Sermon Seeds: Join the Witness
May, 16, 2021
Seventh Sunday of Easter Year B
(Liturgical Color: White)
Acts 1:15–17, 21–26
1 John 5:9–13
Join the Witness
By Cheryl Lindsay
The third verse of the song “Somebody Prayed for Me” remind us that
My Jesus prayed for me,
had me on his mind,
took the time to pray for me.
I’m so glad he prayed,
I’m so glad he prayed,
I’m so glad he prayed for me.
Jesus prayed and prays for us and within chapter 17 of the gospel according to John, we find a fervent and intimate prayer of Jesus for those who believe in him, who have been given to him, and who are, like him, called into this ministry of glorifying the name of the Holy One. The song ends there, but it begins with “somebody.” It’s an expansive acknowledgement that there are prayers uttered on our behalf without our knowledge or permission. When I hear the song, I am reminded that there are people we don’t have to ask to pray for us because the strength of the connection, in whatever form it may take, compels them to remember us in this way.
The gratitude expressed in these words is for an unknown prayer that has been answered, prayers that result in unexpected blessings and unanticipated opportunities. When we receive a gift that only God can manifest, individually or collectively, we can thank our spiritual ancestors and contemporary prayer circles for taking the time to pray for us, especially in those times when we did not how to pray, didn’t have the will or desire to pray, or did not experience a connection in prayer.
No one has prayed more for us than Jesus. In some ways, the earthly ministry of Jesus was prayer itself, the ultimate expression of intercessory prayer in which the One (in whose divine image we are created) advocates on our behalf as a living prayer.
Many of us can think of those people in our lives and we probably can surmise the nature of those prayers they uttered. Expecting parents may focus on health and well-being while parents of tweens and teens may evolve in their prayer content. Grandparents or those desiring to be grandparents have a different perspective as well. Friends pray for us one way and colleagues may have a different agenda. A pastor prays the congregation with a different emphasis than a congregation for the pastor.
So how does Jesus pray for us?
If we remember, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he provided not only a specific prayer but a model that we can follow. That prayer begins with direct address and adoration, acknowledgement of divine will with a plea and declaration of allegiance for the kin-dom, petition for needs to be met and relationships to be restored, request for protection, shielding and deliverance, and a final acknowledgement of divine sovereignty. In the prayer found in this week’s passage, Jesus utilizes that same framework. He addresses the Father, not to be paternalistic, but to signify an intimate relationship. Change the name to Mother or Parent, and the meaning remains. Sometimes, emphasizing the Parent-Child metaphor for this divine relationship leads us to think of Jesus as subordinate to the Parent, but anyone who has been the adult child of a parent in need of care knows how those roles can shift. And any loving parental figure can attest to the ways in which the needs of the child take priority. We are invited to consider the relationship as loving, mutual, honoring, and respectful in which both give fully for the benefit of the other and of the relationships.
At times, this passage is also used to suggest that Jesus only prays for believers, when it’s far more likely that this was a prayer for believers to live out their faith in particular ways rather than to exclude those who do not follow Jesus. John writes to an audience of believers. Clinton Morris and Mark Appold offer helpful perspectives:
John’s Gospel is notable not for the many deeds of Jesus it records but for the profound exposition of the few it selects. In characteristic manner, this prayer represents no mere remembrance of a prayer uttered by Jesus at the Last Supper, but it is the total dedication of the Son to the Father. It concentrates in one place all the prayers of Jesus to the Father.3 In so doing, John emphasizes the fact that Jesus had only one prayer, after all—Thy will be done—and that this prayer, conforming to the scope of that will, was also a prayer for the consecration of the Disciples for participation in the one work for the Father’s glory. The purpose of God revealed in Jesus comprises the history of both Israel and the church, the whole redemptive mission since the foundation of the world (17:5, 24). The consecration and commissioning of the Disciples, then, was no private transaction but a work of God, whose unity of purpose could have no finer expression than this prayer of the Son to the Father. (Clinton D. Morrison)
The Johannine church lives in the contemporary power of the real presence of Christ. This relationship determines the whole understanding of church. Here is a community of people who have received a new identity. For them faith is real and personal. The voice of the Shepherd is continually heard and experienced. They know their Lord even as they are known by him. Faith is lived out in the tangible terms of seeing, hearing, and knowing. (Mark Appold)
John does not write to introduce anyone to Jesus, he understands that his readers would have already possessed a faithful relationship. His goal is to reveal God’s purpose and plan in Christ and in the church. Mary L. Coloe situates the prayer this way:
In narrative time, Jesus is at table with his disciples (13:4),3 but even now he is moving towards his Father as he directs his gaze and his words heavenward.4 There is a tradition of leaders giving departing words to their followers, known as a “Testament.”5 Biblical examples can be seen in Jacob’s final words to and blessing of his sons (Gen 49), Moses’ final words to the people of Israel in the Book of Deuteronomy, especially Chapter 34, and the prayer of Jesus ben Sirach (Sir 51). But while there are similarities between John 17 and the Jewish testament tradition, there are other quite unique features that have been described as “genre bending.”6 First, through his passion, Jesus is returning to where he once was. Second, Jesus’ passion is not a process of death but of glorification.7 Third, John 17 exhibits clearly what has been a feature of this Gospel, namely the blurring of time and space. Finally, Jesus’ words depart from the traditional ‘blessing’ form and are words of commission as the disciples are sent as the Father sent Jesus (17:18). (Mary L. Coloe)
The content of the prayer contains three distinct asks:
- Presence: Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. (v. 11)
- Protection: I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. (v.15)
- Perfecting: Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. (v. 17)
The prayer contains more than these requests in the same way that the model prayer Jesus taught did; these petitions flow from the statements that Jesus makes in his conversation with the One who sent him as he in unity with the Father sends those who Jesus has invited into a relationship that mimics divine union. To know the name of God is the gift of knowing God more fully, deeply, and intimately. The name of God was understood to reflect the presence of God showing up in particular ways in the life of God’s people. The giving Jesus refers to in this passage reflects growing familiarity, transparency, and love that cultivates more connection and union.
The protection Jesus seeks for his disciples is not one that depends upon isolation or avoidance. Jesus expects those who follow him to also be vulnerable to the evil one and the evils of this world. Specifically, Jesus makes it clear that his will is for followers to be actively engaged in the world but held, upholded, and strengthened by God even as they provide a distinct witness of the Jesus way of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration that threatens the systems and the powers of the world. Following Jesus is a journey that takes us to the glory of the resurrected life by way of the cross. It’s dangerous, perilous, and, at times, heartbreakingly lonely. It was for Jesus, and he knows, it will be for those who truly commit to this life. Yet, at the same time, the glory on the other side can only be fueled through the fire of the journey.
The journey of the caterpillar to becoming a butterfly is often cited as a metaphor for Christ’s journey to resurrection. It’s especially helpful if we take a moment to forget that we know the butterfly is coming and just consider the process. Scientific American explains it this way:
One day, the caterpillar stops eating, hangs upside down from a twig or leaf and spins itself a silky cocoon or molts into a shiny chrysalis. Within its protective casing, the caterpillar radically transforms its body, eventually emerging as a butterfly or moth.
The caterpillar has to do a thing that should lead to its demise in order to start the journey. The caterpillar has to give up the familiar and the safe. The caterpillar has to be willing to take that risk, turn itself upside down, enter into an unknown environment, and become something different. I imagine there might be pain, or at least discomfort, in the transformation. I also imagine that there are times when something goes wrong and the transformation goes unfulfilled.
But until I read this particular explanation, I had not considered that the emerging new being could end up, not a butterfly, but a moth.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a caterpillar. The only reason to go through that elaborate and perilous process is for the possibility to become a butterfly. It’s the promise of the glory at the end that propels us through the pain of the perfecting. Jesus knew that his disciples would lead perilous lives. There would be danger, pain, and transformation in the process. But he wanted them to enter the glory. Peter, James, and John received a glimpse on the Mount of Transfiguration, but Jesus wanted–and wants–all who join in this journey toward the resurrected life to experience the glory found on the other side of the cocoon and to emerge as the butterfly not the moth.
The moth goes through the same journey and is diminished by it; the butterfly is beautified by it. The limits of metaphors forces us to recognize that we don’t have the luxury of a silky cocoon to shield us in our transformation. But what we do have, because Jesus prayed for us, is the safety and security of belonging to God–of being joined to God in union, purpose, and love.
One final note: in this gospel, there is a character called the Beloved Disciple. Traditionally, this description has been linked to the gospel writer. Some scholars have speculated that this term was used for a variety of disciples, rather than one specific one, to reflect the special relationship that Jesus enjoyed with those he called first to join him in ministry on earth. Still others take that hypothesis and expand on it to suggest that the Beloved Disciple stands in for all of us as an invitation into the story to see ourselves in the same light of that witness to the gospel events. I tend to fall into this latter school of thought especially as it relates to this prayer, even though the term Beloved Disciple isn’t specifically used here. It permeates every word spoken on behalf of those whom Jesus so dearly and deeply loves.
So let us be Jesus’ answered prayer. Let us join the witness…
…in union with God
…in the world, but not of it
…being perfected in God’s truth and love.
I’m so glad Jesus prayed.
For further reflection:
“I live by grace to witness about the wonders of God.” ― Lailah Gifty Akita”
“I would have preferred someone else to have been in charge of rescuing this story, but once again life has taught me that my role is to be a witness, not the leading actor.” ― Carlos Ruiz Zafón”
“Even on the cross He did not hide Himself from sight; rather, He made all creation witness to the presence of its Maker.” ― St. Athanasius”
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
Invite members of the congregation to choose someone to pray for who is not expecting it in an intentional way without revealing it to the chosen person. They may also chose an organization, institution, or community. This is an invitation to be the “somebody who prayed.”
Appold, Mark. “Christ Alive, Church Alive: Reflections on the Prayer of Jesus in John 17.” Currents in Theology
and Mission 5, no. 6 (December 1978): 365–73.
Coloe, Mary L. “John 17:1-26: The Missionary Prayer of Jesus.” Australian Biblical Review 66 (2018): 1–12.
Morrison, Clinton D. “Mission and Ethic: An Interpretation of John 17.” Interpretation 19, no. 3 (July 1965): 259–
Ferris Jabr. “How Does a Caterpillar Turn into a Butterfly?” Scientific American. August 10, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Acts 1:15–17, 21–26
1 John 5:9–13
Acts 1:15–17, 21–26
15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16 “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17 for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”
21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” 23 So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
1 Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3 They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
1 John 5:9–13
9 If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. 10 Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
6 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.