JoAn Wilson, a member of our congregation, tells a story about the way that she fell in love with prayer. With her permission, I want to share it with you. JoAn grew up in the little town of Quinter, Kansas. During her school years, the world was not a safe place. World War II waged on. Men and women a few years older than JoAn were consistently heading off to war, and many of them never came back.
JoAn remembers walking to her grandmother’s house every day after school in that small town. She only lived a couple of doors down on the same block, and JoAn would check in with her grandmother, help feed her or sit down and read with her. But inevitably, at some point in the conversation, JoAn remembers that her grandmother would grab her by the hand and say, “Let’s pray for the boys.” And there, the two of them would become warriors for peace. They would pray for the young men who were fighting against tyranny half a world away. They would pray for their safety. For their safe return. And for a world of peace. JoAn remembers that those prayers were some of the most formative of her young life. She remembers the power of lifting up those young men to God and asking for their care and protection. She remembers the power of a “praying Grandma!” And she remembers the love and comfort that God gave her in those early days of prayer, and in the lifetime of prayer that she has lived ever since.
JoAn and her grandmother prayed a prayer that generation after generation have prayed, haven’t they? It is appropriate on this Mother’s Day to remember that the first Mother’s Day was pronounced by Julia Ward Howe, the author of the words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. In 1870, she proclaimed a Mother’s Peace Day. She had been horrified by the violence and death of the Civil War, where she tended and cared for the wounded. And now she saw war rising again, as the Franco-Prussian war began to spread. She despaired that the world sought so quickly to return to war, or that the world would with so much glee induce violence on one another. So she wrote these words:
“Arise, then… women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!
….From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: Disarm, Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.
Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
nor violence vindicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
at the summons of war,
let women now leave all that may be left of home
for a great and earnest day of council.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means
whereby the great human family can live in peace,
each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
but of God…
In short, she proclaimed that if the world’s affairs were managed by mothers, especially those who have lost sons in battle, the rush to war would not be so great. She proclaimed that we live in a world that does not live by the teachings of Jesus, of peace, of forgiveness, of justice. Instead, we live in a world of violence, and injustice, and pain.
And we still do, don’t we? Every day we turn on the news about what is happening in North Korea or Russia, or now again in Iran. We still live in a world of violence, of injustice, of war.
It is a universal struggle, and you don’t have to be a mother to know it. In fact, you don’t have to be a parent. Let’s look again at the passage of Scripture I read a few moments ago, for I think that Julia Ward Howe’s proclamation…and JoAn and her grandmother’s prayers…are an echo of the prayer that we find in John 17.
Again, remember the context here. Jesus is in the upper room with the disciples. He has just finished the Last Supper. He has washed their feet, and then begins to teach them one last time. He teaches them that the Holy Spirit is coming. That they will remain in him, even if he is not with them. That he is like a vine that nourishes its branches.
And then, like JoAn’s grandmother, he says, “let’s pray for the boys.” And he enters into this long, extended prayer for the disciples. Like JoAn’s grandmother, he knew that the world was not a safe place for them. In fact, we hear that in the passage today: “the world hates them…protect them from evil, or the evil one.”
Jesus knows that things are not going to get easy for the disciples. It is on the eve of his crucifixion, and they will be scattered. But even after his Resurrection, life will not be easy. Jesus knew that they will continue to live in a world that does not share their values. A world that rushes to war and violence. A world that refuses to do justice for all of God’s people. The Greek word for “world” is cosmos, and it is the same word that John uses in chapter three, in a passage that a lot of us know by heart: “God so loved the world…” And so, God loved the world, but knew that the world was imperfect. Fallen. Broken. It is and would be a world that would be hostile to their message of peace and justice and love.
And so Jesus prays. I don’t know about you, but I had to read this passage three or four times to make sense of it. It is very dense, as much of John’s language usually is. And I had a hard time figuring out what Jesus was saying. But after several readings, a handful of concepts, of words, kept jumping out at me. Here is what I hear when I read this prayer.
The first word is one. “make them one as we are one.” Remember that John is the Gospel writer who begins the Gospel with a description of the Eternal Creator and Cosmic Christ, joined as one. “In the beginning was the Word…” So, it is not a surprise that Jesus talks about the unity of Creator and Christ. But it is more of a surprise that he prays for their unity. Especially because we know what the rest of the story looks like. That night, the disciples will scatter, will deny him, will splinter in the face of the crucifixion. But here is Jesus, praying for unity…maybe because he knows what’s coming. “One” is a big deal.
So is the word protect. “protect them in my name.” Just like JoAn and her grandmother prayed, Jesus prays protection for those he loves. Obviously, he knows that this protection is not perfect. All of them will die, and Jesus must know that they will each die horrible and painful deaths because of their faith in him. That protection will not be ultimate. But scholar David Cunningham writes that the word that our Bibles translates as “protect” was often translated “keep,” and had etymological connection to words that would be used to describe the actions of a parent. Jesus is asking the Creator, “mother them…parent them…care for them in the way that a loving mother cares for her daughter or son.” Just like we as parents cannot protect our children ultimately, perfectly, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t “keeping” them, caring for them, providing for them, loving them. On this day where we thank God for our mothers, we recognize here that Jesus is praying a prayer for God to mother those whom he loves.
Third, Jesus asks for joy. “so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” Again, Jesus doesn’t imagine that the disciples are going to be happy all the time. They live in a world with different priorities than they have been taught. With a penchant for greed and lust and hatred. And they will be chastised and oppressed and persecuted. They are not going to have happiness 100% of the time. But they can have joy. Remember that happiness is all about a good exterior situation, but that joy is about a good interior situation; regardless of what is happening outside in the world, we can have joy. Jesus prays that joy for the disciples. Not that everything will always be perfect in their world – in fact, he acknowledges that it won’t – but in the imperfection of the world, that they will have joy.
Finally, Jesus asks for sanctification. This is one of those “churchy” words that isn’t always helpful to use. But it isn’t really that complicated. Sanctify means to make holy, or to set apart. Jesus is asking for the disciples to be set apart from the world around them. The oft-repeated phrase, “in the world but not of the world” is not a direct quote from this passage, but comes from it. Jesus sends the disciples to be in the world, but even in the world they are still set apart. Different. Holy. Sanctified. Jesus prays for the disciples to be counter-cultural. Distinct. Not for them to run off and hide by themselves, mind you – otherwise he wouldn’t have sent them “into the world.” Just because the world hates them, doesn’t mean that they have to hate the world back. But in the world, they are to be different than the world. The light in the darkness. The yeast in the bread. The salt on the food. Just to name a few other Jesus metaphors. In the world but not of the world.
So this passage makes more sense if you zoom in and look at a few of the more important words. But don’t just look at it in the micro…you have to zoom out and look at it in the macro, as well. You have to remember what this passage is all about. Jesus is at his last meal. Judas has already left the room. He knows that he has a matter of hours, if not a matter of minutes, before the soldiers rush in to take him. And what does he spend those last minutes doing? Praying for his disciples. Not whining about his lot in life, or even sitting back and enjoying a final glass of wine. He bows his head and prays. Can you imagine what that would feel like to be one of the people that Jesus was praying for?
Well, guess what?
If you read one more verse beyond where I stopped, you will find these words:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…”
In other words, Jesus wasn’t just praying for his disciples. He was praying for all of his disciples who are yet to come. Every generation. Including the Twelve. And including you and me. He prayed for those he loved. Including you and me.
As Jesus sat in the upper room, about to be arrested and crucified, he prayed for you. The good news for disciples is good news for us! God is not going to stop the world from hating us, from violence and war and death. But in that world, we are protected, sanctified, and given joy. The God who calls us to live set apart and counter-cultural will not leave us or forsake us. Even in his final moments, he was praying for you.
Which is a pretty cool thing, right? Have you ever had the experience of someone praying for you? Someone telling you that they thought of you, even when you weren’t by their side, and lifted you up to God for providential care. It’s a powerful feeling of being loved.
I have had that experience. I cannot count the number of times that JoAn greeted me at that back door, and told me that she was praying for me. And that is a powerful experience, to know that in her living room, or by her bedside at night, she had a moment of thinking, “let’s pray for the boy….Lord knows he needs it! I hope you have had a similar experience.
I know that you have had a similar experience. Because in Jesus’ final hours, he was thinking of you. He was praying for you. He was getting ready to lose his life…for you. Let that sink in. You are so lovable, so important, so beautiful in the eyes of your Creator and our Christ, that he would pray for you. For our unity, for your protection, for your joy, for your holiness.
He loves you that much. And that, my friends, is good news.