Pray Like Jesus

By Jeremy Worthen

There are many things that I am not very good at, and one of them is swimming. I remember there being an outdoor pool at my junior school — unless my memory is playing tricks on me — and how summer visits there got more difficult each year as every other child seemed to get the hang of motoring unaided from one end to the other apart from me.

My father, I think, made a determined effort to make sure that when I arrived at secondary school I would be minimally competent as a swimmer, and he just about succeeded, but I was always one of the weakest in the big indoor pool we had then — slow, lacking in stamina, gasping for breath after no distance at all. And the chlorine made my eyes stream for hours afterwards, which afforded more amusement to others than it did to me.

There are many things I am not very good at, and swimming is one of them, but in contrast with many other such things I have, off and on, really wanted to be good at swimming. And that’s because I love being in the sea. We always went on holidays by the sea as children, at least that’s how I remember it, and I still love swimming in the sea, but I’m just a bit rubbish. And I get cold very quickly.

There have been times, however, when I’m in the sea, and heading towards land, and a wave comes up behind me and sweeps me up in its momentum and all of a sudden I’m flying, my feeble efforts are meshing with the power of the ocean and I feel a bit, just a bit, of what it might be like to really swim, to be a proper, powerful swimmer.

It’s easy to feel as Christians that prayer is one of those things that we’re not very good at, and it would be easy for a sermon on John 17 to be heard as just confirming it: Jesus was great at praying, but we’re not, he was the Son of God, but we’re not, so we’ll just stumble on with our rather weak efforts at prayer as best we can.

And therefore the first thing I want to say this evening, and maybe the most important thing: we pray like Jesus by praying with Jesus. We pray like Jesus by praying with Jesus. In fact, there’s no way to pray like Jesus except by praying with him. And Jesus wants us to pray with him and in his strength, in his power, in his name.

The standard formula that comes at the end of many traditional prayers, “in the name of Jesus Christ,” isn’t just a sort of polite sign-off. All our prayer is in him. All our prayer is with him. It’s never just our prayer. When we pray as Christians, which means as those who live in Christ, we’re just riding the wave, we’re just joining ourselves to the unstoppable, unquenchable power of his prayer — who ever lives to make intercession for us, whose Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.

We don’t need to be “good” at prayer, because it’s never something we have to do by ourselves. We just have to join in with the prayer of our crucified Lord, the prayer of our risen high priest, the prayer of the eternal Son of God, the prayer of his body the Church on earth and in heaven. Pray with him, and of course, you will pray like him. One just follows the other.

OK, let’s take a look at the text. My battered old NIV helpfully divides it into three main sections: verses 1-5, verses 6-19, and verses 20-26. Clearly, the whole prayer is woven together, with echoes in each section of phrases and themes from the other. But each section, I want to suggest, focuses on a relationship, a gift, and a plea.

Let’s start with the first section, verses 1-5. The relationship that is in the foreground here is the relationship between the Son and the Father. Openings matter, and this great prayer of Jesus begins with the word Father. To pray like Jesus, we need to pray to the Father. As he taught us to pray: “Our Father in heaven.”

But the Father of who, of what? Not, first and foremost, the father of all creation, or the father of humanity, or even the heavenly father of faithful Christians, but the Father of the Son, the divine Father of the divine Son, the eternal Father of the eternal Son. And the only way we can come to the eternal Father is through the eternal and only begotten Son, and in the Son, and with the Son.

We can’t pray like Jesus without praying Jesus, because only with Jesus can we pray to God the Father, and that is how Jesus prayed, that is how the Son of God made flesh for our salvation prayed on earth, and prays still in heaven. And how can we join that prayer? Not by right, not by our power or our piety, but only by the Holy Spirit whom he sends to us. “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father’” (Gal. 4:6).

What about the gift? The focus in this first section is eternal life: “For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him” (v 3). The Father has given the Son authority and power — not to destroy, not to control, not to overwhelm, but to give eternal life. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Eternal life here does not just mean life after death, though it does mean a life that death cannot quench: it means life that is not limited by sin and evil and the death that is bound up with them. “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (v 3). Knowing God means life.

A relationship, a gift, and a plea. So what is the plea in verses 1-5? For glory — the glory of the Son, in which the Father is glorified. “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you” (v 1). Glory is one of the central themes of this prayer, and if we are to pray like and with Jesus, glory will be a focus for our prayers too.

But we need to pay careful attention to how Jesus prays for the glory of God. If I may caricature for a moment, this isn’t just about wanting God to be respected, to be given honor, to get the credit, as it were. The glory of God is an eternal reality, and it is a reality not of pulverizing power, but of sharing, of giving, of love.

“Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you”: there is, we might way, an exchange of glory between the Father and the Son, with each being glorified in giving glory to the other. And the height of this glory, its unsurpassable manifestation, is the cross. The cross is not somehow the prelude to some other, more glorious act of God. It’s not something that has to be done and got out of the way so that the really glorious stuff can happen. This is the place where God’s glory dwells, his everlasting temple.

“The hour has come,” Jesus prays, and then a few verses later, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (v 5). In the beginning was the Word, the Son of God, with God in the beginning, and sharing before the world began in the eternal divine glory. And it is that glory, that glory from before all worlds, that we see in the broken body of Christ upon the cross, when the hour has come.

When we come to the second and longest section, at verses 6-19, there is a change in focus from the relationship between the Son and the Father to the relationship between the Son and those who belong to him. The gift here is what mediates and establishes that relationship, which is God’s Word.

“For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them” (v. 8); “I have given them your word” (v. 14) — your logos in Greek — recalling the prologue to the whole gospel in chapter 1, which identifies Jesus himself as the eternal Logos, eternal Word, with God from the beginning. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. That is how we receive God’s Word, through the self-giving, the self-emptying of God himself, to share with us his very self, so that we might come to know him and in that knowing be made alive, truly and fully and eternally.

The plea in this part of the prayer might be summarized under the heading of truth. “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me” (v 11), or more literally, “Keep them in your name which you gave me.”

The name of God is not something arbitrarily chosen, but is rather a word revealed by God to declare the truth of who he is, who he is for us. To remain in God’s name is to remain in his truth, and to be changed by that. This then links also to verse 17: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” The word we have been given through Jesus is the name that binds us to God and the truth that makes us holy and therefore sets us free.

In the first section, the relationship focused on is that between the Father and the Son, the gift is eternal life, and the plea is for God’s glory.

In the second section, the relationship is between the Son and those who belong to him, the gift is the word of God, and the plea is for his truth, to keep us and sanctify us.

In the third and final section, verses 20-26, the relationship focused on is that between those who believe now and those who do not yet believe. The gift is glory. And the plea is for the mutual indwelling of love. Let me say a few words about each of those.

Jesus begins this section by saying, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message” (v 20). But this is a horizon with no clear limit. The sentence continues: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (v 21). The desire of the Son is that the world may believe, and that needs to be our desire too.

As in the other two sections, Jesus names something that he as the Son of the Father gives from what the Father has given to him to those who are his own. And here we come back to the theme of glory, not as the plea, as it was in the first section, but as the gift, from the Son to those who believe: “I have given them the glory that you gave me” (v 22).

In eternity, the Father gives of himself to the Son, and in history the Son gives of himself to beloved humanity, being obedient to death, even death on a cross, so that we might share the glory of God that is shared by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Son wants us to be with him where he is — exalted at the Father’s right hand — so that we may see his glory, “the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (v 24).

As in the other two sections, the gift is inseparable from the plea, which I’ve characterized here as the mutual indwelling of love. Jesus prays “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (vv. 21-23). “I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (v26).

Let me go back to that picture I started with. If you want to catch the ocean’s waves and swim with their power, you have to pay attention, you have to know their rhythm, their patterns. And if we want to pray as children of God through Jesus Christ, praying with Jesus and therefore praying like Jesus, then it would be good to study the patterns and the rhythm of prayer that are revealed in this chapter.

I’ve tried to say that part of this pattern is the relationships that frame this prayer: the eternal life of the Trinity as the ground and the ultimate source of our prayer; the relationship between the Son of God and all who trust in him as a subject of passionate concern for us as it was to Jesus — not just people we know in churches here but all who trust in him, across the whole world, who belong to the Lord Jesus Christ; and then opening out onto all who do not yet believe, that we may come together in faith, that the whole world may believe.

And the rhythm here always includes dwelling with wonder and thanksgiving on the gift, what God has done for us in Christ, what the Son gives to us as he has received from the Father: eternal life, which is the knowledge of God and comes through the Word of God and leads to the sharing of the glory that the Son has from the Father.

And in the confidence of naming and receiving those gifts, we share in the pleading of Christ that the glory of the cross would be known, that the truth of God’s Word would keep us and sanctify us, and that the depth of God’s love would draw us deeper and deeper into union with him and unity with one another as the Son of God dwells within us and amongst us and unites us to his prayer, his life, his glory.

The Rev. Dr. Jeremy Worthen is team rector of Ashton Town Parish, Kent, England.


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