Who Prays for You?

by Rev. Clyde Robinson Jr.


Scripture: John 17:20-26

How do you feel when you know that someone is praying for you as an individual, personally, particularly, by name? It is a little scary, is it not?

James Barrie remembered his mother on her knees at her devotions while he and his brothers and sisters tiptoed about the house, their voices, and even their spirits, hushed because they knew she was praying for them, one by one, warts and all.

I feel something of the same way every time I read the portion of John’s Gospel the lectionary set before us today. It is the latter portion of what the Church has chosen to call Jesus’ "High Priestly Prayer," His prayer for the Church and the world, His prayer for us, His prayer for you and me! Try to get past the archaic language. How does that feel to you? The very idea of Christ praying for me, for Clyde Robinson of 8900 Whispering Pines Lane, takes my breath away.

Let me try to tell you what it means to me. I remember the trip a young minister fresh out of seminary made to Central Prison in Raleigh. It was a reluctant trip - another night out and, besides, how could I translate my seminary-honed theological insights into a simple enough sermon to suit the ignorant inmates who would gather for that Wednesday night service. However, the men of the church from White Memorial, many of whom went to the prison every Wednesday evening, wanted me to go and, truculently, I went. My next door neighbor, Jim Ferguson, led the opening part of the service, and I participated with about half a heart as we sang several Gospel hymns, heard a dozen announcements and finally came to the time for a round of sentence prayers. I remember uttering a silent groan and made a quick effort to compose an appropriate pithy prayer; I remember my inward cynical smile (or was it a smirk?) as several prisoners prayed for "the officials of this institution"; and I remember being suddenly jerked upright when one old gap-toothed convict offered a prayer for "this young man of God who has come inside these walls this night to preach the Gospel to us inmates."

That prayer cut through all of my pseudo-sophistication. That prayer reminded me that in the eyes of God the people gathered in that room were not good or bad, not free or imprisoned, not ignorant or educated, but all children of God, gathered to praise God, to pray for one another and the world and in fellowship to receive strength to be the faithful people of God on whatever side of those massive walls they found themselves!

Jesus prays for us, beloved - for you, for me, for all who know His name and for the world loved by His heavenly Father. His prayer strips us of all our pretensions, dissolves all those externals by which we usually judge, evaluate and classify people and puts us on our knees at the foot of the cross on that level ground where race, color, wealth, education, age, gender and social status count for absolutely nothing. Thank God that Jesus prays for us!

Do you remember the content of Jesus’ prayer? He prays that we may all be one. What in the world does He mean by that? Which of the innumerable social, cultural and political realities that divide our world and fill our newspapers would He have us deny or overcome? Jesus does not specify, though we believe John’s Gospel is especially concerned to bring together Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians within the unity of the Church.

Certainly we do not have to look far to identify issues that divide the Church today and to which Jesus’ prayer for unity may be applied:

  • I think of the polarizing of our denomination between those who see the church’s social witness and the church’s evangelistic witness as mutually exclusive;

  • I think of the proliferation of denominations in this country and across the globe with some people in each denomination convinced that their theology and liturgy and polity are the only ones that express God’s will for the Church;

  • I think of recent exchanges in this congregation between those of us reared before World War II and those of us from the post- war baby boom generation, conversations that focus on the different ways in which we express our commitment and our discipleship;

  • I think of the struggle in many denominations, including our own, over proper Biblical perspective on our sexuality, especially the measure to which gay and lesbian people are to be included in the life of the denomination;

  • I think of the challenge that confronts the Presbytery of Charlotte to overcome more than 130 years of history and bring together Presbyterians across racial lines in such a way that the customs and traditions of each enrich each other, in such a way that we do not end up simply living parallel lives, ignoring each other except for ritual power struggles when presbytery meets.

It is not my purpose today to resolve any of these complex issues that divide us but only to underline how important resolving or overcoming such divisions are in the life of Christ’s Church.

Let me remind you of its significance for Jesus. The motivation of His prayer is not to homogenize us, to make us all alike. He is not driven by the "urge to merge," to create a new, grander bureaucratic structure. No, Hisconcern is the Church’s mission. Jesus prays for our unity in Him so that the world may believe that God has sent Him. He prays that we become completely one ‘‘so that the world may know that God has sent Him and has loved us, even as God has loved Him."

The integrity of our witness depends upon our demonstrating the same kind of unity of love that bonds Jesus and the Father. That unifying love is more important than theological perspective, denominational identity, styles of discipleship or issues of race, culture or sexuality. Indeed, in the face of the power of that love - when we really open our hearts to it - most of those issues blur and often disappear. We cannot expect others to believe us when we talk about the love of God if they cannot see that love bringing us together.

Finally, let me remind you that Jesus’ "High Priestly Prayer" was not simply for the Church of His day, the disciples gathered around Him nor does it simply extend to the Church down through the ages and even to us today. His prayer is, quite simply, for the whole world!

God’s love does not end with the Church. It is that world that God so loved that He sent His only begotten Son. The Church is God’s chosen witness and instrument through which God’s love for the world is declared and demonstrated.

And how great the need! Louise and I have just returned from a trip to Asia, a trip that took us through Los Angeles on the Sunday after the riots; to the Philippines on the verge of the national elections in which their political stability was - and is -at risk; through Hong Kong with all of the anxiety of what coming under Chinese control in 1997 will mean; and then, as if in the eye of a hurricane, we spent five days in the heart of Bangkok just between the early peaceful demonstrations and the bloody attack of the military. You may have heard mention of the Royal Hotel which was used as a hospital after the shooting started: we had dinner there 24 hours before its carpets were soaked with blood.

The mental images I brought back to Charlotte from Asia are ones of contrast and contradiction. We saw great wealth and grinding poverty; spectacular natural beauty and hideous slums; gracious, graceful people and greedy, vicious and barbaric governments. In Manila, armed guards are to be seen night and day in every hotel, bank and department store, and the affluent surround their homes with high walls topped with broken glass while the masses lack pure drinking water, reliable electricity and clean air. In Thailand, a nation’s military slaughters its own civilian population in a desperate effort to retain its privileges and prerogatives in the midst of a bustling economy and beautiful land; and wherever we went, the newspapers juxtaposed pictures from Los Angeles and Sarajevo, reminding us that it is not only the Third World that knows hatred and violence. Indeed, how great the need for God’s unifying love!

What witness can the Church offer in the midst of so much ferment and turmoil? Who knows who would be the best president of the Philippines? How can the impasse between Serbia and BosniaHerzgovinia, rooted in feelings that sparked World War I, be overcome? How can Thailand grow into a genuine democracy? Anyone who offers an easy answer surely does not understand the situation. Our witness must not be simplistic nor presume more wisdom and insight than we have.

There is no question, however, about our knowing how to feel and what to be concerned about. The unifying love to which Christ calls us, the unifying love Christ wants for the world, does not rest easy with human suffering and injustice, with hunger and homelessness, with poverty and prejudice, with oppression and exploitation. That love is grieved by the climate of fear and alienation out of which high walls are built and armed troops are deployed, whether they are to guard wealth, to guarantee public order or simply to protect us from one another. Christ’s unifying love wants to pull walls down, to replace guns with flowers and lift people up to embrace one another.

What is our witness? Surely it is to care - never again to say that any are beyond our concern, to red-line any person or people out of the perimeter of our hearts, never to watch the news or read the newspaper with cool and detached objectivity, but rather, because of God’s love that ties us to every human being, to care and to care deeply as we always do for family.

And caring means praying. Caring means joining our prayers to those that we believe Jesus continues to offer for the world; and you know, when we begin to pray for the world with its rainbow of colors and its panoply of cultures, we have just taken the first step toward getting beyond the differences and affirming our unity, toward offering that compelling witness of love for which Jesus prayed, toward finding ways to respond with whatever help we can offer to the needs of our brothers and sisters. For surely, if caring means praying, then praying means doing; or there is no health in us.

On the first Sunday we were in Hong Kong, we went to church. The pastor of the Kowloon Union Church illustrated his sermon with a long ribbon through which he literally tied together the 50 or so people present for worship. They were from every continent and of every color. When anyone moved, each of us felt the tug. We were reminded of a unity that we share whether we like it or not.

Two weeks later at worship in the same church, I noticed that one of the hymns in an unfamiliar hymnal half way around the world from Steele Creek had been translated from Chinese by Frank W. Price, a missionary for 30 years from the Southern Presbyterian Church, moderator of our former denomination after he was forced to leave China and director of the mission outreach library at Union Theological Seminary in New York where I met him 35 years ago. Through him, I have always felt connected to Christians in China. Through his hymn, Christians in Hong Kong are connected to Southern Presbyterians. You know, maybe there is a valid reason, beyond being politically correct, for the inclusion of hymns from other cultures, languages and traditions in our new hymnal. It is one way of saying to the world, See the power of the love of God that has made us one - the witness Jesus prays for us to offer.

And now it is time for us to pray, responding to Christ’s praying for us, This morning I want all of us to offer petitions for ourselves and intercessions for others. I will suggest direction for our prayers and leave time for each of us to pray silently. Our Father. we offer:

  1. A prayer for ourselves - our worries, our fears, our joys. our celebrations;

  2. A prayer for our families, our friends, our relationships, the sick, the bereaved, the distraught;

  3. A prayer for our church in this place, its spiritual health, its pastor. educator, new associate, the day school, the staff, its people. its witness;

  4. A prayer for our denomination. our presbytery and synod and our General Assembly as it struggles with difficult issues, like an appropriate Christian perspective on abortion;

  5. A prayer for people around the broken and bleeding world - Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America.

Hear the prayers of your people. Let them send roots deep into our hearts that we may care, bearing a good witness to your love - a love that sacrificed in our behalf through Jesus Christ.

(Ed. note. This sermon was shared with the congregation of Steele Creek Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the United States on May31, 1992, after Clyde and Louise returned from a trip to Asia.)