What a powerful image this text offers; what a hopeful image for those of us who try to be faithful to the gospel, to serve the risen Christ, to be the church in the world. Jesus prays for us. Jesus prays for us that we might be faithful and well in a world that can be a frightening and dangerous place for those called to live and proclaim the gospel. Jesus prays for us.
Prior to his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, Jesus gathers his disciples and offers his final instruction concerning what is to happen to him and how that will shape and define their life together as the church. Following his instruction, with the disciples still gathered, Jesus prays for them. “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. . . . Holy Father protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (vv. 6, 11). More than likely it is not the first time Jesus had prayed for his disciples; it certainly is not the last. But here, in his most difficult hour, when they should have been praying for him, Jesus looks up to heaven and prays for his disciples. He holds the church up to God and asks for the continued well-being of those who have followed him. Given what is awaiting him, Jesus understands the reality of evil and the hostile nature of the world. He knows that his followers are likely to face persecution and great peril, even death, because of their fidelity to his name. Nonetheless, just as God sent Jesus into the world, so now Jesus will send his followers into the world to continue the work of the gospel, that they should be one, even as Jesus and God are one.
Now we should be clear, the point here is not some kind of sentimental unity and superficial lack of dissension within the church so that our lives can be free of conflict. No, the issue is the unified witness of the church to the gospel. In asking God to protect the disciples following his death and resurrection, Jesus is not promising the church a life free from hardship or suffering. Rather, Jesus demonstrates that although the world might hate us, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and the church’s intimate relationship with God and with one another, through Jesus, will enable and empower us to persevere in faithfulness. Jesus prays for us so that we might be something that apart from him would be impossible: the church. Jesus also asks that his followers be sanctified in the truth for continued growth in godliness and righteousness. He prays that our lives might each day come to resemble his own. He prays that our hearts might be one—one with him and one with one another.
I once had the privilege of attending a gathering where Mother Teresa was the honored guest and speaker. As she reflected upon her ministry with the poor, she remarked that she often prayed to God that she would not lose her grip on the hand of Christ. How comforting to know that a saint of the faith needed to pray that prayer. Even more, it is comforting to know that Jesus prays that prayer on our behalf as he asks the Lord to keep us united in love with him.
In praying this prayer Jesus invites us to join him in the unique way of life we know as Christian discipleship. What might it mean for pastors to pray this prayer on behalf of those who have been entrusted to their care? Of course we cannot pray the prayer as Jesus did because we are not to equate who we are and what we do with who he is and what he has done on behalf of the church and the world. But what if Jesus’ words and way with his disciples became the way we live among those whom we serve? What might our ministry look like if we spent as much time holding the church before the Lord and asking God to protect and sanctify the church as we do complaining about what is wrong with the people we are supposed to love and serve? Not to focus all of our attention on pastors, what if, as members of the body of Christ and fellow followers of Jesus, we devoted as much time and energy to praying for one another and asking God to support, protect, and sanctify one another as we do gossiping, back-biting, and complaining? If the church commits itself, laity and clergy alike, not only to praying this prayer but to living it as well we just might, by God’s grace, come to resemble the beloved community we are called to be.
As I pray and read Jesus’ words I am mindful of the mystery and beauty of the Holy Trinity—one God in three persons. I am mindful of the holy communication, the intimate and eternal bond of love that exists among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Christ we are invited to share in the relationship, the community, the fellowship, that exists at the very heart of God. In Christ we are caught up in the divine life. God has given us to the Son in and through the power of the Holy Spirit. We belong to Christ and thus we belong to one another. The church is an icon of the Trinity in as much as our relationships, our fellowship, our holy communication points to the life of the blessed and Holy Trinity. So in praying this prayer Jesus says, “This is who you are.”
What good news—Jesus prays for us. Through his prayer, his unceasing intercession on our behalf, we become more than we would otherwise be. Through his prayer we become the church, God’s gift for the life of the world.