Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
That They May be One
Lord’s Prayer, a three week series on the Lord’s Prayer(s) in Matthew, Luke, and John.
Week 1 of 3, preached September 12, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship
It's our last week in a three-week sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. Two weeks ago, we heard Matthew’s version, the one we are most familiar with. I invited us to unlearn the Lord’s prayer as the perfect, or greatest, or best prayer ever, and to see is as a beginner’s prayer, a training wheels prayer. Jesus knows many of us never learned to pray and are too self-conscious to pray honestly and authentically if in front of others. So he sent us home to be alone with just God, and to use this prayer to get us started.
Last week, we heard Luke’s shorter version, and we picked apart word by word, phrase by phrase, the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s. My hope was to give us plenty of room to pray with words that feel right and fit what’s going on in our lives. The goal in prayer is not to say the right words in the right way in the right order with the right reverence. The goal of prayer is naked honesty, vulnerability, and openness to God and with ourselves. I hoped, for the rest of the year, you will find some way to shift the Lord’s Prayer every time you say it or sing it so it matches you that day, that moment, just a bit better.
Today, we hear a different Lord’s Prayer. There’s this place in John where Jesus prays and we get to hear. Jesus has washed the disciples' feet and given them a new commandment… to love God and one another. He has foretold his death and imagined their betrayal. He has announced his departure and promised to send them Holy Spirit. He has warned them of the difficulties of being in the world and begged them to abide in him always. Then, Jesus turns his attention to God, and prays, prays to God, prays out loud so the disciples can hear.
Scripture John 17:11-26
11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that[b] you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost,[c] so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.[d] 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.[e] 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,[f] so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Sermon So They Become One
Many Sundays, after we pray our corporate prayer of confession, and then our silent personal prayers, I stand at the baptismal font, and remind us Christ died for us, rose for us, reigns in power for us, and prays for us. Christ prays for us? How often has that little phrase slipped right past without much thought? Today’s scripture doesn’t let us look past the phrase, Christ prays for us. At the critical moment between Jesus’ life with the disciples and the impending reality of Jesus’ death for them, Jesus is praying for them, for us.
Now, prayer is a symbol of a relationship with God, and since no two people are the same, no two relationships with God are the same either. Therefore, no two authentic ways of praying with God are or ever will be the same. To box prayer into a specified form or method would be to deny the unique creations that we are, and to deny the unique relationships we are each being called into with God.
With that in mind, we look at this one prayer, one moment in time, between one person and God. Now, the person praying is Jesus, so we can trust that this prayer is authentic. We are not looking at it to copy it, to copy its vocabulary, or its message, only to see its unique way of expressing a deep, authentic, loving relationship, and to imagine ourselves praying as authentically.
First, what kind of prayer is this? I think of prayer in three categories; private, personal, and public. I find most people only comfortable with one form of prayer, private prayer, just between them and God. Most are not as comfortable with personal prayer, where we pray with and for other persons out loud in their presence. I think of personal prayer as the type that might be said in a hospital room with a family, or a small group after the lesson, or in a home after a hard conversation. For some reason, even those who have faithful authentic private prayer habits are often not comfortable with personal prayer. Public prayer is when we pray out loud on behalf of a larger group. I think of public prayer as prayer in worship, at a wedding or funeral, a prayer at a ball game or festival, at a political rally or on a YouTube channel or podcast.
This prayer of Jesus is not our most comfortable style of prayer. We know he did spend private time in prayer with God, but those thoughts and words are hard to write down, and if they were, they wouldn’t be private. So what kind of prayer is this?
Is it personal, where he is praying out loud with and for a person or small group of persons? Yes, this is a personal prayer. His prayer is out loud. His prayer is clearly a conversation with God, and he’s also speaking things to God out loud for the disciples around him, knowing and hoping they are listening.
Is it a public prayer? In public prayers, we are aware others who may not consider themselves our brothers and sisters are listening. So yes, this is also a public prayer. Beyond the circle of disciples were surely some servants, women, spouses, children, the landlord of the home, who knows… others who did not think of themselves as Jesus’ disciples. When Jesus spoke about these he had been given, or these he was sending into the world, they were sure Jesus was talking about somebody else. But notice, none of Jesus’ words exclude them. Jesus’ voice carries and lands on them. They might judge themselves as not one of his, and not being addressed by his prayer. But Jesus doesn’t exclude them in the prayer. In a way, Jesus includes them by speaking it so they too can hear.
This prayer circles around and around. Let me try to summarize. Jesus prays to God, to no one else. Jesus repeatedly prays about three different audiences… those that he was given… those who believe or will believe in him because of what the disciples will do and say… and the rest of the world who will witness all this. His message? You, Father, are in me and I am in you… let all these you have given me be in us and united as one, so the whole world might know and believe you and I are love and love them all. That is Jesus’ message at this critical moment, and he chooses to say it through prayer.
Prayer is honest, truthful, hopeful conversation with God. His prayer mentions those who are special to him and leaves room for others. He encourages and believes for them how they are special, and he imagines great things will come from them. He speaks of their unity and dreams of a world motivated to be united and to see and believe in love. That is what Jesus wanted to say to God at his end, and that is what he wanted the disciples, and even us, to hear before he left.
What would you say, if you only had moments? Who would you say it to? Would you say it privately, or would you say some of it out loud so those you love, and others nearby might hear? How would you say it… as a final bit of wisdom or advice, as an apology, or maybe as a prayer?
I wasn’t raised in the church. I don’t have deeply ingrained images of how people do, or don’t, or should pray. Prayer for me, not by choice but by circumstance, was birthed as a personal, desperate, intimate communication with an invisible higher power.
In Jesus’ prayer today, he starts several sentences with “Abba” that we translate as “Father.” But it doesn’t mean saying Father at the beginning or not is a right or a wrong way to start a prayer. It’s not about how we start, but that we start a prayer with God.
Some years ago, I had a man approach me and ask me, eh… more like challenge me why I didn’t pray in Jesus’s name. He said, "the Bible says to always pray in Christ’s name if we want our prayer to be answered." He’s referring to John, Chapter 14, where Jesus says… “14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” It’s why, very often, people close their prayer with, “In Jesus’ name…Amen.” Many have been trained to pray that way.
I wondered with him for a moment if people who prayed for victory over their enemies in Jesus’ name were honoring Jesus by using his name, or hurting Jesus by using his name in vain when Jesus said, “love your enemies.” I wondered with him… if Jesus’ name is an essential ingredient to prayer, then why does Jesus say in Matthew 7… “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy/pray in your name…?” 23Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; get away from me.” Using “in Jesus’ name” or not, doesn’t necessarily make a prayer right. It’s not about which words or phrases we do or don’t use in prayer, but that we prayed honestly with God.
Some think prayer is best left to the professionals. If Caitlan or I am in a group, they will ask us to pray. I think that’s because there is a risk to prayer. Jesus’ warned about this when he told the disciples in Matthew 6, “whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; they love to stand and pray in the sanctuaries and at the public places, just so they can be seen by others.” What Jesus is saying about prayer is to never let it stop being real, personal, vulnerable, even if others are listening. Don’t pray for show, for appearance or acceptance or approval. Don’t pray to satisfy or impress others, so that they will like us, or not get upset with us, or think “wow, he sure is tight with God.” Jesus’ advice was to practice praying in private until the relationship is stronger and more sincere. Then bring your prayers into groups and public places so the whole world can see your true, authentic relationship with God, who you really are with God. That’s what changes the world. Authenticity. Honesty. Trust. Love, with no secrets, and despite all scars.
I now think of not growing up in church as a gift to my prayer life. I wasn’t shown or taught the right words or the right way to pray. Prayer was allowed to grow and develop as any relationship would, through conversation, questions, listening. From those awkward early moments with someone I didn’t know at all but thought I might want to know, through the shallow moments where everything was easy but only surface level, through the disagreements … fights when I felt like I barely know God and wondered if I even liked or could trust God, to deeper moments when I am given the gift of realizing, in prayer, that the one on the other side of this conversation knows me better than I know myself.
Maybe that’s why we don’t like prayer. We can say we don’t know how. We can say we’re afraid that we might say the wrong thing. But prayer shows us, and anybody else listening, who we really are, and what our relationship with God is really like. And if we don’t have a regular conversation with someone, then we don’t really have a relationship with them. Prayer is frighteningly revealing and vulnerable, and that’s a space many people would not choose over the supposed strength, safety, and security of our secrets.
I beg you all, pray. Sit down and pray, often enough where you are more comfortable doing it, and more comfortable saying to others you do it. Say things to God that are terribly honest. Say whatever you need to say. Then spend time listening and asking questions. After a while, you might be called on to pray in a group, or with a friend. Speak to God out loud with that friend or with that group listening just as you have practiced alone, with authenticity, honesty, transparency. Let them see the intimacy of a relationship that is just starting, or just starting over, or is well seasoned and has withstood the test of time and is still loving, forgiving, challenging, and exciting… that my friends is what will change the world. That is prayer.
May all glory and honor, now and forever, be to God and God alone. Amen.
And now, blessing laughter and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the world turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.