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Praying for the Church (Part 7):

We are taught to pray first for the Church as a whole, and its unity in the truth; then for civil rulers, to maintain the peace and justice in which the gospel may be freely proclaimed; third for those in authority in the church, for the ministry of Word and Sacraments; and fourth, for those who are governed by them: “to all thy People give thy heavenly grace; and especially to this congregation here present; that, with meek heart and due reverence, they may hear, and receive thy holy Word; truly serving thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life”.

The word “people” in the English of our time often means human beings in general (“many people were affected”), but in its origins it speaks of a specific community (“my people”). To speak of “the people of God” is to speak not of generic human beings, but of a community with a particular identity and destiny, as those to whom the Lord has said, “I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people” (Lev. 26:12). As such the word “people” is closely related in meaning to the other noun used here of Christians, “congregation”, from the Latin root greg-, meaning “flock”. (“Gregarious” people like to flock together, or move in herds.) The two nouns are used almost inter-changeably in Scripture, as the psalms show: “we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (Ps. 95). The gathered into his flock can be defined in a number of different ways – in terms of God’s eternal purpose, as those predestinate and elect; in terms of Christ’s saving work, as those who are justified, sanctified, and glorified in him. Purist and rigorist Christians move in a sectarian direction, by excluding from the church those who do not meet some standard of belief or practice (and often thus move into schism themselves as a result), but in the Augustinian tradition inherited by the Anglican divines, the church is acknowledged as a corpus permixta, a mixed rather than pure body, in which sheep and goats, wheat and chaff, hypocrites, heretics, schismatics, and true believers exist together until the day of judgment (which is not to say that vigorous measures should not be taken to uphold the church’s standards of orthodoxy in faith and practice). What constitutes the people and congregation of Christ? The Greek word “ecclesia”, (often translated “congregation” or “church”) is from the Greek word ek, “out of”, and kaleo, to call. The church is those who are called by Christ “out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9), “called to glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:3), and who in response to this call, profess faith in Christ and accept baptism in his name. (The word “church”, by the way, comes from the Greek word “kyrios”, “Lord”, because the church is the Lord’s own people, or the Lord’s own house, kyriakon doma, which became kurikon in medieval Greek. The Scottish pronunciation, ‘kirk’, is much closer to the Greek.)

It is in the Word of God in the gospel that human beings are called into the congregation: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:27, 28). It is where the Word of God is truly preached and truly believed, that Christ is truly present, and is building up his Church. So we pray for all God’s people, “and for this congregation here present” – the general yielding to the particular – “that, with meek heart and due reverence, they may hear, and receive thy holy Word, truly serving thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life”. Two Scriptural texts are harnessed here: the appeal to “receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21), and the thanksgiving, for God’s delivering his people “out of the hand of our enemies, that we might serve him without fear, in holiness and rightoeusness before him, all the days of our life” (Luke 1:74, 75). The deliverance bestowed on us by Christ in the gospel has two aspects, negative and positive, freedom from, and freedom for. In receiving the Word of the gospel we are set free from sin, guilt, fear, and judgment, and we are set free for his service in obedience to his commandments.