There is power in prayers that are overheard, no doubt about it. You know this if you have experienced it.
Perhaps you have been the kind of parents who have taught their children to do mealtime prayers. You grab their little hands in the high chair as they are reaching for the food, reciting “Come Lord Jesus, Be Our Guest…” despite their moans and guttural complaints for food “right now.”
Eventually such persistence and modeling pays off, and the pattern is set. The day comes when the prayers they have overheard from you begin to come from their own lips. Eventually the day even comes when as you are reaching for a roll your child schools you.
“Pray first, Daddy.”
The power in overheard prayer is one that shapes you.
Sometimes prayers overheard move us deeply. You walk past the child’s room and hear them reciting unprompted the “God bless Daddy, and God bless Mommy, and Grandma…”, and at first think, “How cute.”
But if you listen long enough, you catch glimpses into their little lives that you did not anticipate. You hear them pray for something you thought you had insulated them from, and your heartstrings tug. You feel the tear in the eye and the lump at the throat at how trusting they have become, how willing to believe, and you wonder, you wonder where that childlike faith went in you?
Overheard prayers can move you in ways unimagined. They can bring to mind things you thought were long gone and in your past, and bring them right up close again.
Maybe you have been in the hospital, and the pastor, chaplain, or lay visitor has come to prayer for and with you, or for that very ill family member.
At such times as these a person, even a faithful one, can barely put words together. In some circumstances when the news is grim and the prognosis is bleak, you aren’t really sure for what it is that you should be praying. At such times you will tune your ears carefully to hear what that one sent to pray with you has to say. And just what do you overhear them saying? Are they encouraging you? Preparing you with their words?
Overheard prayers often do something to us. The power of the overheard prayer is sometimes one of confirming your own inner thoughts and suspicions.
Sometimes however, the overheard prayer can be the needed boost to regale against the darkness, not allowing us to go quietly into that good, good, night but rather helping us muster the fight and faith needed for this particular hour; this particular situation.
I mention all of this today because on the last Sunday of Easter we always have a chance to overhear Jesus’ prayer. John 17 is Jesus’ last discourse, a long and formal prayer lifted up on behalf of the disciples and it is meant to be overheard.
It’s not my favorite bible passage, partly because it always sounds so “un-Jesus-like” really. It’s rather hard to follow, shifting back and forth between things that what we are supposed to overhear him saying.
But, if you strip away all the “stuff”, the prayer really boils down to just one thing. Jesus is praying for God to protect. He prays for God to protect his disciples, us really, now that he is not in this world (at least not in the same way) to protect us.
Jesus prays for our protection, but then we wonder just what it is that he is asking God to protect us from?
It’s not the world. Lord knows none of these disciples are going to be spared hard times, or persecutions, or the onslaughts of the world in any way. Jesus has been very upfront about that! So Jesus isn’t praying that nothing bad happens to us at the hands of others. Sent into this world, we’re told that the world is going to hate us for being bearers of God’s word.
Jesus does pray however, that we would be “one.”
Jesus says that he himself guarded the disciples in that manner while was in the world, but now that he will no longer be in the world physically, and this matter of “being one” will become more difficult. He says something about us needing protection from the “evil one.” It’s all very confusing, we’re not sure just what to make of this “overheard prayer.” It feels so abstract, so disconnected.
But I think that is because we tend to read or to listen to this prayer in isolation. The prayer makes a whole lot more sense when you put it into the concrete circumstances of history and into our own experience.
In the concrete situation of history, we know that John’s community was a fractured one. “The Jews” that are identified throughout the gospel are not outsiders, they are your neighbors who are being faithful to the Judaism of their day, which did not include going so far as to follow Jesus. These are your neighbors who just don’t share your particular belief. John’s gospel struggles with what you do when your own community is fractured.
In our present day context, it’s little like the most recent Pew Research Center Study on Religion and Public Life. Perhaps you heard about it this past week. The “unaffiliated” have risen by 6.7% in the last decade. These are those who formerly believed and attended church, but who now believe differently, or not so much, or not at all, and who are pulling away from their established religious community.
In the context of John’s Gospel, it is a bit like the followers of Jesus who are pulling away from “the Jews,” those who have their long held beliefs.
In either case, we know what comes next when there is such tension, uncertainty, change and division in a community. This is what we sorely need that protection from God that Jesus prays that we would receive.
The Pew numbers come out, and in my world at least, and in the mainstream media the boards light up with disagreement about what the numbers mean and what should be done about them.
“The Mainline is in free fall! Obsessed with social justice and social action instead of personal salvation! That’s why people are leaving the church!”
“The Catholic hierarchy is corrupt and scandal ridden and has done nothing about it! That’s why people are leaving the church!”
“It’s the fault of the conservatives!”
“It’s the fault of the Liberals!”
“Religion has been too tied to politics!”
“The Millennials have abandoned institutions!”
“The Baby Boomers have held on to their contemporary music and style over substance for way too long!”
“The older generations have been too inflexible!”
“The young people have no appreciation for tradition!”
On and on the drone goes, of finger pointing and hand wringing and accusations leveled against various populations, factions, and demographics.
We are anything but “one.”
And somewhere in the background of all that noise of disciple against disciple, there is this voice of Jesus praying that we would be protected….that we would be one.
You flip through the book of Acts and you see Paul and Barnabas first the closest of co-workers, and then something happens and they are at odds over how to reach the Gentiles, and the split to go their separate ways.
You watch as James and John steer the church in Jerusalem, and regularly call back, (really call on the carpet,) Peter, Paul, Timothy and Titus. They are brought back to be questioned about their tactics as they spread the Gospel in Antioch or to the Greek speaking world. How far is too far, in this matter of grace and freedom?
Stephen is called to take on the task of serving at tables, feeding the poor, so that preaching the good news will not be neglected, but when he oversteps his bounds to actually preach about Christ and him crucified, he ends up being stoned for it, and the stoning comes at the hands of his own community.
And in the background of all of this first century conflict and intrigue preserved for us in the scriptures themselves, if you listen closely, you can hear Jesus praying that we would be protected…..that we would be one…
The Annual Meeting rolls around at any given Christian church, or a Synod Assembly, or a National Assembly, and right after the devotions are given, the hymn is sung and the assembly is opened with prayer; the meeting is summarily handed over to “Robert’s Rules of Order” as per constitutional provision.
It isn’t long before there is tension rising in the room as we encounter factions for and opposed, to this or that, whatever it is. We leave the world of church order to enter political discourse.
Robert’s Rules are designed to protect the voice of the minority, and some personality types figure that out really quickly and so begin to use the procedures they have mastered to guide and cajole and maneuver until their will is done, or what they oppose is thwarted.
It may be all very legal.
It may often even be faithful, and proper, and the right decision in the end; but there are also often bodies left bleeding on the ground in the wake of it, and feelings bruised, and winners and losers and those in the middle; and somewhere, if you listen very closely, during all that earnest concern over constitutions and resolutions, you just might be able to hear the words of Jesus praying, “protect them from the evil one…so that they may be one…”
This overheard prayer of Jesus is hard for us, for what Jesus is really asking God to do is the hardest thing in the world to do.
He’s asking God to protect us from each other, and often from ourselves, for while we are fearfully and wonderfully made and are children of God, we are also quite often our own worst enemies. We turn on each other when things don’t go well, and things often just won’t go well in this world into which we are sent.
We forget that above all the other things that Jesus did while he was with us, all the healings, the feedings, and the miracles; his primary task seemed to be to gather the 12 together, and to hold together his community and remind them above everything else they were called to do, their primary task was to love one another. That was the point from which everything else was to flow.
We get so wrapped up in serving, or in doing, or in our particular doctrine or dogma or belief systems that we are willing to let bodies litter the ground to in order defend our own “turf,” and sometimes we even do so even in the name of God, or of our faith.
This is what the prayer is for. We are meant to overhear it so that it will haunt us, or shape us, or tug at our hearts, or make us regale against our own actions when they have made us forget to do the one thing that Jesus commanded us to do above all us.
“Love one another, by this they will know that you are truly my disciples.” Jesus says earlier in John.
Can you hear the voice of Jesus in the prayer now, for you?