“Bible and Book of Common Prayer” Printed by Robert Barker ca. 1607. Satin worked with silk and metal thread.
John 17:1-11 New Revised Standard Version
1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you,
2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.
3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.
5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
6 "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.
7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you;
8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.
9 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.
10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
11 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.
Within many Christian faith traditions, reciting the Lord’s Prayer is considered a vital part of regular worship. It can be found in two forms in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In Luke’s gospel, the prayer is prompted when Jesus’ disciples watch him praying one day and ask how to do it.
Today, there are several variants of the Lord’s Prayer, but a standard version goes like this:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
This prayer is often taught to children in Sunday School. As kids learn the prayer, however, they can often create their own variants:
One father remembers his twin girls reciting the prayer before going to bed one night, saying, “Give us this steak and daily bread, and forgive us our mattresses.”
Another parent remembers her child saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, how didja know my name?”
Another parent had to explain that God’s name wasn’t “Howard” when her son prayed, “Our Father, who art in heaven. Howard be Your name.”
There’s really something wonderful about this prayer. After 2000 years, we might say that it has staying power because it hits on core aspects of faith. It is short and concise, announces that God is awesome and that we want that awesomeness to be closer. It petitions God to continue providing the necessary provisions of human life. It prays for reconciliation and the courage to reconcile. And it asks for protection.
Many of us are comfortable praying this prayer and other prayers that have already been written. I continue to return to Pádraig Ó Tuama’s short book called Daily Prayer for morning, midday, and evening prayers. Others might turn to Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, the Hail Mary, 23rd Psalm, or Prayer of St. Francis. Some have remarked to me, however, that praying on the fly, without a script or prayer committed to memory is difficult. When we try to make up the words, it becomes clunky and mumbling. Folks worry that they are doing it wrong by not including all the right parts or a specific beginning and end.
First, I can reassure you that there is a lot of grace in this spiritual discipline. Prayers are not rescinded if the “amen” is left out, or you start with “Hey, You!” Likewise, God listens to the prayers that are selfless and selfish and hears the prayers of all people, saints, and sinners alike.
As far as the content, however, John 17 might help further the graciousness of our prayer lives.
Jesus has wrapped up his farewell discourse, a type of cram session with his disciples before his impending arrest. He then launches into his longest recorded prayer, which consists of all of chapter seventeen. It has given the title the “High Priestly Prayer” because much of the content has to do with prayers of providence and protection for his disciples. Today’s gospel lesson covers the first part of this prayer, verses 1-11.
To be honest, this prayer is a bit of a mess. The first five verses have to do with glory. Jesus rambles a bit about the glory of God while asking God to glorify him now. He throws in something about eternal life as well for good measure. Then, Jesus prays about for his disciples, but describes them as those God has given him several times, I think. After this, he gets to a prayer of protection and unity.
There are reasons why we don’t recite this prayer in worship services or learn it as children. We would need diagrams to help us understand what’s being said. It’s clunky in its wording. “It doesn’t fit well in the ear,” as one of my professors would say of bad sermons.
Perhaps that’s part of the grace imparted in this passage. Sometimes, when deeply troubled and praying on the spot, Jesus also mumbled his prayers, meandered a bit off-topic, and sometimes got lost in the weeds. Even the words of our savior lacked elegance sometimes, and perhaps especially during prayer. It’s a very human experience, after all, to know what to say but have it come out a little sideways.
Nevertheless, with some work, we can figure out Jesus’ prayer. First, Jesus realizes that his life’s work and ministry are culminating in these final moments. Jesus asks God to glorify him now. The word “glory” is something like “weighty, significant, sacred, and powerful.” Jesus will not be just another failed and forgotten rabble-rouser killed by the Roman empire. Jesus wants all of this difficult work and suffering to be remembered and made significant. On the other side of this story, we know that his arrest, trial, death, and ultimately his resurrection will be significant. People will talk about him and remember him and tell stories to their children about him for generations.
Second, Jesus is still worried about his disciples. Even after the cram session, his disciples remain confused, sad, and frustrated with Jesus’ words. If everything goes as Jesus reports, and he is arrested and tried, his disciples will be stuck in the city during a violent crackdown by the Roman Empire. They will be in peril and leaderless. Even after the resurrection, he imagines a harsh world where they will be in danger, persecuted for what they proclaim. “Father, protect them,” is the culmination of verses 6 through 11.
I feel that a switch went off in me this week. For these two months, I’ve longed for the future day when everything returns to normal. At various moments I held out hope that normal life might be a few weeks out or a month out. School would return, and so would jobs and gatherings and the regular cadence of normal life, however hectic. I would be able to get out of my basement office/laundry room more, and everyone would be excited and happy at getting back to life as usual. My prayer was something like, Loving God, deliver us soon and very soon.”
But normal is probably a lot further out then I expected, and the lives we eventually return to will not be the same one’s we halted because of the pandemic. Every nation, community, and person will live differently because of this pandemic. So, my prayer has changed to something like, “Loving God, make this time matter.”
Jesus prays that his suffering matters for something. After his death and resurrection, things do not return to normal. Something has fundamentally changed. His disciples betray him, deny him, scatter, and hide, and are forgiven for it. The use of coercive power and violence, even death itself is overcome. New missions are planned. Disciples become leaders in a new day.
Today, our prayers could echo Jesus’ sentiment. “Make this time during the pandemic matter.” We are learning more each day about inequality in our communities, nation, and world. What new avenues of justice, love, and mercy are being created today to make this world better? As we consider different ways of structuring our lives, what new practices, hopes, and priorities have we identified in the last two months that we will carry with us into the future? How will this time matter in the future?
We can also remember that, when Jesus was reflecting on his own suffering, he prayed for his disciples. He remembered that other people live and suffer too. Rev. Kira Schlesinger writes that
Praying for others puts us in solidarity with those with whom Jesus was in solidarity: the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the forgotten. We pray to remember. We offer intercession to be in communion with them, and we pray for the grace of God to inspire us and strengthen us to be the body of Christ, to make our thoughts and prayers into concrete actions.
Praying for others helps us to be more empathic people. Remembering to be concerned for others during our trials places our experiences in the wider context of a human community. In this community, we can see our own difficulties more clearly and better identify ways to help those who bear the brunt of suffering during this pandemic.
John chapter 17 reminds us that there are no magic words, right words, or even correct word order when it comes to prayer. It’s okay to mumble, ramble, retread, wander, and take a really long time to get to the point. Jesus did it. Nonetheless, he prayed that these moments matter and that his disciples receive a little extra help during their difficulties. That’s a pretty good prayer if you ask me.