A sermon by Rev Dr Martin Wellings, Superintendent of the Barnet and Queensbury Methodist Circuit
One of the striking features of modern life is that it’s possible to find a card for every occasion. For birthdays and anniversaries, of course. To send greetings when someone starts a new job or leaves an old one. To convey congratulations on exam success, commiseration on illness, good luck when taking a driving test. And there are cards for confirmation – perhaps our candidates today may have received some! The confirmation cards I found online were all quite tasteful and restrained. Most expressed love and good wishes. And some were worded as a prayer for the person being confirmed.
Now, to be prayed for, whatever the occasion, is very special. Many of us will know that, from personal experience. Perhaps in ill-health or bereavement, perhaps when we’ve been facing a difficult decision or going through a hard time, perhaps just in the normal course of events, we’ll have received a note or a text or an email assuring us that we are held in prayer. And that is an amazing gift and a huge privilege.
Our Gospel reading this morning from John 17 reminds us all that Jesus himself prays for us. The primary focus of this passage is the disciples, but immediately afterwards Jesus says: ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.’ So we can apply this prayer of Jesus to all Christian people, and to ourselves. As we take new steps in faith or as we persevere in the rhythms of daily discipleship, Jesus holds us in prayer.
And what does Jesus pray for, on our behalf? Four things.
First, Jesus prays for protection: ‘Holy Father, protect them in your name.’
The New Testament never underestimates the challenge of being a Christian. Jesus himself says that those who want to follow him must be prepared to take up the cross, and in the first century that wasn’t just a figure of speech. To be identified as a friend of Jesus is to take a stand for a particular way of life, and to take a stand against other options. And there are powers and influences and vested interests which are in conflict with the way of Jesus. Those influences can infiltrate our very selves and draw us away from God. So in the inner battle against the old self and in the external struggle to be loving and faithful, Jesus prays God’s protection on his friends.
Secondly, Jesus prays for a sustained relationship: ‘Holy Father, protect them in your name, that they may be one as we are one.’
The key to the Christian life is our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The new heart and the new spirit promised in Ezekiel 36 come through God’s gracious gift of new life in Christ. To be a Christian is to be ‘in Christ’, to use one of Paul’s favourite expressions. The Christian life is not fundamentally about habits and duties. It’s not even about qualities and virtues. It’s about a transforming relationship. God’s initiative in Christ restores a relationship that has been ruptured by our turn away from God. We experience love, forgiveness, healing and inner peace, and we are enabled to reflect God’s love outwards, to other people. So nurturing that relationship is vital. As we pray, read the Bible, meet with other Christians in worship and fellowship, share our faith and serve God’s world, so we sustain our relationship with God and our relationship with our sisters and brothers in Christ. We maintain that oneness which echoes the unity of the Father and the Son.
Thirdly, Jesus prays for joy: ‘I speak these things … so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.’
Did Jesus have a good sense of humour? I served a church once which was very sure he didn’t, and told me in all seriousness that Scripture nowhere records that he laughed. But I think some of the things Jesus said and did indicate that he often had a twinkle in his eye and a keen appreciation of the ridiculous. But joy isn’t quite the same as humour, is it? Joy has more to do with a confidence in God, in God’s unshakeable love for us and in God’s purpose for the world which enables us to face whatever life throws at us in the sure knowledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Joy doesn’t mean saying that bad things are good, when they obviously aren’t. It certainly doesn’t mean going through life wearing a vacuous smile or affirming in the teeth of reality that all is really for the best. But it does reflect and express trust in God, no matter what. And that trust enables us to hold on.
Finally, Jesus prays for holiness: ‘Sanctify them in the truth. Your word is truth.’
If we were to ask most people today: ‘Do you want to be holy?’ I suspect they’d say: ‘No, thanks!’ And I guess many Christians would say the same. Somehow holiness has come to mean a lot of negative things – being self-righteous, narrow-minded, even hypocritical. And that’s a real shame, because in the Bible to be holy simply means to be set apart for God. Perhaps we might stretch Jesus’ prayer just a little, and say that he wants his friends to be focussed on God, orientated to God, centred on God. And this brings with it a quality of life, as God’s love and justice and righteousness infuse us and are expressed through us.
So Jesus prays for the disciples and he prays for us. He prays for protection, as we live out our faith in challenging times. He prays for our relationship with God to be sustained. He prays that we may share his joyful confidence in God. And he prays that our lives may be centred on the God who is Holy Love. Jesus prays for us. May we continue to draw strength and hope and encouragement from that sure knowledge. Thanks be to God. Amen.