I don’t know about you, but I find myself caught between two impluses when it comes to prayer…
The first is that we need to pray more. Pray, pray, Pray… you hear the wonderful stories of revivals that are the result of a small group of people getting serious about prayer. Like the one in the Hebrides in 1949 that started when a small group of seven people, five men and two women dedicated themselves to pray for revival, and so met each night in a local barn, and one night as they prayed inspired by Psalm 24 where it asks who can stand in the holy place and replies the one with clean hands and a pure heart, began confessing their sins, and the atmosphere on the island changed and when they invited a guest evangelist to come to the island, the local parish church was full to overflowing, and many became followers of Jesus. Visiting businessmen to the island talked of sensing the presence of God as they stepped off the boat. If we would just pray more. Get serious about it.
The other impulse is to say we just need to get on and do it, we can spend all our time praying and worshipping and focused on those things and well not do what needs to be done. Maybe we catch a glimpse of that with the response to the latest mass school shooting in the US… We don’t need your prayers and thoughts they won’t protect us, we need gun reform.”
In the end it’s not a matter of either or but of both and, prayer and action are indelibly connected.
“Prayer and action go hand in hand. The activity comes out of relationship.”(Nicky Gumbel).
In the passage we had read out to us today we see the connection of that relationship with God who wills all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth”, and action: Paul’s own call and mission as an apostle and herald to the gentile nations.” That action comes out of knowing the heart of God in prayer.
We are working our way through what are known as the pastoral epistles, letters that Paul has written not to churches, but to co-workers dealing with specific pastoral issues. We are looking at them for what they can say to us about Christian leadership and see how what Paul has to say speaks about maturity and ministry in our lives today. We just finished a couple of weeks looking at Paul’s charge to Timothy to counter false teaching in Ephesus, and now we are moving onto the body of the letter, what Timothy is to do. Paul starts with prayer.
Paul starts with prayer… “I urge you, first of all”. This is not just Paul bullet pointing his way through a to do list for Timothy and the church. The sense of urge together with first of all speaks to us about priority. The most important thing Paul says is prayer. That relationship with God. In his charge to Timothy he had talked of the centrality of faith, that invisible relationship with God, and love, the visible expression of that relationship, and now Paul says that prayer is the key way that faith relationship is to be maintained. It is the pattern we see in Jesus life action and ministry and times alone with God. Even at the heart of Jesus interaction and ministry to people is prayer, he prays for people. If Christ is the head of the church and we are his body then it stands to reason that that line of communication is to be paramount, without it our activity and action is running round like a headless chicken.
Last week we looked at the key role of the prophetic word of God, God’s timeless word made timely to us, in helping us hold onto our faith and love, and it is appropriate that we looked at that before we looked at Prayer. Because prayer is a two-way conversation between us and God. Our prayer comes in response to his word. To what we know of God. We see this in the passage today as Pauls urge to pray is for all men and all In authority is because it is God’s heart and God’s desire for all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nicky Gumbel says he always starts his quite time by reading the bible, because what God wants to say to him is more important that what he has to say to God.
Paul then goes on to say that he urges “all petitions, prayers, intersession and thanksgiving be made for all people.” In Ephesus part of the false teaching seems to be a focus on genealogies and myths and wanting to be seen as ‘teachers of the law’ there is a sense of an developing focusing on the churches exclusively on Jewishness, that may have resulted in their rejection of Paul’s mission to the gentiles, and in calling for prayer for all people Paul is inviting the church to widen its horizons and understanding of the grace and mission of God. God’s love for all people, God’s desire for all to come and be saved, Jesus Christ giving his life as a ransom for all people. But it is also easy for us to simply think that we remember all people in our prayer and we can forget that it is specifically part of the our mission as well. We can forget the greatest thing we can desire for someone is that they come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. We pray for all their presenting needs, out of compassion, but the greatest need of all humanity is to be reconciled with God through Jesus Christ, to have their sins forgiven and find new and abundant life and purpose in Christ.
Paul then turns to urge prayers for kings and all those in authority. During the exile the Jews became more aware of God sovereignty over all the nations of the world, that even pagan rulers could be agents of God’s will. So here Paul calls us to bring them before God. He does that so that there might be security and peace. Which again like with the exile is the Christian seeking the peace and prosperity of the city in which we find ourselves, being good citizens. However that quite and peaceful life is not an end in itself rather that is the best environment for the Church to grow, that is the best environment for the gospel to be spread. The reason Paul asks us to pray for rulers so we can have a peaceful and quite life is that we may grow into all godliness and holiness. Yes the church, by the grace of God grows under opposition and persecution, it grows in times of turmoil and upheaval, but Paul want it to have the right conditions to show in its actions and reactions the love of Christ. Godliness and holiness do not talk about a separation from the word but that there is an integrity between the God we worship and how we live. That will be part of people coming to know the truth about Jesus Christ. They will see something of Christ as we grow in maturity, in love for one another, in compassion and honesty, patience self-control.
It is interesting in church history when they look at external factors for the spread of the Christian faith in the early days, they point to three things: The roman empire like with the EU today made travel easier as it was under one rule, there was a common trading language across the Mediterranean and Europe, Koina Greek, which the new testament is written in, and also the Pax Roma, meant travel was safe and made possible because of the enforcing of order by roman law and roman army. That peaceful and quite life enabled the spread of the gospel. Later as it became more prominent there would be problems a clash, persecution, but it enabled Christianity to grow and flourish.
Then we get to the heart of prayer, Paul says “such prayers are good and pleasing to God our savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” God’s desire is that all come into relationship with him. Some have latched onto this verse as a support for universalism, the idea that all will be saved, it’s the all roads lead to God way of thinking. But Paul unpacks that for us, he says ‘there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” It is universal in that all people are invited into a relationship with the one God, it is universal and inclusive because Jesus Christ and his death on the cross, is the means by which all people come back into relationship with God. It is inclusive and universal in that God is the God of all the world. It is excusive because its focus is on the God who has revealed himself in the scriptures of the Old and New testament there is no other. It is universal in that Jesus Christ gave his life as a ransom for all people, but exclusive in that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between humanity and God.
At the heart of prayer is the heart of God, his love for the world shown to us by sending the means by which we can be forgiven and reconciled with God as our loving father, Jesus Christ. That as we saw in chapter 1 v 15 Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners is the core of the gospel. The heart of God is for us…all.
Now in modern society that exclusive claim is offensive, we value tolerance and inclusivity, we want to affirm everyone’s truth as equal and valid. The reality is here that the love of God and his desire to have all people be saved is that God has provided a mediator. God’s made the first move… Paul responds to that by talking of salvation as coming to the knowledge of the truth. The truth of who God is and of who Jesus Christ is. It is exclusive and offensive but open to all and for all. Also Paul responds by talking of his own calling and mission that he is appointed a herald and a apostle a true and faithful teacher of the gentiles. Gods desire has resulted in sending Paul to all. God’s response is that the church live out an authentic and consistent ethical life, what we summarise as Love, that shows people what Christ is like and what the Kingdom of God is like.
People have also looked at the ‘all’ in this passage from a very western modern individualistic understanding. Does it mean this person, that person. What about someone who does not hear about Christ? Paul here is combatting a tendency for the church to have a more insular and limited understanding of God’s salvation plans, it reflects the great commissions go into all the world and make disciples, baptising them in the name of the father the son and the holy spirit and teaching them all I have commanded you’. The people is plural. When it comes to the individual we find ourselves with Abraham in Genesis 18:25 as he pleads for Sodom and Gomorrah, an example of bringing prayers for all people to God…who says ’surely the judge of all the earth can be trusted to act rightly.”
How does this connect with us today…?
Perhaps it’s best illustrated by the story of the change that a simple call to pray has been making over the past several years. In the church of England about four years ago a prayer movement was started. The first year it was simply asking people to pray the Lord’s prayer to pray “thy kingdom Come” in the week between ascension and Pentecost, which is a way of asking that God’s reign established in Jesus Christ would manifest itself more in our lives and our world and in the church.
The next year it focused more on praying for God to bring people to Jesus Christ, for the church to be renewed n their love for God and love for people. It’s a movement that has spread around the world. Its calledthykingdomcome and you can go on line and become part of it. But it is inviting Christians to pray in a way that is good and pleasing to God. A few years ago we used one of their resources to pray for five people to come to know Jesus. I’ve still got those five people, when I mentioned that at the minister’s association my friend from the Pentecostal church up the road said “yeah he is doing it as well, but he’s seen 95 people on that list of five come to faith.’ Which is both a challenge and encouragement to me… More recently out of that prayer movement has come action… well we are praying for this, what would it look like in my life, what would it look like in our congregation and resources are being developed to help people and churches share their faith and evangelise. There is a sense that the heart that prays is being stirred to reflect the heart of God and join Paul’s mission to take the gospel to all people.
When it comes to those two impulses to do with prayer the answer as I said is both. We need to pray more, make it part of life and we need to allow it to lead us into action. The heart of prayer is knowing the heart of God and the reality is we know what that is because he has revealed it to us in Jesus Christ, his desire is that all may come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, when we pray for all people and leaders we are joining that heartbeat of God… and that heart beat becomes ours… so let us pray.