The Church for Whom Jesus Prays

John 17:20-26
© Stacey Steck

If eavesdropping is not considered a sin, it certainly falls in with those social practices that are roundly condemned. Eavesdropping is at best impolite and at worst, treasonous. No one likes to have their private conversations made public. That is why we close our doors and speak in whispers and invest millions in new technologies designed to prevent our e-mail messages from falling into the wrong hands. Eavesdropping recalls the Cold War, and spies, and secret decoder rings in the bottom of cereal boxes. We want our words to go only to their intended audience, especially if we are saying something about someone else. It may be sad to say although I think it is true, that most of us get a thrill from overhearing something not meant for our own ears. We are then in on a secret, or a hot tip for the stock market, or a juicy bit of gossip. And when we are not in the know, our ears are certainly burning if we think that someone is talking about us. Friends, your ears should be on fire right about now, because Jesus is talking about you.

Today’s passage from John is divine eavesdropping, the overhearing of a private conversation between Jesus and God, first overheard by the disciples and then broadcast loudly by John who records for all ears everywhere the words of Jesus’ farewell prayer. The prayer on which we are allowed to eavesdrop is a prayer in which Jesus turns over to God the care of his beloved and believing community. He must leave them to return to be with God for his mission is finished, and so he asks God to fulfill the promises he has made to the disciples. What makes our ears burn is that this prayer is indeed on our behalf, especially this section with its words that seem timeless, in which Jesus prays for those who will one day believe as a result of the testimony of his disciples. Friends, that is us. Jesus prays for us, today. That’s a radical notion, isn’t it? That Jesus would pray for us? We are the ones who are supposed to be praying for one another, without ceasing even. Yes, Jesus taught us how to pray and yes, he set a fine example, but the idea of him praying for us is not one we usually think about. Sure he prayed for the disciples, but here, Jesus is actually praying for us, generations and generations into the future, praying for we who are “those who will believe in me” through the words of the disciples. This is pretty powerful stuff, perhaps even powerful enough to make us stop and think what it means.

To what extent the name of a church influences its view of itself, I cannot say. Do members of a First Presbyterian Church consider themselves at the top of the class of Presbyterians, especially when there is a Second or Third or Sixth Presbyterian Church in the same town. Do members of a church called Grace United Methodist Church feel themselves to be particularly full of grace? Do we really identify with that New Testament Church at Thyatira whose name we bear? Perhaps it is a sad commentary on church identity, but I never have seen a church called Servant Presbyterian or Peace With Justice Lutheran. There are some fairly descriptive church names out there, like one near Sacramento, California called Shepherd of the Sierra Presbyterian Church, and in Pittsburgh, there is a new church development called the Hot Metal Bridge Church, but most are named for their towns or named in the order they were founded or named for the street on which they are located. But in light of today’s passage from John, I wonder how would we feel about ourselves if our church were called The Church for Whom Jesus Prays or maybe for short, The Praying Jesus Church. It sounds kind of Las Vegas, I know: The Praying Jesus Church, the PJC. With a little imagination, maybe you can see the neon here in the chancel and the little plastic praying Jesuses that we could hand out to visitors, and the embroidered praying Jesuses on all the vestments and paraments of the church, and maybe even a TV ministry called the Praying Jesus Power Hour. All the prayers would start out “O Jesus who prays for us, hear our prayer.” Hey, this could really put us on the map.

Of course, I’m being silly, but think about it a little longer with me. How would our understanding of what it means to be Christians be changed if every week we walked in under a banner that proclaimed “Jesus Christ Prays for This Church!,” if every month we received a newsletter that had a return address that read The Church for Whom Jesus Prays, Salisbury, North Carolina, if everyone in town rightfully referred to us as the Church for Whom Jesus Prays! I wonder if then we might begin to truly realize the wondrous gift that Jesus prays for us, prays for our safety in the world, prays that we might be one, even as he has experienced oneness with God. How would our self-identity be changed if we took as our beginning point, “We are a community for whom Jesus prays?”

To begin to answer that question, I would suggest we take a closer look at specifically what Jesus is praying for on our behalf and pay attention to what it is that we are called to do and what we are not called to do. Jesus knows that his hours on earth are numbered. He has prepared the disciples to the best of his ability, he has washed their feet and eaten the Last Supper with them, he has commanded them to love one another, and he has promised the Holy Spirit as a continuing presence in their lives. All that remains for him is the cross and the glory it brings, his resurrection and the life it brings, and his ascension and the power it brings. But before he heads off to the events of Holy Week, he turns from the disciples and addresses God directly. Jesus prays for his own glory, he prays for the disciples, he prays for their holiness and their protection, and then he goes one step further and prays for the oneness of we who believe because of the word of the disciples.

The content of the prayer is pretty straightforward, even if the language sort of goes back and forth. It is a prayer for unity in the context of Jesus’ hour of glory. Listen again to Jesus’ words: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” It is a pretty simple formula really. God and Jesus are one, Jesus and his followers are one, so please God, make believers in every age all one together, so that the rest of the world will know who is Who, who sent Whom, and what this eternal life business is all about.

And so, when I first began to look at this passage I thought to myself, “Self, here is a great call to Christian unity. Tell the people to be a unified bunch of Christians, for our oneness would surely glorify God in all things.” But as I dug deeper into the mysteries of the Gospel of John, I realized that this was altogether the wrong thing to ask of you, for it is not even what Jesus asks of you. Friends, Jesus asks many things of us, but the making of ourselves into a oneness the likes of which Jesus shared with God is not one of them. You see, Jesus asks God, not us, to make us one.

I hope you will allow me to split some theological hairs, because as you can see, I have few actual hairs of my own left to split. Jesus squarely places the possibilities for our unity in the hands of God. Is this because we are not capable? Or because it is more expeditious to have God do it? It seems that Jesus recognizes that our only hope for oneness depends on the oneness of he and God. The prayer is not a challenge to us to make ourselves one, but a request made to God for this special gift to humanity. And this gift is given for a purpose: that the world might know that God has sent Jesus and that God has loved Jesus and that God has loved us. The prayer is that believers throughout time might reflect the unity of God and Jesus, and thereby make known that eternal life is found in knowing Christ.

But what about our disunity as Christians? How will others know Christ if we ourselves cannot agree with one another? We are clearly divided, aren’t we? Or are we? The many different denominations and traditions of Christianity are often seen as symptomatic of our disunity as Christians. We disagree on so many things. We can’t even get our act together on something so basic as whether or not the elements in the Lord’s Supper are actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ or are merely symbolic. We are clearly not a unified people. But what shall be our definition of unity? And are we really speaking about unity or unanimity, two words we cannot afford to confuse with one another, two similar sounding but very different words? Let’s be clear. The word “unity” is a noun which means oneness. The word “unanimity” is also a noun, but it means the quality or state of being unanimous, literally “being of one mind,” being in total agreement. Is this our calling? To be in absolute agreement in all things? Or is our call to be one in the things which matter: loving God and loving neighbor? As Jesus prepares his disciples for his departure, he says very clearly to them, “love one another.” But in his final prayer to God, Jesus very clearly says to God, “Make them one.” These are two very different things. We believers are not called to create unity; we are called to love. And even when we do agree on some things, we don’t agree on everything. Even in our Bible, all the stories about Jesus do not agree. John tells a very different story than Matthew who is very different than Mark. From the very beginning, Christians have been one, but they have never been unanimous.

Perhaps the unity that God gives us is found in something much more basic than we have been lead to believe. You see, God has already made us one: one in baptism, one in affirmation of Jesus as Lord and Savior, one in love for neighbor and God. The rest is a striving for unanimity on our part, striving toward a vain hope that somehow, someday, if we could all just get along, if we could all just agree on every matter of faith, life, and witness, doctrine, dogma, and sacraments, that we would achieve the unity that God has planned for us. But we will never agree. We will never be able to do it on our own. And so here is the good news for the day. In his prayer, Jesus calls upon God to make order out of chaos, to make oneness out of multiplicity and that makes it God’s job, not ours. Our job is to believe and to love and to serve, to wash one another’s feet, even if Peter washes the left foot first and Paul washes the right foot first. It is a silly example to be sure, but religious wars have been fought over less.

I started out by saying that we were fortunate to be able to eavesdrop on a conversation between Jesus and God. We have learned a lot from that experience so let’s try it again, but this time we’ll eavesdrop on a Hollywood conversation that shows how easily we can overlook the obvious in our midst and run ourselves ragged instead. According to a well-traveled and perhaps even true Tinseltown fable, during the filming of The Marathon Man, back in the 1970s, Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier are sitting side by side, having their make up put on for a scene they are about to do together. Sir Laurence looks over at Hoffman and notices he looks just terrible. His eyes are bloodshot, and he looks simply exhausted. “My God, man. What’s the matter with you?” And Hoffman explains that since his character is supposed to have been up all night and weary for the following scene, he’s actually stayed up all night to be more convincing. And Olivier turns to him and says, “Well, if you want to be convincing, why don’t you just try acting?” Why don't we just try loving?

I asked how our self-identity would change if we thought of ourselves as a community for whom Jesus prays. Perhaps we would spend less time striving for unity and more time enjoying the unity we have been given. Perhaps we would spend less time agonizing over our differences and more time using the gifts that come with our differences. Perhaps we would relax and let God be God, as only God knows how. Perhaps it would be a big burden lifted from our collective shoulders to know that there are some things for which we do not need to take responsibility, because the hardest jobs, like creating unity, offering eternal life, making order out of the chaos of the universe, these are left to someone who knows how to take care of them. This church knows how to pray; we are not shy about saying to others, “Pray for me.” And when we ask, it is not so much because we think God will be swayed by one more vote on our behalf, but because the prayer of another means we are not alone in our trials or our suffering. This is true for our unity as a people of God. This is true in our families and in our workplaces and in our schools. This is true for whatever needs we have. Jesus prays for us and we do not go it alone, but together in his unity. May God give us the strength to love and serve, and may God make us one, even as Jesus has prayed on our behalf. Amen.

The Mystery Man of Macedonia

Acts 16:6-16
© Stacey Steck

In one sense, it is the most underwhelming of visions: there are no fearsome creatures, no natural disasters, not much symbolism to interpret, no threat involved. Simply “Come over to Macedonia and help us,” from the lips of the man of Macedonia. The dream was clear enough and understandable enough to get the job done, but as biblical visions go, it was pretty tame. And so Paul and his band of believers pack up their things and bring the Gospel to yet another part of the Roman empire, this time in what we would now call Europe, and more specifically northern Greece. They’ve been laboring in Asia Minor, what is now Turkey, but this vision impels them to go west and so we read about the places through which they passed to arrive in one of the biggest cities of the region, Philippi, named after the son of a former emperor, a colony filled with ex-military types in retirement. And there they find Lydia, about whom we heard, who listens, is baptized, and opens her home to Paul and his companions.

If we were to read on, we would hear about Paul’s interaction with a slave girl in Philippi, whom he releases from spirit possession much to the chagrin of her owners who were profitably exploiting that situation. And we would hear about Paul’s time in prison in Philippi after he was charged with disturbing the city for casting out that slave girl’s spirit. And we would hear about the earthquake which released him and Silas from their chains and opened the doors to their cell, and how they prevented their Roman jailer from completing suicide and how they lead that man and his family to begin their journey as followers of Christ. And then we would hear about more of Paul’s exploits and how he finally ends up in Athens, in yet another Roman province, and still, still, we would be waiting to meet the man of Macedonia. You see, during the entirety of his time in Macedonia, at least in the parts recorded for us, Paul never meets up with the subject of his vision, the one who asked him for help. You keep reading and reading and expecting this great reunion where the identity of the man of Macedonia is revealed, a culmination of the episode in which he give thanks for what Paul has done for him, but it never comes. The character remains but a moment in a dream, and Paul is soon off to Athens to challenge the Athenians to embrace not an unknown God, but the God “who made the world and everything in it,” and we are left to wonder who the mystery man of Macedonia might have been.

One possibility is, of course, that he is Jesus, disguised perhaps as one of those whom he called “the least of these,” the unknown and the infamous, the faceless and disinherited who would have seemed not to deserve blessing and rarely received it. The appearance of Christ then in the form of a regular citizen could be some sort of a test of the Apostle’s newfound fervor for reaching the Gentiles with the good news of the Gospel. Sure, it’s easy to get excited about ministry when Jesus comes a-callin’, as happened to Paul on the road to Damascus, but what about when it’s those people who stand at the traffic light with a handwritten cardboard sign asking for your spare change? What about when it’s those members of your family who can’t seem to stay out of trouble and who keep coming to you for money, promising to pay it back, even though, like the man of Macedonia, you’ll never see it again. Sure, it’s easy to feel jazzed to do the Lord’s work when the Lord asks you, but when it’s one of “those” people? So maybe Jesus wants to see just how sincere Paul is.

Another possibility is that when they wrote down these stories, they just ran out of paper and couldn’t include everything that happened in Macedonia, no matter how good or interesting it may have been. In the Gospel of John, we are told that “if every one of the things that Jesus did were written down, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” and though the library might be smaller for Paul, it would certainly be big enough. It may be that the identity of the man of Macedonia and the great reunion that took place are recorded in one of those books that never got written, in one of those volumes of incredibly valuable spiritual conversations and divinely inspired meetings for which there simply can never be enough paper. Even here, you can read about our ministry in our Annual Reports for last year, but know that what is written down there is just a fraction of the experiences of this group of Christians during the last year, and that everything you and we did in the name of Jesus Christ was worth writing down, but we just don’t have enough space to store that many books. And so, only some of the ways we have been the Good News Capital of Western Rowan County have been recorded for posterity, and perhaps like Paul’s meeting with the man of Macedonia, future generations of Thyatirans will look back and wonder, but never find, a record of what impelled us to take the steps we took in the year 2018.

Most likely of course, is that the “man” of Macedonia is Lydia, and he is the spirit possessed salve girl, and he is the Roman jailer, and he is the jailer’s family, and everybody else whom Paul and Silas met as they shared the gospel during their travels. Most likely, the man of Macedonia was every person in that region who needed to hear how his or her life could be transformed by good news, by the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and who raises us to new life. “Come over to Macedonia and help us,” he pleaded -- they pleaded. Come over and help us make sense of our place in this world, come over and help us be liberated from the situations that keep us from being all that God intends us to be, come over and help us learn how to be a blessing to others. The call for help went out, in the form of a vision in the night, in a dream, and Paul recognized it and responded, and numberless men of Macedonia and numberless women and children of Macedonia had their hopes met and their prayers answered by the help Paul and his companions brought with them.

My hunch is that Paul probably never expected to meet the man of Macedonia, and probably was never disappointed if he didn’t. What I take from this is an important lesson for us today, that even though we may never come face to face with the person who inspired us, or who moved us to action, our ministry is still worth doing, even if we never get the gratification we might like to have. Paul was wise enough to discern from the vision that he was not to seek the man, but rather the ministry. In the way our society promotes the cult of personality, it is very easy to get caught up in the messenger rather than the message, to try to have our needs met through identifying ourselves with people who might as well be in a dream, instead of grounding ourselves in the call to serve and the one who has called us to serve. Paul could have spent his time in Macedonia searching for the man from his vision, but doing so would have meant missing the opportunities that presented themselves. He could have been so obsessed with meeting that man’s particular needs, or finding out what the man thought the Macedonians’ needs were that he would never have got around to meeting anyone’s needs. But instead, he was able to recognize the vision for what it was – God’s call to use the gifts he had been given – and responded to the vision using the gifts he had been given.

Let me give you a couple of tangible examples of what I like to call disinterested love or disinterested giving Paul was doing, and by disinterested, I do not mean uninterested, and I don’t mean self-interested. Self-interested love or giving is done so that we can get something for ourselves out of the transaction, whether that payback is a warm and fuzzy feeling or a kickback from a politician. Uninterested love or giving is a “going through the motions” kind of loving or giving. I’ll do it because I have to, but it doesn’t really mean all that much to me. But disinterested loving or giving is done not because it has to be done, but because it must be done, and it’s done without expecting anything in return. We get a glimpse of this kind of disinterested love and giving this Memorial Day weekend when we remember those who have given not only their service but their lives in our Armed Forces. Maybe their service was not completely unselfish, and maybe it wasn’t completely whole-hearted, but they were certainly giving far more than they were receiving, especially since what they gave was their lives. Thank God for that kind of disinterested love and giving.

We can see disinterested love and giving in our charity at home as well. It is an understandable, if lamentable, trend in charitable giving that increasingly donors want to give what are called restricted gifts, funds which can only be used for a more narrow purpose in the organization’s activities. Examples of such gifts would be scholarships, or teacher education programs, or a specific collection of books for a library. This trend is understandable because it speaks to the desire of the donor to invest in something meaningful for him or her, and to have a more personal connection with the institution to which the gift is made. The trend is lamentable because it suggests that one or more of the following motivations is at work, namely that the gift is only worth giving if it more narrowly gratifies the giver, or that the giver does not trust the administration of the gift. An unrestricted gift is a lot more nebulous, isn’t it? You don’t know exactly where or how the money will be used, or if it will be used responsibly, and even if it is reported to you that such and such activities were made possible by the gift, you can’t really take someone there and say, “This is what I was able to provide for this institution.” But an unrestricted gift implies a lot about the trust the donor has in the organization, that he or she believes that those charged with guiding the institution have the wisdom and the vision to use that gift to advance the overall well-being of the institution independent of the donor’s more specific interests.

I believe Paul was making an unrestricted gift to the Kingdom when he went to Macedonia and ministered to everyone but the man who called him there. Indeed, in the story just before this one, we are told that although Paul wanted to go to Asia to speak the Word, they were prevented from doing so by the Spirit of Jesus. It’s as if God was saying, I’ll receive your gift, but you’ll have to give it freely so that I can direct its use where I believe it is needed.” And Paul honored the Spirit and did not rebel against it. He did not place his own desires above those of his God and so he was led to offer the help the Macedonians needed. Sometimes it is tempting to offer ourselves only where we feel comfortable or when we are reasonably certain to gain something from the experience, or when we have an “interest” at stake. But the call to ministry, of an individual or a church, is a call to disinterested service, service which does not depend on our wants or needs but on those of God and those of the people in need. If that seems challenging, it is, but it is also the way of Christ, whose life and death demonstrated a disinterested form of love that we are called to follow. Christ was very interested in us, but practiced a disinterested love that lead him to the cross. Paul may have wanted to go to Asia, but he ended up in Macedonia because he was willing to practice a disinterested form of ministry. We may have our desires for how we want Thyatira to be in the future, but those desires must always be disinterestedly subordinate to what God has in mind for this community.

As Thyatira moves forward with God’s vision for our church as the Good News Capital of Western Rowan County, it may well be that we will be faced with our own version of the choice of going to Asia or going to Macedonia, and if we choose the latter, of seeking the man of Macedonia, or ministering to all the Macedonians. I’m excited about seeing how God means more specifically to make us the good News Capital of Western Rowan County, but a little afraid of where that might take us. Hey, I want to be hang out in my comfort zone as much as the next person. And so I will need to trust that God will always be at our side to strengthen us for whatever form of service we are called to, no matter how far outside my personal comfort zone that may be. I hope you will be able to do the same. May God bless us as Paul was blessed when he responded to the vision of the mystery man of Macedonia. Amen.