During this Lent in our preaching & our study groups we are considering some firm foundations for a healthy church...so over the next four weeks we will be looking at prayer, at discipleship (learning), at care & at mission – sharing the good news of Christ. Of course each of these should already be part of our common life, but now may be the time when God is prompting us to do a health check – to take stock & to consider how we might become more fruitful for Him. We'll only begin to engage with each topic in our formal sessions, but my hope & prayer is that we may become more aware, both collectively & as individuals, of what should be in place in the life of our churches,- part of our common DNA.
So today we begin with a sermon on prayer!
Oh dear – that's going to add to the weight of Lenten guilt for sure – or maybe I'm the only person in the building whose prayer life can, to put it politely, sometimes tend towards the erratic.
As far as that goes – I think it's important to remember that prayer is more than just a matter of feelings...that though it may seem at times dry, unrewarding, even whistling in the dark, that does not mean that nothing is happening.
Prayer is to do with consciously opening ourselves up to the God in whom we live & move & have our being
Prayer represents a decision to let God be God in our lives
++Rowan has compared prayer to sunbathing
“All you have to do is place yourself where the light can get to you. On the beach its no use screwing up your eyes & concentrating. You won't get a better tan that way...and the same is true of prayer.”
So trying to pray IS praying – even if that's not always how it feels. That's worth remembering as we work our way through Lent...
But this morning we're not going to focus on our individual prayer lives, but on the part prayer has in a healthy church.When school groups visited my old parish church, one of the first questions I would ask them was
“what do you think the church is for?” (I dont need to ask St Matthews school children, of course...I'm certain they already know the answer).
Even with non church schools, it never took long before someone would say
“It's a place to pray to God”
Whatever else takes place in this building, & the countless others like it across the world, that is their primary purpose. Let me remind you, too, that the church is so much more than the building...but if I asked the same question, using the church to mean the people of God, the answer would be pretty much the same.
Prayer is at the heart of what the church is for
Though we know that prayer is not to be confined to one place & one day of the week there's something important about the prayer that we practice together that should make it the foundation of every aspect of our common life.
It's our fundamental calling – here's Paul to the Colossian Christians
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.
Or again as he writes to those in Thessolonica
“Pray without ceasing”
or to the Ephesians
With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints”
There's no getting away from it – corporate prayer is an essential element of being church...because this is how we express & renew our identity as children of God and open ourselves more fully to enable God to work in us and through us
because of course prayer has nothing to do with persuading God to do things our way, and everything to do with tuning our wills to his.
Here's the theologian Herbert McCabe
For us to pray is for us to be taken over, possessed by the Holy Spirit which is the life of love between Father and Son. When our prayer is the prayer of the people of God as such, when it is the prayer of the Church as a whole, it is a sacramental expression of this life of the Spirit—that is what we mean by the sacraments and this is what we primarily mean by our prayer
That's pretty mind-blowing stuff, isn't it?
When we pray together, God prays through us. All that love, that healing, transforming power, there to be released. That is light years away from what the hymn writer described as “our prayer so languid & our faith so dim”
When we pray together, the strong can support or carry the weak. When we pray together, we are encouraged to raise our eyes beyond our own narrow horizons & pay attention to the needs and concerns of people will do not know, in places we will never visit.
What's more, public prayer teaches each of us a lot about what private prayers should be about.
When we meet here in church, we pray when we don't really want to pray or don't feel like praying;
When we pray together, the framework of those praying around us holds us steady at those times when we struggle to concentrate, to really engage. Because the liturgy demands it, we find we can pray even when we haven't prepared properly for it; we learn to pray the Word by drawing on Scriptures, as we hear them woven into the liturgy and respond in prayer to the readings...
United in Christ we can even pray for (and with!) those with whom we are in conflict & we are reminded to pray about people and things we would otherwise overlook.
A body of Christians praying together represents so much more than the sum of our parts.
There is great spiritual power in our unity of purpose, as we go to the core of our relationship with God, which feeds, nurtures, and energizes us and unites us with the whole communion of saints, that multitude of God's people stretching across space & time and on into eternity. Prayer is the most common or 'ordinary' of the ways that the holy and the human come together...the place where our limited reality touches the infinite glory of God & is transformed. We open our hands and reach out to heaven – lift our voices and receive grace upon grace .
As I prepared to preach today, I read a sermon on the final chapter of the Bible, the closing verses of the book of Revelation...the writer has a clear vision of prayer as the ultimate purpose and identity of the church
The strategy of hope given to us in the book of Revelation comes together in this activity .......That’s what the vision calls us to at the end; we are invited to open ourselves to receive this kingdom: “the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let everyone who hears say, Come. And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift… Come, Lord Jesus.”
This is what church is. It’s how we join our voices, and our opened and outstretched hands, and cry out, with the power of the Holy Spirit, “Come, Lord Jesus.” All the stuff we do that makes us church is this communal prayer that opens us and invites God to do something new, unimaginable in our midst.
Our task is to offer our church as a prayer, opened up to the movement of God, and speak these words in every part of our lives.
Come, Lord Jesus
And this invitation to God is also an invitation to others:
“And let everyone who hears say Come
That is the great prayer of the Church Universal...the prayer that echoes across the ages
And when all these voices and lives get mixed together, maybe we will discern all that we have already actively received, the prayers answered, the signs of the coming Kingdom.