The Power of Prayer
Much of the power and meaning of this text is, for me, due to its location within the biblical narrative. This prayer of Jesus comes between the last supper and the crucifixion, between foot washing and betrayal. As we are aware, Jesus knew what would happen to him in the coming days and he gave fair warning to the disciples, too. He knew that his time on earth was coming to a close and one of the last things he did was pray. He prayed not for himself but for his disciples, for his friends, those whom he loved. “I am asking on their behalf,” Jesus says to God the Father. On their behalf…interceding. This is what we call an intercessory prayer; a prayer not for ourselves but for someone else. The dictionary definition of intercede is “to act or interpose in behalf of someone in difficulty or trouble, as by pleading or petition.” And when we pray to God on behalf of others we are interceding for them. Scripture tells us, too, that when we do not have the words to pray the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf often with sighs too deep for words.
I wonder, if you knew that your days were numbered, what would you pray on behalf of those you love? For your family members, for your friends, what would your prayers for them include? It’s a weighty question, I think. Maybe the answer comes to you easily or maybe you need a little more time with the question. It is remarkable to me that one of Jesus Christ’s last acts on this earth was to pray on behalf of his friends. In that prayer, he told God about them and their faithfulness. He gave thanks for them. And he gave voice to the reality of the challenge ahead for them. I was talking to a friend earlier this week and she asked what text I’d be preaching on. I said, oh you know in John when Jesus prays for the disciples. She said, “Ah, the be with them God cause they’re going to be in for a rough time of it. It ain’t gonna be easy. Help ‘em, Lord. I love that passage.” I had to laugh. I’d been thinking about the power and the beauty of this prayer which are true things but she recognized the honesty and humanity of it. After the resurrection, when Jesus would no longer present with them, the disciples would have a very hard time. Life would not be easy for them and Jesus knew it.
Powerful and beautiful prayers certainly have their place. My shelves, my desk, my floor, my bedside table have all housed books of beautiful and powerful prayers. I love to read or hear a well crafted prayer. I borrow from them and they can help me to articulate some of my hardest to name thoughts and feelings. Our Book of Common Worship is full of prayers, litanies, intercessions. Toward the back you’ll find pages of ancient prayers that have been used for decades. I use them sometimes in the Congregational Life Note and other places. I am grateful to the writers of these prayers just as I am grateful to the writers of the Psalms for putting into words that which I am unable to express on my own. It may be, though, that these well crafted prayers have tricked us into thinking that our own prayers must be eloquent, proper, just so. I want to discourage us from that kind of thinking. People often tell me that they don’t know how to pray and I simply don’t believe that is true. If you can express your thoughts and feelings to God, you can pray. You don’t even have to use words. If you can share your thoughts and feelings with God, you can pray. “Help” is a complete prayer. “Thank you” is a complete prayer. “Wow” is a complete prayer. Anne Lammott wrote a book about this very idea called “Help, Thanks, Wow.” Not necessarily what we may call eloquent prayers, certainly clear, simple, honest. When our thoughts are turned toward God, when we seek connection with God, I believe we are praying. It’s an orientation of our thoughts, feelings, desires, needs. Our worries can be shifted into prayers very easily when we offer those worries to God. Our gratitude can be shifted into prayers very easily when we share our gratitude with God. It’s true of our fears and our hopes, our dreams and our sorrow. All of these things are transformed into prayer when we let God in.
And the kind of prayer that Jesus models for us here in John, the intercessory kind, gives us a chance to bring before God our thoughts, feelings, desires, needs on behalf of others. Every Sunday in worship we practice intercessory prayer. It’s what we call the Prayers of the People and in that prayer, we share our joys and concerns related to others both those whom we know and love and those whom we do not know. We pray for strangers and neighbors alike. Sometimes we do this responsively. Sometimes we gather prayer requests ahead of time. More often than not the pastor or worship leader says this prayer as a representative for the congregation. We pray for the needs of the world, for current headlines, for urgent situations, for those in our midst who we know are hurting, grieving, or sick. We pray for God’s good creation and our stewardship of it. We pray for the congregation and its ministry. We ask God to intercede in difficult situations. We pray for comfort and peace. We give thanks and we lift up our petitions. We do as Jesus did. On Thursdays, I gather with a small group on Zoom to go through the morning prayer service from our Book of Common Worship. The bulk of which are prayers of intercession, on behalf of others. We take turns naming the prayers on our hearts both prayers of thanks and prayers on behalf of others. We offer these things to God and we share in that conversation together.
When we pray on behalf of others, we are placing others in God’s care. It’s not really about outcomes rather it is about being honest with God and sharing all of who we are, our joys, our concerns, our anger, our sorrow. God responds to our thoughts, feelings, desires, needs. God responds to our hearts. We may not be answered as we think we ought to be. And this can be challenging for us. I think, though, that the point of prayer is that it is an act of love. Prayers on behalf of others even more so. That’s what Jesus models for us. Here, Father, are my friends, your disciples, they belonged to you before they belonged to me. They have believed me and believed in me therefore they believe in you. When I am gone, things will not be easy for them. The world will not understand them. They’ll be ridiculed and persecuted. They’ll be misunderstood and questioned. They’ll be shunned and cast aside. They’ll faithfully share my message, though. They’ll continue my work in the world. Protect them, God. Strengthen them and equip them. And as we continue into verses 20 and 21 we see that Jesus not only prays for the disciples whom he knows, he prays for those who will come after, who will receive the message of the gospel from the disciples and continue to share it. On and on the gospel message will spread throughout the generations. Beloved, Jesus is praying for us. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,” That’s us. Before he died, Jesus prayed on behalf of his disciples and he prayed on our behalf, as well.
It may be helpful for us to notice the content of Jesus’ prayer. He didn’t pray that the disciples would be spared hardship. He didn’t pray that they would be wealthy or well. He didn’t pray that they would float through life. He prayed for God to protect them. He prayed for God to be with them. He prayed for their sanctification…that they would be holy and set apart. He prayed for them to be unified. When we pray, I think we often have outcomes in mind particularly when we pray for others. We want those whom we love to be happy, to be well, to be successful, to be healed, to be whole. There is nothing wrong with praying for those things. I hope that when we pray we are honest with God which means we bring our truest selves and our truest desires. The trouble comes when we expect desired outcomes. The trouble comes when we believe that prayers are magic and will fix things as we want them to be fixed. Or we believe that God is some sort of wish granter who will do exactly what we want.
Friends, we know that God’s ways are not our ways. We know that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. We know that God’s vision goes beyond our own. When we go to God in prayer we are trusting God with our thoughts, feelings, desires, needs and we are trusting God with our lives. We are trusting God with the lives of others, as well. God can be trusted. Our Presbyterian Women spent the last year on a study about Lament. In the last lesson of that study, there is a reminder that God is trustworthy. God can be trusted with our prayers. God can be trusted with our lives. God can be trusted with our loved ones. God can be trusted with the church. God can be trusted for God is trustworthy. Our prayers may not be answered in the way we think they ought to be and that does not mean that God is not God or that we cannot put our confidence in God. It means that God is God and we are not. So, why then do we pray?
In Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Ring of Endless Light, you’ll find this exchange:
”Prayer was never meant to be magic,” Mother said.
“Then why bother with it?” Suzy scowled.
“Because it’s an act of love.”
Jesus’ prayer for the disciples was an act of love. Jesus’ prayer for us was an act of love. Our prayers on behalf of others are acts of love. When we pray for another, we are loving them. I believe that’s one reason our enemies rarely stay our enemies when we pray for them. It’s hard to hold onto someone as an enemy when you place the in God’s care. It is hugely important for us to realize that our friends, our family members, this church, even this world all belong to God before they ever belong to us. And when we place our friends, our family members, the church, this world in the care of Almighty God in prayer, it is an act of love.
In the prayers of intercession in our Book of Common Worship there are two questions asked of those gathered in prayer, “For what do we give thanks?” And “For what do we pray?” It’s certainly not the only way to pray though it’s a fairly simple way to start. Jesus gave thanks for his disciples and he prayed for them, as well. He prayed for us, too. What a beautiful way to love.