Although the Gospels repeatedly tell us of times when Jesus withdrew to pray, for the most part we have no idea of what his prayers were composed. However, we do know that Jesus on one occasion prayed for Peter. For after an appalling argument between the disciples as to which one of them should be thought the greatest (Luke 22.24) – an argument in which presumably Peter did his fair show of boasting – Jesus declared:
Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22.31-32).
I find it significant that Jesus here does not call Peter by his new name of ‘Peter’. Instead he addresses him by his old name, “Simon” – a reminder, perhaps, of his frailty. In effect Jesus was saying: ‘Simon, you are going to let me down – you will not remain true to your confession of me as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. But I am not giving up on you. “I have prayed for you”.’
I have no doubt that Jesus had also prayed for the other disciples too, yet just at that moment he singled out Peter. Why? Perhaps because although he was aware all too clearly of Peter’s frailty, he also saw his potential. He knew that if his church was to be built, then Peter had a key role to play.
But if Peter were to play a key role, then his faith had to be sustained. “I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith will not fail”. The trouble with Peter was that at times he could become over-confident in himself. Remember, for instance, the occasion when he had jumped out of the boat and began to walk on the water to Jesus (Matthew 24.28-30) – that attempt to walk on water was born not so much of faith as of impetuosity. ‘OK Lord. I’ll do it. I’ll go for it’. However, instead of focussing on Jesus, Peter quickly became aware of the wind and the waves. And that was par for the course.
No doubt in that argument about who was the greatest, Peter talked about himself and his gifts and of what he could do for Jesus. If, however, he was to survive the difficulties ahead, what he needed was not an extra dose of self-confidence, but an increase in faith. “I have prayed for you that your faith will not fail”
What stands out for me at this point is that Jesus’ prayer was not immediately answered. For Peter’s faith did fail. Peter did succumb to temptation. Peter did fail his Lord. But that didn’t surprise Jesus – nor did it stop him praying. “And when once you have turned back (i.e. when you have repented) you must strengthen your brothers”.
I wonder how Peter felt, when Jesus told him that he had prayed for him? Was he astonished, awed, grateful? Maybe he felt threatened too. For Jesus’ words implied that Peter was going to let him down. Yet he must also have felt enormously encouraged – for Jesus was praying for him.
What was true of Peter, is, I believe, true of us too. Just as Jesus prayed for Peter, so too Jesus he prays for us. So Paul wrote to the church at Rome: “Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, …is at the right-hand side of God, interceding for us!” (Romans 8,34). Paul went on: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” (8.35), and after mentioning all kinds of possibilities, declares that “not anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” From this I deduce that not even failure or disobedience can separate us from God and his love.
This same idea of Jesus interceding for us is found in the Letter to the Hebrews, where he is depicted as our great High Priest who pleads our cause before his Father (Hebrews 7.25). What’s more, precisely because of his experience of this life, he is able “to feel sympathy for our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4.16).
But Jesus does not just pray for us ‘en masse’. We may say in our prayers, ‘God bless all those who are going through a rough time’, but as this incident in Luke’s Gospel shows, Jesus prays for us individually. If he prayed for Peter by name, then he prays for you and me by name.
He prays for us when the very foundations of our lives seem to be threatened: when we have to watch a loved one dying, when things go wrong at work, when faith is tested to such a point that our faith begins to waver and fail, then too Jesus prays for us. Even when his prayer is not immediately answered, he goes on praying for us. Jesus never gives up on us – for Jesus failure need ever have the last word. What’s more, I dare to believe that ultimately God will hear and answer Jesus’ prayer for us!