This was preached at the first of Five services this week held by our 'Churches Together' to celebrate the Week of Christian Unity. The texts are: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-18 and Luke 18:1-8
This week we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of Prayer for Christian Unity. This is an observance that’s dear to my heart so I’m very happy to be here praying with you as an ecumenical Christian community this afternoon. I think that those of us participating in this week of prayer are demonstrating unity in a simple and practical way, and I think that this is important to acknowledge.
Of course, for some people, the concept of 100 years of praying for Christian unity more than just a little ironic. An acquaintance remarked that 100 years of praying for something that’s never happened rather indicates to him that the whole exercise has been a failure. A writer for The New York Times was slightly more charitable, wondering in print whether the movement was actually a victim of its own success.
‘Unity’ was one of the challenges that the Apostle Paul was addressing in his letter to the Thessalonians. And today’s Epistle reading ends with Paul’s advice to those seeking unity to: ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances.’
What does it mean to pray without ceasing? As Christian people, prayer is not just confined to our ‘spiritual life’ but our whole lives are to be a seeking of the Lord. We are called to be persistent in prayer like the widow, convinced that in seeking we shall find.
Paul gives other instructions to the Christian community in Thessalonica that is in need of a spirit of unity: respect those who labour among you; esteem others in love; be at peace among yourselves; admonish the idlers; encourage the faint-hearted; help the weak. These are his instructions for unity – instructions that might seem a bit bizarre until we recognise that, it is often in working together toward a common cause that people learn to respect those who are different.
St Francis of Assisi said: ‘Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words’. In paying tribute to Rob Frost, a Methodist minister and evangelist who died recently, someone said: ‘He didn’t just preach the Gospel, he was a free sample of the Gospel’.
Prayer Changes Us
To me, these are examples of Christian lives lived out as prayer. Today’s gospel reading suggests that prayer can change God, but I suspect that the real benefit of prayer it that it changes us.
The heart of prayer is not being in a room on our own asking for God to change the world. The heart of prayer is, I think, our own changed lives so that there is something about us and the way that we live that turns us into a ‘free sample’ of the Gospel.
The author Margaret Silf, who writes mainly on the subject of prayer, talks about intercessory prayer (prayer for the world and for others) as being an exercise in drawing others into God’s love. She describes the image of a circle with God in the centre.
We can think of our closest loved ones and our dearest intentions as being very close to us on the circle, immediately to our right or to our left. Directly opposite us we can think of those people and intentions that we find most difficult to pray for – perhaps impossible to pray for.
Praying for others is, she says, like drawing those people and intentions into the love of God in the centre of the circle along with ourselves. I find this image helpful because I can use this picture to pray for loved ones when I have run out of words. And I can even use this image to pray for people or for intentions who I find difficult or impossible to pray for otherwise.
For instance, instead of praying that God will harm the National Socialist Party, I can simply draw the members of the party into the love of God so that instead of praying that violence will overcome violence, my prayer becomes a request that hatred be replaced by the love of God.
Persistence Pays Off
I have to disagree with my acquaintance who said that praying for Christian unity for 100 years suggests that the exercise has been futile. I agree more with the writer of The New York Times that, if anything, the movement has been a victim of its own success.
If we think about the centre of the circle, if we use ‘God’s love’ as a plumb line to measure what has happened 100 years, I think we can see that prayers have been answered and that they continue to be answered. Prayer for Christian unity has certainly changed the way that Christians behave toward one another over the last 100 years and I believe that it is only the Holy Spirit who could have brought that change about.
Of course, we still have a long way to go and the way that God answers our prayer for unity will inevitably not conform to someone’s preconceived ideas.
However, our Gospel reading encourages us to be persistent in our prayer. If even a corrupt human judge eventually honours persistent petitions, why should we doubt that our loving Father hears and answers our prayers?
So my prayer this afternoon is that as Christians we continue to pray for the unity of the Christian church. And I pray that our prayers will change us as much as they change God and that all our actions may witness to the love of God. I pray that, through prayer and discipleship, we may all become free samples of the Gospel. Amen