John 17.20-26

I was talking with somebody recently whose Father is a Church of England Priest and, apparently, he’s in the habit when administering Communion of saying the person’s name. So he will say, for example “Bill, the body of Christ; Margaret, the body of Christ” and so on. I gather that one day, when administering Communion, he looked down the line and saw a lady whose name who could not remember at all. So he thought “what do I do?”.

Then he noticed that just before her in the line kneeling at the altar rail was his own wife so when he reached her he just said “The body of Christ” and then to the lady next to her “The body of Christ” to make it sound natural and he then just carried on as normal. At which point the lady turned to his wife and said “I see he’s forgotten your name as well”. 

That is a true story!

Names are important, aren’t they? I remember the last time the then Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Christopher Herbert, was here at a Confirmation service he quoted those wonderful words from Isaiah Chapter 43 “I have called you by name; you are mine”. God does call us by name and once called he does not forget our names.

Jesus also called some of his disciples by name. Remember that line from the first chapter of the Gospel of John where Jesus says “You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas”, which translated is of course Peter.

It is from the Gospel of John that our reading came this morning, where Jesus prays for all believers - not by individual name this time but collectively, by people brought to him by complete unity through him. This passage comes at the end of that great prayer of Jesus which takes up the whole of chapter 17 of the Gospel of John.

In that chapter Jesus prays firstly for himself, then for his disciples and, lastly, for all believers and that is why our reading started “My prayer is not for them alone”.

In praying for himself, the words “glory” and “glorify” dominate the first five verses of John 17. Jesus isn’t actually asking for anything for himself as such; rather he is asking that through him the Father will be “glorified”, that is seen more clearly. Jesus is effectively praying to be made manifest things like love; the power over sin and death; purity; readiness to suffer for others; strength to endure and authority to give eternal life.

Jesus’ prayer for the disciples, which follows next, is underpinned by five things. First, real Christians are God’s people, because God has chosen them to be so (“I have called you by name: you are mine”). Secondly, the key to Christian belief is accepting that Jesus is the unique revelation of God the Father. Thirdly, Jesus is glorified by those who are seen to believe in him. Fourthly, Christians are protected by the name of Jesus. Fifthly, Jesus’ authority comes directly from the Father. These are the five key themes in that central section where Jesus is praying for his disciples.

Then finally, as we heard in today’s reading, Jesus prays for all believers. His prayer is that they - we - should all be one. The purpose of unity is actually given in the passage: “the world may believe that you have sent me”. The source of that unity isn’t a matter of human organisation; it ultimately comes from God.

So here we have Jesus praying. Praying for himself - that through him God may be glorified and made more visible - but primarily praying for others. Remember the last few words in the reading this morning: “I 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”.

Jesus didn’t forget his followers then and he doesn’t forget them now. In fact, wind forward from our reading just two chapters in the Gospel of John and Jesus is hanging on the cross. Even there he prayed for others: he prayed for the criminals on either side of him and he prayed for his enemies, who at that very moment were bringing about his death.

We are called by name, by God and we are remembered by name through his Son Jesus Christ. As a line from our Offertory Hymn this morning says: “Still for us he intercedes”.

I leave you with those arresting words from Stainer’s Crucifixion: “Wonder of wonders O how can it be: Jesus the crucified pleads for me”.

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire July 2016

This sermon was originally delivered in the church of St Mary the Virgin, Maulden, Bedfordshire on 16 May, 2010