May 28, 2017
My bible calls this passage from John, “Jesus’ high priestly prayer.” I’m not sure what the prayer sounded like to you, or what kind of images a “high priestly prayer” might connote for you, but for me it’s not a great title. When I think of “high priestly prayers” I think of Pope Benedict, the previous Pope, garbed in more layers than you’d think his body could possibly support. I think of higher liturgy than the UCC has ever seen. Maybe there’s a wall of icons and the wafting of incense. I’m not even sure that common people get to hear the words of a “high priestly prayer.” (They are too high and too priestly!)
This prayer from Jesus is anything but that kind of prayer. This prayer is offered at the completion of his ministry. He prays it as he says goodbye to his loved ones, as he prepares for the agony of the cross, as he awaits the culmination of this earthly mission, and anticipates his restoration into pre-existence. It is an incredibly intense moment, and as intense as it is, it is intimate.
Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus is in the father and the father is in the son to the point that the two are one. This is what John tells us over and over again. To know the one is to know the other. And, now as the story shifts and we enter the final descent to the cross and its glorious defeat, Jesus doesn’t ask that God might watch over his friends from a distance; he doesn’t ask that the creator might tip the scales of fortune in their direction; or grant them heaven when they die. He asks that they might share in that oneness too. “I’m asking on their behalf because you gave them to me, and all that is mine is yours, and so may they be one as we are one.” “As you Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” That’s what Jesus prays just a few verses later.
And, that’s Jesus’ high priestly prayer – a prayer that the eternal, infinite, intimacy between God the Father and God the Son might be shared with you and me.
When I hear this passage I can almost hear St. John asking his church, “Do you know what you’ve been given? Are you aware of the precious thing you have? People, please, never forget your divine adoption; never forget that there is so much more, and you have been made a part of it. Never forget how close God is, how good that is, and how much love is poured upon you.”
Church, never forget this because the world will need you to tell it to them.
If you are like me you forget all the time. When I was in San Antonio I saw a hat that said simply, “The Struggle is Real.” I figured that if they are actually selling hats that say that I can’t be alone. One of the speakers at the preaching festival I attended was a recovering fundamentalist and drug addict, who is a pastor and a leader of a church full of people who like her saw both their brokenness and their hope in Christ. Both she and the church are doing great things, and she especially seems to be doing it from a place of refreshing honesty. She spoke about her weekly journey to write her sermon and about the quest of finding not another “should” for church members to add to their to-do list, but rather a new slant on the Good News of God’s love to feed them all. She started off something like this: “I take a peak at the scriptures on Monday, just so I can say that I started. I usually spend most of Tuesday convincing myself that I’m not an atheist.”
My point is that it is pretty common, pretty easy for all of us, even pastors, to forget how sacred it all is, how sacred we all are, just what it is God has given us. We all have our reasons. Maybe it’s mood; maybe it’s malaise, maybe it’s lifestyle, maybe it’s heartbreak, or stress, or maybe it’s not enough of the right kind of activity in your life. For lots of reasons it happens.
That’s why I admire so much (and need in my life) people who know the sacred truth, people who see it, and share it.
My younger sister is ordained UCC and doing some pulpit supply lately. She just preached at a church up in MA after having been on a Gestalt Pastoral Care retreat. The Gestalt program was a pretty powerful piece of my training, and it’s remained so for Sarah who has kept with it throughout her time in ministry. Much of that last retreat covered the notion of energy and the pastor’s opportunity to be aware of energy as she or he meets with people. The movement of energy within us manifests in our bodies’ expressions and even in the space around us. With an observant heart we can inquire about what we see and perhaps lead people into helpful places.
I found that Gestalt often bordered on what may be perceived as a bit wacky. Yet, I also found it to be profoundly helpful and surprisingly grace-filled in many moments that lead to significant healing.
So, there they are, a group of them on retreat and a woman has volunteered to be the recipient of their care. She shares that she is suffering through a difficult time and struggling to heal from her grief. A facilitator leads her into a time of meditation while the rest of the group observes and prays. Here’s what Sarah experienced:
“At one point the retreat leader suggested that she prayerfully invite Jesus to be with her in her grief and to simply notice what he did. She agreed to give it a try and she sat quietly praying while we watched and silently prayed with her. She happened to be sitting in front of a plain white wall, and as I prayed for her and waited for her to finish praying, much to my surprise, I saw a white glow against the wall on her left side. It was tall, in the shape of person, as though someone were standing next to her. After all the discussion around [energy and] auras I thought it was strange that this glow was next to her and not around her. I couldn’t make sense of it, so I simply noticed it and kept praying and watching.
After a few minutes, the woman lifted her head and opened her eyes. The retreat leader asked if anything had happened for her. With an exhale she said, “Wow. When I asked Jesus to come and be with me, he came and stood here next to me” and she lifted her arm to indicate her left side. She continued, “and I leaned on him and he stood there so steady and strong for me to lean on.”
I reconnected the other day with a woman from a former church. I called her because I wanted to be reminded of the visions she used to see when I was preaching. She told me it was the face of Christ right there on the cross. Behind the altar was a white wall with a large wooden cross. She said, “At least, I think it was the face of Christ. It never did anything, but it was there every Sunday. And now, beneath his face I see the face of a very pretty lady.” (I resisted the temptation to feel hurt that she sees more with the new pastor than we me.) I asked her how she experienced these images. Are they a positive thing for you? “Oh yes, I love seeing them. I don’t know what they want, but I think they are wonderful.” …It occurred to me after hanging up the phone that maybe they just wanted to be with her, to be there with the church Christ loves.
I don’t share these as fantastical illustrations of the supernatural, and I admit that not all visions come from a healthy place, but in these cases I trust that they do. I trust that they come to people with eyes and hearts that are soft enough to see what many of us have been conditioned not to see. For me, they are reminders of the truth of a God whom we are prone to miss. A God who is always more present than we know, a God whom we’re apt to see when we pray with one another, or gather our hearts together in worship, or join hands in service, or join minds in study.
I’ve seen it many times: when those who are made in the likeness and image of God come together to practice being the likeness and image of God they also find themselves seeing the likeness and image of God right there among them.