Were you ever taught how to pray? As a child I remember being told that the way to pray was to be on your knees, usually for some reason beside the bed, and to clasp your hands and close your eyes. This prayer position is the stance many people adopt. There are numerous examples in the Bible of people praying in different modes. Over 200 times in the Bible people prostrate themselves face down, some in prayer others in awe. Hannah, a woman who desperately wanted to be a mother, cried so much, was grieved so much that in her distress appeared before Eli the Priest as though she were drunk, such was her emotional core in this prayer. Prayer has a unique way of releasing wordless messages, of unburdening great weights, of connecting us with the spirit of God who desires to minister to our soul. And this is what Jesus is doing here in this prayer.
In the middle of a story of a week going at a fast pace, Jesus takes time to stop and pray. It’s a necessity not a cumbersome religious act. I remember being told many-a-time by church leaders that if I didn’t keep up my prayer life not only was I not staying in a healthy daily relationship with God, but it would most likely have the affect of me ‘backsliding’. For those of you who have never ‘come to faith’, as in you were once upon a time not a Christian and then made the active decision to ask God to be a part of your life, hence the ‘coming’ part, first of all you’re lucky. If you have always had that positive experience of God in your life I am somewhat jealous. But the move toward God in the ‘coming’ means there was a negative pulling back from God, a lessening of that relationship sometimes associated with the lack of a daily prayer life, which is commonly referred to as ‘backsliding’. I can’t tell you how many times I felt I needed to repent of that sense that because I had not prayed to God in a day or two that I was guilty of backsliding. For me, looking back, I see the stupidity of allowing myself to feel like that. Prayer then became a chore, a tick box exercise rather than a meaningful part of my relationship with God.
What changed for me was this prayer of Jesus’. Normally we aren’t told what Jesus said in his prayers. We catch glimpses, told snippets of his prayers. We read he went off to pray every day, and generally speaking that’s how its left. And what is surprising for me, originally coming from a different theological paddock, is that Jesus doesn’t generally pray before he does miracles like healing. When I was in certain groups that regularly prayed for healing, the prayers would generally be long and verbal. It’s just an observation.
In this prayer we see his heart. It’s a cry of the heart. Much like Hannah his deepest needs are exposed, given birth by that relationship between him and his Father. And he intercedes, for the disciples in this part of John 17 and later on for the world. He prays for protection of the disciples, for them to be one as he and his Father are one. Why? Because he’s leaving. He’ll soon die, rise and eventually, Jesus will ascend and they will be students without their master and friend. They will need guidance, comfort, and power to take on the challenges that are soon to be theirs. The Holy Spirit will be this ‘Advocate’. It’s a real prayer. A prayer that asks for intervention, for direction. It’s a prayer stripped of all poetry and flowery language, and yet its simplicity is beautiful. Christ’s vulnerability draws us in.
I believe this prayer is vital if we are to understand why we need to incorporate prayer in our lives. The ‘how’ is up to you and there are many ways, creative and traditional to make prayer an integral part of your relationship with God. Personally, and I will share how I pray, I make it an ongoing conversation. So if I don’t get on my knees and set the timer to 30 minutes each day spent in prayer my relationship with God isn’t on the downward slant. I do have a quiet time in the morning. It is usually in a quiet space. I’ll use daily readings or something else to meditate on. I will take the time to sit and be present in the moment knowing God is with me. And because I bring things in prayer rather than saying to God, ‘well you know it all already so there’s really no need for me to pray about it’, I believe in some way I’m re-enacting the reality of that moment between Jesus and his Father. The relationship is real. I am making myself vulnerable. I discern, try to listen to him to know what is the nub of the matter I’m praying about because around the subject I want to pray about is a lot of noise, a lot of nonsense, stuff that’s inconsequential and really just not related to the actual prayer of the heart. Jesus’ words here are direct. They go straight to the heart of the matter. It’s not using theological language nor is there a Collins dictionary nearby. It’s just honest, heart stuff.
I remember being in a meeting group where a lady who was very good at quoting scriptures and singing praises in her prayers and they went on forever, had the effect of rendering myself and others feel like our prayers were chaff. That’s not her fault and I’m certain God loved her prayers. But we should be content with the core of our prayers, not the amount of syllables we use. Some of the most profound prayers come from children as you may remember from last week. If you are poetic and that’s your style of prayer that’s perfectly fine. But no one should feel less because theirs is simple in speech. Christ’s was, and it was brilliant. You might try things like writing prayers, painting your prayer or making something, get creative. It’s all to express what’s on the heart.
Jesus asks here for God to be in the lives and mission of the disciples. He asks, because he knows that in asking God responds. Prayer is built on the belief that God hears us. And I don’t simply mean ‘hears’ as in he has his ears inclined. I mean he actively hears by being affected by our prayers and wants to involve himself in our circumstances. Now of course this comes with a caveat. Praying for someone with an ailment doesn’t mean that God will intervene and will heal them of that. In fact, the hardest thing I believe for God is to be with someone in their distress and for that distress to still happen. But the fact that he’s in it with us is, that he hasn’t stepped out for a moment, has on so many occasions been the greatest source of comfort. Sometimes it’s about listening to the Father-heart of God. After all, the Christians in the early church went through terrible hardships, persecution and even death. God did not step in and stop them from suffering, but as many people believe, entered their suffering with them. And yet they never stopped praying.
The prayer of Jesus teaches us that in our dark night of the soul we can turn to God and know he’s there. It helps us rise above the circumstances and allows for a reorientation of our perspective, to see not only God in it with us but also, hopefully that there’s a guiding light, a way through, and give strength and peace. Prayer connects us in a way that allows our spirit to talk to God and not just our mouth. If up to now it’s been a bit sporadic, or if you feel that your prayers aren’t really connecting you to God in a meaningful way, I hope Jesus’ prayer gives you inspiration and challenges you to seek a stronger, more intentional prayer life. We can all do with one.