Readings Matthew 6:7-15 and Romans 8:14-27
There are lots of politics about asking for something in this world. you might have been encouraged when asking for a raise to ask for more than you're willing to settle on so that if there's a negotiation you have room to move. Or perhaps you know you want to ask a family member for a bigger favour in two weeks, so you try to ask for less in the weeks leading up so it won't seem like a burden. Or perhaps you always ask after doing a lot of front porch work to make it seem like the most necessary thing in the world to say yes. Whether we've learnt, observed, or practiced any of these strategies, they reflect the reality that it can be difficult, awkward, and complex to ask for something. So how does that shape our practice when it comes to petitionary prayers; prayers in which we ask?
We are continuing our series Why We Do What We Do. Last week we explored the reason and purpose of ending the service with the blessing and sending, and now (continuing to work backwards) we arrive at the Prayers of the People.
Along with considerations of the politics of asking, when we start to think about why we spend time each Sunday offering the prayers of the people, or the prayer for others, a host of questions emerge:
Are we praying for people and situations (such as the war in the Ukraine, or a sick member of the congregation) because we’re worried God doesn’t know about it? Are we praying because we hope our prayers move God to action? Are these prayers kind of a news bulletin or announcement in prayer form? Do we pray so that we would be spurred into action?
We’re not going to answer or approach all of these directly, but they are in the background as we consider today, why and what we pray when we pray the prayers of the people. And, in keeping with this whole working backwards thing, let’s begin by talking about the Lord’s prayer which we use to close out our time of prayers of the people.
When Jesus’s disciples ask him, “teach us to pray”, he gives them a simple prayer beginning with a world-changing address: “Our Father”. In this invitation to pray, not to Jesus’ father, nor to ‘your father’, but to Our Father – ‘our’ as in yours, mine, and Jesus’. Here we witness a clear indication of the “spirit of adoption” we have received, we have been made co-heirs with Christ.
Jesus has made it possible to speak to God not as strangers, but as those who share in the very relationship of the Son and the Father. In this way we can speak of prayer happening not as much to Christ, but in Christ – in prayer we stand before God on the same holy ground as the Son.
But it goes further, and gets more intimate still! For not only do we pray in the place of the Son, as co-heir, the Spirit swells within us as we clasp our hands. In Romans, Paul writes that we do not know how to pray as we ought, and so the Spirit helps us in our weakness, interceding with sighs too deep for words. For this reason when we offer our prayers of the people (and when we pray alone) we don’t stand as if we are on earth looking up to the heavens hoping that God hears us and takes an interest, but we pray within the Trinity. Prayer then, is less a conversation between an individual and a distant divine king, and more a movement of the Triune God happening within us – it is “God answering God in and through the one who prays” (Coakley). It is a call-and-response of the divine desire to see us find rest and grow into Christlikeness.
This means the work of God in us when we pray is not based on our grit, holiness, or eloquence but resides solely in the power and relations of the Trinity. We don’t have to have the right words, we don’t need to fear forgetting something or fumbling over how to pray for a friend in hospital. We never need fear that we don’t know how to pray. This also means that we never need a particularly holy (or ordained) person to pray on our behalf, we never need to worry that we haven’t been on enough retreats – for in simply attempting to pray, the work of God begins within us; deep calls to deep, and we are transformed.
This is why it is important that our prayers of the people are of the people. This is why when we offer these prayers is it typically offered by one of the elders (speaking as representative of the congregation - who has crafted these prayers in conversation with the concerns of the community) or we do it collectively, sharing what it is on our hearts and commending them to God in Their grace. By this we recognise that all Christians – not just the ordained – step into this Triune relationship when we pray, all have received the spirit of adoption. It is one of the best practices we have to affirm the great reformation doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers. We are priests to each other, modelled after Jesus (our great high priest).
Hebrews teaches us that in Jesus we have a high priest able to sympathise with our weakness, a high priest who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. It is because Jesus is our high priest that when we seek to minister to one another and the world in prayer we approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
In teaching his disciples to pray, Jesus does not provide magic words, but an invitation into a particular relationship with the Father – his own relationship. This is why we are not bound to the words of Scripture or a prayer book when we pray. The words of the Lord’s prayer are important, and they provide a pattern to prayer that speaks profoundly about what it means to be a disciple, but as co-heirs we receive the freedom to pray our own words from the same relationship as Jesus. And of course, as Paul would remind us, no words are required!
This is the best of news I think, because we all face days when every word feels hollow and no amount of words feel sufficient. Yet the good news is that when we pray the Trinity prays within us. God speaks to God and in hearing the music of this holy call-and-response we are transformed so as to better resemble God’s way toward the world. With God speaking and moving within us we come to see and live in the world in a way more richly resembling the way of Jesus Christ.
To pray the prayers of the people then serves a multitude of purposes – in some ways it is a reminder of the woes and wounds of our world, it is a reminder of those who are absent to us whether because of sickness or isolation, it is a way of opening our hearts and homes to the needs of others, a stirring to personal action through an appeal to divine action. But as well, and most of all, all prayer (including the collective prayers for others) is about what we are letting God do in us. It is about the way God transforms us – breaking us out of apathy and self-involvement into a neighbour-loving, justice-seeking disciple ready to walk humbly with our God in the way of Christ Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Why do we pray the prayers of the people? Because prayer is the movement of God within us; it is an act by which we are drawn into the relationship of the Trinity (standing in the place of the Son, calling out to the Father, through the movement and sighs of the Holy Spirit). Prayer is an act by which we are drawn into the Trinity so that we might be made ready to go forth into the world to tend to the woes and wounds that we have brought before God. The prayers of the people sit right before the blessing and sending. This is because through these prayers we encounter the responsibility of the believer (sent to imitate Christ in love and service of the world) and we encounter the promise to the believer (blessed by the confession that God will forget those who suffer, and will bring about the fullness of mercy and love and justice in the new creation).
Image: Gbenga Offo (Nigerian, 1957–) Fervent Prayer, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 121 × 173 cm.
Please enjoy a collection of sermons preached in recent months at the Kirk. If you have questions about the sermons, or attending a service reach out using the Contact Page.