Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 3rd November 2013
3 November 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
As with many other people who have recently moved house, the last few months have been a time of great change both for my family and myself. My new work here as Canon Treasurer has already involved meeting many fascinating and interesting people both within and without the Abbey, and getting to know how the place works. Amongst all this I’ve also taken the funeral for my father; my elder daughter has graduated and started a new job, my younger daughter is filling in university application papers. Within all this change there has however been a theme of constancy running through all the turmoil and upheaval.
That constancy has been the regular place of prayer; the grounding of all in the presence and guidance of God. I suppose the real purpose of Christian prayer is to deepen and intensify all that we do, so that we increasingly live our lives in thankful love. For so many of us prayer is the centre point of our lives from which all else flows. None of us really know how frequently Jesus prayed, but over the centuries Christian spirituality has built up a tradition of the rightness of regular daily prayer.
Through the sermons at Matins this month (of which there are three) I will be exploring particular aspects of the nature of prayer. Firstly, today, this Sunday that falls between our celebration of All Saints' Day and All Souls, I will be talking about prayer as intercession. Secondly, on the Second Sunday Before Advent, I will be speaking about prayer as confession. Thirdly, on the feast of Christ the King, I will be addressing prayer as adoration.
So where better to begin than from the opening verses of today's New Testament reading:
For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.
On Friday, in our keeping of All Saints' Day, we commemorated all the Christian saints both known and unknown. This very special type of intercessory prayer builds on our understanding of the communion of saints and how we can all intercede for each other. Of course, this in no way detracts from Jesus Christ as our sole mediator, but it does allow us to call upon the angels and saints to support our prayers from their special position of joy in the presence of God.
Tomorrow in our keeping All Souls we shall also join in a long and very noble tradition of making prayerful intercession for the departed. Indeed, many, many centuries ago the walls of the catacombs were strewn with such prayers, and their survival today vividly reminds us of this heritage. And the great early Christian writers, such as Cyprian and Tertullian, go out of their way to extol the virtues of such prayers. This Abbey Church, before the Reformation, had a huge number of ‘chantry altars’, and indeed at Worcester Cathedral, the place from which I came, the elaborate and richly carved chantry chapel for the young Prince Arthur stands immediately to the south of the High Altar.
An integral part of this, and every act of Divine Worship, are prayers of intercession: prayers offered for and on behalf of someone else; or even groups of people; or even the whole world. This type of prayer is very much part of the ministry of the Word. We respond to hearing the words of Holy Scripture by praying in the light of that Word for the needs of God’s Church, for all humankind and for the local community. When we pray for others our prayers open out the Word to the world, praying for its healing, for its enlightenment and for its guidance.
In many ways intercessory prayer can be a rather costly sort of prayer. It asks us to spread wide our horizons of concern, to move well out beyond ourselves (and our petty preoccupations) to the wider concerns of humanity and society and Church to which we belong. This sort of prayer belongs to the category of praying which John McQuarrie used to call ‘compassionate thinking’, and of course there is far more to it than just expressing our concerns out loud. The way we focus our interceding challenges our consciences and helps us formulate and shape our own lives in response to the needs of others. This sort of prayer calls for what Confucius calls ‘humanheartedness’, and by this he means being able to grasp and embrace the ills of others: but more than that, being able to extend our horizons and expectations for them.
Yet underpinning all this, giving it real foundation, is the need to ground real intercession on the firm rock of being close with God.
By this I mean a real desire and longing to live out faith faithfully. In New Testament terms, anyone who seriously embarks on this type of prayerful intercession has to live closely and intimately with Jesus Christ: As we’re told in the First Letter for Timothy: There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all. So when we pray of others what are we realistically hoping to achieve? Are we hoping to change God’s will, or actually just trying to remind him of his duty? In response to such questions I think it is well worth going back to basics and looking again at the wider picture of what God has done through his Son.
By sending his Son into our world as his very embodiment of reconciliation and peace, so when we pray we too become very much part of God’s vision. We too become important parts within God’s plan of salvation for the world. St Matthew reminds us: “Ask and it will be given you”. He doesn’t explain how this will happen; rather, he is simply stating a fundamental aspect to the fatherhood of God. And so we pray for others because of what we believe about our loving God and how he works both directly within our own lives and through the lives of others.
I finish on a note of healthy reality: If we think we are good at saying our prayers, we probably aren’t that good. Indeed, I suspect we are all rather suspicious of anyone who says that they are good at saying their prayers. Because, speaking as someone who is not very good at saying their prayers, I’d say the point of it all is that prayer is all about allowing truth and reality to flower in each one of us, and therefore it is all part of becoming more human and therefore more ourselves. Of course, the great paradox of prayer - and especially intercessory prayer - is that the more we give of ourselves the more we seem to receive from God.
As Christians the great privilege is to allow the life of Jesus to come and live in us with the Holy Spirit. Rowan Williams tells the story of a great Church of England writer of the twentieth century, who in writing to a friend said: “I’m going to spend ten minutes just thinking about you and Jesus”.
I think that is a brilliant and succinct definition of intercessory prayer.