The following is from a sermon by the Baptist minister Keith Clements, then General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches, delivered in 2001 at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva. It was reprinted in the Ecumenical Review 54 (2002):
Being made intensely aware of others’ love can also be slightly discomforting. It was almost embarrassing. I ransacked my store of memories to find a parallel, and eventually unearthed that recollection of early adolescent experience – which again some of you also doubtless recall – of being told on the way home from school or after church: “You know so-and-so? She’s really keen on you.” And you didn’t want anyone to be keen on you – well, not her at any rate, and not just now. It was nice to be an object of admiration, but you didn’t want a disturbance of your life-programme, the claim of another, invading your life which you wanted to be under your own control, and which is what you thought growing up was all about. Similarly, to be prayed for brings home to us that in fact we don’t belong to ourselves. We are part of a community in which others do have a claim on us, want something from us, even our very existence and survival. Perhaps embarrassment at being prayed for shows we are still, spiritually, early adolescents.
This is where Paul is so fascinating. “Through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this crisis of my imprisonment will turn out for my deliverance” – whether a deliverance of release from captivity, or the deliverance of a triumphal sharing of the cross of Christ into eternal life. He – the great missionary and theologian and founder of churches! – does not present himself as a completely self-sufficient hero of faith, in total command of himself and without need of others. He rejoices in being in fellowship with others, in the fellowship of Christ. So he has no qualms about asking for others’ prayers. Time and again in his letters he asks for prayers for himself and his fellow-workers, or rejoices that others are already praying for him. As a person in Christ, he is a person in community, with all the mutuality which that means, the sharing of sufferings and consolation and joy in Christ. From beginning to end, the letter to the Philippians is a celebration of the miracle that through Christ we are given a new life in community. In it, Paul’s Greek nouns and verbs are saturated with the prefix sun – “with.” It’s a “with-life” into which we are baptized, with the Christ who made himself one with us, and who enables us to be one with his risen life in the power of the Holy Spirit, and so one with each other. From the imprisoning illusion of our individualistic self-sufficiency we are released into the joyful creativity of life together. We grow up, in Christ.
Praying, and being prayed for, both flows out of and recreates our life in community in the Spirit: which is why it’s at the heart of our ecumenical life too. Therefore as churches and Christians on a world-wide level we should also ponder more deeply the significance of being prayed for, as well as praying for other churches and communities. During the German church struggle in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once overheard some of his students making rather flippant remarks on learning that Roman Catholics were including the Confessing Church in their intercessions. He rounded on them sharply, saying that he didn’t consider being prayed for by others a trivial matter.
How do we really regard the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle? Today we shall be remembering the churches of Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. We shall do our best to imagine their situations of being a fragile minority in Turkey, of being a great historic Orthodox church and a minority evangelical church in Greece, and of being on a still bitterly-divided island in Cyprus. But what happens when it’s the turn of our own church and country to be remembered? How do we feel when we realize that Christians in the Pacific are praying for us in Scandinavia, or the churches of Cuba and Guatemala are praying for us in the United States, or the churches of east Asia praying for us in Africa? Do we really believe we need their love and concern at least as much as they need ours? Or do we still live in the illusion of self-sufficiency? Perhaps if we tried to imagine how they imagine us, how they view and understand us in their praying, we would be both humbled and liberated into a deeper sense of who we are and what we are called to do, and how we do belong together: just as I, an English Baptist, found it moving to picture the Orthodox and Catholic candles burning on my behalf in far places, and so was led to cherish more deeply the diverse ways in which the Holy Spirit sets love alight. Our times of prayer should be times when we not only pray ourselves, but consciously give time to allow the prayers of others for us to find their way into our minds and hearts and bodies.