Ephesians 1:15-19; 3:14-19; John 20:19-23
Third Sunday of Lent
St Barbara’s 12.03.2023
Rev Tulo Raistrick
In the last three weeks we have been thinking about the liturgy, the words that we say during our church services, and what is their meaning and significance. This morning we are going to think about the intercessions and the Peace.
The intercessions are those prayers that we pray for the needs of the world and the church. They have an outward focus. We are interceding for others, hence the name. But this may be quite a good place just to ask, why do we pray at all? If God knows the needs of the world better than we do, and if God knows the thoughts of our hearts long before we utter them, then why do we need to pray?
Well, perhaps the simplest answer to this question is: Jesus prayed. If Jesus, God’s Son, with the closest possible connection to God, found it necessary and important to pray for others, then we should pray too. We know that this was something he did regularly, and he spoke about it to his disciples, even giving them a prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, to say.
Secondly, we pray because prayer can change things. Archbishop William Temple said that he noticed that when he prayed, “coincidences” happened; and when he stopped praying, the “coincidences” stopped happening. I know that it is certainly true for many of you here that when you pray coincidences seem to happen more often – whether that’s praying for someone, and then you meet them in the street; or for someone to start feeling better, and they do so; and so on. Prayer makes a difference.
And thirdly, we pray because prayer changes us. As we pray and bring before God the needs of others, we may find ourselves becoming more compassionate about people’s needs, more angry about injustice, more willing to do something. When we pray, we may find that we are empowered and motivated to be the answer to those prayers.
Three good reasons to pray. But why pray in a service. Why is this a core component of our time when we gather together?
Because corporate prayer, praying together with others, is particularly important. Jesus told his disciples, “I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” The word “Amen” isn’t just the full stop at the end of our prayers, it means “so be it!” We are all affirming, agreeing with, what has been prayed. We are saying, in effect, “I wholeheartedly agree with what has just been prayed.” Jesus did not call us to a solitary faith, but to a communal faith, a faith lived out with others. Thus, when his disciples asked him how to pray, he replied: pray “Our Father…” not “My Father”.
And communal prayer has been the experience of the church from the earliest of times. In the book of Acts, we read that the first Christians devoted themselves to four communal activities: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer. Indeed, when Peter and John were released from prison a few days later, we are told the whole church “raised their voices together in prayer to God.” Paul when writing to Timothy, and giving guidelines as to how worship should be conducted, wrote, “I urge then that requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone”, a model we see very much worked out in his own life from those prayers from his letter to the Ephesians that we heard read.
100 years later, a church leader called Justin, wrote: “On the first day of the week, we all assemble. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as time allows. Then we all stand and pray.” Such prayers would often be led by the deacons, those with a particular role for helping the church look outwards, connecting with the needs of the wider world.
Our intercessions, like the sermon, are one of those parts of the service where the words aren’t set. Just as the sermon responds to God’s word by looking to apply God’s truth to our context, here in 21st century Coventry, so our intercessions are about responding to the issues and concerns of our world today. We can bring before him specific situations and specific people.
And our intercessions are led by different people each week. Inevitably, left to my own devices, I will end up praying for my particular issues and interests. When others lead us, we may end up having our horizons widened, our concerns for the world broadened. There are other times when we can pray together as well – the monthly church prayer meeting, the prayer chain, in our home groups – and these all help to complement our times of prayer on a Sunday. Throughout our services, we are expressing our love for God. In our prayers of intercession, we also get to express our love for one another, our community and the wider world.
Another integral part of the life of the worship of the early New Testament church was the “kiss of peace”. Paul’s letters encouraged the practice – he frequently wrote to churches encouraging them to “share the kiss of peace” – building on Jesus’ first words to his disciples after rising from the dead: “Peace be with you” , words that we use every week when we share the peace with one another.
In the first century, exchanging a kiss with those who were not your immediate family was seen as scandalous. The church was being deliberately radical and subversive, arguing that their new bonds in Christ were stronger than even those of intimate family. But as the church became more respectable and began to appeal to a wider group of people, the practice quietly disappeared, a bit like feet-washing, another socially awkward activity. It was only in the last 50 years or so that the worldwide church began to re-discover the practice as it began to appreciate its importance at the heart of our worship.
The peace can still feel a bit awkward in many churches. People have different levels of comfort regarding personal space; others may not find it easy to move around to greet people; and so I think we have really gained from adopting the British Sign Language approach for sharing the peace. Certainly, a number of visitors have commented to me on how genuine and warm they have found this aspect of the service.
The peace does three really important things:
Firstly, it communicates inclusion. When we turn and greet one another with a sign of peace, we are saying, “I welcome you”. The introduction to the peace in our Lent services puts this particularly well: “Christ, who nourishes us, is our peace. Strangers and friends, male and female, old and young, he has broken down the barriers to bind us to him and to each other.” We are one body, not a collection of disperate individuals.
Secondly, the peace is about reconciliation. Paul, when writing to the church in Corinth, wrote that he feared their gatherings did more harm than good, for “when you come together as a church there are divisions among you”. To have such divisions at the point of breaking bread, when Christ’s sacrifice to reconcile us with God and one another was so powerfully remembered, seemed unthinkable. If, when you look round the church, there is someone you cannot say “Peace be with you” to, that is something to get sorted out. And thus, in one of the preparations for the peace we remind ourselves of Jesus’ words: “As I have loved you so you are to love one another”, and in another service we are encouraged to “pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life.” The peace is a way of saying: “I am at peace with you. I hold nothing against you.”
And thirdly, the peace is another way of recognising the presence of Christ in our midst. It can be helpful to see the peace as the hinge between the two main parts of our service. We have just finished the Liturgy of the Word, where we have encountered Christ through the Scriptures. We are just about to begin the eucharistic or communion prayer, where we encounter Christ in bread and wine. But in between, we now turn to one another and recognise the presence of Christ in each other. It is a holy moment.
In the peace we are saying: “I welcome you… I am at peace with you… I see Christ in you…”
And so having prayed together, and having shared the peace together, we can then move forward into the act of “holy communion” together, a time when we commune with God as a united community.