“Joining Jesus in a Prayer for Unity”Dan B. Scott John 17:20-26 Year C - Seventh Sunday of Easter
My friend Tom knows how to laugh. He has had a lot to laugh (and cry) about in his eighty-nine years. He also knows how to make an important point with humor. Several years ago we were driving down a rural road on our way to a funeral. We passed the Fellowship Baptist Church. About a mile further we drove past the New Fellowship Baptist Church. In two more miles we encountered the Friendship Baptist Church. Up to that point neither of us had uttered a word. Then Tom said it. “Well, it looks like all hell broke loose again right here in the Bible belt.” I knew exactly what he meant.
We Christians are so divided, not only by denominations, but by everything from politics to personality. Some of our divisions may be important; many are petty. We may sing about the “sweet, sweet Spirit” or that we are “one in the bond of love”, but honestly, it isn’t always sweet and we are nowhere near one. We Christians are like a puzzle with a million pieces. Where would we even start to bring even a little unity out of our chaos? Maybe we could begin by praying; or more precisely, maybe we could join Jesus in his prayer for unity.
How did Jesus pray for his disciples in John 17?
I’m praying not only for them
But also for those who will believe in me
Because of them and their witness about me.
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.
The same glory you gave me, I gave them,
So they’ll be as unified and together as we are—
I in them and you in me.
Then they’ll be mature in this oneness,
And give the godless world evidence
That you’ve sent me and loved them
In the same way you’ve loved me.
(The Message by Eugene Peterson)
“So they’ll be as unified and together as we are.” Can we even hear that challenge in our divisive day? Is unity at all possible? Was Jesus dreaming? Where would we start? How could you and I join Jesus in this prayer for unity? How would Jesus instruct us to pray?
Perhaps we should begin by praying for those who have intentionally treated us badly. “Pray for those who abuse you”, Jesus told that crowd who came to listen to his challenging words (Luke 6:28). I doubt if he has changed his mind over the centuries. It is a basic Christian command to “do good to those who hate you.”
I have a brilliant colleague who often spouts his criticisms about popular Christianity. One day as we left a meeting where he had been especially critical, I asked him how he would change things. He responded, “Well, we could start with a little basic kindness.” I knew exactly what he meant. Let me be direct. Some of the meanest people I have ever encountered, I encountered in church. I’ve taken a poll. I am not alone!
As I write these words I’m thinking about a specific person. He has never treated me with kindness or respect. He is as close to an enemy as I have ever known. He does not like me; I do not like him. When I see him it is all I can do to be civil. Having said all of that, I believe it is my Christian calling to pray for him often. My prayers may not lead to reconciliation or unity, but they are a beginning. You and I are not commanded to like abusive people, but we are called to pray for them. The command to love does not demand emotional dishonesty, but it does require behavior that looks and acts like Jesus.
We can also pray for people who are difficult and demanding. Many people in our congregations are are not mean-spirited or abusive, but they are difficult. Some are needy. Some are lonely. Some are demanding. Some are anxious. Some are so serious and intense. Some are aggressive. Yes, some are hostile, but it isn’t personal. I work with teenagers. On some days they come to school laughing and ready to learn, but on other days they come with tears in their eyes and mayhem in their minds. They can be delightful; they can be difficult.
If you are a minister, you know about difficult people. A woman in one of my former congregations comes to mind. She has a good heart and certainly means no harm, but she is loud and emotional and demanding. Above all, she is time-consuming. Most people run in the opposite direction when they see her coming. That only increases her loneliness…and her phone calls to the clergy! She is difficult.
What do we do with difficult people, especially God’s difficult people? Yes, we can set time limits, establish boundaries, and be as gentle as is emotionally possible. But above all, we can pray for them, because they too are part of our oneness.
A former minister to youth told me about an adolescent who was especially difficult. She almost gave up trying to have any influence in his life. Finally, she simply began to pray for him. She asked God to somehow find a way to “love him through me.” She turned loose of her frustration over his attitude and actions, and surprisingly quickly, he became more responsive. He opened up to her overtures. “It was like a miracle”, she reported. Maybe it was!
One final thought…we can pray for those we cannot change. Sometimes our actions are counterproductive. We push too hard. We do it to our children. We do it in our churches. We do it in our sermons. If I were pastoring again, I would be more cautious about the burdens I might be tempted to lay on people. I would relax more and play more with the people I serve. I would have a lighter touch. Above all, I would pray more and push less. Notice that Jesus did not try to cram unity down the throats of his disciples. No heavy hand here. Instead, he prayed for them; and for us. He prayed for the unity he so wanted to see.
The famous Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, comes to mind:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
I might paraphrase…
God, grant me the serenity and patience to deal with difficult people,
the courage to confront them when confrontation is loving,
and above all, the willingness to pray for them often.
About the writer: Dan B. Scott is the chaplain of the Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a position he has held since 2003. He was the senior minister of the First Baptist Church in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia from 1975 to 2001. He also served for a decade as chaplain and spiritual counselor to adolescents at the Cumberland Hall Psychiatric Hospital in Chattanooga. In 2012, Dan published the Baylor Prayers (Parson’s Porch Books), a collection of public prayers given as Baylor chaplain.
A native of Ft. Worth, Texas, Dan is a graduate of Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee and received his Master of Divinity degree from the Southwestern Theological Seminary. He has further study at Southeastern Theological Seminary, Georgetown University, and the University of Oxford.
In addition to pastoring, teaching and counseling, Dan has served on the President’s Advisory Board of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia and the Pastoral Care Board of Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga. Dan is married to Kathy, a licensed counselor and social worker. They have a blended family of six adult children and eight grandchildren. Dan and Kathy live near Chickamauga Park in North Georgia with four spoiled dogs.
Scripture and Music
Year C – Seventh Sunday of Easter
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21.
The Head That Once Was Crowned
My Hope Is Built
Jesus Shall Reign
Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise
Crown Him with Many Crowns
Christ Is Alive!
Redeemer of Israel (Mack Wilberg)
Gracious Spirit, Dwell with Me (K. Lee Scott)
Ye Shall Receive Power
God Is Our Refuge and Strength (Allen Pote)
Sing Unto God (G.F. Handel)
How Excellent Is Thy Name (Eugene Butler)
Shout for Joy (Stan Pethel)
I Know That My Redeemer Liveth (G.F. Handel)
Calvary s Love (Mohr)
There Is A Savior