Genesis 1:26-27 – Listen to this encouragement to pray:
If you meet with difficulties at work, or suddenly doubt your abilities,
think of him (Stalin) and you will find the confidence you need. If you
feel tired in an hour when you should not, think of him (Stalin) and
your work will go well. If you are seeking a correct decision, think of
him (Stalin) and you will find that decision.
This is a brilliant call to prayer, encouragement to pray and it applies to all aspects of our lives. There is only one problem: it is not a Christian exhortation to prayer; it is not a religious exhortation to prayer; it is the exhortation of the authorities of Stalinist Russia to the workforce of the 1950s, and the ‘him’ of the prayer is Stalin. Ironic that even an atheist regime knew the power of prayer.
In the North Korean state they have a state religion. It is called Juche and it venerates Kim Il Sung and his descendants as saviours of the Korean people. Each household and workplace has an image of the Great Leader who is bowed to, sung to and looked to for inspiration. They know the impact of a higher power to call on and inspire them and keep them going. An atheist state that realises the importance of prayer, but rejects the God who brought the world into being.
As a community of God’s people, focussed on Jesus Christ and forced into isolation, suddenly, like everyone else, we realise the value and importance of community. We are also realising the value and importance of coming together in prayer and worship, brought home by the fact that we cannot easily do it and want to. Suddenly, meeting together in prayer – which we all agree is important, but we all struggle to do – becomes important as we face a world wide crisis and desire to be with our brothers and sisters in Christ. The desire for prayer and worship in community is part of our DNA; part of the way in which we have been created and reflects the nature of God who brought us into being.
As Christians we believe that God has never existed in isolation, but always in community. What I mean by that is that the Son and the Spirit have always existed with God the Father and there has never been a time when they weren’t around. If we go back to the opening verses of Genesis, we read that God created and the Spirit of God brooded. If we go forward to the opening verses of John’s gospel, we learn that the Word (i.e. Jesus) was there at the beginning of creation and that everything was made through him. When God speaks about making people in God’s image, it could also be that God was addressing the heavenly beings about which the psalmist writes and says that we are created only ‘just below them’. The important point is that God has always been in community.
Why God created the world and people is down to God’s grace and love and an outworking of the relationship in the Godhead. What seems to be clear from the account in Genesis 3 is that God intended to have a relationship with those created, because God sought Adam and Eve in the garden. We get the impression that the reality of God’s presence was tangible as Adam and Eve talked with God, talking as friends before the incident with the tree of knowledge In fact one commentator has described prayer as a conversation of friends. This is a far cry from the labour we sometimes make it, or even feel it ought to be. God went seeking Adam and Eve. He loved the people he had created and wanted to meet with them. The relationship was not one of coercion, as in authoritarian states, but one of freedom; one of a response of love from the people God created.
In spite of the breaking of that relationship by Adam and Eve, God still seeks relationship. God is not absolute and distant and individualistic, but focussed on relationship and community. God chose Abraham and from him brought a nation of people with whom a covenant was made. It was the community of God’s people who are rescued from Egypt, and with the whole nation that the covenant was re-made. (Exodus 19:4-8;24:3) Together they came in worship and prayer before God. The distance that grew between the people and God was of their own doing, because the relationship took second place and meeting together with God got in the way of business.
The New Covenant God made through Jesus is with all people. Again, this isn’t an individualistic relationship; John 3:16 says that God came to save the world. We are now part of God’s chosen people, grafted in as Paul puts it in Romans 11. In Ephesians he describes us as fellow citizens and members of God’s household. He talks about us being built together as a holy temple, the dwelling place of God. All of this is corporate imagery. It is all relational.
That is not to deny the fact that God meets with us personally and it is important to have a personal prayer life, but there is a danger we become individualistic in our faith and relationship with God, and we lose sight of the fact that God is not individualistic but communal. God built relationships and builds relationships in community because that is a reflection of who God is. Why is it important to meet together in prayer? Because together we reflect the nature and character of God; together we meet with God; you don’t the get the whole picture on your own. In 1Cor12:12-13 Paul describes us a body and without all the bits it won’t function properly. All the bits together make the body and no part can go it alone. He says that we were all given the same Spirit to drink, no matter who we are and that together we are the body of Christ. The writer of the Hebrews reminds us that it is important to meet together, because it is together that we encourage each other and spur each other on.
The letters were written to communities of Christians and in them they were encouraged to love each other as brothers and sisters: family. This all points to the fact that we are expected to live out our faith and our relationship in community – that includes our prayer life. There can be no Zorro Christians, single-handedly living for God and defeating Satan. God has called us to be a community and part of that is to be a community in prayer. This has been expressed during this forced isolation as we have joined with the BU in their prayer broadcasts, the daily prayer of Facebook Live, the Bible study Basil has set up and the Zoom prayer room which will meet on Thursday evenings. If you have not connected with these, look out for the links which will be on the website under ‘Prayer Online’ and in the church email which goes out almost daily. If you haven’t been receiving the church email then let me know on russell.emmanuelgravesend @gmail.com – which is my normal email. I’ll add you to the list.
It seems to me that everything foundational to our faith shouts community, relationship, togetherness. We have become used to being able to meet and perhaps that is why we sometimes treat it as optional. Suddenly now that we find ourselves isolated we realise the importance of gathering together, if we didn’t know that already. It is a great encouragement in the morning to have messages popping up whilst morning prayer is taking place, even just to say you have connected. We like to know we are not on our own.
The gathered community of God in prayer, reflects the one who brought us into being. God does not exist in isolation and never has. Out of grace God created the world and the people in it for relationship with himself. Believers were never expected and are not expected to have an exclusive, individual, relationship with God. We have been given each other for love, support, guidance, discipleship, correction. It is through the community of God’s people that God works in power and we discern God’s will. Therefore it is not surprising that we should meet together as one body in prayer.
Jesus taught a corporate prayer for his followers to pray: read Matthew 6:7-15
The pattern for prayer that he taught is one that requires us to be together. You can’t pray ‘Our Father’ on your own; you can’t pray give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us on your own. In order for us to be this prayer, we also need the body of Christ to help us – especially when we are separated. The community was expected to be praying together about God’s provision and to be confessing and forgiving together. The community was supposed to be supporting each other in temptation and to be delivered together, even being the means of someone being delivered. This is a life of prayer, one in which we are not walking the Christian path on our own, facing the joys and sorrows on our own, facing the challenges and successes on our own. This is God’s body working together and through the body God will impact the world.
We need to be aware of showing off in prayer, which is what Jesus was warning against in 6:5-8, using prayer as the Pharisee did in Luke 18 to say how good he was. But if our focus is God and others and we are open to the Holy Spirit, we should be able to avoid these pitfalls. The Lord’s prayer forms the pattern for our worship services as we praise God our Father, pray for His Kingdom to come, give thanks for his provision, seek his forgiveness and the willingness to forgive others, and ask for his deliverance. We will have prayed it by the time we finish our service together this morning.
Why pray as a community focussed people? Because it reflects the character of God. However, just as we don’t confine worship to what happens on a Sunday or to the musical aspect of our meetings, neither should prayer be confined to what happens when we close our eyes and bow our heads, or when we have a prayer meeting. From prayer we need to move into practice – living out the Christian life. Prayer changes us and moves us into action: the spiritual and the practical work together. Let me give you two illustrations from my time as a teacher.
Sybil was a colleague teacher in my early years of teaching. She attended her local church and their new minister was too spiritual for her, because he wanted them to meet together to seek God and pray. She wanted to be out and doing rather than sitting praying. She was a Christian, but prayer was what you did in a service and at particular times in a service, and that was that. Prayer was what the minister prayed from the book, or sometimes on special occasions someone from the congregation. Anything beyond that found in a service of worship was airy fairy spiritual people wasting time and she was a practical person.
About a year before I applied to Spurgeon’s, I was asked to apply for the headship of a school in Sevenoaks. I attended the first interview having just come back from taking Year 6 on a school journey and not a lot of sleep. I was ill prepared and didn’t expect to get past the first round. When they called me back for the final interview I was surprised, and having had the interview not at all sure this was the place for me. The school’s inspector came out with me as I left and we chatted outside. She was also not sure that this was really the place for me. She said, ‘Why don’t you go away and do what you Christians do when making decisions: pray about it.’ She wasn’t a Christian but linked the practical of the Christian life with the spiritual relationship with God.
This was where Sybil had got things wrong: the spiritual does not and should not exclude the practical or be separate from it. For the Christian the two should go hand in hand. From the foundation of prayer we step out in faith and trust God. Prayer is not an excuse for inaction or a substitute for doing something. It is seeking after God, drawing on his strength so that we can live out what we believe to be true or called to do. We do this as a community focussed people.