We’re back in that Upper Room. The candles on the table have burned down considerably. The smell of the bread, and the roasted meat still linger in the air. In the corner lie the basin and the bowl Jesus had used to wash their feet.
Judas has gone out from that place to begin the plan he has cobbled together in his mind hoping for God knows what, and, our Gospeler tells us, “It is night.” The sun has gone down, and in Jewish custom even now, the day has changed. It is now Good Friday.
In the midst of that flickering light on the table, the disciples linger with Jesus. They can feel the comfortable warmth of the room, their stomachs now content, they remain there with him. They want that moment to last as long it can because they sense deep down in their bones that something is not quite right. That some greater drama has begun to play out. That unsettling keeps them close to the table with Jesus, and they nestle in.
[callout]A sermon based on John 17:6-19.[/callout]
And he begins to speak. He gives them, they realize later, his final teaching. He tells them that it’s only a little while before he will leave them, but they aren’t to fear because they already know the way. Thomas responds that they haven’t a clue either where he’s going or the way there. “I am the way,” Jesus tells them, “and the truth, and the life.” And then looking around at these group of disciples that have traveled with him for the past few year, he tells them, “Love one another as I have loved you. This is how they will know that you follow me, if you love one another.”
His teaching ends in that shadowy flickering light, and Jesus, before heading out into the darkest night of his life, takes a moment to pray. His custom had been to go off in the early moments before dawn to pray alone to his Father, but on this night, in the comfort of his friends, he offers intercessions. Rather than focusing on himself with all he knows is to come, he prays for something else.
“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” “ I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Jesus prays for them.
There is much power in hearing someone praying for you. At a time when “thoughts and prayers” has become cliche and trite, audibly hearing someone offer words to God on your behalf or on behalf of someone you love can flood your soul with healing power. In that moment, you no longer feel alone, but supported. That you can let go of the burden you’ve been carrying for at least a little while, and let your shoulders—which you didn’t even realize had been raised and tight—drop. In that moment of prayer you feel encircled in love, by the one praying for you, and by God.
Jesus’ final act in the protected space of that room is to offer intercession for his disciples. That they might be able to continue in the words and teaching and way of Jesus. That they might not be overcome by this world. That they may be protected from the world because they remain in it.
“Protect” strikes me as one of the most important words in this prayer. “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me.” I am reminded of Jesus’ lament over the city of Jerusalem—How he wanted to gather up the people of that city as a hen gathers up her chicks under her wings when the fox comes lurking around the coop. She was going to keep those little ones safe even if it cost her dearly.
I imagine many a mother—and father—has uttered a prayer with that word in it too for their chicks. When the kindergartner steps on the bus for the first time. As the sixteen year old heads out the door with the shiny new keys in hand. Or the college years when the choices of what to do become their own, or when the boyfriend who seemed like a real gem breaks up with them, or any number of things lying in wait to prey on the unsuspecting out there in the darkest parts of the world or the internet. As parents we know that prayer only to well, and we can hear the depths of it from Jesus’ lips. Because he knows he’ll no longer be present with the disciples as he has been, that he won’t be in this world that can be so very hard to live in, but his disciples will. “Holy Father protect them.”
And then Jesus says something rather astounding, “I am not asking for you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” Don’t remove them from this world that can at times crush their souls, but please protect them. Keep them safe from the one who seeks to tear them from the love of God. “For,” he prays, “I am sending them out into the world.” Sending them out into the place where so much darkness exists, where it is hard to find those willing to accept the light that he has brought. Where it is night.
Can you imagine hearing Jesus pray this prayer over you? Can you imagine if you were there alongside Andrew and Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot and, of course, Peter and James and John. Imagine hearing Jesus pray that you be kept safe, and yet also that you not be removed from the world. That you would be sent out under God’s care among the foxes and wolves even though you look rather enticing, and the enemies will have teeth bared and nerve-wracking snarls.
I wish it weren’t so. I wish we didn’t have to encounter the hard parts of our world. I certainly don’t want that for my children. I’d prefer them not to deal with pain or hurt or the darkness at all, but that isn’t realistic. All of us take our journeys through this world encountering all sorts of unsavory aspects in life. But in those times, when we think all might be lost, or we encounter unfathomable pain, somewhere in that place we experience God. We encounter love. Hope emerges from the most unlikely of places.
How do I know? Because that’s exactly what will happen to the disciples gathered at that table while Jesus prays. They will go out with him into the cool night, the breeze blowing across them as they walk. They’ll be chilled as they try to pray themselves for Jesus, but end up falling asleep as they lean their backs up against a tree. They’ll be there as soldiers come and arrest him leading him to that farce of a trial. And, while keeping their distance, they’ll watch as he is lead away and executed. The grief will devastate them. They will be chicks running randomly no longer having the protection of that mother hen.
But then the most miraculous thing will happen. On that third day, they will experience the unfathomable joy of Easter. Resurrection will happen. They will see just how that prayer of Jesus’ gets answered. While not physically present with them forever, he is no longer dead either. He has been raised and he will be with them in a new way, guiding them and encouraging them and leading them as they share his light with the world.
On that night when he prayed for the disciples, he also prayed for us. We didn’t hear it this morning because of how our reading was picked, but in the next verses Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, bot also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” Those petitions about being protected by God in the midst of the world were for us too. Jesus prayed for us back then, and he prays for us even now.
He never promises us that following him will be easy, that this life of being a disciple will lead us to greatness in the world’s eyes. But he does as the Father to watch over us, and he promises to be with us. To remain with us always so that we can continue to be surrounded by his loving embrace. And so he wants to pray for us, to know how he can preserve us.
What is it that you would have Jesus pray for you today? What one thing would you ask Jesus to remember, to hold for you, to carry on your behalf? Jesus can and will do it; he will continue to pray that you be protected in the midst of so many difficulties in this world, but also that you continue to hope and see love and encounter the joy of resurrection. He is indeed alive, and he will face the darkest of nights with us, shielding us from the assaults of our enemy just as a mother hen protects her brood. Trust in him and the strength of his presence in your life.