“My Prayer for the Church”
Advent is not just a season of preparing for Christmas – baking, decorating, shopping, and planning. But it is a season of preparing our hearts and our lives for Christ’s coming again. On the second Sunday of Advent each year, we are introduced to John the Baptist, the prophet crying out in the wilderness, calling the people to repent and turn back to God and God’s ways of love and peace.
This year, John’s call to conversion is paired with a similar text from the Old Testament prophet Malachi. He also is calling for change, renewal, and reform in the lives of God’s people, using the image of silver being refined by fire.
When I read the text from Malachi, the praise & worship song “Refiner’s Fire” immediately comes to mind. We’ll sing it this morning – a reasonably contemporary song, but one that I’ve been singing since I was a teenager.
The song is framed as a personal prayer to God who is addressed as the “Refiner’s Fire” who through the imposition of heat is able to purify the silver or gold (to purify our hearts and lives) so that we become the good and faithful people that God intends us to be.
Certainly, there is a need in our lives for such purification. Day-by-day and week-by-week we need God’s help in making choices for good. We need God’s help in choosing to be more generous, in choosing to be more patient, in choosing to be more kind, less selfish, and more forgiving of others.
When we sing the song together, we’ll pray: “Purify my heart, let me be as gold and precious silver… Refiner’s Fire, my heart’s one desire is to be holy, set apart for you, Lord… ready to do your will.”
Although we often think of Advent as a celebratory time, with decorations and parties and chocolate and gift-giving, in the church it’s actually a penitential time. That’s why one of the traditional colours for Advent is purple – the same colour we use in Lent, a colour associated with penitence. Because Advent is also a time appropriate for self-examination, for opening our hearts and our lives to being refined and reformed by God, for responding to John the Baptist’s wilderness cry: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
But when Malachi preaches about the Refiner’s Fire, he mentions a specific group of people that need purification and refinement. He talks about purifying “the descendants of Levi” or the “Levites.” Now that might sound a bit mysterious, but some of you may know that the Levites were one of the twelve tribes of Israel, and they were the tribe given responsibility for religious life, for temple service, and for priesthood.
Malachi is not just suggesting that everyone needs to confess their sins and get right with God (although he probably wouldn’t disagree with that idea), but he is specifically calling the religious establishment to be reformed and renewed according to God’s will. He’s preaching against corruption amongst the religious leaders. He’s preaching against hypocrisy in the lives of those who provide leadership in the community of faith. He’s calling for change that will not come easily, that will be difficult and painful like silver being refined by fire. But ultimately, it will be good.
So I’m thinking about the reformation and refinement of the church today, a church in which I am one of the leaders, one of the Levites, we might say. And this week, since my name has been placed on the ballot for Moderator of the 2019 General Assembly, I am even more aware of the need for our church to be responsive to God’s call to be reformed and renewed according to God’s word.
I’m speaking now, not so much about our congregation, but about our denomination – The Presbyterian Church in Canada. As Presbyterians, we are strongly linked with one another through presbyteries and synods and the General Assembly. And as Reformed Christians, we are committed to the concept of being continually reformed by God.
And we belong to a church that still needs a lot of reformation. Although we are blessed with many gifts, and we are using those gifts to be a blessing to the world in many ways, we also have plenty of issues.
We’re deeply divided along theological lines, and the issues of same-sex marriage and the ordination of married LGBTQ+ people are bringing those deep differences to light and pushing us to deal with them.
We’re struggling with the viability of our congregations and ministries in many places. We’re closing many more churches than we are opening, congregations are aging rapidly and often not figuring out how to minister to younger people, and missions are struggling to find enough money and volunteers to continue their good work.
We still have a lot of work to do in relation to healing and reconciliation with Indigenous people in Canada. We’ve made apologies for our part in the Indian Residential School System, we’ve been participating in the Truth and Reconciliation process, and we have eight Indigenous ministries doing good work in different parts of the country. But there is much more to be done to live into our apology, to more fully support and empower Indigenous leadership, and to eradicate racism from all our hearts and communities.
Don’t get me wrong. I love our church! Our church is gifted and blessed in many ways, and there are good things happening both here in our congregation and across Canada too.
But I feel called at this time to pray for the church – a church that desperately needs reforming and refining as much as any of us needs refining by God’s holy fire in our individual lives. And so, I want to follow the lead of the Apostle Paul when he was writing to the Church at Philippi and praying for their needs.
Despite the fact that he was imprisoned because of his preaching, despite the fact that the church was not yet well-established and was suffering from persecution, he prayed for the church that he deeply loved. Like Paul, I love the church, and I long for the church with the compassion of Christ Jesus, and so, like him, I pray.
Paul knew that there were good reasons to be anxious about the state of the church and the future of the church, but his prayers were nonetheless full of thanksgiving and joy. Paul looks at the Philippian Christians and sees the good work of God in their lives. He sees what God has already done, and he has hope for what God will do in the future.
He is confident that the God who began a good work in them will carry it on to completion. He is convinced that in the midst of pressure, suffering, internal conflicts, and even sin – God is doing his good work, and will keep on doing it until it is finished. What a deep assurance.
This morning’s passage from the opening part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians has often been used as a model for a pastor praying for her or his congregation. As a potential future moderator for the denomination, I want to use it as a framework for my prayer for the wider church. And I want to invite you to join me in praying for our congregation, our denomination, and the whole Christian Church throughout the world, using Paul’s prayer as a guide.
First, Paul prays that the church will grow in love. It sounds pretty simple, but it’s so important! In the midst of conflictual issues and discussions, we need more love for one another in order to hold together. When resources are stretched and decisions about priorities must be made, we need more love for each other and more love for people outside of the church too in order to focus our efforts towards God’s mission.
So I’m praying for more love – abounding love – to overflow among us here at First Church in every committee meeting and outreach project and pastoral visit and program. And I’m praying for more love to grow in all the courts of our church and on the floor of the General Assembly too. I’m praying for more love in our relations across the church and in relation to our ecumenical partners. And I’m praying for more love where it is especially needed in the online communities in which we participate.
Second, Paul prays that the church will grow in knowledge and wisdom. That’s a part that Presbyterians usually appreciate. We want to learn more, study more, and understand more in order to be better equipped to make wise decisions for the future.
On the issue of human sexuality alone, we’ve been studying and discussing it on and off for several decades. At this point, I don’t think there’s anything more to be learned. Now we need some real wisdom to find a way forward in unity despite diversity of opinion.
Last year’s General Assembly tasked a committee of former moderators and asked them to work together and propose a plan for a way forward, so I’m praying especially for that group. I’m praying that God will grant them amazing insight to know what is best.
And that’s where Paul’s third prayer comes in. He prays for more than just knowledge, more than just information. He prays for discernment – that as churches we will know what is best, what is God’s will for us. We believe that God does have plans for us, and that the gift of the Holy Spirit has been given to us, and that by praying and listening together for the Spirit’s voice, we will discover what we are to do and be today and in the future.
Fourth, Paul prays that the church will be pure when Christ returns. Pure and blameless – that sounds impossible, doesn’t it? But “pure and blameless” doesn’t mean perfect. “Pure and blameless” means doing our best to be faithful. “Pure and blameless” means making every effort to listen for God’s voice and follow it. “Pure and blameless” means that when we fail or fall, we recognize it, and admit it, and work on mending it, and give thanks for God’s forgiveness and grace in Jesus Christ, and for God’s Spirit of healing and empowerment for the future.
“Pure and blameless” means that there is a healing path back from conflict, and racism, and homophobia, and so many errors of the past and the present. And “pure and blameless” is possible because of God’s refining fire purifying us and our church, when we ask God to do so.
No matter what decisions the church makes, whether they are wise or foolish, whether they are right or wrong, I am praying that we will make them together with clear consciences because we did what we believed to be God’s will, we did it with love and respect for one another, and we did it with confidence that we had gathered all the knowledge and wisdom that we could to inform our decisions. I am praying that we will be “pure and blameless” when Christ returns, and that on that day, Jesus will make everything right.
Finally, Paul prays that the church will produce good fruit. You know the fruit he’s talking about, right? He elaborates the fruit of the Spirit in another of his letters as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These are the kinds of things that should be growing out of our ministries together – in our local church, in our denomination, in the whole Christian Church.
And I, like Paul, can see the fruit of the Spirit being produced in wonderful and beautiful ways even now, at every level of our church.
I see it in the work of Presbyterian World Service & Development doing excellent work with partners all over the world. And I’m thinking of our own Donna Wilkinson, heading off to Haiti today with PWS&D for a monitoring visit to our partners and projects in that place.
I see it in our ecumenical work together through the Canadian Council of Churches. And I’m thinking of the research and advocacy work of its Operating Division, Project Ploughshares, seeking peace and making strides towards nuclear disarmament.
I see it in the courts, and colleges, and offices of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, educating ministers, equipping congregations, funding healing and reconciliation work, encouraging stewardship, mission, and justice in our land.
And I see it right here in our congregation in the ways that you welcome and show hospitality to every person who comes through these doors, in the ways that you care for one another, reach out in love through your gifts of knitting, and sandwiches, and money, and so much more. And I see it in the ways that you nurture one another in faith, encouraging children and youth and all people to develop and share their gifts towards God’s mission in the church and the world.
Trusting that the one who began a good work among us will bring it to completion, won’t you pray with me for the Refiner’s Fire to purify the church and make it holy? Won’t you pray with me for more love, for knowledge and wisdom, and for discernment of God’s will? Won’t you pray with me that by God’s grace, we will be pure and blameless on the day of Christ’s coming, producing good fruit for the Reign of God right here and now?