Robert P. Hoch
May 24, 2020
One of the bonuses of being married to a Brit is that you learn folksy expressions that you would never know about otherwise. One of my favorites is “curtain-twitching.” You almost guess the meaning by how you might be caught by your neighbor, and they know they’ve caught you, and you quickly drop the curtain back into place, and wander off, looking all innocent. But you know you’ve been caught, snooping on your neighbors . . . pulling a curtain back just a little, to peak at your neighbor’s life, without them knowing that you’re snooping into what they’re up to — curtain-twitching.
And that’s what we hear in the Gospel of John. We’re eavesdropping on a prayer between Jesus and God. As we study this prayer, as we do a little curtain-twitching of our own, we want to keep a few things in mind.
First, John’s literary style: John’s Jesus speaks in patterns and motifs, repetitions, and dynamic relations. Don’t listen for a logical flow; if you listen for logic, you will be disappointed. Listen instead for patterns of reciprocity, of delicate balance, unity with God and Jesus and the believing community, and the difference between God, Jesus, and the believing community. Motifs, repetitions, and dynamic relations.
Second, the narrative context of this prayer: In terms of genre, John is using a form that would have been well-known to the disciples. It’s a bit like the death bed scene, and these are the last words being spoken, and dying person’s voice is raspy and it’s the only thing in the world that matters. Jesus’ last words. There’s something to that — John deliberately suggests this connection, by placing it as a bridge between the completion of Jesus’ teaching and the beginning of Jesus’ suffering and death. It’s suggested but it’s not an exact fit. As we get into this prayer, we find that suffering and death are temporary and point to God’s victory over death.
Third, Jesus prays the longest prayer of any of Jesus’ prayers in the gospels; that tells us it’s significant. More importantly than the sheer length of the prayer, the narrator suggests this importance through a sharp and unmistakable change in dialogue partners in 17:1 — “After Jesus had spoken these words [to his disciples], he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come. . . .” Jesus addresses God, no one else in the room; the hour which had not arrived has now arrived (seems dramatic). The hour means the beginning of Jesus’ suffering, the beginning of Jesus’ ascension, and ultimate glorification.
Finally, the prayer is intimate: Jesus calls to God using a familiar and intimate name, father. Think of a personal term of endearment rather than a title or a gender. And Jesus communicates with God following an I/you pattern:
“I glorified you . . . now, Father, you glorify me;
as you have sent me into the world,
so I have sent them into the world.
The glory that you gave to me, I have given them.”
It may make you wonder, how are we supposed to listen to this prayer? Is it even appropriate?
Back in seminary, I had a tennis date with another student. So I showed up at his dorm door and knocked. A moment later, the door opened a couple of inches. I had my racket in my hand. Said, “Bruce, you ready?” He said, “No, I’m having a real deep time with God right now. I’ll talk to you later.” And he shut the door.
Thankfully, John doesn’t shut the door. John leaves the door ajar for us to listen. Or invites us to peek, to flick back the curtain on this mystery, and listen. John puts us in the same place as the disciples, listening in on Jesus’ prayer for them. Wouldn’t you like to hear that prayer?Maybe it’s a different way of hearing Jesus. Jesus isn’t answering our questions. Jesus isn’t talking to us or with us. Now, he’s praying to God . . . for us. We’re accustomed to being cast in the second person plural and occasionally the second-person singular, you all or you yourself, but today we’re in the third person plural, “they” and “them” — we can hear a conversation that involves us but does not include us.
On Friday, I was with our prayer group . . . praying. And usually, at that hour, I’m the only one up in our home. But that day I heard noise in the kitchen. Banging around. Pots and pans and activity. During our Zoom group, I kept asking myself, “Rebecca’s being really noisy this morning . . . not like her at all.” When the group finished, I walked into the kitchen to see that Gabriel had completed making his first waffle . . . from scratch! He seemed deferential as if he had heard our prayers . . . and knew, somehow, we were in a place of intimate communion. He’s heard me pray before, but, somehow, he seemed a little more — how do I say it? — aware that something different was taking place. Something intimate, holy, and yet very much in this world. Literally, right next to the kitchen. Do you imagine Gabriel was following those prayers?
Those prayers were perhaps powerful precisely because he overhead them. Not that he understood them . . . understanding is overrated; but overhearing something salacious, something gossipy, or something holy. That can be quite powerful.
Biblical scholar Gail R. O’Day asks what if this text in John were the basis of our self-description to the world? She says maybe our motto might be, “We are a community for whom Jesus prays” (Gail R. O’Day, New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, 798). What kind of mission would flow out of that motto? Maybe it would be less about what we do, and more about who prays for us. This Jesus prays for our community. And maybe, if I were new in the neighborhood, I would want to stop by, see if I could listen in on or perhaps even overhear Jesus’ prayer on behalf of this community. And maybe I’d get a glimpse of the kind of community formed in that prayer. Gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor. Evangelical and liberal. Republican and Democrat. United but not the same. A community for whom Jesus prays. Maybe if they were to eavesdrop on this community, they would see us looking into heaven. And Jesus looks to heaven. But it’s not escapism. Jesus prays that we will be in the world, but not of the world.
What could that mean for us? We have a building . . . and we’re not using it a lot these days. We really can’t worship in residence, no matter what number 45 wants to order. That world is gone for the time being. Not forever, but for a while. But people still need housing. People still need shelter. A place where they feel secure, a place they can call home, a place where they can get the help they need.
We may not be worshiping for a while in the sanctuary of First & Franklin, but we’re still in the world where people face food insecurity. We may not be worshipping shoulder to shoulder in the sanctuary of First & Franklin. But we’re still in a polarized world, and how we live with one another and our differences, and how we live through our conflicts, and how we practice reconciliation speaks to a unity that is glorious to behold. Conflict may not feel beautiful. But unity, true unity, comes through healthy conflict. We’re an inclusive church. That didn’t come cheaply.
Jesus knew we were listening in on his prayer . . . and we know that the world is watching us, the half-believing, half-doubting world, curtain-twitching world. That means this is a different space than other spaces. God fills this space. And yet, it’s also the world. It’s Gabriel, busy making waffles, and he can overhear readings, stillness without need for explanation, connections. Different spaces cohabiting with ordinary space. Ordinary space where you experience marital difficulties; ordinary space where you worry and know trouble; ordinary space and yet, we look to heaven and are bold to pray . . .
We thank you, O God, for the presence of Christ in our weakness and suffering . . .
God of grace, let our concern for others reflect Christ’s self-giving love, not only in our prayers, but also in our practice . . .
Especially we pray for . . .
those subjected to tyranny and oppression . . .
wounded and injured people . . .
and those who face death . . .
What if you, one who faces death, overheard that community in prayer? What if you, feeling low with depression, were to eavesdrop on that prayer? What if you were to find that door wedged open, and hear those songs from within? What if you, languishing in prison, were to hear, by some distant mercy, the song of freedom, panting with your name?
What if you, what if we hear that prayer, the prayer of Jesus, even as the hour of the pandemic is hard upon us?
We are preparing to say farewell to the world we knew . . .
If we were to walk in on Jesus, praying for our community, what would we hear? If we were to pull back the curtain, whose presence would we begin to feel?
And who might look back at us?