an overheard prayer – a sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter

preachinga sermon based on John 17.6-19 preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, May 17, 2015

What a gospel text! The language flows, like a winding, wandering river, endlessly, seemingly repetitiously, the words falling, perhaps nearly nonsensically, on the human ear. I’m almost tempted to say, “Jesus, you need a better editor!” Or to John the evangelist, “We need a rewrite!” Still, there is a spiritual feast for our partaking, our interpreting, which requires, I think, that we put this passage within its context.

As John the evangelist tells the story, Jesus soon will die at the hands of religious and secular authorities that fear him and his radical, counter-cultural, anti-institutional message of love and justice for all. He gathers with his friends. Eats his last meal with them. Washes their feet. A sign of his life of service among them and an example for them to follow.[1] Gives a final instruction, a new commandment. Not love your neighbor as yourself. At best, an egoistic, self-focused endeavor. Rather, “Love one another as I have loved you”[2] without condition or constraint. Recognizes and empathizes with their sorrow at his departure, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”[3] Offers a last will and testament, promising to be with them (more greatly, more truly than in mere mortal flesh) eternally, spiritually, “I will ask the Father to give you another Advocate to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth.”[4]

praying handsHaving said and done all there is to say and do, Jesus, standing at the threshold of the valley of the shadow of death, now prays to God. First, for himself that he will be true to his chosen destiny.[5] Then for those he loves.

It is here, in today’s gospel, we arrive on the scene. We encounter Jesus on this next to last day of his life in a solitary moment of prayer. Out of respect, we might retreat. But somehow we sense we are being asked, urged to stay and invited to listen. It’s like walking into a room and hearing our beloved talking aloud. Realizing that this is a private moment, we feel like intruders. But our beloved, undisturbed, welcomes our presence, continuing to speak. In this same way, Jesus wants us to hear his prayer, for he prays for us, we who would dare follow him on a life’s journey of love and justice.

What does Jesus pray? In effect, “Now, I lay me down to sleep, to die, I pray you, Lord, the souls of all I love to keep,” interceding, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world…Holy Father, protect them.”

Protect? From what? The world. Why? Because the world isn’t a safe place.

The Greek kosmos, translated “world,” means neither earth nor creation. Indeed, we speak tenderly about the former in one of our Eucharistic Prayers as “this fragile earth our island home”[6] and gratefully about the latter in the General Thanksgiving of the Daily Office, praising God “for our creation…and all the blessings of this life.”[7] Rather “world” refers to that repeatedly demonstrable reality that this earth, this creation is a realm where evil dwells. Yes, in our lives on earth, in creation there is joy and happiness and, yes, evidences of love and justice. Yet equally, seemingly often overwhelmingly there is enmity and inequality.

At St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill, where I served as rector before retiring earlier this year, we marked our practice of baptism with an ancient Celtic custom: Shutting the Devil’s Door. A symbolic expression of our intention to protect our loved ones from all evil that can and will bring harm. Yes, an impossible task! Yet in the face of the impossible, there are two inherent, immediate responses. One, throwing up our hands in immobilized despair, saying, “We can do nothing!” The other, with the power and perseverance of faith, hope, and love, saying, “We will try harder!”

So, Jesus prays that we be protected from evil. Again, an impossible task. As Rabbi Harold Kushner reminded us over thirty years ago, bad things do happen to good people.[8] And as we are painfully reminded whene’er caught in the poet’s “fell clutch of circumstance”[9] life isn’t fair.

Yet if Jesus’ prayer is only another sobering aide-mémoire – that all our wishful thinking, euphemistically called hope, expressed in our desires in the face of things beyond our control, amounts to nothing; that, as the universe daily runs its course with no conscious care for us, all our bargaining and begging with God, the fates, the powers that be will not, cannot change a thing – if that’s all Jesus is doing, then we would be well off never having overheard his heartfelt, but impotent intercession. Thank you very much, Jesus, for your kindness, but powerless petitions we have aplenty!

But there’s more. Jesus prays that God not only protect us, but also make us holy: “(Holy Father) they” (we) “do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world; sanctify them” (us) “in the truth; your word is truth.” Praying for our protection, Jesus reminds us that we are vulnerable to the evils in this world. Praying for our holiness, Jesus calls us to be faithful.

Holiness. A state of being in, but not of (being “other” than) the world. Being inspirited, empowered by God’s name and with God’s truth (all that can be known about God and our life in God), so that as Jesus was sent into the world with a word of love and justice, spoken through his lips and shown in his life, then we are to be and do likewise.

The kosmos, the world, in the words of Martin Luther, “devils filled,”[10] remains an unsafe place. So unsafe that there are times when I do not want to know the latest news, which often is replete with new stories of old, ancient, I call them, “-ities” (human inequity and human iniquity, and natural calamity) and “-isms” (ageism, racism, sexism, terrorism). For sometimes the effect of the weight of the world’s woes, paraphrasing Luther, “threatens to undo me,” o’erwhelming me with fresh awareness of my impotence and worse numbing, anesthetizing me to my pain, your pain, everyone’s pain.

So, today, I pray: O Jesus, by your Spirit, protect us. Make us holy that we, in the face of all that can and will bring harm, by faith, will continue to do what we can, where we are, with what we have. And through it all, O Jesus, confirm in our hearts this truth:

A mighty fortress (are You) our God, a bulwark never failing;

(You are) our helper amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing…

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for (You) hath willed (Your) truth to triumph through us…

The Spirit and the gifts are ours through (You, Lord Jesus) who with us sideth:

Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;

The body they may kill: (Your) truth abideth still,

(Your) kingdom is forever.

Amen, amen, and amen.

[1] John 13.1-20

[2] John 13.34

[3] John 14.1

[4] John 14.16

[5] See John 17.1-5

[6] From Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer, page 370

[7] From The General Thanksgiving, BCP, page 125

[8] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981)

[9] From William Ernest Henley’s poem, Invictus

[10] From A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

2 thoughts on “an overheard prayer – a sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter

  1. Thanks Paul for your sermon. I’m sure it was very well received.

    I took a lot from this sermon. The most significant being the fact that I have a long way to go to achieve Holiness, and I doubt I’ll ever get there. But I love feeling protected by Jesus. In fact, I NEED to feel protected from the evils of this world, and even from the wrath of Mother Nature, which at times can also be cruel. This very weekend a weather situation occurred which scared me enough to think that it might be my last evening on earth. But as scared as I was, I went to sleep with the faith that I was protected and that I’d do whatever I needed to do to protect my family too. I believe that my life has been one of doing what I could, with what I had, wherever I was (and even whomever I was with). Whenever my last day on earth does come, I pray that Jesus will be happy with the life in lived. Until then, I’ll keep the faith that He will protect me.


  2. Loretta, I’ve got some good, REALLY good news for you! You – nor anyone else – has to strive to achieve holiness. As a bidding of Jesus in praying to God, holiness is a spiritual state of being granted by God and God alone. So, chill, baby. Nothing any of us has to labor to do, except to receive it. I keep reminding myself of this every (or most every) time I lament how far short I fall from God’s glory or even the best I can be! And I love feeling protected, too. Only thing, though, is that God’s protection, at least as I discern it, does not mean necessarily freedom from my vulnerability from all things, as the prayer says, that “assault and hurt body and soul.” Jesus’ prayer for our protection is a reminder of that, I believe. What divine protection means, I think, is that whate’er befalls us in this life and world isn’t the last word, but rather God can and will redeem the circumstance as God has redeemed us. Again, something I try to hold on to especially when I lament the circumstances in which I find myself. Thanks, as always, for reading and responding!

    Liked by 1 person

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