Pray for Them?!!!!
A sermon on 1 Timothy 2:1-7 by Nathan Nettleton, 23 September 2007
In Christ, God acts for the salvation of all, and in Christ, we are called to pray for all (even politicians!).
As I’m sure you have noticed, there will be a federal election in the fairly near future. It seems like the campaign has been dragging on for months, even though it hasn’t officially begun yet. For us as followers of Jesus, elections inevitably raise questions about the relationship between discipleship and politics. How should our commitment to the ways of Jesus affect the way we vote? And back a step further, how should we, as followers of Jesus, relate to, or even think about, our nation’s politicians?
While it is by no means a complete answer, there was the beginnings of an answer in our reading tonight from Paul’s first letter to Timothy. The Apostle said, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Traditionally the Christian churches have responded to this call by including prayers for those holding high political office in the prayers of intercession each Sunday. For example, if you had been worshipping in an Anglican Church this morning, you might have heard an obvious application of this passage of scripture in a prayer that goes like this:
We pray that you will lead the nations of the world in the ways of righteousness and peace, and guide their rulers in wisdom and justice for the tranquillity and good of all. Bless especially your servant Elizabeth our Queen, her representatives and ministers, her parliaments, and all who exercise authority in this land. Grant that they may impartially administer justice, restrain wickedness and vice, and uphold integrity and truth.1
Now we Baptists, being dissenters from the view that church and state might be closely aligned with one another, would have difficulties with the expressed view that Elizabeth can be designated as God’s servant simply because she happens to occupy the English throne. Beyond that though, there is nothing in that prayer that is likely to cause any theological objection. But I would hazard a guess that I’m not the only one here who would find that actually praying that prayer does not sit comfortably with the way I usually regard politicians. The thought that the Bible asks me to pray for John Howard and Peter Costello and Tony Abbott and Philip Ruddock does not thrill me at all. While I am far from convinced that the opposition would be much better, I am much more used to sneering at the government ministers and to wishing their downfall than to sending up prayers for for them. The idea of singling them out for special inclusion in my prayers feels very foreign. And the idea that those prayers might be for their blessing feels difficult even to imagine. But the Apostel is quite clear: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions.” What are we to make of this?
Let’s have a closer look at it. The first thing to note might seem to give me a little hope of an out, and that is that politicians are not actually the focus of the passage. There are some passages that are more directly addressed to the question of how we regard political leaders, but this is not one of them. In this passage, the political leaders are just an example of one group from within the “everyone that we are being called to pray for. “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone,” that’s everybody, no exceptions. Now, given that there are six billion people in the world, this obviously does not mean you should feel like a guilty failure if you are not managing to regularly pray for every single person, one at a time. But what it is saying is that there should be no one, and no category of people who are specifically excluded from your prayers. And this is where the Apostle adds his cautionary specific: “offer prayers for everyone,” and everyone includes “kings and all who are in high positions.” Everyone includes political leaders. The point is not that they should have first call on your prayers, but that they should not be excluded.
But before those like me go feeling too much more comfortable on that basis, we need to ask ourselves why Paul might single out political leaders as those we need to be reminded not to exclude. Surely the answer is because they are a group we are most likely to exclude, almost without thinking about it. I don’t think Timothy’s church was full of Australians, but it seems they had a similar dislike for politicians. And we need to look at the rest of the passage to see why the Apostle sees this as needing to be challenged.
Firstly, he implies that there is a measure of appropriate self-interest in offering such prayers. The political authorities have much to do with creating the social climate within which we live, so we pray for them that we might be able to “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Now it wouldn’t be hard to poo poo that as being little more than a middle class suburban aspiration for things to be quiet and nice, but the truth is that it is probably a wealthy western privilege to be able to so poo poo it. For the churches in Paul’s day and for a disturbingly large percentage of the world’s population today, the fervent desire that the government might allow people to peacefully get on with their lives is no trivial matter.
Secondly, Paul says that offering such prayers “is right and acceptable in the sight of God our saviour.” Sure. Okay. But why? Because, Paul says, because “God our saviour desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”
This is one of the Bible’s most explicit statements of God’s desire for the universal salvation of all humankind. It is grounded, not in fluffy wishful thinking, but in hard orthodox theology. There is one God. There is one mediator between God and humankind. Therefore no one is created by any other God or left for any other God to look out for. Christ Jesus, himself human, gave himself as a ransom for all, that’s all, everyone, each and every person on the planet. No favourites, no exceptions. Even politicians.
But why single out politicians for special non-exclusion? Well perhaps in Timothy’s churches, like in today’s Australia, politicians are a group most likely to be excluded. Why? Well in Timothy’s world we are talking about Roman occupation forces - never popular. And in Australia we are looking at a culture of cynicism and disdain towards politicians. We, even more than most countries, tend to distance ourselves from our politicians and see them as other than us. We don’t believe that we get the politicians we deserve. We think we are better than them and that we deserve better than them. Politicians are always “them”, not “us”. They are other than us, less than us. In fact they are one of the groups of whom we are most likely to say, “they can go to hell,” and mean it, even if we don’t stop to notice the possibility that we mean it. But I know that, if I’m brutally honest with myself, the fact that I am so begrudging about including them in my prayers is an indication that I probably would happily see most of them go to hell.
But the Apostle Paul wants me to learn to say “God our saviour loves John Howard and desires him to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for John Howard.” The Apostle Paul wants me to learn to say it, and mean it. An learning that begins with learning, however begrudgingly at first, to pray for John Howard. And Kevin Rudd, and Philip Ruddock, etc. etc. Because to begin to pray for them, I have to begin to humanise them. I have to begin to see that they are no less loved by God than me. I have to begin to accept that they might be in the same boat as me, and not some other. I have to begin to countenance the possibility that God’s desire to save me might be no greater than God’s desire to save them, and that, what’s more, my capacity to be saved might be linked to my willingness to be lumped in with them and saved together, as though I was one of them.
That, as uncomfortable as it may be, is the gospel. All of us have somebody or some group who we regard as being beyond the pale, as unworthy of our prayers, and unworthy of God’s love and salvation. And the good news is that there is no group who is beyond the reach of God’s love and desire to save, which means that even if you despise yourself or others despise you, you are not despised by God. Christ Jesus gave himself over to the world’s despising and rejecting and killing so that you might be loved and welcomed and saved. But the uncomfortable side of that is that the people you could gladly see go to hell are just as loved and invited into the life of salvation as you are. Even politicians. Even John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, etc. etc.
Paul is not asking us to pray for God’s blessing on policies we don’t agree with, or anything like that. Rather, it is a call to recognise politicians as being human, being “of us”, and treating them with the respect due any human being. It is a call to regard them as we regard ourselves, to pray for them as beloved children of God, to forgive them as we hope to be forgiven ourselves, and regard them as being of “us” rather than alienating them as “them”. And coincidentally, if we could begin to do that and pray that, we might find that they begin to rise up to the raised level of our expectations and stop treating “us” as another lesser “them”. We might find we start to get some of the sort of politicians we would like to think we deserve. And if our prayers could do even a little of that, then our prayers may in fact be the most radical and subversive political acts we could engage in.
1 A Prayer Book for Australia (Anglican Church of Australia) 1995, p.106