Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Intercessory Prayer

Michael Ramsey (1904-1988), the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, famously said that intercession is when we come to God with others on our heart.   

It is prayer turned outward to encompass other people’s needs. There are some striking examples of this in the Old Testament, including Abraham (Genesis 10:20-33), Moses (Exodus 32:1-14.) and Daniel (Daniel 9:2-3) 

In the New Testament, Jesus tells us to “pray for our enemies” (Matthew 5:44.). We also see his own example of intercession in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he died (John 17). 

St Paul asks the Christians in Rome to pray for him (Romans 15:30), having assured them that he holds them up before the Lord in his prayers: 

“The God I worship spiritually by preaching the Good News of his Son knows that I never fail to mention you in my prayers . . . “ (Romans 1:9.) 

But the key passage in the New Testament dealing with our prayer of intercession is in St Paul’s first letter to Timothy: 

“My advice is that . . . there should be prayers offered on behalf of all people - petitions, intercessions and thanksgiving - and especially for kings and others in authority, so that we may be able to live godly and reverent lives in peace and quiet. To do this is right, and will please God our Saviour: he wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4) 

There is in these verses the amazing and mysterious implication that by interceding in prayer, by being in God’s presence with others on our hearts, we somehow participate with God in all the good he is doing in their lives. 

Why did God decide to do things this way? Surely he has taken an enormous risk, given our frailty, our sinfulness, and the many times when we forget to pray for others! 

I think it has to do with the fact that our God IS love, and that all his blessings are in some way or another outpourings of that love, and by being involved in prayer for one another we are swept up into a network of love in the body of Christ transcending the boundary between this world and the next (which is why [1] we are thankful for the Eucharist in which we are one with the intercessory ministry of our great High Priest, and [2] we appreciate the intercession of our Lady and the saints. 

Intercessory prayer is when we embrace the burden of God. He sees all who are crushed, broken, empty, wounded and lost. He longs for everyone to know him, to receive his love, and to experience the fulness of his life and healing. In the days of his earthly ministry, Jesus bore this burden of the Father. He reached out and touched lives, and he died on the cross to bridge the gap that had opened up between us and the Father. Furthermore . . . 

“He not only died for us - he rose from the dead, and there at God’s right hand he stands and intercedes for us.” (Romans 8:34.) 

Again, in the Letter to the Hebrews we read: 

“. . . he is living for ever to intercede for all who come to God through him.” (Hebrews 7:25) 

Speaking to a group of ordinands, Michael Ramsey pointed out that this picture of Jesus as our High Priest interceding for us helps us to understand the nature of intercession in general: 

“. . . When we say ‘he lives to make intercession’ we note that the verb which we habitually translate ‘intercede’ means literally not to make petitions or indeed to utter words at all, but to meet, to encounter, to be with someone on behalf of or in relation to others. Jesus is with the Father; with him in the intimate response of perfect humanity; with him in the power of Calvary and Easter; with him as one who bears us all upon his heart, our Son of Man, our friend, our priest; with him as our own. That is the continuing intercession of Jesus the high priest. 

“Now we can begin to see what is our own role as men of prayer, as intercessors. We are called, near to Jesus and with Jesus and in Jesus, to be with God with the people on our heart.” (The Christian Priest Today, pp. 14-15) 

This reminds us of the Old Testament picture of the High Priest, who, with his other priestly robes wore a breastplate into which were placed twelve stones. Each stone represented one of the tribes of Israel. When he went into the Holy of Holies to meet with God, he was not there primarily for himself, “but with the people on his heart”, for their forgiveness and blessing. 

So, in intercessory prayer we enfold in God’s love particular people who need his blessing. We do this in faith, knowing that through his dying and rising Jesus redeemed the world and overcame evil. Our hearts become the place where the pain and darkness of this world encounter the life and victory of the risen Saviour. We dare to believe that through intercessory prayer his love is somehow released into the lives of the people and situations we hold before him. 

Archbishop Rowan Williams echoed this when he spoke about intercessory prayer during a BBC radio interview: 

“You don’t send in your list of requests or bombard God with your demands. You just hold the image and sense of a person or situation in the presence of God as if you want to let the one seep into the other. The bringing together of those two realities in your mind and heart is very much how I find intercession works.” (BBC Radio Interview with Mark Tully, 13th Sept., 2009) 

Intercessory prayer is another area in which the Holy Spirit makes us part of the ministry and prayer of Jesus . . . 

“. . . the Spirit helps us in our weakness: for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit . . .” (Romans 8:28)


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