When Jesus Prays for Us
from Luke 22:31-32
November 19, 2017
I have been drawn to this very brief text ever since the years when Steve and I poured out our hearts’ resources to keep our adolescent first born child alive. As time plodded along, year after year, I felt ground down and sifted like wheat. One day, I stumbled on this brief moment between Peter and Jesus and the text called me by name. Texts sometimes do that. Since then, it has been a gift to me in trials large and small, protracted and brief.
The ancient saint Job feels “sifted like wheat” as he faces deep and protracted losses, combined with a profound sense of the absence of God. I will never forget his heart-wrenching cry to this Silent God he so fully trusts, “Is my body bronze? Am I made of steel?” (see Job 6:8-13). Rather than strong and impenetrable, Job feels vulnerable and weak.
The truth is, when the storms of life come, it is easy to feel mangled and irreparably harmed. That temptation is everywhere. Yet Jesus peers into both the dangers of the moment and the promise of the future. This is a vision that Job does not receive for a long time, and many of us also go through periods where it feels distant and unattainable.
Notice the love, intimacy, and grace that permeate these words of Jesus, laced with both lament and hope: “Simon, Simon, Satan has desired you, to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, that your faith will not fail, and when you return, strengthen your brethren.”
Our first observation here is that Jesus does not use the name he has given this disciple—Peter, which means “Rock.” Instead, Jesus uses the disciple’s birth name, Simon. Do you know when Jesus gave Simon this new name? It is after he confesses that Jesus is the Christ (Matthew 16:13-18). The betrayal to come reverses that confession. The use of Peter’s birth name highlights the struggle within the disciple’s own heart—a struggle each of us often face between our many selves.
It is meaningful to me that Jesus speaks to Simon by name, even as he uses his birth name. There is a abiding connection here, and this reminds me that Jesus cares about each of us by name. This is no generic love; it is a personal love.
Jesus warns Simon to watch out, to stand guard over his own heart, to be attentive to the forces seeking to pull him away. He speaks of Satan, the Tempter, that evil one who can derail and deceive. Great cosmic powers are at work in these days and weeks preceding Jesus’ arrest and betrayal. While these events arise at the hands of human beings, there is much more happening in the spiritual realm than meets the human eye. I have felt this pull in my own hardest hours. Jesus’ warning to Simon has often re-centered me.
“But I have prayed for you,” Jesus confesses. Oh, how powerful these words are to me! “‘I have prayed for you,’ Simon. I have prayed for you, Mary. I have prayed for you, Linda. I have prayed for you, Bob. I have prayed for you, Peace Community Church. I have prayed for you, planet. I have prayed for you, fill-in-the-blank.”
Jesus sees the danger before Simon, and he prays. And Jesus doesn’t just pray in the abstract. He prays for this particular disciple whom he loves. He prays because he knows Simon needs his prayers. There have been times in my life when I could not pray, and it was the prayers of others that literally held me up. I could feel them. I know many of you could say the same thing yourselves.
“I have prayed for you, that your faith will not fail.” When we find ourselves in the meat grinder or feel sifted like wheat, some of the fallout can include doubt, anguish, cynicism, and disbelief. Disequilibrium can be profound and long-lasting.
Yet Jesus is praying. He is not praying for Simon’s prosperity, or an up-tick in joy. He is not praying for Simon to get out of the situation ahead. He is praying for the disciple’s perseverance in the storm.
There is something poignant, beautiful, and powerful about this simple prayer of Jesus. “Simon, Simon, Satan has desired you, to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, that your faith will not fail.”
Whenever I stop at this point in this short text, I always think—“Well, then, Jesus prays for something that doesn’t happen! How interesting!”
I need to see this, too. I really do. Jesus prays in the Gospel of John for the unity of his followers in the immediate days ahead and for all time to come (John 17:20-23). Hmm. How is that going? Prayer is sometimes the expressed yearning for things not seen.
Jesus seamlessly continues. “And when you return…” There is no “if” with Jesus. It is not, “If you return, Simon.” It is “when you return.” This is so important, because Jesus expresses here an incredible faith in this disciple who often gets it wrong. Jesus expresses trust in one who frequently acts in blustery and impetuous ways, who regularly speaks before he thinks. Jesus believes in a disciple who thinks he knows himself so much better than he actually does. In the midst of all of this, Jesus declares, “and when you return…”
The clincher of this intimate moment between Jesus and Simon comes in the next phrase, “strengthen your brethren.” Do we realize how astonishing this is? Jesus gazes far beyond Simon’s impending failure to stand with him in his hour of greatest need. Jesus keeps trusting Simon. Not only that, but Jesus entrusts Simon with a ministry of strengthening others.
Have you ever noticed that the challenges and trials you face and the failures you overcome can become vessels for your ministry in the world? Tackling them head-on in the light of grace, they can produce wisdom and compassion to share in abundance. Is this a cause for thanksgiving and hope, or what? Jesus has this same trust in you and me, in us, in this church, here in the 21st century, this very day.
“Simon, Simon, Satan has desired you, to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, that your faith will not fail, and when you return, strengthen your brethren.”