I'm sure you have sometimes experienced those uncomfortable occasions when the person leading intercessions at the Eucharist uses the opportunity of public prayer to let the congregation know exactly what he thinks they should be doing – and is pretty directive with God too. Sometimes it can be hard not to feel distinctly “Got At” and I'm pretty clear that prayer as political lobbying or as social commentary is really NOT
what it's all about.
But the prayer that we have heard in this morning's gospel...that is something very very different.
We know that Jesus prayed all the time...Early in the morning on his own, aloud in the midst of the crowds, and of course he provided a pattern for us, those words that we know as the Lord's Prayer.
This, though, is prayer of a different order.
At a point of stillness between the signs and wonders of his ministry and before the action of the Passion, Jesus pauses – and we are privileged beyond measure to hear what he has to say as he pours out his heart to his heavenly Father. You might almost describe it as the “real Lord's Prayer” , and each year on this Sunday after the Ascension the lectionary invites us to reflect on a different part of it. It stands as a hinge point in John's gospel, the great High Priestly Prayer that is, in essence, the ultimate Eucharistic Prayer, for here Jesus consecrates not bread and wine but his very self. John, of course, does not include the institution of Holy Communion as part of the Last Supper before the Passion, but this prayer has equal force, as it gives us an amazing insight into Christ's heart for us. Incredibly, you see, the subject of this great prayer is, at least in part, you and me!
One of the most powerful prayer exercises I've even undertaken was during my pre-priesting retreat, when I was invited to spend time with this 17th chapter of John's gospel, substituting my own name whenever Jesus prayed for his followers.
Go home and try it, please! I promise that it will be an enriching experience, a journey into the heart of Christ's loving purpose for you, his precious child.
In his commentary John for Everyone, Tom Wright points out that this prayer is both a celebration and a petition – a reminder to us that we shouldn't always use prayer as a series of demands! Jesus rejoices that he has completed his work – it really IS finished – and then asks that God will indeed bring in the Kingdom, as Jesus is exalted as Messiah...and that each one of his followers should grasp and enter into that Kingdom, on the way that leads to everlasting life.
“This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God – and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent”
There we have it...
When Jesus is praying for us, at the heart of his prayer is the longing that we would know him and know his Father...
That is all we need for ourselves...a deep heart-knowledge of God.
But, even in this passage, there is more.
Eternal life is never a private gift to be squirrelled away but something to share.
As Luke's account of the Ascension makes clear, we are not simply to be witnesses who stand by and do nothing. We are to take what we have seen and experienced, that message of eternal life, and share it with the world...and our witness will stand or fall on our unity
Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
Hearing those words in this place of reconciliation, they strike me with a new force.
Ut unum sint.
That they may be one.
People united by the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ – and empowered by that knowledge to share God's love so that all people may share that gift of eternal life.