Some years ago, my children and I went to The Renaissance Festival being held not far from where we live. One of the friends in our group decided it would be fun to pay a whole slew of "wenches" to plant wet, slobbery, nasty lipstick kisses on my 13-year-old son all day long. Every time he turned around, there they were! He was mortified, and he spent a good share of the day hiding out in the men's restroom.
PDA's--public displays of affection--we see them around us, between members of our families, on public transportation, or sometimes even at church youth gatherings. Once in a while they're directed towards me, from friends or acquaintances who are overly affectionate--and more often than not, these displays make me feel at least a little embarrassed and uncomfortable. For me, it just seems inappropriate to witness or even to receive these outward expressions of very private feelings, especially from those I don't know very well.
I think we all have these boundaries. We have limits on how close others can come and on how much of ourselves we are willing to give away. We are uncomfortable and embarrassed and afraid to be vulnerable, and so we hide out in the restroom--or we protect ourselves by keeping a safe distance and by letting the "space invaders" know when they have come too close. Especially when meeting someone new, it is hard to get past the fear--here is almost always a shyness to overcome and a real hesitancy to engage. Whether we are on familiar ground or someplace that's strange or foreign to us, we don't want to emotionally expose ourselves--and we know there are certain things that are just meant to be private.
But in our gospel text today, I think Jesus, by his example, suggests that we challenge ourselves a bit in the other direction. It just seems that sometimes we get so consumed with protecting ourselves that we miss the opportunity to let someone in. Even God gets pushed away, because we can't let that line be crossed--we can't take that risk of revealing something private about ourselves. Many of us say we want to improve our prayer life, for example--we long to communicate more freely, more openly with God. And yet, how many of us feel comfortable praying in public? How many of us are embarrassed or awkward about our ability to use the "right" words in the "right" ways? We even justify our feelings of inadequacy by saying that prayer is, after all, a private thing between me and God. To pray in front of others becomes for us another "public display of affection" that just makes us uncomfortable. Our "safe distance" has been violated, and our boundaries have been challenged--and that's dangerous. So we prefer to keep our prayers to ourselves.
But I wonder how many of us actually follow through with this private endeavor. How many of us think to pray on a regular basis as we fly through our hectic lives? When we say, "I'll pray for you," to someone else, do we actually do it? And do our prayers reflect an intimacy of relationship that cuts through boundaries--do we let ourselves be truthful and vulnerable? Do we open our hearts to the real need of our neighbors? Do we bear our souls to our Lord and our Maker--and do we dare to be silent, to listen for God's response?
The entire 17th chapter of John's gospel is a prayer--Jesus' prayer to God in the presence of his disciples just prior to his crucifixion. It is both a public prayer, spoken aloud; and it is an extremely private prayer that reflects a deep and intimate relationship. Biblical scholars refer to this chapter as "the high priestly prayer" because it offers a unique glimpse of Jesus' own prayer life, while also revealing his ability to address the prayers of those who believe.
Our lesson today gives us one portion of this prayer; but if we step back to hear the whole thing, we will notice a flow of speech as it unfolds before us, becoming larger and larger--so that, as we are being prayed for, we are also being taught how to pray. By allowing ourselves to communicate freely, as Jesus does, we find that the depth of relationship--so evident between Father and Son--is not beyond our grasp. It is a relationship that only our own boundaries and our own barriers can ever prevent.
Jesus begins by praying for himself. He says, "The hour has come, God, and my work is done. I pray that I will be glorified so that my entire life and all that is to come will serve to glorify you." Like Christ, we also pray for ourselves, that our hearts might be directed toward God, that our work might reflect God's love, and that every moment of our being might serve to bring God the glory. We know that even in this, we need God's help--so our first prayer is to be freed from the self-protecting boundaries that block the progress of God's work in us.
Then as we see in today's gospel reading, Jesus prays for his own beloved disciples. He prays for those who have been faithful, who have heard and believed the truth of God's love and God's grace. "Keep them one, as we are one," says Christ. "As you sent me, I also send them--protect them, sanctify them." Jesus' prayer shifts from himself to the ones who are closest to him. He wants them to be safe; he asks that their lives be guided by God's wisdom and power.
And so, WE pray, on our lips and in our hearts, for those who are in special need of our prayers. We simply name them by name, without pretense or explanation, because we love them! And if we have let go of those things that get in the way, then our prayers for those closest to us will actually bring them in to our innermost being so that we can feel their pains and their struggles and their cries; and we can share in their joys and in their celebrations as well. Our prayers make a real difference toward healing and comfort--they connect us, both with God, and with one another; and they move us past the safe distances into a new closeness.
And that feels like enough, doesn't it? But Jesus goes further, and so must we. In the next passage, Jesus says, "I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in me--I pray that all will know that you have sent me, and that I love them, just as you have loved me." To pray for the world is not to judge or condemn it, but to embrace it --so that, through prayer, the world might be brought in to the presence of God. To pray for an enemy or a stranger or an unknown neighbor is to open a space for hope where it might not have existed before--to make room for a connection so that true understanding can be explored--to remove a barrier so that God's love can permeate us and the world around us.
The best prayers we can offer to God are both private and public displays of real affection. They might be awkward--even humbling and embarrassing--but they are genuine expressions of a relationship that has no boundaries and no limitations--a relationship in which we allow God to enter in to the very center of who we are, and to speak to us there. The best prayers do not contain the fancy church words that no one really understands, but the words of the heart which speak the truth. The best prayers are not composed by us at all, but are actually a gift to us from God. It is God speaking in us that allows us to speak--it is God's forgiveness working in us that frees us from the shame and the embarrassment, and the protectiveness that we impose on ourselves. And it is God's grace alone that brings us to everlasting life.
We have been given permission to come to God in our prayers--to get as close as we can, without fear of rejection. We have Jesus to stand with us, to pray for us, to love us, and to teach us the way. And as brothers and sisters in Christ, friends and strangers alike, we have one another--we have been formed in community to show great affection, to care for all that God has made, and to live "as one" with Jesus Christ. May God's glory forever be revealed in us! Amen.
Let us pray. O God of compassion, unlock the words to speak our true hearts, Give us the courage to listen intently for your voice in our midst. Open our lives so that your prayer for the world might be fulfilled in us. Amen.