Project RETURN helps men and women leaving prison return to the community.
If you ask Jesus to pray the table prayer, you need to be ready to keep your eyes closed for a long time; at least if he prays like he did in John 17. Jesus' table prayer goes on for 26 verses! This isn't "God is great. God is good. Let us thank God for our food. Amen. Let's eat." Besides, when Jesus prays in John 17, they've already eaten the meal! This chapter is often called Jesus' high priestly prayer. His prayer concludes a lengthy time around the Passover table that began back in chapter 13 with Jesus washing the disciples' feet. That image of Jesus bending down needs to be remembered as we listen to Jesus' prayer, which can sound very mystical, almost otherworldly.
A tender, motherly prayer
"Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one." Jesus is praying to his Father, but this is also a very tender, motherly prayer. Jesus is concerned about his closest friends on earth. He knows this will be his last meal with them. What will happen to them when he is gone?
When Jesus prays, "that they may be one, as we are one," most scholars agree that "they" are his disciples, not everybody in the whole world. "I am not asking on behalf of the world," he prays, "but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours." Jesus isn't inviting us to join in singing, "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony." Was this a prayer for insiders? Yes, it probably was. But is it still a prayer for insiders? How far does Jesus' prayer extend?
Could Jesus prayer go to prison?
Mary Martha Kannass is pastor of Hephatha Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. If you're wondering about the church's name it comes from the story where Jesus heals a deaf man who has a speech impediment. Jesus puts his fingers in the man's ears, spits and touches his tongue, then says, "Ephatha! That is, be opened." (Mark 7: 34) The people of Hephatha congregation have taken Jesus' words to heart. "Be opened" - and they have been. On one particular Sunday at the beginning of worship, the pastor welcomed back a young man who had been baptized and confirmed in the congregation. This was the first Sunday after his release from prison and he came to worship with his mother and most of his siblings. "We have been praying for you every Sunday during your incarceration," the pastor said. She asked him to stand and the congregation broke out with spontaneous applause. "And we will continue to pray for you, that you will be able to find a job, continue your education and witness your faith to us at Hephatha." To seal that welcome, Pastor Mary Martha asked him to assist her in distributing communion.
Later in the service, they prayed as they do every Sunday "for those in prison" but it wasn't a generic prayer. They called out the names of women and men connected with Hephatha church who were incarcerated. The prayer didn't stop when the service ended. There were 14 names printed in the bulletin that Sunday. People were encouraged to pray for each one of these people by name during the week. Their prayers kept going even longer than Jesus' table prayer.
Jesus wouldn't mind if we took up the prayer where he left off.
The story of Hephatha church's ministry with people in prison is shared by Pastor Joseph Ellwanger in his book Strength for the Struggle. While he was pastor at Cross Lutheran in Milwaukee, Project RETURN was born. The social ministry committee of that congregation discovered there were four minimum-security prisons within a few blocks of the church. Every year, more than 600 men and women were coming to these pre-release centers. They needed help with jobs, housing, and restored relationships in the community. The congregation's passion to live out Jesus' call to visit those in prison (Matthew 25: 36) and proclaim release to the captives (Luke 4: 18), led them to launch Project RETURN in 1980. (Returning Ex-offenders To Urban Realities and Neighborhoods.) In the past thirty-five years, hundreds of former prisoners have been restored to their families, communities and congregations.
Even if Jesus' table prayer was primarily for his disciples, members of Cross Church took up that prayer for women and men who were soon to be released from prison: "Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given us, so that they may be one, as we are one." They not only prayed, but also put their prayers into action.
Still praying after all these years
Jesus' table prayer was for his disciples. Jesus longed for them to be close to the heart of God even as he was with God. But Jesus went on in the verse that follows today's reading: "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who come to believe in me through their word, that they may all be one..." People in at least two Milwaukee congregations believe Jesus was praying also for them. They also believe Jesus is calling them to pray for those who are in prison. Protect them. Guard and keep them. Return them to us that they may be one with us.
Thousands of prayers are needed in every part of our country, for the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our GNP could well stand for Gross Number of Prisons. We also know that racism shapes our prison system in tragic ways. Black men are imprisoned at a rate seven times greater than white men. Black women are five times more likely to go to prison than white women. How can we flourish as a society when one-third of all black men can expect to be incarcerated in their lifetime?
Jesus, the prisoner, is praying for us
Jesus not only knew how to pray; he knew what it was like to be arrested. When he had finished his table prayer, Jesus and his disciples went out across the Kidron valley to a garden. Judas knew about that garden because he and the other disciples often met there with Jesus. This time, Judas didn't come to pray, but brought a detachment of soldiers and religious police. They arrested Jesus, bound him and took him away to be tried. Jesus escaped prison only because he was executed by the state the next day. This crucified, risen and wounded Jesus has returned to the heart of God. He continues to pray for us. Why wouldn't Jesus be praying also for those who are in prison? Why wouldn't we?
Bible Study Questions:
1. Imagine that you are sitting with Jesus at that Passover meal. What are you thinking and feeling as you hear Jesus pray for you?
2. What did Jesus mean when he prayed, "that they may be one, as we are one?" Do you think he was praying only for his disciples?
3. If someone asked you to pray for people in prison, what names would be in your prayers?
4. There are prisons near almost every church in this country. What keeps people in congregations from visiting people in prison?
For Further Reading:
Joseph Ellwanger, Strength for the Journey: Insights from the Civil Rights Movement and Urban Ministry (Milwaukee: MarkMaven Books, 2014)
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012)
Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII - XXI (Anchor Bible, Vol. 29, Part A)
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