “What would Jesus do?” WWJD. Remember when those four letters were everywhere, both inside the church and outside of it? Remember the WWJD bracelets? They were little reminders that what we Christians are put on this earth to do is to imitate Jesus.

Trying to creatively imagine what Jesus would do in any given situation is not a bad plan. Those four letters, WWJD, can clarify our ethical thinking, big-time.

But I want to ask a different question today. Not “What would Jesus do?” but “What would Jesus pray for?”

Now, it may seem a little strange to think about Jesus praying. After all, he’s the second person of the Trinity, the “son” in the Father-Son-and-Holy Spirit partnership. Those three are meant to be so perfectly united that the act of any one of them is the act of all three. What’s the sense of prayer, if they’re constantly in each other’s presence?

An ancient description of the Trinity is that of a circle dance. The people of Greece, Israel and some other Mediterranean countries still practice these ancient circle dances, even today. Round and round the circle spins, riding the surging waves of music, until the individuals all blur into the whole. They are both individual and united, all at the same time.

As for the persons of the Trinity, they are both three and one in just that way. If you could somehow freeze the video of the divine circle dance, you’d have more than your share of problems figuring out how the three persons relate to one another.

But you can’t freeze the frame. That’s the point. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are constantly interacting, and in that blur we see fleeting shadows of distinct persons. They are both one and not-one at the same time.

But it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when Jesus, God’s Son, walked the earth. There was a time when he inhabited a human body. There was a time when he experienced the same anxieties and doubts and bafflement as the rest of us.

One thing he did during that time on earth was to pray. We know it because the Scriptures tell us he did. Jesus went off “to a lonely place to pray.” Sometimes, before performing a healing, he would raise his eyes to the heavens and offer up a prayer. In the Garden of Gethsemane, when he was feeling horribly conflicted about the cross and whether he should go through with it, he prayed that God might take that cup away from him.

The biggest example of Jesus at prayer, though — and I mean literally the biggest — comes from this 17th chapter of John’s Gospel. This prayer lasts the entire chapter: 26 verses. It’s the longest prayer spoken by Jesus in all the New Testament. It’s been known for centuries as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer.

A priest is someone who intercedes for another person. And that’s what Jesus is doing here. The people Jesus is praying for are us: his disciples, who together are known as the church.

And what’s he praying for, on our behalf? A number of things, actually — but the most famous part of the prayer is this line: “that they may all be one” (17:21) The Lord goes on, a little later, to say more about what he means by that request:

“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 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.” (17:22-23)

Remember that circle dance of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit constantly on the move? Our Lord’s most earnest desire is that we, too, should one day mimic that dance!

*****

We are one in ChristWhat would Jesus pray for? Unity. It just so happens, that’s what a great many mothers pray for as well. A mother prays for the unity of her family.

Sometimes it happens that brothers or sisters fall out with one another. A family feud arises. Some of these rifts in the family can go on for a very long time. Through it all, the one who’s most likely to be asking, “Can’t we all just get along?” is Mom.

Unity comes naturally to her because that’s what the biological act of motherhood is all about. We all begin our lives in oneness. We are one with our mothers in the womb.

Unless something tragic happens — something that separates mother and child — we live our earliest years close to our mothers. Or, if not our biological mothers, to someone else who fulfills the maternal role. But that mother-and-child unity doesn’t last.

It doesn’t last because of something deeply programmed into us — probably at the genetic level. The psychologists have a name for it. They call it “differentiation.”

To differentiate is to step away from our parents and come into our own as individuals. It’s really just a fancy word for “growing up.”

Imbedded in that word differentiation is the word “different.” To differentiate is to declare: “I’m different from you.” In a very real sense, differentiation is the great work of adolescence, the essential task we’re all engaged in, during that strange and sometimes troubling season.

As any mother — or father — can tell you, living through the process of differentiation is never easy. Whether it’s the toddler, tipping over his food dish and shouting “No!”, or the teenager, storming out of the house in a rage, it’s painful, for all concerned. There are misunderstandings and miscommunications. Sometimes the son or daughter is a little too eager to go. Other times, the parents are stubbornly determined to hold on to what’s familiar. The parent-child bond that once seemed so strong and durable — and so very special — can seem like it’s falling apart.

But it’s not. It’s just changing. The oneness, the unity, is still there (even if may be hidden for a time). One of the joys of parenting adult children is that, very often, the essential unity reasserts itself.

*****

But it doesn’t just happen, randomly. That’s the point Jesus is getting at, in his great prayer for the church. There’s a power that’s active in our lives, a power we can tap into, that brings us together.

That power is none other than Jesus himself. Often, the way we discover unity with another person is not by seeking it directly. We discover it by turning to Jesus in faith, and accepting his offer of unity with us. When two individuals share this unity in Christ, they can overcome all manner of other differences.

Here’s a story that shows what I mean. Many years ago, I was working as admissions director at our Presbyterian theological seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Within its general Master of Divinity degree program, that seminary offers a specialty focus of training Native Americans for ministry.

Over the course of our six years in Dubuque, Claire and I got to know a number of Native American seminarians. They came from every corner of this great land — from the Shinnecock people of eastern Long Island, to the Pimas of Arizona, to Inupiats (or Eskimos) from Alaska.

The most unusual Native American family I welcomed to Dubuque as admissions directot came from even farther away. There was a candidate for ministry of the United Church of Christ who came from the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific. The Marshall Islands, as you may know, are part of the United States. They’re what they call a “trust territory.” This man grew up on the island of Bikini. As a child, he and his entire village had been relocated to another nearby island, a short time before the United States Air Force exploded an atomic bomb on their home. He and his family — his wife and two children — arrived at the seminary in the middle of the academic year. Their flight got in on the day after Christmas.

Now, these were people who had never set foot outside the Marshall Islands: a completely tropical environment. Now, after many hours in the air, they had landed in Iowa, in December. Can you see the difficulty?

Their denomination had gotten them winter coats, but the first order of business was getting them some winter shoes (at home, they’d worn sandals or gone barefoot, and that just wouldn’t do). We took them to the Sears store, and gave them money to pick out snow boots. It was just in the nick of time: because as we were driving back to campus, it started to snow.

I still remember their 12-year-old son, and the total delight he took in seeing snow for the first time. The boy was so excited, he dashed out of the car without even putting on his winter coat. He started running around outside their apartment, slipping and sliding, even rolling in the white stuff.

We had to warn his parents to stop him, before he got too wet. They had no idea of the consequences. Surely he would have gotten sick if he’d kept this up! But this family, who had lived their entire lives on a coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific, had no conception that this white stuff could be dangerous to their health. That was how little we had in common. That was how different our worlds were.

But they weren’t completely different. You see, there was one point of common unity, that helped us to know each other deeply, even as we shook hands for the first time. Our common unity was Jesus Christ. We were living out Jesus’ great prayer for the church that day — when he says to God: “so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Unity isn’t something we achieve on our own. It’s not a Christian virtue we can perfect, with a little encouragement from our Lord. Jesus makes it very clear, in his prayer, that he is our unity. If we cultivate a personal relationship with him, if we open our hearts and truly let him in, then our hearts are opened to good people the world over who are no longer strangers, but brothers and sisters in Christ.

*****

Think of the implications for our lives. Think of how different our lives would be if we could meditate on Jesus’ prayer more often, if we could take awareness of our unity in Christ deep into our hearts!

Now, sometimes you and I are in tune with this powerful truth, and other times less so. The place we’re in tune with it most often is in church. Even walking into a strange church for the first time, in a distant city, we look a little differently on each person we meet. When our young people and their advisers go off to the Presbyterian Youth Triennium this July, they’re going to have this experience. Each one of the thousands of Presbyterians on that university campus will be a potential brother or sister: another person to enjoy unity with, in Christ.

The reason we enjoy unity with our mothers in this life — and, by God’s grace, also in the next — is because of certain experiences we hold in common. Teaching a child to talk and to walk and to hold a spoon creates a powerful bond. But it’s more than just those common experiences — and more, even, than the common genetic heritage. The bond that truly unites mother and child is the bond of love.

Jesus talks about love in his high priestly prayer. He concludes his famous prayer with this line: “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

In the end, it’s all about love. No matter how troubled, no matter how fractured, the relationship of mother and child can become, there’s always love at the heart of it. And that love is the basis for its unity. Even when parents and children reconcile after long years of estrangement, the love is still there, waiting to be rediscovered, waiting to serve as the agent of healing.

Our faith teaches that this most powerful of human loves is more than just a biological imperative, more than just instinct playing itself out. It is the very love that propels the three persons of the Trinity in their eternal circle dance, the love Jesus felt even as he fell to his knees in the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed that the cup could pass from him.

It’s the most durable thing in all the universe, this divine gift of love. It’s what we celebrate, this Mother’s Day. It’s what we feel anew, each time we enter this sanctuary and pray, “Thy kingdom come.”

It’s the tie that binds us together, as Christians. And it’s gift — nothing but gift!

Copyright © 2016 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.