The High Priestly Prayer of Gethsemane


Sermon preached on Sunday, June 5, 2022 by Dn. Jeff Smith

John 17:1-13

Good morning!

Today’s gospel is deep! It’s Deep stuff. It is just a portion of a long prayer that Jesus makes in Gethsemane before his crucifixion. This is the very same prayer that we read and pray on Holy Thursday, widely known as his “high priestly prayer.” In this prayer the Son of God consecrates himself before offering his life as a perfect sacrifice. He then ordains his disciples that they also may be offered in service of obedience which will win the world for God. This prayer falls into three parts, in which Jesus prays first for himself, then his disciples, and finally for the universal church.  

His prayer begins with glory. “Glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” Jesus uses the word glory or glorify eight times in his prayer. It’s the one word that holds it all together.  How does this differ from how we pray? How do we pray? We beg. We complain. We reproach ourselves and our God. Surely God is doing less for us than he could. Surely our lives could be better. We hate our lives and we loath ourselves. Notice how these notes have no place in Christ’s prayer, which is shot through with glory, adoration, and thanksgiving, even exultation, though Jesus knows he is about to be hammered onto the cross. I often wonder about glory in the midst of hell, about opportunities for grace and calm to enter into a situation as horrible as what happened to the children in Uvalde, Texas. I have to believe that those children had an opportunity to enter into some unspoken place of prayer and safety even as they lay dying. This is the Lord’s promise to us.  

Listen to Him! We can be the same way in our prayer! We too can turn to God, sure if His interest in us, assured that He will do all He can, gladly and willingly. Christ spoke to God as a man speaking to a friend, as a child to his father, reverently, humbly, yet confidently. Let us pour out to him our weakness, our needs, and our troubles. Let us lay bare our indifference and our instability.  This is His invitation to unload our hearts and express our longings, our temptations, and our joy.

Jesus addresses God as “Holy Father,” reminding us that we too can be blinded by the blazing glory of his holiness. He prays, “give eternal life to all those you have given me.” This is a powerful promise of good things to come. When our hour of pain, disappointment, sorrow, loss, and death comes, will we face that moment with any level of unselfishness, with a quiet and unshakeable trust in God, like Jesus does today? This prayer directs us toward God’s nature of loving and forgiving, of self-sacrifice and grace. Eternal life is to live in this way, to break from our tribal conventions, and rise to worthier possibilities, beginning here, but reaching toward the best possible outcome.

Jesus accomplished the work which God gave him to do, even though his efforts appeared futile in that moment. And although God has also designed our life with many good possibilities, we offer him back bunches of withered weeds, broken purposes, maybe some faded dreams.

But think of this! Just yesterday, I took our dog Zena out for a walk and delighted in her tail wagging as she joyfully sniffed along the trail. In the same way, God the Father delights in us, and he shares our joy as well as our sorrow. In the same way, Jesus had pride in his disciples. Even though he knew they were going to abandon him, and run away, he prays, “I am glorified in them.” He remains grateful for them. St. Clement of Alexandria wrote, “the Lord keeps instructing us, exhorting us, admonishing us, shielding us, saving us, and promising us the kingdom of heaven.”   

Jesus prays, “Protect them, so that they be one, as we are one.” Right at the start, in its infancy, how close the church came to disintegrating into a mob of little angry, snarling sects, condemning each other, opposing each other, excommunicating one another! But Jesus prays for us, for the church, “that we may be one.” He prayed to his Father, “hold them together.” For us too, he prays, with a perfect knowledge of our needs. He prays to the Father, “help them, guide them.” In the early days of the church, it was with affection that the Christian community gave to each other as a matter of course, especially to anyone in any kind of trouble. Something new was happening here, something real and vital had been born into the world. Christ was born! As He prayed, “I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me,” so the early church lived his prayer. But here’s a secret, we also are the early church. Compared to the grand course of cosmic time, we are only a breath away from these disciples of Jesus. So let us go forth, into an often brutal and hostile world, just like they did, knowing that we too are one with him, that we might also have His Joy fulfilled in our lives. Thanks be to God.