Jesus Still Up There Praying

John 17:1-11, 20-23

And Jesus, Still Up There Praying

May 28, 2017     Maple Grove UMC


A friend told me this story. In the church where he grew up a retired pastor, Rev. Johnson, from time to time would be called upon to deliver the pastoral prayer.  He'd always been known for his, uh, stamina when praying.  But the older Rev. Johnson got, the longer he prayed, until one time, he just didn't stop.  He prayed so long that people opened their eyes and checked their watches.  Those with lunch plans started to file out.  Everyone else looked at the pastor, wondering what to do.  Finally, the pastor motioned for everyone to move downstairs for coffee time, signaling them to be quiet so as not to disturb Rev. Johnson’s marathon praying.  As fellowship time was wrapping up, someone asked, "Hey, where's Rev. Johnson?"  Someone ran upstairs and reported, "He's still up there praying!"   To which the pastor, knowing of much trouble and many needs in his congregation, replied, "Oh, thank goodness!" 


John 17 is the end of what Bible scholars call this gospel’s "Farewell Discourse." In chapters 14, 15 and 16, Jesus teaches and prepares the disciples for his departure, and he concludes this Farewell Discourse by praying for them--for all of chapter 17 he prays for them.  We only read part of it here this morning.  And for all we know, John 17 may be just a summary of all that Jesus actually prayed; he may have gone on as long as Rev. Johnson.  The disciples may have eventually filtered out of the room, checked their phones, got a snack.  Until one of them thought to ask, "Hey, where's Jesus?"  Someone went back to the upper room to check:  "He still up there's praying."  To which the disciples, if they had any sense, must have replied, "Oh, thank goodness!" 

At a time of change and stress, when the disciples probably didn’t even know what to pray for, they got to overhear Jesus praying for them. And at a time of change and stress, when we may not know exactly how to pray, through John’s gospel we got to overhear Jesus praying for us.  In John 17 Jesus prays for three things:

  1. First he prays for his own glorification, which may sound like a selfish prayer, until you remember that in John’s gospel Jesus’ glorification refers to his death. He prays for the completion of what he came to do on the cross, which gave God glory and eternal life to those who believe.

  2. In verse 9 Jesus begins to pray for the disciples—for them to be protected and sanctified, for them to be sent out to the world even as Jesus had been sent to them. Whether they knew it yet or not, they would desperately need this prayer.

  3. And finally, starting in verse 20, Jesus prays for those who would believe in him because of the disciples’ ministry, that is, for future Christians—that is, even for us. And what he prays for future believers is that they—that we--might be one, even as he and the Father are one.

         Jesus finishes his prayer, and immediately soldiers arrive and his glorification begins. Yet in a way, Jesus never finishes that prayer. Romans 8:34 tells of Jesus “who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” In other words, where is Jesus now? Well, he’s still up there praying for us. To which we can only say, thank goodness!


         The four gospels each remember and tell different things about Jesus, depending on what was going on in the time and place where that gospel was written. One of the things going on when John was written was conflict.1 Three times John refers to believers being kicked out of their synagogues. Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus must have felt like the Christians had changed too much, gone too far. And Jews who did believe in Jesus must in turn have felt judged and excluded by the others. What’s more, it turns out that within the first couple of generations, even those who did believe in Jesus didn’t believe in him in quite the same way. What was in one sense all God’s people became in practice divided factions. And in the midst of that conflict, what John remembered was Jesus praying, asking God that they might all be one. “Where’s Jesus now?” John’s people wondered. And the answer is: “Still up there praying.” Thank goodness!


         Now we are in one of those times of conflict again. The United Methodist Church has formed a “Commission on a Way Forward,” to see if we can even stay together as one church. And in many ways it would be easier to come apart. I’m certainly ready to be part of a denomination that doesn’t try to tell me who can and can’t be members, or who can and can’t get married. But then I think of my friend, Rev. Robert Sieh from Liberia in Africa, who will be here at Maple Grove next Sunday. I suspect he and I are on different sides of most of the issues dividing our church. Yet I very much want to be part of the same church with him, and I know I can be one with him. Here’s what Jesus prayed, “that they may be completely one”—why? “so that the world[, Father,] may know that you have sent me.” More than our own convictions are at stake, as important as they are. Not our agreement, but our oneness is our witness to the world to the truth of Christ.


         And that conflict that is national and global is felt right here at Maple Grove. I hear from angry people on the left and from disgruntled people on the right. I hear from people who are discouraged that things haven’t changed faster and from others who can’t endure one more change. And in the midst of that, I’ve got my own thoughts and feelings.

         The temptation when conflict arises is to do something, quickly, decisively—to kick out those who make us uncomfortable, to create a policy against those we disagree with, or to just not talk about certain things. Not that there isn’t anything to do. At the invitation of one church member I’m reading a book about politics from a perspective not my own—it’s good to do that. Our young adults are having a “conversation circle” this Friday, not to argue or debate but just to listen to one another. Staff-Parish Relations chair, Lynne Matthaes, and I have strategized about ways to bring people together and overcome divisions.

         But the first thing to do about conflict is not to do anything at all. It is to step back and let Jesus do what he does. And where is Jesus? He’s still up there praying for us. Thank God!


         He’s saying:

  • Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

  • As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

  • 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.


         Where’s Jesus in these trying times? He’s still up there praying. Thank goodness. Thank goodness.


    1Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, i-xii, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1966), LXVII-LXXVI.



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