St. Philip Lutheran Church
16 May 2021 + Seventh Sunday of Easter
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
“Pastor, will you say a few words?”
“I’ve never known exactly what is meant by this request,” admits one minister-turned-seminary president. “Do they want me to say a few words of inspiration, prophecy, consolation, biblical theology – or just a few words about how much I appreciate the person who asked me to say a few words? Maybe the important point is to use only a few words.”
In my experience, those “few words” usually involve prayer – and as a pastor, I seem to do a lot of praying – during worship of course, or at the hospital bedside of someone about to have surgery, but also at the family dinner table, when the collar is off and the “out of office” email reply is set, and you think you’re on vacation… until, without fail, as we’re getting ready to eat, all eyes turn toward the pastor in the family to “say a few words” – as though I have some special “magic” or a more direct route to God. Spoiler alert: I don’t.
Perhaps with the exception of that latter example, when I’m called upon to “say a few words” and to offer a prayer, I am invited into some of the most sacred moments of people’s lives, entrusted with their deepest concerns, fears, and joys and holding it all before God.
To be so entrusted with someone’s concerns and joys and to pray for them is the gift of the community of faith. The more I pray, the more I believe that prayer is powerful not so much because of who we’re addressing our prayers to but because of who we’re addressing our prayers among.
What exactly does it mean to pray for someone? Certainly it can mean folding our hands, closing our eyes, beginning with “Dear God,” and ending with “Amen.” And I think it can also be as simple as being present with the person we’re praying for.
Jesus’s prayer for his disciples might better be described as Jesus’s prayer with his disciples. This is not the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus goes off at a distance by himself to pray while the disciples can hardly keep their eyelids open. This is a prayer spoken by Jesus within earshot of the ones he is praying for.
In the midst of complicated emotions, the deep anguish before his arrest, and the sense that his time with his beloved disciples is running short, 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 have 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 with God. 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.
Jesus offers his disciples more than just “a few words.” He shows them a God who prays for them.
Jesus’s prayer for his disciples happens in their very midst. They are meant to overhear Jesus’s prayer for them! For the disciples, it’s a time of transition and anxiety, unsure of what the future will bring in the absence of their closest friend and teacher. In that moment, Jesus prays for them and with them.
If you’ve ever asked someone to pray for you, you know how powerful it is to be prayed for – to be so surrounded by their love and care – as if they are saying to you, “Always remember that I am remembering you.” (from Women’s Uncommon Prayers)
It’s a vulnerable thing to let ourselves be prayed for. It’s so much easier to pray for others, to hear their concerns and joys, and to “say a few words.”
But to be on the receiving end of that prayer is something else entirely. It reminds us we’re not alone.
Recently, since I’ve started working more in my office during the week, as I pack up at the end of a long day and head out to my car to go home, I’ve started taking the occasional detour to our outdoor worship area – no phone, no inbox, no agenda. Just stillness and quiet.
In those moments of rest, just between God and me, I remember what it is like to be prayed for, as one whose job it typically is to do the praying. In those moments, I experience the presence and the power of the God who prays for me – no words necessary.
It is a beautiful and holy thing to pray for someone else and to be so connected in that web of mutual support within the community of faith.
It is also a beautiful and holy thing to be prayed for, to rest in the presence of the One who cares so deeply for us, indeed to overhear the God who prays for us.