TITLE: A Prayer before Dying SCRIPTURE: John 17:1-11
If you learned that you were going to die within the next 24 hours, would you pray? What would you say? What would you ask?
Ron Williamson had a chance to find out. Ron was a young man from Ada, Oklahoma who was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to die. He spent nearly ten years on death row, and came within days of being executed. I know Ron's story because John Grisham wrote a book about him. The title is The Innocent Man. Most of Grisham's books are novels -- fiction -- but The Innocent Man isn't fiction -- it's true.
Ron was raised in a religious home. He had drifted from his religious roots, but in his last days he spent lots of time in prayer. Grisham doesn't tell us what he prayed, but I can guess. He prayed that the judge would grant a stay of execution. He prayed that the police would find the real murderer. He prayed for his family. He prayed for mercy.
It was a scary book to read, because it became clear fairly early that Ron hadn't killed anyone -- but bad police work and a bad public defender and an over-zealous prosecutor put Ron on death row and kept him there for ten years. It was scary, because it could happen to me. It could happen to any one of you. When the justice system goes bad, we're all at risk.
Fortunately, near the end of the story, a good lawyer developed an appeal that convinced a judge to give Ron a new trial. In the years between his first and second trials, DNA appeared on the scene. They tested Ron's DNA, and it proved that he was innocent. Proved it beyond the shadow of a doubt! They had to set him free.
One of the most disturbing parts of that book for me was the refusal of Ron's church to welcome him back when he was released. Some people welcomed him, but most treated him as if he had been guilty -- even though his DNA proved him innocent.
I mention that book, because it brought me face to face with the executioner. It helped me feel what it is like to sit on death row -- and what it is like to know which day you will die -- and what it is like to watch the clock winding down toward that day. Would I pray if I found myself in that situation? You bet! What would I pray? I suppose that I would pray the same kinds of prayers that Ron Williamson prayed -- save me -- help my family -- work a miracle, Lord!
I mention that book, because our Gospel lesson today is Jesus' prayer as he was facing death. It's an interesting prayer. Jesus didn't pray to be spared. He didn't pray for a reversal. In fact, Jesus is thankful that his hour has finally come. He came to bring eternal life to the world, and his death and resurrection will accomplish that. He is ready to get on with the mission. That doesn't mean that he is looking forward to the cross -- far from it -- but he is looking forward to accomplishing what he came to do.
But then he started thinking about the disciples whom he was leaving behind, and he prayed for them. He prayed:
"Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me,so that they may be one, as we are one" (17:11).
"I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one" (17:15).
"I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word" (17:20).
That's us! We're the ones who have believed through the word of those disciples. Jesus was praying for us. What did he pray?
Jesus prayed that we might all be one. He prayed that the Christians who would come later -- you and me -- would all be one "so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (17:21). He was praying that we would be one so that his work on the cross wouldn't be wasted. He wanted people to see our love for each other -- and to be drawn to Christ.
A person's dying words tell us what that person thinks is really important. Jesus' dying words were a prayer for us -- that we might be one so that the world would see our unity and be drawn to Christ. That's what Jesus thought was really important.
So how are we doing? Not very well.
The church today has a thousand names -- African Methodist Episcopal -- African Methodist Episcopal Zion -- American Baptist -- Amish -- Anabaptist -- Anglican -- Antiochian -- Orthodox -- Armenian Evangelical -- Armenian Orthodox -- Assemblies of God -- Associated Gospel Churches -- Association of Vineyard Churches -- and those are just some of the A's.
But it isn't just the multiplication of denominations that is bad. It's the hostility of Christians to other Christians. I am reminded of a story. Two strangers met and started comparing notes. One of them asked, "Are you Protestant or Catholic?" and the other replied, "Protestant." "Me, too!" said the first one.
"What denomination?" "Baptist." "Me too!"
"Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" "Northern Baptist." "Me, too!"
They kept comparing notes and agreeing. Finally, they came to this exchange. The first person asked:
"Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"
The other person replied, "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."
The first person got a scowl on his face and said, "Die, heretic!"
The sad thing is that it is possible to believe a story like that -- to believe that it is true -- to believe that Christians might really act like that -- because sometimes we do. When we do, we betray Jesus.
So what can we do to make Jesus' prayer come true? How can we start becoming one with each other and with other Christians?
Some Christians spend most of their time trying to bring denominations together -- to effect mergers. That's one way for us to become one. It's good, but it isn't enough.
Other Christians say, "Let's see what was practiced in the New Testament and practice that. Then we can all be one." That's good, but it isn't enough. Too often we can't agree on what the Bible means.
In this community, Christians have tried to worship together -- and to work together across denominational lines to solve problems. Those things are good, but they aren't enough.
A place to start is right here in this congregation. In congregations like this, there are always people who can't get along. Some of us lack social graces. Others are like oil and water -- they just repel each other. Sometimes one faction wants red carpet and another wants blue. Sometimes one person is a liberal and the other is conservative -- or one is a Republican and the other is a Democrat -- or one supports public education and the other believes in home schooling. There must be a million ways for us to disagree -- if we are inclined to be disagreeable.
So what can we do? What can we do in response to Jesus' prayer that we might all be one -- so that the world might believe in Jesus because of our witness? How can we learn to give each other a pat on the back instead of a slap in the face? How can we learn to love each other?
I don't think that it is humanly possible! The operative word there is "humanly." I don't think that it is humanly possible for me to love you -- and you to love me -- and all of us to love each other. Nothing but the grace of God is sufficient here.
It reminds me of alcoholics. Alcoholics have an alcohol problem, and they can't help themselves. There is very little hope for alcoholics until they admit that they need help. They need help from God, and they need help from each other. When they finally acknowledge their need, there is hope.
In like manner, we Christians sometimes have a love problem, and we can't help ourselves. There is very little hope for us until we admit that we can't help ourselves -- that we need help from God and from our Christian brothers and sisters. When we reach that point, there is hope.
The crux of the alcoholic's problem, you see, is pride. Pride is the wall that stands between the alcoholic and healing.
And the crux of the Christian problem, you see, is pride. Pride is the wall that stands between us and the unity for which Jesus prayed.
The solution to our loving problem is to seek God's help -- and to seek each other's help.
- With God's help, we can get past the things that divide us. With God's help, we can love each other.
- With God's help, we can love our Christian brothers and sisters down the street -- however different they might be -- however strange their ways might seem.
- With God's help, we can become less concerned with the labels on the church door and more concerned with what is in a person's heart.
- With God's help, we can begin to care about our Christian brothers and sisters who are experiencing persecution in many parts of the world.
- With God's help, we can become one, even as the Father and Son are one -- and then the world will see our witness and believe in Jesus --believe that he was sent by the Father-- believe that he came to help them.
And then Jesus' prayer -- his dying request -- will be answered.