by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
Here we have one of my favorite prayers: the passive aggressive prayer. The pray that is said to God both for God and for the sake of those overhearing the prayer. Fortunately, this prayer is more instructive and constructive than those occasionally spoken aloud during worship and in small groups (you know the kind, the prayers of thanksgiving for the altar guild, and may everyone learn to respect and appreciate their efforts).
There is a certain segment of American Christianity that feels deeply persecuted. If your congregation has some of these folk, this could be a good opportunity to talk a little about what persecution *actually* looks like. Jesus begins chapter 16 informing the disciples that, “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” There is no mincing of words here -- it’s not those who *might* kill you, it is those who *will* kill you. Jesus is telling the disciples that he is going to be lynched and, after he is gone, the same fate is awaiting them. We know what happened to the early Christians (persecution, it should be noted, they enacted on others as soon as they gained power). They were jailed, tortured and killed. They were forced to worship in secret. Perspective is everything.
Knowing that this is what awaits his disciples (and those who come after them), he prays for them, that they might be protected. But the question here is protected from what? He knows they are going to face oppression and death, and he is not asking they may be protected or delivered from that. In fact, this is the path of the Christian -- we are called to walk towards the cross. No, Jesus is not asking that their lives or bodies might be protected. He is asking God that their faith might be protected. When he says, “While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled,” Jesus is praying (both to God and AT the disciples) that they might stay in the fold, that they might be tempted by the evil one.
And how might the evil one tempt them? Perhaps with safety? With the knowledge that, if they stop witnessing the good news, if they stop sharing Jesus’s message that the kingdom is open to all who repent, if they stop retelling the story of the sheep and the goats, speaking the ridiculous nature of the beatitudes, if the do the bidding of the state and just quiet down, they can save their lives (but as we know from scripture, this is not the path to eternal life).
For too long now, Christians have implicitly and explicitly received the message that God desires to keep us safe, that being a Christian is about being safe. That being Christian is about power and dominance and cultural relevance all engineered so that Christians might live free from threat. This couldn’t be further from the truth. These words from Jesus show that God’s concern is that when the world around us is unsafe for those that preach the gospel we stay the course. Jesus prays that those that follow him might have the strength to stick around when the world makes it difficult to preach the word, when our lives are threatened for that very thing. This is an important word both for those who are convinced that the life of a Christian is to be a comfy, safe life at the top of the power pyramid AND those who find themselves threatened because the word they preach is threatening to the world. Keep faith, friends. Keep faith.