We have been looking at the Christian service of worship. So far we have said that Christians gather, that they hear the readings from Scripture and they sing.
The next thing is that they also pray and intercede. The Church comes together in order to pray. This gathering of people has been spoken to and the result is that it may now speak, and purposefully. God is expecting us to say something. We may say what we like and ask for what we want. The Church gives thanks, it acknowledges its neediness and it discovers how to intercede on behalf of others. Christian worship makes us an articulate people, who pray and speak up for one another.
1. Jesus prays
He ‘withdrew to deserted places to pray’ (Luke 5). His disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.’ (Luke 11.1-2)
‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.’ 11.9-10. ‘Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap..’ (Luke 6. 38)
Jesus speaks up and prays our prayers for us. He says what we don’t know how to say for ourselves. And he says them to God, that is the one whom we have no knowledge of, but who is the only one who is able to answer them. He carries our prayers to God. This makes him our spokesman and representative, our great high priest, that is, one of us, speaking for us.
Jesus prays to God. And he also does so for us. He speaks and prays for us, and he also teaches us how to pray, and so he prays so that we can hear and follow. Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11.4-42) Jesus has come to teach us to pray: praying and teaching us to pray – that is what the incarnation is. God is in conversation with man, and as a result, man is in conversation with God.
2. Praying people
Because Jesus prays, we pray. We can pray because have been given the name to call and have the promise that God will hear us when we pray.
In St Mary’s we pray together on Sunday morning. The whole service is prayer, but one particular part of it is the ‘intercessions’. They start like this:
Let us pray for the Church and the world, and let us thank God for his goodness.
And so we pray. We pray for ourselves – there is nothing sophisticated about this. We may pray for success, at school, at exams, at work, in promotion, in love, for health, for wealth, all our worthy and unworthy desires together. There is no self-consciousness. God hears, but no one else does.
At the end of each set of prayers there is a response:
Lord hear us
Lord mercifully hear us
But we can hardly pray for ourselves without praying for those who are most important to us. Perhaps we start with our families, then friends, then the people we know at work. Then perhaps we pray for the patience or courage or any of the virtues that we regard as the gifts of the Spirit, so for example we may have discernment to make the right decisions in each of these places. We ask the Lord what we should do within each of these relationships.
We pray for our children, and then for all the children they mix with. We know that there are plenty of children and teenagers without fathers to model themselves on; we know how angry some of the young in this borough feel, so we pray for them and for their baffled or absent families, and for the reconciliation of generations. We pray for those facing age, ill-health and the vanishing prospect of recovery, and so we pray for the provision of care for the elderly and for the staff in hospitals. This leads us to pray for those working in education and the social services, and so we pray for our part of London.
Whoever is leading the prayers gives us long enough pauses which each of us fills with our own prayers. Since the intercessions are lead by someone different each week, and the character of the individual intercessors shows through, they are my favourite part of the service.
We pray for whatever part of the world is in conflict and in the news. But we also pray for the places that we hear about from the worldwide Church, particularly from those parts of it where Christians are under pressure. We are linked to the Church in Tete in Mozambique, so we get news from them; but we also hear about the Church in Orissa in India, and from the church in Iraq, the very ancient Churches of Mesopotamia, whose priests have been killed, buildings burned and are now refugees. And we know that they pray for us.
To all this we say
Lord hear us
Lord mercifully hear us
This is the heartbeat of the whole service and the pulse of the relationship of man to God. Finally we end
Merciful Father, Accept these prayers for the sake of thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
3. Man hears God
Jesus prays. And he teaches us the prayer which we call the Lord’s Prayer. We pray to God whom he calls Father. This is the one we pray to, and this is the name we have for him – Father. God has spoken to us, and now, because he has spoken, we can speak. God does not simply speak to the world but having spoken, he listens and waits for it to answer. God listens, for he is our Father.
By speaking gently and listening patiently, God draws us into conversation. He intends that we not only hear him and really receive him – but that we should really hear and receive each other. God intends that we should hear and respond to the prayers and requests that we make of one another. We are to be listening creatures, who can hear one another and are able to respond to one another.
He enables us to speak for one another. He makes us bear the needs and voices of everyone who cannot speak for themselves. We speak for them and pray for them until they are able to speak for themselves and to join us in prayer.
So the Church is the event in which God hears man and God is heard by man, and it is the community brought into being by this conversation. The Church is a foretaste of the life and freedom that God intends for the world as whole. The Church engages the world in conversation, to tell the world that it is loved, and addressed and heard by God.
4. Learning how to pray
We learn to pray. The whole service teaches us, how to speak and how to regard one another. We learn to pray with our whole body, so for example when to kneel, to stand and to sign ourselves with the cross, and we come to know all the prayers of the service off by heart.
Prayer has regularity. We begin formal prayers with a one-line summary of what God has done and what he has promised that tells us who we are talking to and what we may hope for from him. We constantly have to be reminded to raise our sights and to ask for more. We call these ‘Collects’ since they gather up and summarise the prayers of the whole congregation. There is alternation between prayer leader and people that allows us all to join in and to speak in unity as one people.
Now to him who is able to immeasurably more than all we can ask or conceive, by the power which is at work among us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus