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Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer: Prayer as Partnership

September 2, 2007

John 15

Lane Fuller has developed quite a knack for writing good columns for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. His column in the newspaper this morning, a conversation between the angel Michael and a quarterback named Michael who has suffered a disreputable event in his life, relates very well to our focus today on intercessory prayer. I commend Fuller’s very humorous conversation between the angel and the quarterback. It indicates how little we understand the real gift of intercessory prayer. I want to tell you up front that I am not sure I completely understand intercessory prayer either. I have tried my best to learn as much as I can about prayer, but I am like many of you. I am still very much a beginner and still very much a learner.

We continue our series today on Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer. Perhaps you remember that in the second sermon in this series, I read several passages of Scripture in which Jesus makes sweeping promises about the effectiveness of prayer. Let me call your attention to one of those passages: Matthew 18:19: “Again, I tell you that if any of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” Passages that make this kind of promise are puzzling to most of us who are Christians. They do not exactly square with the experiences we have had in the life of prayer. I am sure at various times in your life you have prayed, maybe with your marriage partner, a child, another Christian, or a believer; but God did not answer the prayer as you requested. Understanding Jesus’ promises is sometimes very difficult for us.

The Upper Room discourses, the sayings of Jesus that occurred on the night before he was betrayed, the night before he died, help us understand his promises. Matthew, Mark, and Luke give us what we might call the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the Upper Room experience. Each disciple tells us about the events of that night – the Last Supper, the Passover Meal – using only a few verses. All of them summarize that Upper Room experience in one chapter or less. John’s Gospel, however, gives us much more detail and provides the key to understanding these promises. That account takes no fewer than five full chapters to tell the story. John includes events and experiences in Chapters 13-17 that the other disciples simply did not record. He certainly gives us much more of the teachings of Jesus on the night before he died.

We might say that the single most important event in Chapter 13 is Jesus’ act of servanthood. Jesus knelt before his disciples with a basin of water and a towel and washed their feet in humility as he began the Passover Meal. Because the roads were dusty, sometimes muddy, it was a Jewish custom, of course, that people should wash their feet before they ate a meal together. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to demonstrate the quality of a servant, that quality of a servant heart he wanted instilled in every single one of his followers, then and now.

The disciples on that occasion were very much aware that Jesus was in danger. They had asked him not to travel to Jerusalem, but he insisted on going. They knew that his life was threatened, and they were already grieving. Chapter 14:1-4 records Jesus’ addressing their grief and trying to comfort them.

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Neither let them be afraid. You believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will take you unto myself; that where I am, there you may be also.”

The disciples were mystified. They were distraught because they knew he was leaving them. Jesus addressed their concerns, assuring them that he was going to have a place for them. A part of these Upper Room discourses is the assertion that he would not abandon them. Jesus introduced the Holy Spirit to them in Chapter 14 and continued his explanation about the gift of the Holy Spirit in the following two chapters. There, Jesus guaranteed the disciples that God was going to send them a Comforter, a Paraclete, an Encourager, an Advocate, to be alongside them in the difficulties they would face after he had returned to his Father.

Then in Chapter 17, we have the remarkable prayer Jesus prayed for his immediate disciples. By this time, only eleven remained. He also prayed for all future disciples, all of us. He prayed for the church. In Chapter 15, right at the center of these Upper Room discourses, we have some of the comments that Jesus made about prayer. Our focal passage today provides much that is rich and nourishing for us in our spiritual lives.

I want to point out to you that it is in these chapters that we have two sweeping promises of Jesus.

Chapter 14, Verses 12-14:

“I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father, and I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

Chapter 15, Verse 16:

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.”

Think about Jesus’ remarkable statements. He stated that we would have the ability to do, not only what he did, but also things that are greater than what he did. He made a promise that whatever we ask in his name, God will grant. I have struggled with this idea, but reading C.S. Lewis’ Christian Reflections has helped me understand. Lewis points to these two passages, stating that the only way to understand Jesus’ promises about prayer is to look at them in the context of his intimate relationship with his disciples. Remember that Jesus was speaking to his disciples in the Upper Room. This was the last time in his earthly life that he would have an opportunity to address these eleven who remained. Judas had already left. According to John’s Gospel, on the night before his death Jesus gathered them, providing them with his expectations, with their final instructions, and with assurances about what he will do. You wonder just how much they were really going to understand.

I want to point out to you that when Jesus spoke to them about prayer in this way, he was not making a promise that they were going to have health and wealth. This was not a divine Make-a-Wish Foundation. He was not telling them they would receive everything they desired. Some people believe that Jesus promised that we can just ask, and God will grant to us health, wealth, and anything else we want. That is not what prayer is. We must regard these statements as an invitation from Jesus to his disciples, and therefore to all of us, to enter into a partnership with Him, a partnership of prayer at a much higher level than the disciples had yet known. Have you ever had a prayer partner? Most of us have. Sometimes it might be our marriage partner, a friend, or another person who simply holds us accountable.

I heard a story about a young man and woman who fell in love at Ridgecrest. Summer romances seem to blossom in the mountains there. Late one afternoon, they decided to drive to Black Mountain to get a milkshake. Afterwards, they drove on the Blue Ridge Parkway and pulled into an overlook to watch the sun set. They stayed a while to watch the stars come out and the moon find its place in the sky. The couple was cuddling in the front seat of the car. The woman had her head on his shoulder. A park ranger came by, shined a flashlight in the window, and asked, “What are you young people doing?” The woman explained, “We are prayer partners.” He answered, “Go do your praying somewhere else.”

Jesus invites us to be his prayer partner, all of us. It certainly is a partnership based on love. In the context of the Upper Room experience, he first taught the disciples a lesson about servanthood. In this context, they realized that he was going to leave and not be with them anymore. In this context, he promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit and invited them to a life of prayer. On this night, he said to them, “You are going to learn to pray a special way. It is not just a casual prayer, not just asking for what you want. You are going to learn to pray because you are going to do the same work that I have been doing.”

What had Jesus done? He had healed the sick, preached the gospel, shared the good news of Jesus Christ, and fed the multitudes. “You are going to do the work that I have been doing. More than that, you are going to do greater work than I have done” (John 14:12). Let me check another translation. Is that really what it says? Is the work that we do going to be greater than the work of Jesus? How can that be? Jesus knows the power of multiplication. The more disciples he has, the more work can be done. He expects great things of us. What incredible optimism on the part of the Lord to believe that we can do the work he does and more! We certainly cannot do that in our own power. No. Jesus invites us to a life of prayer. The reason that Jesus is going to give us this power, this authority, is not so that we can look so good, so that we can become rich and famous. The reason he gives us this power is to that we can glorify God. Beware of any person who takes these precious promises and uses them to claim glory for himself or herself. This is to be done only to the glory of God. It is accomplished because we pray in Jesus’ name. When we say that we pray “in Jesus’ name,” we are not talking about a magical incantation. It means that we have asked ourselves, “Can I honestly ask for this, believing that Jesus would pray for this? Can I honestly ask for this, believing that this is in keeping with what Jesus would do, with what he would desire?” Paul uses the words “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16). Are we praying selfishly? Are we praying with “the mind of Christ”?

Richard Foster uses the passage from John 14, which focuses on the gift of prayer, to talk about intercessory prayer in his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. I tried to find a way to distill Foster’s ideas, but I decided early this morning to read what he said. Listen to these words:

In the Upper Room discourse recorded in John’s Gospel, Jesus made it unmistakably clear to his disciples that his going to the Father would catapult them into a new dimension of prayer. He explained to his mystified band: that he is in the Father and the Father is in him, that he is going to the Father in order to prepare a place for them, that they will be enabled to do greater works because he is going to the Father, that they will not be left orphaned but that the Spirit of Truth will come to guide them, that they are to abide in him as branches abide in the vine, and that he will do anything they ask in his name, and so much more.

What is it about Jesus going to the Father that so radically changes the equation? Why would that make such a difference in their – and our – prayer experience? The new dimension is this: Jesus is entering his eternal work as Intercessor before the throne of God, and, as a result, we are enabled to pray for others with an entirely new authority.

What I am trying to say is that our ministry of intercession is made possible only because of Christ’s continuing ministry of intercession. It is a wonderful truth to know that we are saved by faith alone, that there is nothing we can do to make ourselves acceptable to God. Likewise, we pray by faith alone – Jesus Christ, our eternal Intercessor is responsible for our prayer life…

By ourselves, we cannot enter the courts of heaven. It would be like ants trying to speak to humans. We need an interpreter, an intermediary, a go-between. This is what Jesus Christ does for us in his role as eternal Intercessor – “There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Tim. 2:5, RSV). He opens the door and grants us access to heavenlies. Even more: he straightens out and cleanses our feeble, misguided intercessions and makes them accessible before a holy God. Even more still: his prayers sustain our desires to pray, urging us on and giving us hope of being heard. The sight of Jesus in his heavenly intercession gives us strength to pray in his name.

Have you walked by the Prayer Garden recently? Have you seen the beautiful marble statue of Jesus? When I look at it, the first thing that comes to my mind is Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. More recently, when I look at that statue, I realize it is just a symbol of our Savior in prayer. He is praying, not in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is praying as an intercessor in heaven. Do you know for whom he is praying? He is praying for Morningside Baptist Church and every other church. He is praying for his church, that we will be his instruments on this earth, that we will be able to do the work he did and even more. He is praying for you by name because you are his disciple.

The Lord Jesus intercedes for us. He invites us to be a part of this work of intercessory prayer. God’s inviting us into partnership, to be co-laborers in prayer for His purposes, is difficult to understand. We become the channel of God’s grace in this world. Paul tried so often to express it in his writings. “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works in which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). This is not our willpower. It is not our great ability. In that wonderful analogy in the Chapter 15, Verse 5, Jesus said, “You are the branches, and I am the vine. You have been grafted into me. Because you abide in me and I abide in you and we are one, you can do great things. You can bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing.”

We depend on Jesus, and he depends on us. He has invited us to into this partnership. There is an organic union between the vine and the branch. If we do not bear fruit, if we are all leaves and just look good, we are going to be pruned, lopped off, because “it is by their fruit that you will know them” (Matthew 7:20).

This relationship between Christ and his disciples has changed. “You are my friends,” he told them, as recorded in John 15:14. They were no longer servants. God considered Abraham his friend (Isaiah 41:8). The Scripture says that Moses could speak with God as a friend speaks to a friend. We know David as “the man after God’s own heart,” and to his disciples, Jesus said, “You are my friends.” This intimate relationship changes the nature of the conversation. It means that we can say anything. It means that we can have humor in our conversation with Christ. It means that we can have tears. Even though Jesus knows whatever we need before we ask, he wants us to ask. That is the nature of the friendship. You can say anything and speak openly, or we can be silent. He has handpicked each follower. He wants us to be ambassadors. He says, “I have chosen you. You did not choose me. I chose you, not just to sit in a corner and pray. Put your prayers into action. I have sent you. I want you to bear fruit, to be the living testimony of what it means to live the Christ-filled life” (John 15:16-19). He wants us to join his family, to be one of His children. He wants us to be a part of the work of prayer. The benefits of this work are not an easy life. It will not always be easy, but he promises joy: “My joy will be in you, and your joy will be complete” (John 15:11). He promises His love for us but also challenges us to love each other as He has loved us.

I do not know what you have planned for Labor Day. Maybe you are going swimming or fishing. Maybe you are grilling out in your backyard or watching a ballgame. All of those are good ideas. I will probably do some of that. Jesus has invited us to do a special work, the work of intercession. I would challenge you to spend a part of your Labor Day in intercession. God, through Christ Jesus, has invited you to this important work of the partnership of prayer. How can we refuse Him? He has been so faithful to us. All He asks is that we be faithful to Him, to do the work He has called us to do. That, my friends, is the work of intercession. It is not just something a preacher said one Sunday. It is the gospel truth right here in the words of Jesus, which he spoke on his last night on this earth. He speaks these words to all of us.

Do you know him as your Savior? Have you made a commitment to follow him, to let him be the Lord and Savior of your life? If you have never made that decision, this is the day. That is the first step. Perhaps you have previously made that decision. You have been a member of a church but are not active in one now. You may have been visiting various churches and know that God has led you to this place. Do not put off your decision any longer. Come be a part of this segment of the family of God. We invite you to respond in whatever way God leads as we stand together and sing a hymn of invitation, “Wherever He Leads.” This is our commitment as we sing together.

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely


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