“Say one for me!” That’s a cry that priests often hear. “Say one for me!” Sometimes it’s said in jest. Sometimes it’s said in deadly earnest. People want to be prayed for, and if a priest won’t pray for you, who will? Often it is all I can do for people, but I know that it’s important, so if I’m asked to pray, however flippantly, I do.
Praying and being prayed for matters to people, whatever we think prayer is or does, and in my experience it isn’t just the paid-up card-carrying members of churches who value it. Again and again I have found that people who say they have no religious belief or allegiance both pray and appreciate being prayed for. The vigils that spring up spontaneously after disasters, the piles of flowers, teddies and lighted candles , what are they if not signs that people are praying, even if they can’t always articulate who they are praying to or what they are praying for? I often find, too, that people who may never come to church tell me that they pray regularly, in the garden, at bedtime, as they walk the dog. They put those they love into the hands of whoever they feel might be listening. They ponder the mysteries of life. They take time to give thanks for a beautiful view, or something or someone precious to them. The numbers of people at Sunday worship can be a really misleading guide to the landscape of faith. The story you hear in the media is that faith is about to disappear; the evidence on the ground, sometimes literally on the ground in the case of all those flowers and candles at impromptu shrines, says that prayer at least is as important to people as it ever was. That’s why, when people shout out “say one for me!” I take them seriously!
But in today’s Gospel reading there is something far better than my prayers on offer, because in this passage Jesus prays for us. It’s a passage that is sometimes known as the “High Priestly prayer”. Jesus acts here like the High Priest of his Jewish tradition, whose job was to pray for the people of Israel in the Holy of Holies, to stand before God in the most sacred part of the Temple with the needs of the people on his heart. Jesus doesn’t need a Temple, or an official position to do this, though. He is confident that he has his Father’s ear wherever he is.
In this instance, he is in the Garden of Gethsemane; this is the fourth Gospel’s account of the prayer he prayed there on the night before he died, while all his disciples were sleeping. There’s no way of knowing whether this is really what he said, of course – everyone was asleep, and in any case the fourth Gospel was written far too late to be by an eyewitness. But the person who wrote it would have known people who had known Jesus – the Christian community was still small and close at this stage - so it’s reasonable to suppose it reflects Jesus priorities, the kind of things he would have prayed for.
It’s a prayer that’s for others, rather than for himself, for those he will leave behind when he dies. It’s a prayer for people who live in a world ruled by force and fear, where standing out against the powers that be is always going to be costly, as it will be for him, and where the weak and the outcast are seen as expendable. It’s a prayer for people who are about to be hit by an event that will knock them sideways, for people who are facing a cataclysmic threat to their faith and to their sense of security. And so, in a sense, it is a prayer for all of us, because our world, for all its claims to civilisation and progress, isn’t so very different. If you are a refugee or a helpless victim of civil war or terrorism you know that– we have seen harrowing pictures coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo this week to add to those from Syria and Yemen and many other places. If you’re a member of a community that is already dealing with the effects of climate change - floods, droughts, hurricanes - you know that. If you are dealing with a personal tragedy – illness, bereavement, redundancy, homelessness – which has come at you out of a clear blue sky, you know that too. Life is fragile. Health, wealth and security can disappear in a moment. That was true in the time of Jesus, and it is still true now.
So this isn’t just a prayer prayed in a particular time and place, the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before the crucifixion. In a sense it is the prayer that Christians believe Jesus offers continually. Christian tradition says that Jesus “intercedes for us at the Father’s right hand”. This prayer is for all of us as we try to live as Christians in the midst of a troubled world. So what does Jesus pray for us? He prays, according to this Gospel, for three things specifically; that his followers may be “protected from evil”, that “they may be one”, and that they may be “sanctified in the truth”. These are the things which will help them – us – to weather the storms, and more than that, to “have his joy made complete in us” as Jesus puts it. What do these things look like in practice?
Being “protected from evil” isn’t a prayer that nothing bad will happen to us. After all, when Jesus prays it, something very bad is about to happen to him – crucifixion – and the writer of this Gospel passage knew that many of Jesus’ first followers had been killed because their faith too. This isn’t a prayer for an easy life. It’s a prayer that we might deal with the bad things that hit us with grace, without losing our moral compass, without becoming embittered, without resorting to scapegoating others, without scrambling for our own security at their expense. Evil creeps in not because bad things happen to us, but because we don’t trust that God has us in his hands when they do, so we grasp at whatever other straws of comfort and security we can find, however dodgy or unreliable they are.
In a way, the next two things Jesus prays for help us to learn the trust we need. He prays that his followers “may be one”, that they will turn to each other so that they can find the support they need in one another, and the strength that comes from mutual accountability. In times of trouble it’s easy to let prejudice and factionalism take hold, driving us apart. What starts off as a small argument becomes a rift that never heals.
Individually, when life is hard for us, we may hang back from the communities whose support we need because our lives feel like a mess, because we don’t want to be a burden, because we feel we have nothing to offer. It isn’t so, but it feels like that. At the very moment when we need each other most, we withdraw. Jesus knows what he’s talking about when he prays “that they may be one”. We are gifts to each other, lifelines, safety nets. We need each other, and we shouldn’t forget it.
And finally Jesus prays that God would “sanctify us in the truth”, which sounds like a very grand bit of religious mumbo jumbo. Translated into English it is prayer that we would be transformed, that the life of God would grow in us, changing us bit by bit, day by day. Are you the same as you were ten years ago? Twenty years ago? If so, then something’s gone wrong. God calls us constantly to be on the lookout for his presence in us and in the world around us, to listen for his voice, to respond to his challenge, to wrestle with questions, to acknowledge doubts, to learn to love and be loved, so that our faith is bigger, broader, deeper, stronger and more resilient today than it was yesterday. If we’re going to weather the storms we need a faith that’s real, and rooted in our own experience, a faith that makes sense in our everyday live, that helps us make sense of our everyday lives. “Sanctify them…” prays Jesus – “let their faith be real enough to make a difference to them.”
Prayer matters, as I said earlier. Knowing that someone is praying for you gives you strength. But it’s not just we who are praying. The good news is that Christ is praying too, praying for us, just as he did for his first followers on the night before he died.
I find that an awesome thought, but it makes me wonder, “What is he praying for me, for us?” What would we hear if we could listen in?
What would it be like for me to hear him pray “Protect Anne from evil”– insert your own name there!
What evil do I need protecting from? What compromises and temptations threaten my walk with him right now? What help od I need to respond to those threats with grace? What do I need to wake up to?
Or what would it be like to hear him pray “that Seal Church might be one?” What might he be praying for for this church if we could overhear his prayer? Where does he see division in our community, or lack of love, or people hanging back because they’re not sure they’ll be accepted?
Or what change might he be praying for in each of our lives? “Sanctify Anne, Sanctify [insert your name here]…Make her different, make him grow, make their faith be real to them… What growth is he praying for for each of us?
Prayer matters, but when we pray we don’t pray alone. Jesus prays too. He “says one for us”. I wonder what he is praying today for me and for you? And what might we need to do in response to that? Let’s end with a short time of silence to let those questions sink into us, as we listen for the voice of Jesus, praying for us today.