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Prayer of the week

04 April 2014

Lee Rayfield considers a prayer about some friends of Jesus


God our Father, whose Son enjoyed the love of his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, in learning, argument and hospitality: may we so rejoice in your love that the world may come to know the depths of your wisdom, the wonder of your compassion, and your power to bring life out of death; through the merits of Jesus Christ, our friend and brother, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Collect for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (Common Worship)

IN THE C of E lectionary, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are remembered as "Companions of our Lord" in the lesser festival on 29 July, although the passage about them is read as this Sunday's Gospel.

The family at Bethany have always held a place close to my heart; in my recent journeying with Hodgkin lymphoma, their significance has only been amplified.

Traditionally, prayers that centre on the two sisters and their brother tend to focus on their giving hospitality to the Lord, but this collect names "learning" and "argument" as other gifts that Jesus enjoyed in their company.

It is often a challenge to hold together argument, friendship, and joy, and this collect implicitly asks us what difference the presence of Jesus really makes. Given that in today's Church we are better known for our arguing than our friendship, there is an urgent missional task - and not simply to salvage our reputation. The collect prompts us to pray for a spirit of learning and genuine friendship, even as we engage in argument.

Although the themes of the second section seem to focus on three things other than the opening trio of "learning, argument, and hospitality", the connection with witness and joy is clearly affirmed, and God's mission is made explicit.

We pray to our Father that rejoicing in his love will lead the world to come to know the depths of his wisdom, the wonder of his compassion, and that power of God which brings life out of death. The account of Lazarus's death and his being called from the tomb seems to be a core source for exploring these themes.

Although the narrative in John 11 ends well at one level, there are clear signs that the working out of divine wisdom and compassion is disturbing for Jesus's followers, and for the Lord himself. In respect of wisdom, Jesus's delay in travelling to Bethany is a deliberate decision to "abide" in the Father's wisdom, despite the distress that this will cause to the family whose companionship he treasures. Mary and Martha cannot understand why Jesus did not come sooner.

In respect of compassion, as Jesus stands outside Lazarus's tomb and weeps, the word used for his emotional state suggests anger and anguish, which were fuel for his prayer to his Father.

Before praying the second section, you could take a few minutes to reflect on when you last found yourself disturbed by what you wanted to pray, or by what you felt as you prayed. How often do anger and anguish feature in your prayers, and do they feel like legitimate expressions of compassion?

After Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, he instructed those present to take off the grave clothes that had bound him. It has made me aware of how my own prayer life can sometimes become constricted - falling into patterns that are deadened, emotionally and spiritually. If this is true for you, perhaps this is a time to connect with a spiritual director or soul-friend.

The collect may have a largely traditional ending, but the reference to the Lord as "our friend and brother" takes us back to the heart of the prayer. This is a celebration of intimacy, of shared lives, joy, and friendship. When we lose our sense of any of these in our following of Christ and his cause, this collect offers a good place to reconnect.

Dr Lee Rayfield is the Bishop of Swindon.

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