“Do what I say, not what I do!” How many of you have heard that before? How many of you have said it before?
It’s a phrase many’a parent has said in moments of frustration when they realize that their young child has picked up some habit the parent didn’t mean to pass on. And it’s an instant reminder that children are quick to follow an example set before them.
It translates into many other fields, as well. If a sports coach tells you to eat more vegetables, while they’re polishing off a packet of Oreos, then it’s hard to take them seriously. If a religious leader teaches you to be kind, while they’re unwelcoming and disrespectful, then it’s hard to believe what they’re teaching.
When we think of Jesus and prayer, many may immediately to The Lord’s Prayer, an example prayer set to us on how to pray. We might not immediately go to the realization, though, that Jesus indeed prayed for us.
Did you know that Jesus prayed for you? Did you know that Jesus had the forethought to look at the future generations and pray for all who would believe in him through the disciples’ evangelism? Jesus not only taught us to pray, he set an example in doing so.
Fred Craddock compares readers of this text to "a congregation overhearing a pastoral prayer. We are not directly addressed, but we are very much in the mind of the One who is praying" (Preaching through the Christian Year B). It might prompt us to ask how the disciples felt overhearing their Lord and Rabbi praying for them. How might it feel for us to overhear this prayer centuries later and know that Jesus prayed for us?
Our Scripture selection is not the full prayer - I encourage you to go back and read the entire chapter of John 17. What you hear repeatedly in this prayer is a request for our protection; we hear “protect” or “guard” 4 times in these verses. And so, what does it mean that Jesus prays for our protection?
In the spirit of Mother’s Day, I offer a comparison to a woman doing her best to raise a child, being a mother. What does a mother’s protection look like? On the playground, it may look like giving enough space for the child to explore and being available if a boo-boo occurs. At the doctor’s office, it may look like getting vaccination shots, even though they’ll sting. In adulthood, it may look like a tough conversation, encouraging the son/daughter to make wiser life decisions.
I believe this is the type of protection Jesus was referring to - allowing room for growth and individuality, while being nearby if needed. And I believe he meant a little more. Looking at the original Greek language, the words translated as “protect” or “guard” were used to literally mean “keep.” Midway through our Scripture, it says “protect them in your name”...or it could be “keep them in your name.” Jesus is praying that the people are kept under God’s name, are kept together.
Jesus is equating God’s protection of people as staying connected with God and one another.
When writing this, I started to tear up because I think of the ways that being connected to God and to people, because of God, has protected me in life, and I’m sure many of you could agree. I haven’t been kept from experiencing some excruciating hard times, but I have been kept in God’s name. I have been protected against thinking I must do it alone; and I know most of you would agree.
When my parents died within 6 months of each other many years ago, I was living in NC still but they were in VA. As I was driving back to VA, I was feeling so lonely because "my people" were in NC. When my dad died, within 24 hours, I had 4 couples from my church offer to come up and be with me. It's tempting to say that they were simply being good friends and what does God have to do with that. Except I found out that one person from that church community was already in VA for a 2-week training exercise at Little Creek base. He doesn't even believe in God, but he was my first responder that week. God already placed him there. When my mom died 6 months later, a couple from that church was already in VA because they had a family member pass away the week before. Both times I needed to be protected from feeling all alone, I was. I wasn't protected from grief and the loss of my parents, but I was protected from feeling abandoned.
This equation between protecting and connecting comes as no surprise when reviewing our previous 3 weeks of reading John’s gospel. When we are following our Shepherd, intertwined as a vine, as friends, of course we are protected.
For example, we are more protected from anxiety because together we can make a plan. I was reminded recently that having a plan is often a great antidote for fear. What we have been reading in John lately is Jesus spelling out a plan for the disciples, which hopefully dispelled some of their fears. Jesus was spelling out the plan for how they were to stay connected with one another in their faith and, thus, be protected against succumbing to the challenges of the world. The disciples faced much persecution, and Jesus was praying for them all to be held together, in order to weather the storm unified.
Note: Jesus did not pray for nor say God would get rid of the challenges and pain of the world. Just like mothers don’t keep us from experiencing every pain in the world. Jesus’ prayer was that the people would stay together, even in experiencing the pains.
Furthermore, as a community of God’s people,
...we are more protected from being unaware of the issues around us, uniformity, and getting stuck in our own bubble, when we connect with all of God’s people
...we are more protected from making unwise decisions when we consult others around us
...we are more protected from loneliness and thinking we must bear life’s challenges by ourselves
I say “more protected” because we aren’t perfect, this world isn’t perfect, and we don’t always remember to lean on one another and God. But, as a connected community with God, we can be guarded against so much in this life.
The end of the Scripture selection is Jesus stating,“I ask not only on behalf of these (the original disciples), but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word (that’s us!), that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” The UCC logo has inscribed on it “that they may all be one.” It is a call for the followers of Christ to be together in community; in that community, we find strength, courage, joy, and protection.
And yet, there are people who are not connected into community, into God’s flock. This is our charge for evangelism: to let others see and know the joy that is found when we are networked with God’s children.
Just in the past few months, I have heard such amazing stories of people within this congregation being protected from getting overwhelmed by small and large life challenges because friends showed up. Friends helped move furniture; friends held a hand; friends helped bear the weight of a burden.
This is the joy of following Christ’s path set out for us.
Scripture: John 17:6-15, 20-21