This week we are starting a new sermon series that I hope will bring us to a better understanding of what it means to be a member of this church. We will come to find out that it is not enough to just be a member, but that membership in this church means so much more. Whether we are baptized and professing our faith for the first time, or we are just moving from another church and joining a new one. We will see that membership is about much more than membership, but it is about professing your willingness to be a devoted disciple of God in all the ways you live in the world. We really shouldn’t call it entering into membership, but rather entering into discipleship
The Baptismal Covenant in our hymnal holds the vows we take as members and disciples of the church. It incorporates our commitment to God, to the Church universal, the United Methodist Church, and even our commitment to our local church. It is this local church commitment that we will focus on within this sermon series. You will see that these 5 vows we will look at are not just used in the local church they are areas that impact our entire lives and how we conduct our lives both within and outside of the church.
If you look on pg. 38 in your hymnal you will see the statement we will be breaking down in this series.
“As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?” (UMCDiscipleship.org)
This is our vow of our participation in the church to which our membership will reside. Now the hymnals you have only have prayers, presence, gifts, and service. In 2008 the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to add witness to the vow. We will get to that reason in our last week of this series, but this week I want us to start with the first vow on that list.
Prayer is a central theme of our faith. It is something that we should be conscious of doing as we live out our faith, but what is it’s role within the context of participation in the ministries of our local churches. If we are to consciously believe and commit to these vows when we affirm our membership we must understand how they work.
So lets start off by identifying what prayer is and why we do it.
We pray because we yearn for that relationship with God. We pray because we know that God is on the other side of our prayers listening to us.
Prayer is this moment of intimacy between either the person praying, or the community gathered, and God. It is a moment that we seek to connect ourselves with God, and seek God’s guidance in our lives. Jesus informs us of the importance of intimacy in prayer in our scripture today saying,
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt 5:5-6)
Jesus wants us to understand the intimacy of prayer life and what prayer truly means. This is not a discouragement from public prayer, rather a discouragement from using prayer for outward personal gain. Remember prayer is about intimacy and our prayer life whether in our personal time or in from top the congregation should show that intimacy in how we do it.
Prayer is also a way that we show our faith. Prayer in itself is a declaration that we not only believe in God, but that we believe that God should be glorified and can help us. Through prayer we show our faith and we echo our theology. We espouse our beliefs and use it as encouragement as we continue on our faith journey
John Wesley called prayer a “means of grace.” Wesley defined these means as,
“outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.” (Wesley p.80)
Therefore, he saw prayer as a means by which we not only communicate with God, but also as a means that we are receptors of God’s grace as well. God works in us through prayer. God strengthens us and protects us.
This is what prayer is for us. It is an intimate show of faith in which God works in and through us. Prayer is the foundation that we return to in our relationship with God. Without prayer it would be difficult to have that relationship with God, much like it is difficult to have any friendship without communication.
But how do we pray?
Praying can be one of the toughest and most daunting tasks as a Christian. We feel so inadequate to be able to pray. What do I say to the God who loves me unconditionally? What if God doesn’t listen? What if I say something wrong? We all have these fears run through our mind as we pray, but luckily Jesus’ disciples were very inquisitive when it came to prayer.
In the 11th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel we read,
“He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’” (Luke 11:1)
Jesus answers him there in Luke but I want to turn our attention to our Matthew Scripture which is the parallel to that Luke passage, because Jesus answers them with Lord’s prayer. Jesus says in Matthew,
“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one…” (Matt. 6:9-13)
We all recognize this as the Lord’s prayer. Jesus uses it as a teaching method to help show his listeners how they should pray. It sets up a nice little rubric of how one should pray and involves different aspects of prayer that we carry with us even to this day.
The Lord’s Prayer shows us that in prayer we should acknowledge, worship, surrender, ask, forgive, protect, and worship.
We begin by identifying who God is to us. A simple invitation that enters us into this relationship. We then offer words of worship glorifying the name of God. We surrender ourselves to God’s will and kingdom. After all of that we offer our petitions asking for God’s guidance and healing presence.
Next we ask God’s forgiveness, but we also seek God’s strength as we forgive others as well. In terms of forgiveness Jesus shows us the necessity not only to ask for forgiveness but to practice forgiveness of others as well when he says,
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14-15)
Forgiveness is a two sided tool if we expect God to forgive us we must be willing to forgive others who have wronged us as well.
As we begin to wrap up our prayer we ask that God protects us in our ventures. As we go out into the world we seek God to look over us and keep us close as we do the work we are called to do. Lastly we close our prayer by offering more worship in the name of God. We close our prayer the same way we began it. Worship shows that connection we seek to form with God in our lives.
Jesus says that our words in prayer should be intentional and authentic.
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt. 6:7-8)
As in Jesus’ prayers our prayers do not need to be elongated with words we don’t understand, but should be simple and to the point. When we look at the prayer jesus gives us it is exactly that. Jesus doesn’t fluff it up with big theological words, but simply prays. Jesus is telling us that God knows what we want why fill our prayers with useless language. I know it sounds cool to offer those long prayers that have all kinds of eloquent and big words, but what is the use of that language. I always think of children praying when I read this teaching. Thinking that when kids pray it is often muddled and sometimes makes no sense, but I know that God understands them. I know God knows what is on there heart. God has the same for us. We don’t need to use big words for the sake of using them, but just use the words that are on your heart.
This is all right here in our scripture. The disciples and the people asked Jesus about prayer and this is what Jesus told them. The disciples knew how important prayer was to their ministry and sought to incorporate it, but they were still unsure about prayer so they asked.
As we move towards our understanding of the place prayer plays in our ministry we took ask God “How should we pray?” However it sounds more like “What or Who should we pray for?” What does it mean for us to faithfully participate in the ministries of this church with our prayers?
As we contemplate this answer we are reminded that all our ministries in the church start with prayer…or at least should start with prayer. The reason that this is not only one of the vows we make, but the first one in this list, is because of how important it is that prayer is a part of our ministry and the ministry that each and every person offers to their church.
Therefore when we pray we pray for everyone. We pray for those people we like and even those we dislike. We pray for those who are close to us, and those whom we have never met before. We pray for those who are healthy and hurting. We pray that we would have the strength to reach out to each and everyone of these people as well.
We pray not only for people, but organizations as well. We pray that God would work within our society. We pray that God would bring about the Kingdom in our world today and that God would use us to do it.
We pray for God to work in the church, to revitalize, and renew the church. To not only work in our church, but to work in the global Church. Prayer encompasses so many aspects that we are called to pray for. When we ask the question who do we pray it is literally pray for everyone, pray for everything, and pray that God would impact everyone and everything. Prayer gives us the opening we look for to do ministry within the church. It is the asking of God for a call and God reciprocating with a call and yearning on each and every one of our hearts.
Prayer should be woven throughout all the ministry that we do in the church. It should be the basis for all the ministry we do because it not only is a show of God’s presence within that ministry, but also a continued call on God’s help and call. When we make prayer the central theme of our church we center ourselves on listening to God.
A couple of weeks ago we had our charge conference. For those of you who may not know Charge Conference is a yearly church meeting that serves to update the church and the District on what we have done this past year and what we look forward to doing in the next year. At Charge Conference this year our District Superintendent urged the churches on our district to covenant as a praying congregation within our conference, and what that means is that we will be a congregation committed to praying. We will strive both individually and communally to grow and strengthen our prayer lives. We will develop a spiritual discipline routine, commit ourselves to learning about prayer, and being a praying congregation that boldly speaks and listens to God. This covenant comes out of a recognition of the place prayer should hold in our congregations and in our own personal lives.
Prayer is something that is strangely missing from our churches. We might be praying yes, but often our prayers may be focused to selfishly. They may be focused on things that we want, and not focused on seeking God’s purpose and will.
So pray for this church. Pray for its ministries. Pray is one way in which we all have an opportunity to participate in the life of the church, and honestly it is a great place to start if you want to dip your toe into the shallow end of the pool.
*) All scripture from the New Revised Standard Version
2.) Wesley, John (2013-12-13). The Complete Sermons: John Wesley (p. 80). Hargreaves Publishing. Kindle Edition.