Praying for the Church (Part 2):
God is not obliged to hear us; it is of his unmerited grace that we dare to approach him; and so that we may approach him without presumption, the first petition in the Prayer for the Church asks for God to hear our prayers: “We humbly beseech thee most mercifully to accept our alms and oblations, and to receive these our prayers, which we offer unto thy Divine Majesty”. Yet our prayer for the whole church is not without foundation.
First, the very nature of God himself invites us to prayer, whose attributes of omnipotence and eternity are invoked by the address, “Almighty and everliving”. These two glorious attributes distinguish God from all creatures, to the stirring of our reverence; and at the same time they confirm our faith, and excite our hope, that though we pray for so many persons and so great blessings, we shall be heard by him who is so mighty in power, and eternal being.
Second, we humbly beg his acceptance of these petitions, not as if we were fit advocates for all the world, but in obedience to his command, who has bidden us thus to express our charity: who “by thy holy Apostle hast taught us to make prayers, and supplications, and to give thanks for all men”. It’s a direct allusion to 1 Timothy 2: “I exhort that first of all supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men” — “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (1 Tim 2:1-6). The command to pray for “all men” is grounded in the saving will of God, and in the saving work of Christ, neither of which know any boundary set by ethnicity, nationality, religion, language, race, or gender. Any kind of elitism or exclusivism is incompatible with the gospel and the church. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 4:28). In baptism and salvation, the outward ordering of earthly society is not abolished, but is radically relativized.
When the Apostle says that God wills all men to be saved, does he mean that all men will be saved, willingly or not, regardless of their relationship to the gospel? Not at all: we are to pray that they are saved by coming to “knowledge of the truth”, through faith in the one mediator between God and man, and his sacrificial death. The Apostle’s affirmation is rather about the universal scope of the gospel, which must find expression in our prayers, as also in our service and witness. It’s one of the characteristic paradoxes of the Christian faith, that an exclusive faith (in one God, one Mediator) entails an inclusive mission (to all men). It is a point made from a slightly different angle in the intercession now used at Morning and Evening Prayer. As God is “the Creator and Preserver of all mankind, we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations” — the latter clause a direct quotation of Psalm 67:2.
“All sorts and conditions” — not just ‘people like us’ (however we may define that). It’s not a big jump from the Great Commission: “Go ye into all the
world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all
nations” (Matthew 28:19). “Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead on the third day: and that repentance and
remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations” (Luke 24: 46, 47). “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Lest we forget the terms on which Christ has received us, and the mission he has given us, in this Prayer we locate ourselves in God’s will for the entire world, and the mission of Christ and his Church to the entire world, in which his will is realized. “Think globally — act locally” is a motto that we can apply to the church also. It is as we see ourselves within the global perspective of the Church’s mission that we see our own part in that mission more clearly.