How to pray in times like these

In the light of recent events in the news – the ISIS threat, the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, the continuing erosion of religious freedom, and the slaughter of nine Christians at a Bible study in a South Carolina Church – I’ve been wondering what Jesus must think of all this.

More specifically, I wonder what Jesus, who according to the Bible “always lives to intercede for us,” might be praying for us. In a time when traditional morality has been turned on its head and Christians around the world are again losing their heads to vicious religious zealots, how is Jesus praying for his Church?

Before attempting to answer that question, it is necessary to remind ourselves that things weren’t any better in the early days of the Church. Christians were hounded by pagans and Jews alike. They were imprisoned and beaten, killed and sometimes beheaded.

There was nothing like a universally accepted moral code in those days either. The sexual behavior sanctioned in places like ancient Corinth was as shocking as anything that happens in the world’s red light districts today. Greed and violence were just as powerful in the first century as they are in the twenty-first.

So, if we want to know what Jesus is praying for today, we ought to start by asking what he was praying then. What was on his mind? Was he praying for a regime change in Rome or for the liberation of Israel? Was he praying for an expansion of religious freedoms or for an end to sectarian violence?

We don’t know. He certainly may have prayed for these things, but none of them are mentioned in his recorded prayers, including the great prayer of John 17. There his concern seems to fall into two categories: God’s glory and his followers’ protection.

Jesus prayed for God’s glory. He knew that the world cannot be healed until its people have experienced it. Now it’s true that God’s glory has been used to justify the violent suppression of religious (and sometimes non-religious) groups, but that is a smokescreen. In such cases, it’s not really God’s glory people care about, but their own. The propagandist’s job is to convince the world the cause is divine, but you can be sure God has nothing to do with it.

Jesus prayed for both God’s glory and his people’s protection, but it was clearly not protection from violence that was uppermost in his mind. He told his disciples plainly and repeatedly to expect suffering. They would “be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and … hated by all nations…” In the verse that immediately precedes the great prayer of John 17, Jesus as much as guaranteed his followers that trouble (and, eventually, victory) was coming.

How does this guarantee fit with his prayer for their protection? The answer seems to be that it was not protection from bodily injury but protection from “evil” or “the evil one” that he was requesting. It was the protection of their souls that concerned him most. And the greatest threat to their souls, if gauged by the space given to it in Jesus’s prayer, was the threat to their unity. He asked God to protect his people so that they might be unified. He did not ask God to make them prosperous or to place them in positions of influence. He did not pray for political success. He prayed that his followers would be one.

He made that same request for those who would believe and follow him in the future, which would include today’s Christians. In a setting not unlike our own, one of violence, moral anarchy and religious persecution, it was the unity of his people that was uppermost on his mind. He wanted his followers to be united, not in an abstract propositional ecumenism, but in a shared life and love. He knew that this, more than anything else, would protect his people and bring glory to God. In times like these, this is how he prayed, and how he would have us pray too.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, July 3, 2015

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