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Sometimes I think it would be so much easier to be a disciple if Jesus walked among us in the flesh. If he would drop by the office here from time to time and we would chat and maybe go grab a cup of coffee or go for a walk and spend the afternoon together. He would tell me what was going well and not so well here at church and then perhaps confront me with the glaring inadequacies and shortcomings of my own life and I would say, "Yeah, I know. You're right about that. I'll try and knock that off." Just an occasional face-to-face visit would be helpful. Maybe once a quarter. Heck, I'd even settle for once a year.

You know it's not easy to be a disciple of Jesus. It was hard enough for those twelve who followed him around for a couple of years or so -- those who could touch him and argue with him, pray with him, and stand in awe of him. But if you put 2,000 years between then and now it gets even harder. A friend of mine calls us "disciples once-removed,"1 but in truth we are disciples many times removed. More and more people in our culture are calling us hopelessly na•ve, praying to a Lord we cannot see, trusting in stories that have been passed down by dubious means, living a promise that can never be proven. It's tough to be a disciple in today's world. And I suspect it will be even tougher for generations yet to come.

John 17, the entire chapter, is a long remarkable prayer. In chapter 18, Jesus is arrested by soldiers in a set-up that leads to his trial and crucifixion. I find this to be a rather remarkable sequence. Jesus must have known that he was about to be arrested and yet he prayed! He prayed a lingering, unhurried prayer that night at precisely the same time the soldiers were in route, plotting their ambush. I believe I would have considered a handful of other activities than prayer, such as running, maybe hiding.

But Jesus prays. He prays this beautiful chapter-long prayer that resembles the surface of a pond after throwing a stone into its middle. And we get to listen in. First, Jesus prays for himself. That's the first ring of the splash. He knows what's about to happen this night. "So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed" (17:5). These two have been on speaking terms, apparently, for some time.

Then Jesus prays for the twelve men who have been his companions in this ministry, asking that God might protect them and keep them strong in the face of adversity. "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one" (17:15). That's the second prayer ring on the surface of the pond.

And then Jesus prays for another surprising group. "I ask not only on behalf of these [disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word." In other words, Jesus is praying for us! That's the third ring in the pond. On the night that he was betrayed, with the soldiers waiting in the garden hedges, Jesus peeks into the future with this prayer and sees disciples just like us. Jesus is praying for people of every time and place who try to follow him without the benefit of direct physical contact.

Hey, we've made it into the Bible after all, come to think of it. Jesus is kneeling and pouring out his heart to God and suddenly stops and says, "Father, I do not pray for Peter and James and John and Andrew and Bartholomew only, but I also pray for Mary Jane and Ernie and Linda and Lukas and Velma and Kat and Jill and Christopher and David ... and (insert your own name)." Isn't it incredible that Jesus would be able to squint into the future with his prayers and remember us long before we were a wiggling zygote, long before we were a gleam in our parents' eyes, long before our great-great-great-great grandparents went to Sunday school? "I ask not only on behalf of these, but on behalf of those who will believe." It's remarkably comforting for me to know that Jesus understands how hard it is for me to be a Christian.

Jesus has loved us for so long. He has been praying for us for so long. And I'm convinced he is praying for us still, ceaselessly interceding. Jesus has loved us for so long and his love is so much deeper and stronger than any other love, that we are able to rest in confident assurance regardless of the predicament we are facing. The man knew the soldiers were coming for him, and yet he calmly prayed! That same peace is available to each of us! How might our prayer lives change if we sat quietly each day knowing that we not only pray to this man of peace but also begin to understand that Jesus has already been praying for us all this time, such a very long time?

Next week we celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. And do you recall one of the gifts brought by the Spirit to the church? "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God" (Romans 8:26-27). Wow! Before we open our mouths in petition, we are being prayed for. Perhaps our devotional lives would be enriched if we regularly got quiet and became confident that Jesus has already been praying for us all through the day and night before we thought to open our mouths to ask him about something.

What might such a spiritual consciousness mean for young people, for example, who are fearful of the future and worried about what to do with their lives? What might such a spiritual awareness mean for couples whose marriages are in trouble? For older people who face illness and uncertainty about what the coming year might bring? For pastors who lose sleep worrying about the churches they serve? For any of us who wonder from time to time what Jesus is up to in the world? "I do not ask only on behalf of these," said Jesus, "but also on behalf of those who will believe." What is Jesus up to? I'll tell you what Jesus is up to. Jesus is praying for us. For disciples once-removed and a thousand times removed. It has become wonderfully liberating for me to believe that he is still at it.

I want to close this morning with an old prayer from the Danish theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, who died in 1855 at the age of 42. He struggled with the meaning of faith as deeply as any theologian in recent Christian memory. "Father in heaven! You have loved us first. Help us never to forget that You are love so that this sure conviction might triumph in our hearts over the seduction of the world, over the inquietude of the soul, over the anxiety of the future, over the fright of the past, over the distress of the moment. You have loved us first, O God, alas! We speak of it in terms of history as if You have only loved us first but a single time, rather than without ceasing. You have loved us first many times and every day and our whole life through."2

____________

1. Pastor Ron Luckey, Faith Lutheran Church (Lexington, Kentucky).

2. Cited in Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith, Devotional Classics (HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), p. 107.
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