First Things First: Inclusive Prayers for God’s Mission
1 Timothy 2.1-7
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s get first things first. That’s the introduction to the letter-full of instructions coming to Timothy, as we heard in today’s Epistle reading. Because we’ve since heard a Gospel passage that confuses the snot of out me and the Epistle lection was only a few verses, I think it’s worth re-reading at this point.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For
there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
who gave himself a ransom for all
—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
What we didn’t hear in today’s lesson was the preface that told Timothy the following instructions would help get his church in order so it can be about God’s mission in the world. As such, it starts by reminding Timothy of putting first things first.
To get the church in order and start with the matter of utmost importance, which is prayer. Paul gets directly to the point: the Christian life together has to be grounded in prayer. Because this letter cuts to the chase, so will I: in order for the church to live out its vocation in the world – its calling to proclaim God’s salvation to all peoples – the church must pray for everyone, as Jesus mediates salvation to all of humanity.
Perhaps you’re all more sanctified than I am, or maybe you’ve never had this experience, but imagine with me, if you will, that reaction some of us who drive have when we’re in traffic. You know the one – when you just want to honk your horn with the rudest honk imaginable or maybe wave a particularly angry hand gesture in another driver’s general direction. Maybe it’s 5:47pm on a Thursday, you’re rushing home, and someone is holding up traffic on 31st trying to turn left onto Broadway and you see, as clearly as they surely do, the long sign that says no left turn from 7am-9am and from 4pm-6pm Monday to Friday except holidays, though busses are exempt – yet it’s 5:47pm, it’s not a holiday, and their Prius in no way could be mistaken for a bus, but nevertheless they’re holding you up and trying to turn left anyway. At least twice this week I just had to say out loud “that beloved child of God has probably had a hard day” in order to keep my threads of sanctification held together.
Oh, if it were only that simple to live a life of Christian holiness. If all we had to do would be to recognize a common humanity – the leveling of the playing field. While that’s not all the Christian life encompasses, it’s certainly a necessary first step. We, every human to ever exist, are all in need of God’s salvation. We are all recipients of the grace Christ mediates to us.
In Timothy’s day and place, Christians were persecuted. They didn’t fit into the Gentile society of the day because they had a different Lord than the Emperor. They didn’t fit in with the tolerated Jews because they claimed that Messiah had already come. They were a minority voice, and they were killed for it. They couldn’t live out their Christian life because they would be plowed down by the ruling powers. With Timothy’s church needing a firmer structure to withstand these physical attacks over spiritual matters, he’s instructed in this letter that the first step to ordering a church is to pray, and to pray for everyone, even the ones who are attacking – even the governing officials who are literally ordering for them to be killed.
While I don’t know of contemporary American governmental leaders explicitly ordering the killing of any class or group of people, I think it’s possible to read current events and find that politicians of every rank are continuing to enact injustices in society that keep the playing field out of balance, in favor for some groups over others. I’m not talking about an attack on Christians here, but on a number of the races and classes and groups of persons who are not part of the powerful majority yet are just as much children of God as the rest. Each and every week – as we will in just a few moments – when we pray for some leaders by name and then generally for all who are in places of authority, I have to intentionally remind myself that these fellow humans are just as needy for God’s grace as I am myself. Thankfully, now that I’ve been named a Postulant, I’m listed in the prayers by name for our community to pray for my continual growth in both knowledge and holiness of life.
As this letter to Timothy attests, God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (v4 NRSV). And there, in putting his thumb on the very heartbeat of God, Paul shows the foundation of the Church as being a place that offers every person ample opportunity to have their life transformed in the knowledge and love of God. That, my friends, is the mission of the church. As Christ “gave himself [as] a ransom for all” (v6 NRSV) and therefore mediates grace between the fullness of God and all of humanity, so should the Church, the Body of Christ, be the people who embrace all of humanity as an offering back to God. In doing so, the Church mirrors back God’s desire for all to know salvation.
What happens when we recognize the common need for salvation for each person? What would the church look like every week we sat down the aisle from the person who ticks us off in traffic or who votes to enact an unfair law? What if, when we prayed for everyone, we truly meant every single person? Our narrow-mindedness in such a polarized society might, just maybe, be broadened if we prayed every single day for that person that we just can’t stand. Think about it: what if we looked at someone who we thought was the vilest human being and remembered that Christ the mediator is offering them the same grace he is offering to each of us? It’s hard to wish damnation on someone who is seen as a fellow child of God. Put in a much better way, Saint John Chrysostom wrote this: “No one can feel hatred towards those for whom they pray.”
Have you ever met an angry nun? From time to time, I go visit the Benedictine Sisters up in Atchison, Kansas. These holy ladies, like most monastic communities, are always praying. They intentionally start each day by recognizing the presence of Christ in each other and in visitors who come to them. They are also some of the most peaceful bunch, even as a group who speaks truth to power in matters of societal injustice. Yet, if any group lives “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity,” it’s them. Does that mean they don’t have disagreements? Not at all! But they ways in which they handle their problems starts with the recognition that each person in the dispute has the light of Christ in her. From that grounding, built on their shared prayer life, they can find charitable ways of moving forward.
While God’s salvation is offered to every person, and the church is called to pray for and with everyone, the grace Christ mediates does not force uniformity; rather, it calls for unity. Unity assumes that persons with vastly different perspectives can each have space to respond to the unique ways in which Christ’s grace is poured upon them. While God’s grace is universal, we each come to know it in particular ways.
In bringing many voices together of every perspective in prayer for each and every person, the church is transformed. We are bonded together in the unity for which Christ prayed. In our mutual humility under the grace-dealing work of Christ, we grow in holiness of life and, from that holy habitation, can structure our church and respond to the injustices of the world in well-rounded, wholistic, prayer-borne ways.
First things first: prayer unites us. We in The Episcopal Church pray from a prayerbook that is common to all and yet uniquely understood by each one. We pray for justice and inclusion, salvation and sanctification, redemption and restoration. Together, in our shared life, may we continue to recognize that our prayers together for the sake of the whole world not only change us as individuals, but they lay the foundation for our life together to enact the very will of God in our own day. By praying for everyone, we are starting our work of participating in God’s mission of salvation. Our prayers unite us in God’s universal mission for “everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For ‘there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.’” May we continue to pray for all people, all of humanity, who benefits from Christ’s work of salvation; and may we do so recognizing that God equally wants each person to know and accept the grace that is being offered. May our church, in so doing, be found in the middle of the will of God. Amen.
 Probably a pseudepigraphal character claiming to be Paul.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!