Will Scott: The unanswered prayer of Jesus

Will Scott

Near the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus says farewell to his disciples by praying for them. Jesus prays that we will be one, as he is one with God.

The prayer is a resounding affirmation of unity. It anticipates a time when God will be “all in all”; when the lion shall lie down with the lamb; and swords will be broken into plowshares. Peace and goodwill — all the things we might hope for — all because we will be one. Jesus prays for an ideal — and then we remember how far we are away from that ideal.

How can we be “one” when there is so much division in our churches, in our world? How can we be one when we’re socially distanced? What happens when God doesn’t answer even Jesus’ prayers?

A cursory look at the news show that we are not living according to the intention of Jesus Christ. The country is more divided than ever. Pandemic responses can be predicted with near certainty based on political affiliation. According to one poll, for instance, 91% of Democrats are concerned about the country reopening too soon, and 61% of Republicans are worried that it is opening up too late. We wonder where people get such disparate information about what should be an objective reality, even if informed people disagree how to address it. Of course, this does mean that people don’t still disagree with recommended public health advice to address the virus, with mask-wearing and social-distancing concerns also following political lines pretty closely.

But if numbers sound too abstract consider the division acted and articulated in daily life. A local politician in California wonders if the pandemic is a gift to remove the economically unproductive from society.

A man berates an employee at Costco for enforcing the company’s mask policy, refusing him entrance to the store.

An employee at Target has his arm broken for attempting the same.

A man in Mississippi spits in the face of a local pastor for going outside while wearing a mask.

A Family Dollar employee is killed for asking a customer to abide by safe distancing guidelines.

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

I have to imagine that Jesus’ heart breaks when his prayers aren’t answered, too.

There is a way to quibble with what I’ve said so far, which is that Jesus is speaking of his disciples in particular. He knows that they will face a hard and broken world (just consider what happens to Jesus next). We might not expect such unity from the broken and sinful world; maybe we can hold out hope for the church — us disciples of Jesus Christ today. But a closer look at churches demonstrates that we’re not doing much better.

A church in Louisiana gains national attention by continuing to hold services against the advice of public health officials and a mandated stay at home order. When parishioners become sick the pastor demurs, and is later charged with assault after aggressively driving his bus in the vicinity of a protestor, who was on foot.

Churches sue local officials for a right to worship against public health guidelines, claiming persecution as government regulations temporarily prohibit public worship.

None of this is especially surprising. Christians, like everyone else, have political disagreement and, especially, church disagreement. We may disagree more than the public at large because we have so many meetings — so much practice with disagreement. We also belong to different traditions that have long-embedded political and theological approaches that expose difference as much as they do unity.

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

There is no vision of national unity or church unity that could satisfy Jesus’ prayer. We see more brokenness and fragmentation, so much so that it’s hard to imagine the world any other way. Government structures crumble. Public trust devolves to all-time lows. Religious institutions bleed members. The world falls apart and we wonder why God will not answer Jesus’ prayer.

Jesus’ prayer continues for several more verses in the Gospel of John. But eventually he has to get up and face what’s next. He and his disciples go out. He finds his betrayer, bringing soldiers to carry him away, one more sign of the world’s disunity and brokenness. But before that encounter Jesus prays one more time (at least in the other Gospels). He pleads with God to take him off the road he has to walk. But his prayer ends, as they all do, in an expression of trust: “not my will, but yours be done.”

This is God’s answer. God in Jesus Christ goes to the cross, suffering the depths of agony so that the solidarity of God with God’s people will remind us of hope in just our broken places, even if the broken places are within ourselves. The source of our unity and our strength is never in our ability to get things right. It remains, as it always has, in the love of the savior. Anything, then, that does not work towards this prayer of Jesus, anything that demonstrates the world’s brokenness and fragmentation, falls away in the prayer of Jesus; even those things we hang onto in ourselves — our grudges, our assumptions, our dislikes — fall away in the love of the Savior who went to the cross for those people just as much for you and me.

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” or “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s the same prayer. Somehow, they always turn out that way. As people of faith, we might try to answer.

Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.

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