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Prayer for the week

12 December 2014

St Paul can help to liberate us from our frenetic festive preoccupations, says Kevin Ellis


And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,  having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1.9-11

THE Apostle Paul is probably better known as a missionary, theologian, and even zealot than as a pastor and intercessor. This column is not perhaps the most appropriate place to argue otherwise. This prayer, however, written to and for the Christians at Philippi, seems to demonstrate the truth of the ancient truisms "A theologian is someone who prays," and "Someone who prays is a theologian."

While the prayer yearns for the Philippian Christians to overflow with love, which produces both "knowledge and . . . insight", there is a specific purpose to this petition. The intercessor's desire is that these Christians he so obviously loves - for the epistle bounces with joy and delight - will be so rooted in Christ that they produce "a harvest of righteousness".

At first glance, at least to my English eyes and ears, the intention that love might overflow with knowledge and insight appears a little bewildering. This is no doubt because I was schooled in the belief that love is nearly always blind and, therefore, often disconnected from down-to-earth practicalities.

Such an assumption misreads both the Apostle, and also the invitation that God offers us in Christ, to be part of the divine family. For Paul, as for countless intercessors before and since, the love he is describing comes from God. In short, the prayer asks that we would overflow with God, enabling us to leave divine droplets in every encounter. We are truly to be like Jesus for the people we meet.

Such a brimming over with God is meant to help us to discern what is best. Indeed this is one of the primary focuses of my own prayer life: trying to discern what is best, or most reasonable, in a variety of situations, sometimes simple, yet often complex. For Paul the pastor, prayer and the realities of everyday living are interwoven. The apostle's preoccupations are not with the micro-level mechanics of living, like the proverbial requests for a car parking space (although I must occasionally plead guilty on that front): Paul's concerns are about how to live. Focusing on what is best is more about how we might be able to stand on "the day of Christ" - which is an appropriate thought for Advent - than about paying for the costs of ministry, or meeting specific social needs, important though these things are.

Praying that we may be found without spot or blame when Christ returns can seem pious and therefore remote, although I have often sung with great gusto the Wesleyan lines "Pure and spotless let us be." If this is the case, it may be that we have travelled too far from the context of the prayer and lost sight of the fact that the Day of Christ (or Day of the Lord) was one of judgment as well as hopefulness, to be feared as well as embraced.

For the apostle, being pure or blameless is not dependent on our actions (which is perhaps just as well), but rather rooted in our being in Christ. This prayer could set us free from our current, frenetic, pre-festive activity. Indeed, the "harvest of righteousness" may not consist of individual acts - although, as another of the canonical intercessors writes, we must never give up on doing good - but rather that we become more like Jesus.

This continual growing to resemble our Saviour is shown in the harvest of right living in our lives. It is about being rooted in God, acknowledging, particularly at Advent, that the God whom we worship surprises, coaxes, challenges and judges us. That is not usually comfortable, but then neither is any genuine prayer; for in praying, we are seeking transformation for ourselves, as well as for those for whom we pray.

The Revd Dr Kevin Ellis is the Vicar of Bro Cybi, in the diocese of Bangor.


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