A few years ago I was working with a group of women who wanted to join Daughters of the King. DoK has a requirement of discernment and guided study before you can take your vows. I had gone through this study and discernment period a few years before seminary, and now on the other side as a priest, I was leading another group of women in their own discernment. Each meeting we would open with prayer. This was more of a challenge than I could have ever imagined. I would begin by inviting any of the women to lead us in prayer…and the response to my invitation was silence. So I would take on the responsibility. And so it continued like this for several meetings. Finally, I asked the women what it was that held them back from taking on this responsibility. The answers ranged from not feeling confident about serving in that role with a priest in the room to not knowing the words to use. They had anxiety around praying! They were somehow afraid that their words to God weren’t “good enough” or “eloquent enough”. So we spent the rest of that session together talking about prayer, and eventually writing our prayers as a group.
There are six types of prayer as evidenced in Scripture. These are: Praise, Thanksgiving, Confession, Intercession, Petition and Listening. In church we offer our prayers through the Opening Collect, the Prayers of the People, and the Eucharist. Jesus also gave us examples of these prayers: healing prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, resurrecting Lazarus from the dead, his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in this Sunday’s reading from John 17—the prayer of intercession for the disciples.
Jesus prays for three specific things in this prayer: that God will protect the disciples so they may be one; that God sanctify the disciples in truth; and that God be with them as they are sent into the world. Jesus’ prayer is intimate, reflecting on his relationship with God, and it is specific. It is a prayer said in love.
The word “protect” comes from the Greek word “tereo” which means “attend to carefully, pay attention to, take care of”. It is most often used in the context of a parent and child relationship. Jesus asks for God to attend to, pay attention to, and take care of his disciples. Not because they were incompetent, but because their task in the world of spreading the Good News would be challenging. Jesus knew there would be bumps, bruises, and hurdles along the way. So God, pay attention to them.
He also asks that they be sanctified in truth. Sanctified is a word we use a lot in the Eucharist. We ask that God sanctify the bread and wine, and then to sanctify us. What does that mean? To be sanctified means to be made holy and set apart for a specific purpose. To be sanctified in truth means to be holy carriers of God’s truth—the Good News of love, forgiveness and redemption.
Sometimes when we hear the word “sanctified” or the idea of “being made holy” it makes us think that the person or object is removed from the world; for me it calls to mind a story of an ancient desert father who sat on a pole for many years in prayer and fasting. Yes, that man was probably very holy. But that’s not the only way to live a holy life. For the disciples, holy living involved not just obeying God’s commandments, but also about sharing the joys of life…sharing meals, healing and teaching, making other disciples. In Adult Ed we just finished the Acts of the Apostles. Those early apostles often found themselves in precarious situations (and especially Paul), but they were engaged in the life of the early church. Just because they had been sanctified didn’t excuse them from daily living.
Jesus prays that God will be with the disciples as they are sent into the world. Again, knowing that there will be challenges, knowing that the Good News might not be so “good” for everyone, Jesus prays that God will be with them so that they may be one.
I’d like to think that this prayer is timeless…that Jesus prayed it not only for his 12 friends, but for all of us who are his followers. His prayer serves not only as an example of how to pray, but also as a reminder of what our ministry is, 2000 years after those first disciples. We still need God’s protection. Whether we find ourselves in the mission field, in the hospital holding the hand of a loved one, or in quiet contemplation, knowing that God loves and protects us is reassuring. Each time we gather for Eucharist, we are made holy, and while that might call us to spend the day in meditation, it also calls us to action. Being sanctified in truth means working to make our corner of the world a little better…whether it’s in how we spend our money, where we give our time, or voicing the concerns of those who have no voice.
And we do all this with the hope that we all may be one. That we might love one another as Christ loved us.
So going back to my story of the Daughters of the King women; I’m reminded that while Jesus prayed for his friends, (and hopefully us), we too can offer our prayers. I’d like us to do part of the exercise I did with them. This is going to require a little participation on your part, but don’t be nervous. By what name(s) do we call God? For what or whom are we thankful for? For what or whom needs God’s special attention?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.