When the Church Prays

Evangelical congregations, by and large, have a very small vision of prayer in corporate worship. As I visit from congregation to congregation, it seems that the the pastoral prayer almost exclusively focuses on the needs of congregation members. Praying for our brothers and sisters in Christ is natural and appropriate. If that’s all that we pray for, however, we don’t know who we are as the people of God and the body of Christ.

In Jesus Christ, the church is the heir to God’s promise to our ancestor Abraham:

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you …. and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

“All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Jesus himself is the ultimate fulfillment of that promise. All peoples on earth are blessed in Abraham’s crucified and risen seed, Jesus of Nazareth. The coming kingdom of God was present in Jesus as he cast out demons, healed the sick, fed the hungry, forgave the sinful, reconciled enemies, disarmed nature’s threats and raised the dead. At the end of the age, Jesus’ appearing will transform all creation. The blessings humanity only glimpsed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection will permeate all the world.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus shared his authority to bless the world with some of his disciples. Like Jesus, they traveled from town to town and performed mighty acts of power. Today, Christians don’t generally bless the world by casting out demons, raising corpses, calming storms or working miracles with fish and bread. I know my charismatic brothers and sisters will disagree with me here. Does God do miraculous things? Of course. Do Christians have authority – like the twelve or the seventy sent to the towns of Israel – to cast out demons and heal the sick at will? No, I don’t think so. Life in the post apostolic church is different than life on the road with Jesus’ earthly disciples.

Today, those united to Christ in baptism bless the world by serving as Christ’s priests on earth.

The “priesthood of all believers” is one of the defining doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. Unfortunately, most have taken that to mean, “I can’t make up my own mind about what I believe. I don’t need not stinkin’ magisterium.” (Actually, most Protestants have no idea what “magisterium” means). The freedom of the believer, however, is not at the root of the Biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The apostle Peter wrote:

As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him–you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:4-9)

The church is holy priesthood; the church is a royal priesthood. Peter says it twice in the space of a few verses to make sure we hear the message. This was Israel’s vocation from the beginning. When the Lord made his covenant with the descendants of Abraham at Sinai, he said to them:

You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:6)

And note that Peter is not just saying that Christians, individually, are priests. It is in our union with each Christ and with each other that we become a holy priesthood. We are “living stones” being built into a “spiritual house” to offer “spiritual sacrifices”. We offer our spiritual sacrifices in our corporateness.

The church reflects the order of the temple – house, priesthood, and sacrifice – because it is united to Christ. It is in Jesus Christ that the purpose of the temple has been fulfilled once-and-for-all.

When we gather to worship, united to Christ and to each other, we are a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. That is the Biblical doctrine of the priesthood of believers. Quite frankly, contemporary Catholics understand this better than most contemporary Protestants.

But for whom are we offering our sacrifices. We offer our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving,  to be sure, just because God is worthy to receive them. Some of the Old Testament sacrifices were like that, but some of the Old Testament sacrifices were also offered on behalf of others.

As a holy priesthood united to Christ, we offer our prayers to God to bless the world. We embody the spirit of Christ whose power and mercy are ever a blessing.

If we are united to Christ – and love the world as Christ loves the world – then we won’t just be thinking, “What can Jesus do for me and the people I care about.” We will be praying in Jesus’ name – and in his spirit of love – for all the world.

Paul’s instruction to Timothy, then, gives us a vision, of how we are to pray when we gather to worship.

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone–for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

This was the verse quoted by the 3rd century Christian theologian Origen in his work Reply to Celsus. Why did some of the early Christians not serve in the Roman army or government? Because we are a priesthood, Origen said, and everyone understands that priests serve the cause of justice in a different way than soldiers and statesmen do. According to Origen, Christians pray for the people and the emperor and the state and even for victory in just causes. They bless the world through their prayers more effectively than soldiers or government leaders.

And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. (Against Celsus, Chapter 73)

That was how the early church thought of its prayer life. When the church prayed, it was more powerful than armies.

As Christians, we don’t just pray for ourselves; we pray for the world – for everyone – for kings and all those in authority.

The Book of Common Prayer gives this rubric:

Prayer is offered with intercession for:
The Universal Church, its members, and its mission
The Nation and all in authority
The welfare of the world
The concerns of the local community
Those who suffer and those in any trouble

Whatever form the church’s prayers might take – bidding prayers, written prayers, extemporaneous prayers, or something else – the church is Christ’s holy priesthood, praying for the welfare of the world for whom Christ died. Anything less is is a symptom of the pervasive sinfulness that sent Jesus to the cross.