Back to Index

Listen to sermon by clicking here:

When Jesus Prays for You
May 23, 1982

First United Methodist Church of Modesto

JOHN 17:9-16

When Jesus prays for you, for what does he pray? What does Jesus ask of God for you? Not what you want, not if you could have anything in the world, but what does Jesus ask of God for you? The scripture lesson this morning, as recorded in John, is the prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. After the last supper, before he was arrested, tried and crucified, Jesus prayed for the disciples. And I believe the essence of that prayer expresses Jesus’ concern and prayer for you. When Jesus prays for you, what does he ask? 

According to this prayer, Jesus prayed for unity that they may be one. Was he remembering and reflecting upon this odd assortment of individuals he called to be disciples? These disciples were far from united. They disagreed among themselves, they argued with each other, they disagreed with Jesus. They competed with one another for the favored places, or what they called the favored places. Remember how James and John said to Jesus, “May we be at your side, one on the right and one on the left, when you come in your glory to rule the earth?” They even sent their mother to ask Jesus, or perhaps mother did it on our own for her little boys, like going to the school principal and asking for special treatment for her little boys. Can’t just see this mother, “Jesus, when you come in your mighty glory, could my boys be in the favored places?” Of course, they didn't understand what favored places mean. They didn't understand what Jesus’ reign on this earth would be like. They thought it was something to do with military might. There was competition among the disciples. 

And there was criticism. They criticized each other. Do you remember the woman who poured oil on Jesus, very expensive oil, to refresh him as was the custom in that day, and how the rest of those disciples came down so hard on that woman. But Jesus stood up for her as Jesus stands up for all who are picked on. He must have reflected and remembered as he prepared to leave the earth. He must have thought back on the company of his friends, remembering them with affection and all the good times they had together. And now as he contemplates the future, as he contemplates their future, as he contemplates the future of his work, of what he came on this earth to do, as he contemplates that future, he prays in agony, “Oh God, may they be one. May they be united.” 

How he must pray and ache as he looks at this world today—threatened for our very existence by weapons and attitudes so destructive beyond comprehension. Nationalistic boundaries divide us—a little bit of geography that keeps changing and what does it amount to in the long run between Argentina and Britain, or Israel and the Arab nations, divided by nationalism, divided by the color of skin, divided by religion, families divided. How Christ prays that they may be one. 

And how painful it must be for Christ to look at his church, his body that he put on this earth to do his work divided by denominationalism. Denominations aren't bad because we have different attitudes and different expressions of worship. But, it's destructive when we compete with one another, when we're intolerant of one another, when we criticize. How painful it must be for Christ to look at our local church, a single component of the larger church, the First United Methodist Church of Modesto, to look at us  and to see division. How can we expect the world to ever find unity between communism and democracies, between Arabs and Jews, between Britain and Argentina, between Protestants and Catholics when our local church cannot be united in a single, mighty force for Christ? 

When Jesus prays, he prays that we might be united, that we might be united in a single force as the people of God in the First United Methodist Church of Modesto, united in trust, not divided by mistrust and suspicion, but united in encouragement of one another, not divided by negative criticism of each other. All criticism is negative. All criticism is destructive. How Jesus prays that we might be united in encouraging one another, united in a common cause, a common task, a common mission, not divided by petty grievances and pet projects, but united in prayer for one another and not remembering all those hurt feelings from the past. 

In a church as old as this one,120 years-old this year, there were many occasions when people took different sides of causes from yours. There were many occasions when someone said something they wish they could take back and say over again but you can't re-say things, How many times in a long marriage must you forgive and forget? How Christ must pray that we would be united, pray for one another and forget all those feelings—united in love as defined in 1 Corinthians 13:4, “Love is patient and kind. It is not jealous or conceited or proud. Love is not ill mannered or selfish or irritable. Love does not keep a record of wrongs.” I like that! Love does not keep a record of wrongs. If any of you like to keep lists on one another of all the wrong things your brothers and sisters say or do; or if anybody likes to keep lists on ministers, would you please tear it up! Love does not keep lists! When Jesus prays, he prays that we might be united in him, united in his cause, united in his work. 

Why is unity so important? Why is unity so crucial? This prayer and this passage from John gives us one reason. Jesus prayed, “O God, keep them (meaning his disciples), keep them true to your name, keep them safe.” Jesus knows that the struggle in this world is not easy. It's not easy to succeed. It's not easy to be true to God. This is not a friendly world. Jesus said in this prayer the world hates his followers. So we must be united in order to help each other to make it. We need to be united in Christ, in prayer for each other, encouragement of one another, and love for each other—united so that we can survive in this unfriendly world. William Barclay defines “world” as Jesus used it in this prayer, as human society organizing itself without God. All human society is less than what God intended it to be. All human institutions, all economic systems, all governments are less than what God intended them to be. 

The subtle temptation is for you and me to give ultimate loyalty and obedience to human society, to this culture in which we live. It is tempting to give our commitment to an easy life of materialism as so many do around us. It's tempting to sell our souls to consumerism, to the accumulating of things. It's so easy, it's so tempting to sell our souls to our country, to be such good loyal Americans that we fail to recognize the errors of our country and fail to recognize the good that is in other nations. It is so tempting to sell our souls to the Pentagon out of fear, and place our trust in weapons rather than keeping a saner perspective on the wider picture. It’s so tempting to sell our souls to pleasure. Time magazine reported an American student screaming at an Iranian student here in the States during the hostage crisis, “Go home, and see if you don't miss booze and sex and drugs.” Highly controlled in the Muslim nations, booze and sex and drugs are the essence of America? How tempting it is to sell our souls to pleasure, or our country, or  our government, or institutions, or culture. Jesus prayed that we might be united for this world is not friendly. We need to stand together to resist the temptations to serve anything and anyone less than God. 

Jesus went on in this prayer and said that his followers do not belong to this world. Do you ever know why you feel homesick, restless and uncomfortable? Because we don't belong here. Our home is not on this earth. Our home is in heaven with God. And while we're on this earth, we never quite fit in. We are never quite at home. If you've ever been in a situation where you feel particularly uncomfortable, the temptation is to be like everyone else, to try to fit in. If you find yourself in a party where everyone is shooting heroin, what do you do? The temptation is to be like everyone else. We never really belong so we are restless and uncomfortable. We try to fill the void with things and other loyalties when only Christ can fill the void. Jesus says we don't really belong here. But, then he prays to God, “I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but I do ask you to keep them safe from the evil one.” Jesus doesn't pray that we might escape. He prays that we might be safe. 

Paul used the expression that Christians are in the world, but not of the world. What does that mean? Some Christian groups dress in clothing of another era to try to be separate. Some Christian groups don't let their women wear jewelry or makeup, trying to be separate. Some try to keep their children out of public schools. Some groups refuse to salute the flag, refuse to give allegiance to their country. But to me, that's all artificial because those people do avail themselves of fire protection and police protection. They drive on the highways, they buy groceries in the grocery stores, they participate in the economic system. Is it possible to remove yourself from life? 

I believe the meaning of being in the world, but not of the world is a matter of worship, of giving your ultimate loyalty. Last week, we saw the delightful musical about Daniel that the kids did so well. Daniel was a citizen of the Babylonian Empire. Daniel was a very good citizen, so good in fact he was a respected official. But Daniel refused to worship the Emperor, refused to give ultimate loyalty to the Emperor. And so Daniel was thrown into the lion's den. 

The Book of Revelation tells us about the beast who rules the world and demands worship. Our fundamentalist friends have a great time identifying the beast in terms of today's world. To me, it is very clear that the beast in the book of Revelation is the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire at the time Revelation was written ruled the world and the beasts were two Emperors— Domitian and Nero. And the mysterious numbers 666, according to many scholars, is a code word for Nero. 

These two Emperors demanded worship, demanded ultimate loyalty of everyone, but Christians drew the line. The Christians were citizens of the Roman Empire, they were good citizens, they enjoyed the privileges, they accepted the responsibilities, but they drew the line at giving ultimate loyalty to the Emperor. And so they were persecuted. The meaning of being in the world, but not of the world is a matter of worship. We sang the hymn,  “Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world's golden store, from each idol that would keep us.” To be in the world but not of the world means that you must never give your worship to anyone or to anything other than God. 

Therefore, the church, you and I, continually stand in judgment on the world. We stand in judgment on our country. We stand in judgment on the policies. We stand in judgment on our culture because we give our allegiance to God and we demand our world to aspire to be the best it can be. As Christians, we stand in judgment, and especially we stand up for people who are mistreated, who are hurt, starved, exploited or victimized. We stand up for people as Christ stood up for people, and therefore that is why the world hates us. That's why the world tries to tries to swallow the church as it has many times in the past. The world does not want to be held accountable to any standards higher than greed and making money. Any government to be sensitive to its people demands that a group of people such as you and I stand up for higher standards, and give our allegiance and loyalty to God. This world is very unfriendly to Christ. 

Therefore, Jesus prays that we will be united so we can survive, that we can be his people, and we need each other's encouragement. We need each other's love. We need each other's prayers. We can't make it alone. When Jesus prays for us, he prays that we might be one.

© 1982 Douglas I. Norris