MANY OF ST. PAUL’S EPISTLES begin with an introduction combining greetings to the community he is addressing and to individuals he knew in that community. As in the Epistle to the Colossians, the introduction may include prayers of thanksgiving that the Gospel has taken root there as well as prayers of intercession for the members of that local Church. These introductions provide us with models of prayer for our sister Churches and for our own local community as well.
Paul’s prayer for the Colossians begins with verse 9 of chapter 1: “For this reason, we also – since the day we heard it – do not cease to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.”
What does it mean to be “filled with the knowledge of His will?” St Paul is not talking here about God’s will for one or another individual. Rather he is speaking about the great plan of God for the restoration of creation, for which the incarnation is the linchpin. To know the will of God is to know the depth of His compassion for His fallen creation: a compassion which does not balk at setting aside for a time the splendor of His rightful place on what Scripture calls “the throne of the majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3) to come as one of us, sharing our broken human nature. “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell and by Him to reconcile all things in Himself by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).
To know the will of God is to know deeply – as a guiding force in our lives – that in Christ God and His creation have been brought together again. This is “the mystery which has been hidden from ages and generations but now has been revealed to His saints: … Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:26-27).
While God’s will is for the restoration of all creation, His will for human beings is that they “may be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:2) through Jesus Christ, united to God through Him. In the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch and so many others, “God became man so that man might become god.”
Knowing That You Are the Church
St Paul then turns his attention to practical questions concerning the Church. Many people in our society have come to understand “the Church” to mean its leaders, the clergy. Even practicing believers talk about “the Church” when they mean the hierarchy. In effect they place themselves outside the Church when they speak this way, relegating themselves to the status of spectators, clients, or even customers.
The nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard described this kind of church in terms of the ordinary Lutheran worship experience of his day. Kierkegaard said that in church the clergy and the choir are the actors, God is the prompter giving the lines and the people are the audience. In reality, he affirmed, it is the people who are meant to be the actors. The clergy and the choir are the prompters (“Let us pray”) and God is the audience.
That the people of God are the “actors” not the audience points out another dimension to the will of God which we must know: all believers are meant to affirm by their actions their conviction that we are called to union with God. This happens first of all in the liturgical assembly where we are to be more than spectators, “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16).
St. Paul’s vision of the Church in this epistle is focused, not on distinctions of rank or function but on mutuality: the Church is one body with Christ as its head (see Col 1:18, 24), a theme developed further in other epistles. In his vision believers are called to bear with one another, forgive one another and pray for one another, thus building up the Church as one body.
Our unity in the one body to which we have been called is first of all experienced in the local parish. As we look around the church at those worshipping with us we find countless opportunities to support, through prayer and interaction, those whom God has placed in our lives. Through prayer for those around us and by the way we relate to one another before or after the service we can demonstrate that love for our local parish which St Paul calls “the bond of perfection” (Colossians 3:14)
We can extend our support for one another through the week as well. A custom which some have found helpful is to take your parish directory and so divide the list of names that in the course of one month you are praying each day for five or ten of your fellow parishioners. Making such a commitment is one way of responding to St. Paul’s injunction, “Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2).
Praying for the Wider Church
The Christian family has been likened to a series of concentric circles. Beyond the local community we see the other parishes which make up our eparchy as well as the parishes of other eparchies in the community in which we live. Beyond them we see the other eparchies of our nation or our patriarchate. Praying for several in turn not only benefits them but deepens our feelings of connection to these fellow believers for whom we may pray.
We may be moved to pray in a particular way for the suffering Churches throughout the world. There seem to be few countries in Asia or Africa today where Christians are not in constant danger on account of their faith.
As a result of hardships in their homelands Eastern Christians have been scattered around the world in search of peace for themselves and their families. In response their Churches have journeyed with them, at first to support them in their time of need, but then to make with them a new frontier of witnesses to their particular traditions. Thus today we find Coptic churches in Australia, Syriac churches in Sweden and Malankara churches in Texas! We do well to pray for these “diaspora churches” that they may proper as loving witness to the diversity of the apostolic traditions nourished by them for centuries.
When we think of missions we often imagine primitive peoples receiving the Gospel for the first time. There are still peoples all over the world whose Churches are in the early stages of development or whose economic environments compel then to continue seeking the support of more prosperous Christians. Missionary churches form another category of fellow believers in need of our intercession.