By Rev. Heather Blais, Rector
Today’s Gospel lesson takes us back to the night before Jesus’ died. The same evening we talked about two weeks ago, where after dining with the disciples, Jesus puts on an apron and begins to wash their feet. He does this to show the disciples what it means to love one another. Afterwards, he offers one final teaching and ends with a prayer. The prayer begins with Jesus praying for himself, and then for his disciples. But what I find particularly meaningful is the portion of the prayer that we hear in today's Gospel lesson. Because in it, Jesus prays for us.
“Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said. ‘I ask not only on behalf of these [disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one’” (John 17:20).
Isn’t it sort of wild to realize that over 2,000 years ago in a crowded room, a group of men and women had their heads bowed down in prayer while Jesus prayed for them, and for every single person who would come to believe through their ministry of spreading the Good News? Jesus was praying for us! We are here today because someone introduced us to Christ; and that person introduced you because someone introduced them to Christ; and that person introduced them to Christ, because someone had introduced them; and so on, and so forth, all the way back to the disciples.
This passage is here to both encourage and inspire us in our faith, and to remind us that we have work to do. Like those who have gone before us, we have to spread the Good News by the way we live our lives. Yet in order to do that well, we must begin with our prayer life. I believe this is the other reason we see Jesus model prayer for us in today’s gospel.Jesus is showing the disciples and future believers that our lives must be grounded in prayer.
Prayer is the vehicle with which we relate to God, and the way we relate to God on behalf of others. Prayer nourishes and sustains us, it stretches us and forms us. Without it, we may quickly find ourselves running on fumes.
This passage got me curious…Has someone ever prayed for you? I don’t mean praying alongside you during worship or around the dinner table, nor do I mean someone holding you in their private prayers. I mean, has someone ever stood or sat with you, held your hand or put the hand on your shoulder, and prayed aloud for you?
I will never forget the community that taught me both how to receive such prayer, and later, how to offer such prayer for others. I grew up worshipping in a very formal and traditional Episcopal Church where I quickly fell in love with the richness of the liturgy and the Eucharist. Yet they were not the community that taught me how to love Jesus.
The community that taught me how to pray and how to have a daily relationship with Christ was a church without a home or a building. Instead we were a network of people scattered across the very large state of Maine. We were the Youth Church, more commonly known as Diocesan Youth Ministries.
Several times throughout the year we would gather at one Episcopal church or another for a retreat led by our Diocesan Youth Ministers, a couple Episcopal priests and deacons, and other adults and teenagers who had previously been on another youth retreat. Some people only came to a retreat once, and never returned (what I said I would do); some of us made it our spiritual home (what I actually did). It was at these retreats where the Holy Trinity went from an abstract concept, to an integral part of my daily life. It was at these retreats that I really learned what it means to be part of the Jesus Movement.
While prayer is a constant at these retreats, the most profound experience of it for most of us was at the Healing Service on the tail end of the retreat. We would gather in the largest room, and there would be four or five stations set up with two chairs. An adult would go to each station and sit. Sometimes they were a priest or deacon, but just as often they were a lay leader. They were always a well-respected leader, known for having a deep spiritual life. With the Music Team leading the community in song, teens and adults alike would take turns going to a station.
At a prayer station we could share any and all that was going on in our lives. We could share the surface level concerns (help me pass this test..), or deep wounds (my parents are divorcing, my parent abuses me, etc...). No matter what it was we wanted to share, we were granted that adults undivided, prayerful presence. A precious gift to most teenagers, who often feel there is no one safe to talk to. The adult would offer some spiritual guidance, and then the youth would kneel to receive prayer. During the prayer, other teens and adults would come and lay hands on you, and some would add their own prayers for you at the end. You quickly got over the notion that you would say or pray something wrong.
The healing service was one that required each of us to be vulnerable, as we had to show the community we were in need of prayer, by walking over to a prayer station to receive prayer. And then in turn, it required we as a community be vulnerable as a whole, as we went and prayed for those receiving prayers. The experience of regularly being prayed for and praying for others, fostered an entire generation of Episcopal youth (now adults) in Maine that will happily pray for anyone that asks it of them.
The good news is, we don’t have to go away to a retreat in order to learn how to pray for someone else or be prayed for. All it takes is finding a friend or two to become spiritual companions. Get together, whether it's a couple times a year or every month, and share what is going on in your lives and pray aloud for one another, while also holding one another in your private prayers. You don't have to be a clergyperson, nor do you even need one to pray this one. You simply have to be open to the Spirit and reach out to a friend who you feel might like to journey alongside you as a spiritual companion. You may find it is the thing your life has been missing; the thing that will help you go deeper in your relationship with Christ.
Remember, one of the very last things Jesus did before being arrested and put to death, was to pray for us, future believers. It is in continuing his practice of praying for one another that generations of people have come to know and love Christ deeply. It is through our prayer life and example, that others will come to know and love Christ. Amen.
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