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  • alisonwale



I have read this passage from John many times…and every time I think “Really? Did Jesus really pray like that? “I mean, it’s so long, and complicated and twisty-turny, with all that wordplay on being in the world, and of the world and not in the world. And what did the disciples make of it all? If somebody prayed like that during our prayers of the people I’m sure I’d be lost within seconds. And I can’t help wondering if, during this prayer, the disciples were catching each other’s eyes and mouthing “What the ---?”

A long time ago, when I studied the writing of the gospels, I learned that the Gospel of John was written quite some time after the death of Jesus. The first to be written was probably Mark’s, or maybe Matthew’s gospel, around 30 years after Jesus’ death, then came Luke, and finally John’s Gospel written between 80 – 95 CE. And it is likely that John’s Gospel was not written as a biography of Jesus. Rather, John’s Gospel serves a practical apologetic function – to defend central tenets of Christian belief against heretical doctrines or ideas that threatened it at the time of writing, and against a church which had maybe started to forget what Jesus had really been about.

So, therefore, this prayer of Jesus, sometimes called the “High Priestly prayer” is probably not the exact words that were spoken. After all, can you remember the exact words of a conversation you had last week, never mind 50 or 60 years ago?! What John is trying to do is to encapsulate the essence of what Jesus prayed for when he was with his disciples for that last meal together, and also to link this to what the early church needed to hear at the time of writing. And, I fear, what the church of the 21st century needs to hear.

I think the most important thing to hear is that Jesus prayed for his disciples – and that’s not just the twelve who were gathered in the upper room, but for all the followers to come. When you pray for someone, you are saying “I love you and I care about you, about what happens to you” And this is what Jesus was doing here. It doesn’t matter what his exact words were; what matters is that he cared enough, on the night before he was crucified, to bring his friends and followers, both those sitting with him, and those to come, to his Father in prayer. He was showing love and concern and care for these people. For his disciples, for the church throughout history and today.

So, as he held those people to his Father in prayer, what did Jesus pray for?  He prayed for Unity. We heard it in the words: Holy Father, keep them in your care, So that they will be united just as we are. Jesus was at one with God. And he prayed that his followers would be united in the same way. At the time of writing there were different groups saying different things about Jesus, and this threatened the early church. Don’t we see the same thing in the church today, with myriad denominations, all thinking that they have the “truth” and everyone else has it wrong, in varying degrees. This causes controversy, as we find those things that the other group has “wrong”. But if we focus on what unites us – the love of Jesus – then we become as one. Unity – not tolerance – is so important. If we tolerate someone, we don’t see their good side, their beauty and value. We must look on our fellow Christians with love, with eyes that see their value and their beauty.

So, at the beginning, Jesus has prayed for a united group of followers. With the words Make them pure and holy through teaching them your words of he also prays for a holy church. This is the complicated part, where the words centre around being in the world but not of it, and not belonging to the world. He asks that the church should be sanctified – set aside for God’s use. The early Christians had found out, by the time John’s gospel was written, what this meant: they were rejected, they were refused entry to synagogues, they were being hounded by Romans and Jewish authorities alike. And what does this mean for the church today? If we are in fact a “holy” people, we are set apart from the common culture. Our lifestyle should challenge, even at times reject, what many consider popular, acceptable, or true. As Christians, we should abhor the culture that implies that affluence, style, and class are valued more than servanthood and stewardship. In our time and place, as well as in the earliest church, we, as followers of Jesus are called to centre our lives in God’s words of love and justice and peace.

We have seen that Jesus prayed for his church to be one, and to be holy; he also prayed that his church would remember his teaching and his life. With the words I have told them many things… I have given them your commands we hear John reminding the church of his time to think back, to remember what they have heard of Jesus, the very truths that allow them to claim identity. And he calls us to do the same: remember that his calling is the calling of the whole church; his mission is the mission of the whole church.

 When I first came to France, I attended the Eglise Reformée in Thiers. My French at the time was terrible, but I could follow the service, because there was so much in common with the liturgy we use here at ChristChurch, & that I had used back in the UK; if we went to a service in a Baptist church, a Methodist or Roman Catholic church, a Pentecostal and Evangelical church even if we don’t feel comfortable with the style of worship, we still hold the essential truths in common,  that Jesus lived as one of us, and died, rose again and ascended into heaven. That he commanded us to love as he loved us. These are the broad truths that hold us in common, that make us one, that bind us into a catholic church. Not a Catholic church, but with a small “c” – a broad church, with beliefs in common with all.

And finally, in the words that Jesus says As you sent me… I send them John reminds the early believers that they have been sent into the world. Around the time he wrote the gospel, there was an increase in mysticism and monasticism, in what we might term “navel gazing”. Being concerned with one’s own inner spirituality, forgetting that Jesus’s ministry was deeply concerned with other people. Yes, he did sometimes withdraw into solitude, but he always returned into the hurly burly of life, renewed and regenerated. He came to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, not to sit in a cave and consider everything from afar.

As Jesus prayed for his followers, he used the expression “I send them” This is a dynamic verb; it is not static. In fact, the Greek word used for being sent is the verb apostelein. Apostle means “one who is sent out.” The disciples were sent into the world, the early church was sent into the world, and the church today is sent into the world.

One preacher says We have become, in many senses, a sedentary Christianity. Couch-potato do-gooders! In some very real and physical sense, this is true. It is easier for affluent Christians to make a donation, buy “stock” for a youth event, pay for a new communion set, etc. It would be good for our buns, and our whole body, if we found more active forms of stewardship—working on the church grounds, serving as a counsellor at a retreat, canvassing the neighbourhood, or delivering meals on wheels. However, our text is thinking of far more than that. The ingrown Johannine community is remembering how easy it is to stay at home. They are being reminded that Jesus himself had sent out his followers, and now he was sending them too.

So we can see that the rather complicated words of Jesus’ prayer, as written in John’s Gospel are not meant to be a literal recounting of the words spoken in the upper room. Rather, they are John’s way of reminding a church threatened by insularism, by disunity, by being concerned with more secular concerns, of what Jesus wanted for them. And, in turn, what he wants for the Church today. He wants that church to be “one holy, catholic and apostolic church”.

Hang on…don’t we say we believe in that one holy, catholic, and apostolic church every Sunday, when we recite the Nicene creed? Indeed we do. We affirm that we believe in this – we believe that Jesus’s prayer will come to be and that we are a part of this mission.

And remember that Jesus’s prayer wasn’t reserved just for his disciples then, or just the early church, or even just the worldwide Church today. Jesus prayed for Christ Church, Clermont Ferrand – that we might be united as one, that we might be holy, that we might remember that Christ’s mission is our mission, that we have been sent out.  But even more amazingly, Jesus, the son of God, prayed for me, Alison Wale, he prayed for Lee, for Catherine…for each one of us here. Individually. Because we are as important a cog in the Kingdom of God as any of the first disciples. We are his, as much as they were his, and we are as valued and loved as they were.

So, I pray that it will be that every time we say the Nicene Creed, and those words “I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church” we remember that this is what we are called to be a part of, and what Jesus prayed for on our behalf. And when we say Amen at the end, we are saying “So be it.” Or “May it come to pass”. In that word we are committing ourselves once more to the work of the Kingdom, united, holy, and ready to go out into the world.


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