A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 28 May 2017
Today’s gospel reading follows on from the gospel readings that we’ve been having recently from John’s gospel where Jesus is with his disciples at the last supper. Jesus is saying goodbye to them and so there’s a tremendous sense of intimacy here. This morning we heard from chapter 17 in which Jesus is praying to his Father – it’s sometimes referred to as the high priestly prayer of Jesus.
In it he’s concerned for the welfare of the twelve – he’s soon to be arrested and the disciples will be scattered – will his disciples remain united, faithful, persevering to the end?
Like an anxious parent when the child leaves home, we hear Jesus pray for the protection of his group of disciples:
‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me.’
And a little later he prays:
‘While I was with them, I protected them….I guarded them…But now I am coming to you.’
There’s a strong note of concern and worry in Jesus’ voice, so much so that further on he prays:
‘I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.’
We don’t often pray for protection.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that evening prayers sometimes contain this sentiment:
‘Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and
dangers of this night.’
is said at Evening Prayer.
‘Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the silent hours of this night……’
is said at Compline or Night Prayer.
In Celtic prayers too, the theme of ‘protection’ is strongly present. And in the Celtic tradition you might draw a circle around yourself on the ground as you pray for protection.
So a modern writer, David Adam, who’s greatly influenced by the Celtic tradition, brings both of these elements together in this prayer which he has written:
‘Circle me Lord,
keep protection near and danger afar.
Circle me Lord,
keep hope within keep doubt without.
Circle me Lord,
keep light near and darkness afar.
Circle me Lord,
keep peace within keep evil out.’
It’s very close to the prayer for his disciples that John’s gospel gives us. Jesus is facing his betrayal, arrest and death – he’s deeply concerned for his small group of twelve – and he prays for their protection.
It seems entirely appropriate at the end of this horrendous week for the people of Manchester, that we should reflect on this theme of ‘protection’ in prayers, whether praying for our own or another’s protection.
This is perhaps most natural in our concern for our children or grandchildren – for our homes – when evening draws in – or perhaps when someone we know is putting themselves in some danger. But it is also quite natural when thinking of public figures or at significant times such as our election – whenever there is an increase of vulnerability so too there is a desire in us for God’s protection.
And when we sense this desire in us we can use one of the evening prayers that we may know off by heart or one of the Celtic prayers that I’ve mentioned.
Christ shares our anxiety and worry for he too knew anxiety and worry. As scripture says:
‘We do not have a high priest who is unable to
sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one
who in every respect has been tested as we are.’