Matthew 18:18-20 & Acts 1:4-14
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
August 5, 2018
To pray is something we do in solitude, in one-on-one interaction with God. It is also something we do in community, in interaction with each other in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
After all, Jesus said He is especially present when in praying we connect with human beings as well as with God.
In today’s first scripture lesson, Jesus told His followers that, whenever two or three of them are gathered in His name for prayer, He is there among them; and that, when in prayer on earth they agree on a request of their Father in heaven, it is done for them.
How do we explain this special potency to shared prayer? We would insult God if we explained it by supposing that God were impressed by numbers and swayed by the weight of a crowd. (I remember once being a part of a group of boys who were debating whether, if you filled a football stadium with people praying really hard for a pile of dry wood at the 50 yard line to burst into flames, the force of all those fervent prayers would ignite it – as if they could force God’s hand!)
Well, if not in that way, how do we explain the special potency of shared prayer? I suspect that the explanation lies in two facts: 1) that how much we are engaged with God affects how much God will do by means of us, and 2) that how best we engage with the God who is love is to engage lovingly with other human beings. When then we engage at prayer with others, and for others, and when our hearts and prayer requests are aligned with God’s agenda to love, save and uplift people, our prayers can move mountains!
Let us remember that Jesus’ promise here about praying together is not a blank check for our getting whatever we want, for it presumes we are asking in His name. Asking in His name is not just saying the words, “in the name of Jesus”, as if the phrase were a magical incantation. Rather it is asking in line with the character and concerns of the One whose name means that God saves. It is, in other words, asking that heaven’s will of love and justice be done on earth, according to the mysterious but trustworthy wisdom of God.
We align ourselves with the One who answers prayers with extravagant grace and miracle-working power by aligning our character and concerns with His.
When prayer is right and powerful, our prayers are all about doing justice to God and doing right by human beings. No wonder then that, when we pray in the relational reality of mutually sensitive and supportive community, and with an eye to bless the still larger world around it, our intercessions grow mighty in their effectiveness!
The group prayer in which Jesus is particularly present, and which justifies high expectations about God’s responsiveness, is one in which people pray, not in sequential self-centeredness, but in appreciation of the bigness of God’s heart and of the bigness of God’s vision for making a difference in this troubled world. It is one in which love for each other and for all people pulls us beyond our particular preoccupations. Yes, we pray for what matters most to us personally, but we refrain from going on too long about that lest we leave others little time to pray about what matters most to them personally – and what may not touch any of us personally but matters, we know, to God. We each pray out of the larger perspective God has, and for which He has brought us together in prayer.
The shared praying Jesus has in mind is such that everyone, either by silent prayer or by spoken-out-loud prayer, lends a hand, joins forces in faith, and lifts up shared interests to God like an Amish community lifting a barn for a fellow farmer in need. In such loving interaction, we interact with the God who is love; and we pray, not just to but in God. We pray in the Holy Spirit.
We do well to note that Pentecost happened in the context of a prayer group meeting.
Just before He returned to heaven, Jesus told His followers they were to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth; but He insisted they hold back from immediately embarking on that enterprise in order to put first things first and to wait for the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. That’s why, our second scripture lesson tells us, all the believers “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer together”. In fact, “they were all together in one place” – praying no doubt! – when the Spirit fell and filled them all.
We can share prayer together in a variety of different ways. We can meet with a bunch of folks for a set time on a regular basis as this church’s Thursday prayer group does. We can partner up like that with just one other person, and with whatever regularity works. We can share prayer in face-to-face meetings, phone calls or text messages. We can alternate between group prayer and solitary prayer in monthly or quarterly retreats. We can pray in any style with anyone who believes in the power of prayer and who gets it that when Jesus draws us into a loving relationship with Himself He draws us into one with each other.
Tim Keller says that he discovered prayer, both in its shared form and its solitary form, in the second half of his life. He did so, he says, when he finally had to.
In the fall of 1999, Tim taught on the Psalms. As he worked his way through the prayer book of the Bible, he realized that he’d barely scratched the surface of what the Bible has in mind about the dialogue of prayer. Nine-eleven drove Keller, then serving a church in Manhattan, into a more vigorous pursuit of the full life of prayer, as he and other New Yorkers sought to recover from that terrorist attack and adjust to their new normal. Other traumas as well accelerated Tim’s seeking an ongoing conversation with God. His wife, Kathy, struggled with Crohn’s disease, and he himself was fighting thyroid cancer.
At one point, Kathy urged Tim to do something with her that the two of them had never been able to muster the self-discipline to do regularly. She asked him to pray with her each night. She illustrated her thinking behind the request with a clarifying analogy: Imagine that doctors had told you that you had a fatal condition that would kill you within hours if, even for one day, you skipped a pill they prescribed. Would you ever miss a dosage? Would you ever fail to get around to it? No, your life depends on your never doing that! “Well,” Kathy said to Tim, “if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray; we can’t let it just slip our minds.”
Though it began awkwardly and often uncomfortably for them, Tim and Kathy kept praying together, in their common faith, and in their shared love of God and of each other; and eventually their conversation with God and their relationship with God became deeper, richer and more fruitful. They came alive as never before by regular shared prayer.
The lives of each of us and of the church community we are together are at stake in whether we pray by every possible means. The truth is we have to dialogue with God more fully and more often. Let us pray right now!