Mr. Smith was in pain, and he was scared. He had diabetes, and had not kept up well with the treatment. He had a wound on his foot that was not healing, and the pain from it was shooting up his leg and right into his chest. Though the doctors said that it was not his heart, that his heart was not in danger, he was still scared about that pain. As I sat at his bedside talking to him, a wave of pain would come over him. He would stop talking, blanch, and tears would leak from his eyes as he tried not to cry out. He was a proud man, but he was in pain, and he was scared. He was also angry. No one seemed to be able to tell him why the pain was so bad. They wanted to put him on an anti-depressant, which they said would help the pain, but he insisted he was not depressed and would have nothing to do with it. To make matters worse, he was an African-American man in a hospital where everyone around him was white. The doctors, the nurses, the social workers, the administrators, even the chaplain, were all white. He was out of his element, far out of his comfort zone, both physically and culturally. He worried that he was being treated poorly because he was black. He thought that maybe they wanted to give him the anti-depressant simply to shut up his complaining, so they could get him out of their hair. He was in pain, he was scared, he was angry. I tried mostly to listen to him, hoping I could find some guidance, something that would help his nurses and doctors show that they were on his side. Something that would draw people together, so that they could work as a team, patients and providers, toward a solution. And one day, it came. I asked him, “would it make a difference to you if you knew your doctors and nurses were praying for you?” “All the difference in the world,” he said. “All the difference in the world.”
On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus did a lot of things. He washed the feet of his disciples. He named his disciples as his friends and gave them a new commandment, that they love one another as he had loved them. He took bread, blessed it and broke it and gave it to them, and established a new covenant in his blood, shed for all people for the forgiveness of sin. And today we hear about another thing that he did on the night in which he was betrayed. He prayed. You’re probably more familiar with a different prayer recorded in the gospels on this night. In the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, Matthew, Mark, and Luke have told us, Jesus went and prayed by himself, while his disciples waited. And his prayer in the garden, his earnest, blood-sweating prayer that night was, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” In the book of John, there is no prayer in the garden, only an arrest. The prayer in the Book of John happens here, while the disciples are gathered around the table, having just had their feet washed by their Lord. In this Gospel account, Jesus prays, not by himself, but aloud and in the midst of the disciples. And he prays for you.
Jesus knows better than anyone, I suppose, what it means to live in the world. He knows that the world is a hard place to live, painful and bitter, and often quite cruel. In the book of John, whenever you see the word “world,” what it’s talking about is not some split that equates everything in the world with evil and everything spiritual with good. That’s not where John is, because that’s not where God is. God created this world, and saw it and called it good. God entered this world, became a part of this world, became human. This is not the act of a God who despises this world, or equates this world with evil. Yet Jesus’ prayer here seems to place this world and God as opposites somehow. “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world,” Jesus says. Twice. What does he mean by this?
The world, in this prayer, and in all of the Book of John, is the word that John uses to talk about the things that would push God out of our lives. We might say that the world here is referring to “worldly” things. It’s not that all of creation stands in contrast to God, that everything solid and sensual and touchable is contrary to God. Though you’ve probably heard that interpretation before. But that’s not what this is about.
This word, world, is about all of the powers that you encounter in your life that would draw you away from God. It might be something concrete and tangible, like structures of power and greed, and the longing to fulfill ourselves by loving things and using people. It might be something less easy to identify – a feeling of loneliness and alienation that drives us out of community; the indiscretion of gossip and complaint that drives wedges and divides communities; the affliction of mental illness, disease, addiction; the fear of a man whose life has been plagued by racism, who now faces overwhelming pain, pain made worse by his circumstances. These are the things that Jesus means when he uses the word “world” in the Book of John. These are the things that each of us encounters in our daily lives, the things that distract us from God’s purpose for us, that turn us in on ourselves, rather than outward to God and our neighbors. So when we are in the world and not of it, when the disciples and Jesus do not belong to the world, this is where we find ourselves as disciples of Christ, where Christ found himself. In the middle of the suffering, in the midst of the brokenness, and yet not controlled by it, not ruled by it, not identified or determined by it. Instead, what we are identified by, what we are determined by, is the prayer of Jesus Christ, who on that night two thousand years ago, prayed for us. For you.
Because this is the same one who, though the world did not know him, the world that would draw us away from God, the world that would come between us and God at every opportunity, though that world rejected him, still, God so loved that world, God so loved the God-hating world, that God sent this one, this Jesus, the Son of God, into the world, for the sake of love. And just as God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us. Not to leave the God-hating world, but to love it. We are called and sent into it, we are called into it to break boundaries; to tear down the walls between ourselves and the world; to stand in the breach between what is and what ought to be; between the here and now, and God’s promised and preferred future; and that can feel like a lonely call. And so Jesus prays for us – “I am not asking that you take them out of the world,” he prays, knowing how much the world needs the Body of Christ, how much the world needs you. “but I ask you to protect them, to sanctify them, to make them one, to remind them of who is praying for them.” Because it can feel like a lonely journey, and knowing that you are not alone, knowing that there are others in this with you, that even your Lord and Savior is praying for you, that makes all the difference in the world.
I’d like to ask you to take a moment and consider how Jesus is praying for you. What is it that you would ask Jesus to pray? What boundaries within yourself would you ask Jesus to break, that would enable you to answer that call? Patience to be a better friend, parent, spouse? Courage to stand up to those who would tear others down? Joy in the face of loss? Hope in the face of discouragement? Companionship at a time of loneliness? Healing of mind, body, spirit? Forgiveness? The ability to forgive? What would you ask Jesus to pray for? Take a moment, and write it down on one of the cards you received with your bulletin. Take that card and tuck in your wallet or your purse of somewhere, so that you can pull it out over the next week or two, to remind yourself that Jesus is praying for you. And then, if you would like, take the other card, and write it down again, and place it in the offering plate as it is passed. I will collect these and pray through them each day this week. You can put your name if you like, but you don’t have to. If you would like others to pray for this, make a little note there on the card, “Please share,” and I will share this prayer request with the congregation. Praying for one another is at the heart of the Christian community. Whether and how we pray for one another makes all the difference in the world.
A few years ago, one of my best friends sent her son off to college at Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, MN. He had only been in there a few months when, on his 21st birthday, they went to worship at a nearby church. As they left the service, they stopped to shake hands with the pastor, and shared that it was his birthday. As it turned out, it was also that pastor’s birthday, and they shared a hearty handshake over that. And then the pastor said something that struck them and stuck with them. He said, “Happy birthday. I pray for you every day.” Well, they had only just met, so they asked what he meant. He replied, “I have prayed for you every day since you were baptized, because I remember all the baptized in my prayers. So I have prayed for you each and every day of your life.” They were moved by his words, and carried them with them as they left. My friend was so struck that she shared this story with me. It meant a lot to her to know that there was someone there in St. Peter praying for her son, when she was over a hundred miles away. Already, that thought made all the difference in the world. But the reality of what it meant came home for them a few months later, when her son had a psychotic break, one that was painful and confusing, the worst moment of their lives. She rushed to St. Peter to be with him, to help him find help, and found none. There was no assistance from the police, who wanted only to accuse. There was no assistance from the school, because it was spring break and no one was available. It was the middle of the night, the weekend; everything was closed and they had nowhere to turn. And then they remembered that there was someone. Someone who had been praying for her son every day of his life. And when they called, he answered. He met them at the church, gave them a safe place to sit and think and pray, gave them the space and hospitality and grace that they needed to get through that first frightening night, until they could get the help that they needed. By Monday, her son was in the care of good medical professionals and beginning his journey into a new normal. But that night, when they had no one else to turn to, it was the prayer of a stranger that made all the difference in the world. It was the prayer of a stranger that turned him into a friend, a refuge in the storm. It was his prayer that echoed the prayer of Jesus, that we might be made one, that the boundaries between us might be brought down, that we might be defined by our unity and not by our divisions. This is the prayer that Jesus prayed for you, for me, for us, 2000 years ago, and that Jesus continues to pray for us today. It is echoed in the prayers that we pray for one another, that draw us into community, as we participate in the unity that God has already accomplished for us in the prayers of Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. And these prayers make all the difference in the world.