A Sermon on Being Prayed For: Easter 7/Ascension

Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
13 May 2018 + Easter 7B
John 17.6-19

After my first year of seminary, I moved to Cleveland to spend the summer as a hospital chaplain — just one of the many steps along the way to becoming a pastor. This chaplaincy internship is officially called CPE: Clinical Pastoral Education. But, unofficially, as those who had done it before me would say: Crying, Processing, Eating. CPE.

To say it’s an emotional ten weeks is an understatement. You spend your days making rounds, visiting patients, writing reports, and spending time debriefing it all with your fellow interns and your supervisor. There are, most always, tears involved.

In between patient encounters that leave you questioning your career choices and call to ministry altogether and poignant sessions with your supervisor that feel akin to having your heart ripped out of your chest, however, there are indeed some very sacred moments. Moments that make you remember why you’re there, moments that make it all seem worth it. Such moments often involve prayer, and that prayer, I can tell you from experience, does something for the one being prayed for.

Jesus’s words in today’s gospel come to us as a prayer. This prayer is no ordinary prayer, nor could this prayer come at a more timely place in the disciples’ experience. Over the past few weeks in our gospel readings from John, we have been privy to hearing bits and pieces of Jesus’s “farewell discourse,” his final words to his disciples before he would be handed over to be put to death. This lengthy speech that has spanned four chapters up to this point now culminates in a prayer — and at a crucial turning point in John’s gospel, just before Jesus would be arrested, setting the events of Holy Week into motion.

Jesus’s prayer for his disciples is remarkable, too, because it is prayed in the presence of his disciples. Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis helps us imagine the scene: “That upper room was filled with pain and abandonment. With betrayal and loss. With unsettled hearts and fearful souls. And Jesus ends it all with a prayer for his disciples.”

A newly minted chaplain intern, with only one year of seminary under my belt, I hardly felt qualified to offer spiritual care for the patients I saw everyday. Feelings of pain, physical and emotional, abandonment and loneliness, fear and uncertainty are not uncommon in patient encounters. It can feel like ending a patient visit with prayer is just a formality, at best, just something a chaplain should do, or, at other times, a convenient way of getting out of an awkward, uncomfortable visit, the sound of the “amen” as effective at whisking me away as the startling beeping of my pager. Sometimes, if I’m being honest, that was certainly the case. But there were other times, at some point between the “Dear God” and the “Amen,” that I know something happened — a new sense of calm, peace, stillness.

In the midst of complicated emotions, Jesus doesn’t offer another miracle or parable or teaching, but a prayer that is more profound and more needed than anything else Jesus could’ve done for them. Jesus prays on behalf of his disciples, the ones he calls friends just moments before. He offers them a reminder of their belonging to God and commends them to the loving protection and care of God, even as he himself is about to leave them. And he prays for their unity — the unity of Jesus with his Father, the unity of the disciples with Jesus — a profound experience of an intimate relationship. A relationship built on the promise of Jesus we heard last week: “Abide in my love.” Where the world has dealt the disciples uncertainty and fear and despair, Jesus offers his presence, his blessing, his prayer for them.

It’s one thing to pray for someone or something. It’s almost our natural response to when people tell us about a loss, or illness, or anxiety they are facing: You’ll be in my prayers. Or when things happen in the world — shootings, bombings, natural disasters — and we’re so quick to offer our “thoughts and prayers.”

But it’s quite another experience to be prayed for. Many of the most profound experiences of being prayed for in my life have come during moments of great transition. Transition is no small thing: There are often feelings of anxiety and uncertainty and even fear of what the next step will bring. There is also often a clinging to the past, a resistance to letting go of what has been, what is comfortable. On my last Sunday at my internship congregation, almost a year ago, I could physically feel the hands on my back and the wider presence in the room as I stood in the center of the sanctuary, to be prayed for, to be blessed and sent forth.

Jesus’s prayer for his disciples happens in their very midst. They are meant to overhear Jesus’s prayer for them! It’s a time of great transition for them, unsure of what the future will bring in the absence of their closest friend and teacher. And not just in the upper room that one night, but again at the ascension. We often overlook the ascension, falling as it does on a Thursday, just this past week, but there again is a moment of great transition, of leave-taking, of uncertainty for what the future will bring. But there again: Jesus blesses them as he is taken up into heaven.

At the end of this Easter season, we encounter stories of transition and leave-taking. On Thursday, we experience the risen Christ taken up from our midst in the ascension. Today, we hear Jesus’s words in the moments leading up to his death. Yet in both of these experiences, leaving is intertwined with blessing. It brings an invitation, and it makes room for the Spirit to enter in, as we anticipate the great day of Pentecost next Sunday. The liturgical poet Jan Richardson offers these words of blessing as she reflects on the leaving and the blessing of these days:

In the leaving
in the letting go
let there be this
to hold onto
at the last:

the enduring of love
the persisting of hope
the remembering of joy

the offering of gratitude
the receiving of grace
the blessing of peace.

Transition happens, but it is not the end. Fear and uncertainty and anxiety take hold of us, but they do not have the final word. Still, Jesus prays for his friends. Still, the risen Christ reaches out his hands to us in blessing, even and especially when we most need it.

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