How to pray for an imperfect church

St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 16th October 2016

Readings – Colossians 1:1-14; Matthew 16:13-20

Earlier on in the service, I asked you what you wanted to thank God for and what you wanted to share in prayer. I now want to repeat the exercise but in a slightly different kind of way:

  • When you pray for our church what do you thank God for?
  • What do you ask God to do?

Last week we finished our brief sermon series on Nehemiah. To me, it seems that for all the ancient history and complicated names Nehemiah is a fairly easy book to understood. It is all about the man Nehemiah encouraging the people of God to build up the wall around Jerusalem. And to me this gives us a simple visual aid to help understand the task that we have been called to do – to build up the kingdom of God no matter what difficulties or opposition we might face.

Today we are starting a new sermon series from the book of Colossians. As I hope was clear from our reading, Colossians is a very different kind of book from Nehemiah. It is a letter written by the apostle Paul some twenty years or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus. And because it is a letter written in the style of the day it can seem at first rather complicated and difficult to understand. There is no one central image to help us grasp Paul’s message. He uses lots of abstract vocabulary we may not be that familiar with. And as Paul has this tendency to get carried away, he does write some very long sentences that can take quite a bit of untangling.

But in essence the central message of Colossians is fairly similar to that of Nehemiah. It’s about how the people of God are called to build up the kingdom of God – except here in the New Testament the emphasis is not on a physical structure but rather on the church as the body of the risen, ascended Christ – more about that next week.

For now I want to make the point that just as Nehemiah began his great task of rebuilding in prayer, so the letter to the Colossians also begins in prayer. And I suggest that if we are serious about praying faithfully and regularly for our local church – or indeed the church across the world – then the way Paul prays is a pattern for us.

But before we go any further, perhaps it is good to stop and ask: who exactly were these people Paul was writing to? Well, if you look at verse 2, you will see Paul addresses his letter to the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae. And when you read those words you might well get the impression that this letter was written to a very special group of people, who were somehow better than us, and so what Paul says isn’t really that relevant. After all, we don’t have to look too deeply at ourselves to realise that most of the time we don’t seem very holy, and there are definitely times when our faith is a bit rocky.

However that is to completely misunderstand the point is Paul making here. When we read this letter to the church in Colossae we need to realise it was written to people exactly like us. They too had real faults and failings, they had issues in their church that definitely needed sorting out. But right at the beginning of the letter Paul wants to remind them of who they are in Christ. You see, the whole point of Jesus’ death for us is that through Him we become acceptable to God our Heavenly Father. Remarkable as it might sound, when we turn to Christ, we are given His holiness and His righteousness. So even though we may sin again and again – no let’s be clear, even though we do sin again and again – the death of Jesus means that we are counted right before God and able to stand in His presence.

And I suggest that if we are to pray effectively for our local church we have to start by understanding who we are in God’s sight. It’s so easy to begin our prayers by looking at our brothers and sisters in Christ from a purely human perspective, and focus on all the practical issues that beset us. But we need to remember that the church is not another voluntary organisation or club or charity. It is a group of people who have been called to belong to Christ, who despite their sometimes all too obvious failings are precious in God’s sight and whose every sin has been covered by the blood of Christ.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t be honest about the state of the church in the here and now. One day we will stand together perfect and righteous around the throne of God. But that time hasn’t come yet and in the meanwhile we still need PCC meetings, and synods, and subcommittees to sort out all the issues that confront us. We may know where we are heading, but we must never make the mistake of thinking we have reached the destination.

Equally the church in Colossae was far from perfect. There were some very good things going on. There were some distinctly dodgy things. That is why Paul tells the church exactly how he is praying for them. He wants to encourage the positive aspects of the church’s life but he also wants them to see where they are going wrong.

So what does Paul gives thanks for when he writes to the Colossian church? Verses 3-4: We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus. I wonder, when we pray for our church, do we give thanks for the faith of those who are here? I suspect we tend to give thanks for more obvious things, like the growth in numbers, or our ability to pay our parish share. But when you think about it, faith in Christ Jesus is the most wonderful thing we can ever give thanks for. Because although we may not always realise it, when someone comes to faith, that is sure-fire evidence God is at work. Indeed I would put it to you that there is no greater miracle than someone accepting Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. And the fact we have a living church here at St Michael’s and St Barnabas of people who know and love the Lord Jesus should be a cause of great rejoicing and celebration.

Maybe our problem is that we do not fully appreciate what faith really is. We tend to think of faith as our own private set of beliefs, or our own personal walk with God. In the New Testament, faith is far more than what you or I happen to believe. Faith is very much tied up with the whole notion of faithful living, and an ongoing commitment to the Lord Jesus and to one another. That is why in so many of his letters Paul makes the link between faith and love. For him there is an unbreakable link between faith in Jesus Christ and love for your fellow believers.

What thrilled Paul’s heart about the church in Colossae was precisely that there was this evidence of faith in action. So reading the whole of verses 3-4: We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints… Now of course there are many different organisations who share a common faith, and where there are close bonds between their members. But what is it that should be different about a church? The answer lies in that little word “all”. Because what marks out the love of Christ is that it is for everyone. It doesn’t matter our age, our background, or even what football team you support. There is one message of good news for you, whoever you are. And the evidence that a church is far more than just another club or charity is that it shows that same kind of radical, all-encompassing love towards one another, especially to those who are on the margins or seem different. That is what Paul heard about in the church in Colossae and that is why he rejoiced.

So why was the faith and the love of the church at Colossae so strong? Very simply, that they were a community of hope. As Paul goes on to say in verses 5 and 6: … the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you.

Now life as a believer in the first century was tough. Christians were a small, often persecuted minority. Yet the reason the church flourished was because they knew they had a hope that was strong and secure, that no-one could take away. And it was that hope which enabled the church to flourish and grow, not just in Colossae but throughout the Roman Empire at that time. As Paul goes on to say in verse 6: All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.

That is why Paul rejoiced not only in what was going on in Colossae but what was happening in many other countries and regions. And again there is an important lesson for us here. You see, it can sometimes be very easy to imagine that we are small, isolated church and we may wonder what the Lord is doing. Actually we should rejoice that we are part of God’s worldwide plan to save and redeem the people of this earth, and what He is doing here He is replicating in many, many different places around the globe. He is growing his church in Kenya through mission link churches there. He is growing His church in India through the ministry of our friend pastor Paul. He is growing His church in Paraguay through our partners Peter and Sally Bartlett. Just as indeed back in Paul’s day He grew the church through the faithful ministry of Epaphras who first brought the gospel to Colossae. Sometimes we just need to stop and lift our eyes from the local and parochial and realise what a wonderful work the Lord is doing – and that we are part of it too!

So there was much for which Paul gave thanks when he prayed for the church at Colossae. What, then, did he ask for as he remembered them before the Lord? Well, although the next part of our passage might seem somewhat complex (and I did tell you Paul had this habit of getting carried away!), in essence his prayer boils down to one simple request. Verse 9: For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. Now again I suspect that when we pray for our churches we tend to focus on the immediate and the practical. But just think for a moment what would happen if God answered this kind of prayer for St Michael’s and St Barnabas. Imagine if we all knew God’s will when it came to planning our outreach or our evangelism, for example. Imagine if we all knew God’s will for our small groups and for our services Sunday by Sunday. Surely the effect upon the life of this church would be truly astonishing!

Well, the wonderful promise of Scripture is that we can indeed know the will of our Heavenly Father. I have had several conversations this year with folk who have said we can never definitely know what our Heavenly Father wants, but that simply isn’t the case. Listen for example to what Paul says in Romans 12:2: Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will or again the words of the prophet in Amos 3:7: Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets. It is one of the wonderful aspects of our relationship with God the Father that thanks to the gift of His Holy Spirit we can discover what He wants of us in order to serve and obey Him more fully.

The trouble with the church in Colossae, however, was there a small group of people who had set themselves up as some kind of spiritual elite. They thought that in order to know the plans and purposes of God you needed some kind of secret knowledge and observe certain religious rituals. In effect they were saying that knowledge of God’s will was only available to special Christians, ones who were super spiritual and had some kind of deeper relationship with God the Father.

Now much ink has been spilt over what exactly these false leaders were teaching, and the details at the end of Colossians chapter 2 are obscure, to say the least. But I detect that something of their attitude still persists even today, in that it’s all very well for the vicar or someone with authority to talk about knowing God’s will, but surely that’s something for people who have had the right kind of theological education or enough experience of being a Christian.

Well, what we need to remember is that Paul’s prayer is for the whole church in Colossae. Nowhere does he make the distinction that we sometimes make in our minds between ordinary believers in the pews and those up front. Because, and this is a point I to keep stressing, the gift of the Holy Spirit really is a gift to every single believer. This spiritual wisdom and understanding Paul talks about in verse 9 isn’t just for people who have an advanced level of education or maturity in the faith. It is the wisdom and understanding that Jesus Himself promises to anyone who puts their trust in Him. So, for example, when in our gospel reading Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, he does so not as a trained theologian, but as a simple Galilean fisherman who never received the best education. You see, in God’s kingdom wisdom and understanding are most often given to the least and the last rather than those who set themselves up to be the first and the greatest.

So Paul’s prayer in Colossians, then, is really a prayer for everyone here, that together as we listen to what the Spirit is saying to us as a church we might know what our Heavenly Father wants of us. And surely this should be our prayer as well? That as we gather in worship Sunday by Sunday we hear our Heavenly Father speak and we know more of His plans and purposes for us as His people.

And please don’t make the mistake of thinking that somehow this knowledge of our Father’s will is something abstract or theoretical, far removed from the everyday realities of the working week. Listen to how Paul goes on in verses 10-11: And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience. That’s about as practical a prayer as you can get isn’t it?

So just imagine for a moment what would happen if Paul’s prayer was completely answered here morning. Imagine that each one of us left this building knowing the Father’s will for our lives. Imagine that as we turned up at work tomorrow we had the strength and wisdom to know exactly how to put our faith into action. Imagine that as new challenges confronted us day by day we were able to rely on the Holy Spirit to give us the endurance and patience we could never hope to have by ourselves. Surely all of us would return next week giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. Well, says Paul, as we ask God to fill us with the knowledge of His will, this vision of the church can become an actual reality.

And how do we know that the Lord will hear our prayers? The answer comes in verses 13-14: For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. And because Jesus’ died in our place for our sins, we can have the confidence that our prayers in His name will be answered.

So without further ado, let’s finish by making Paul’s prayer for the church at Colossae a prayer for our church here in Devonport. And let me encourage you in the weeks and months ahead to keep coming back to this passage and using it as a pattern for your own personal devotions. Because if we are bold in prayer and trusting in the name of Jesus, then I believe that ultimately there is no limit to what God can through us.

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