Pray for me….
How many times do we ask someone, “pray for me,” or “pray for someone I love?”
The good news today I am going to proclaim right up front: Jesus prays for you! If you don’t hear anything else I have to say, hear this: Jesus is praying for us!
Prayer may be the most definitive faith practice we have today! Today’s readings assert that prayer changes things and leads to world-transforming actions. Sometimes that leads us to more questions than answers. How does God respond to our prayers? Do our prayers make a difference in our lives and the world? Does prayer change things? Does prayer enable God to be more active in the world? Yet, we pray.
Jesus practiced prayer. This much we know. And if we are following the way of Jesus, we, too, are called to pray. This prayer is one of the few glimpses we get in the gospels of Jesus at prayer.
But it is difficult, long, complex and repetitive. Which leads me to believe that Jesus prayed much like we do – sometimes with too many words – but in with and under those words is a passionate reaching out to God.
This long prayer is John’s prayer for his friends. As he writes it, he is reaching back probably 40 years to the time when Jesus prayed for him and his disciple friends. It is colored by forty years of living in the way of Jesus. And it is colored by the Holy Spirit, always praying in and through the faithful ones.
John stages his gospel so that what we have here is four chapters of Jesus talking to his disciples and one chapter of him praying. It is often called Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” It is dense theologically, and complex, putting into Jesus’ mouth, the key teachings John is trying to communicate to his church community, to encourage them to keep faithful to the way of Jesus.
So for context, remember that the twelve were no longer together. Those who read this letter never knew any of the disciples, except possibly John. The rest of the twelve are likely dead by the time this is written, most of them martyrs, not unlike Jesus.
So all of this is “us” overhearing Jesus pray for those he loved in this life. Those we all know have suffered martyr deaths, and even John is in political exile. We are overhearing Jesus pray for his friends, to whom all this suffering has already happened.
John is letting his people know that Jesus was not unaware of the suffering they are enduring. Jesus knew the way he called people to live was difficult and dangerous. He suffered with them.
The other gospels also have Jesus praying intensely on the night of his betrayal. The others place the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. So intense was Jesus’ prayer there that his sweat fell like drops of blood down his face. Luke tells us that Jesus knew the little group of his friends would be “sifted like wheat.” For Simon Jesus prayed that after the sifting, Simon would have the faith to return to the community of disciples and to comfort and encourage them.
What John is saying is that when Jesus gave his final instruction to the disciples, when he washed their feet, when he gave the holy meal we celebrate today, he took time to pray for them.
In verse 9 Jesus reminds me of Moses: “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given to me, because they are yours.” More than once Moses reminded God that these were God’s own people and if God destroyed them, it would hurt God’s reputation. They are yours, God, and you need to take care of them. Moses and Jesus, both, calling on God’s character for faithful love. Remember, God!
For what did Jesus pray? We often think of the Lord’s Prayer as the place to go to answer this question. Good plan. It is like a short form of the keys to praying in the Kingdom of God. But this prayer is different. It is where Jesus lets his heart show.
Here Jesus is praying for his life friends, the people he has lived with day in and day out, his posse, the people of his heart and passion. Like the Gethsemane prayer, I have the feeling that he is sweating blood in this prayer. It is not generic.
John’s writing style here sounds like praying I have heard. This prayer sends me back to the times when I have been in long prayer meetings. When we start praying out loud, we tend to pour out whatever emerges from our hearts. Words pour out. Sometimes we repeat ourselves. Sometimes we tell God about the situation. Sometimes we remind God about who godself is. Sometimes the words are not the point. This prayer is like that. It goes round and round, full of emotion, even stumbling over words. John is putting all the passion he feels for his congregation into what Jesus prayed for the disciples.
This time I read this prayer, I am picking up the passion, even more than the content. I am hearing echoes of that passionate praying for specific loved ones.
What does Jesus pray for, in this emotional state?
Keep them in the truth. I have taught them my whole life about how much you love the world and everything in it. That is what the truth is! That is what the law is all about! They will have so many people telling them they have gotten it all wrong. But keep them in the truth!
James Cone, often called the founder of Black Liberation Theology, knew that following Jesus was having courage to do the hard thing. About a year ago, he lectured at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland. Jill Duffield, writing in the Presbyterian Outlook, describes the moment: “He didn’t pull any punches. He said at one point something along the lines that it was a miracle African-Americans didn’t hate white people. Even while people like me were eager to hear his prophetic word, we squirmed a little at the truth he spoke plainly. During the question-and-answer period a white woman shared sincerely her agreement with his points and then said, ‘But what do we do?’ Again, honest, heart-felt, but somehow communicating that perhaps the task was too hard, big and intractable. Cone paused and then said something that will not leave me: ‘You know what you need to do. The question is, are you willing to do it?’” 
Cone echoes what Jesus prays. You know what you need to do. I have taught you God’s truth, and you have accepted and trusted it. But the hard part is to live it. May God give you courage to live!
And so, Jesus prays for us.
Protect them. I have protected them while I have been with them. Now, God, continue to protect them. What we have called them to do is not popular. They will be hated. This world is captive to a spirit alien to God’s spirit. It is animated by a sense of scarcity instead of abundance, fear instead of courage, and selfishness instead of sacrificial love. Jesus — the one who came to bring abundant life, does not run away in the face of danger, and lays down his life for the sheep — offers an alternative spirit and reality. This is the reason the world hates Jesus and will hate those who follow him. So Jesus doesn’t pray that it will be easy, but rather that God will support the disciples amid their challenges and that they will not divide into factions and argue with each other.
Keep them One. Jesus is praying that we be protected from the impact of all that would separate us from our brothers and sisters. Jesus’ prayer of protection is reaching out to encircle us and give us the courage to face life’s challenges with grace and trust. In our polarizing times we need God to keep us from arguing ourselves to death!
Send them. God, you sent me to do your work. It has been the joy of my life! Send them too. They are ready. They can do it. Send them to do what I as one person could not do – to be your hands and feet in the world – Times twelve! Times seventy two! And while you are at it, send all those who hear the truth of love from them. Send them all! Protect them all! Keep them all!
Can you hear the passion of this prayer? It takes me to the moments in this sanctuary when we have the opportunity to call someone to a life of leadership. We gather around physically, reach out and touch the person, touch each other, passing along the Spirit of God who is among us. And we pray. With our whole hearts and souls in that moment. And it changes everything.
Many of you here have sat, stood or kneeled in this place and felt the weight of the community’s hands on your shoulders. They are praying for you, with all the passion of this prayer of Jesus. Keep them in the truth. Protect them. Keep them one. Send them to do your work.
Jesus’ prayer for his followers reminds me of the Celtic practice of “Caim” or “encircling” in which before a journey or facing a threat, a person draws a circle around her or himself as a sign that God surrounds him or her on every journey. Jesus’ prayer is like one of these encircling prayers which both places ourselves in God’s protection and give us courage to face what comes.
Circle me O God
Keep hope within
Circle me O God
Keep peace within
Keep turmoil out.
Circle me O God
Keep calm within
Keep storms without.
Circle me O God
Keep strength within
Keep weakness out
The Mighty Three
My protection be
You are around
My life, my home *
O Sacred Three. 
 Jill Duffield, “What Happens Next?,” The Presbyterian Outlook, May 7, 2018
 by David Adam, a former vicar of St Mary’s Church on Holy Island,