Why Pray For Each Other?
This is the first sermon in our series, Faith is a Group Project. It has been formatted for presentation and not for the prevention of errors. Enjoy!
Last April 2016, my best friend from high-school emailed me and asked if I would like to climb Mount Whitney with him… in May, just four weeks from that day. For those who don’t know already, Mount Whitney is the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states and is completely covered in snow in May. A couple of years before, I had been working out regularly and hiking weekly, but, more recent to his email, I had been attending seminary full time, working full time as a minister, and taking care of my family on top of all of that. I had not been working out consistently for quite some time. But I still had the arrogance of someone who was still in very good shape. So, of course, I accepted his invitation without question.
For the month between that email to the time we arrived in Lone Pine, CA, I worked out pretty hard and practiced hiking with some very difficult hikes, even some hikes at altitude. But, on that morning, as I strapped on my backpack at the base camp, a backpack that included all of my very-heavy snow gear – as I placed it on my back, to begin climbing the mountain, because of the heaviness I felt on my back, I began to question whether this was a good idea after all.
To cut to the chase and tell you the shorter version of this story: I didn’t make it to the top. We hiked all day, but as I reached an altitude of 12,000 ft., well short of the spot that we planned to camp for the night, my lungs began to burn and my mind became loopy and unreliable. I was very altitude sick and I was too weak to continue. But here’s the thing about that: I had no idea that I was too weak. I was tired. I was feeling maybe a bit drained, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be standing on the top of the mountain in the morning. As a result of my being unable to recognize just how sick I was, my friend had to take me aside and say to me, “It’s not safe for you to continue, Matt. I think you’re sicker than you think you are, and it’s about to get a whole lot more dangerous, with some very skinny trails, with serious drop offs beside them, cliffs that drop hundreds of feet, and all of this about to happen in just a half a mile up ahead.”
It was an emotional conversation for me. I actually almost cried. It was a conversation in which I had to admit my own weakness and turn back the way I came and head back down the mountain, having not reached my goal of the peak. But I didn’t even know that I was weak. I had not allowed myself to admit it. But, on the side of Mount Whitney, I had to be shown the condition that I was in. It took a friend to help me by showing me my weakness. It took a friend to potentially save my life.
That’s Paul’s job today. He’s that friend. He has to let us know our condition. He has to tell us some hard truths: that we are going to suffer, that we are going to have pain and hardship in our lives, that we are going to have conflict in our relationships with each other and with our communities. And, on top of all of that, he has to tell us that our prayers, of all things, our prayers, are weak. He says to us, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should.”
He gently tells us that we are weak and that we didn’t even know it. But, unlike my friend who needed to take me aside, in the middle of a hike, Paul doesn’t tell us this information on the side of the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. He helps us to learn this fact among the hustle and the bustle of the largest city in the world, a city that boasted as many as 1,000,000 residents at the time that Paul was writing. It was a city that was the center of politics and culture for the whole western world. And so it is that we find that we’re learning that our prayers are weak in the city of Rome, or, rather, we’re learning this uncomfortable truth in Romans.
Of course, at the time when Paul was writing, it was to the Roman churches. And it was they who were first confronted about their weakness, especially in regard to prayer. This is concerning because they were in the midst of a great deal of turmoil. Turmoil with the culture, with religion, with the government, and with each other. How could they deal with what was happening if they couldn’t even be trusted to pray?
In the midst of this large city, Christians were really struggling. The persecutions that we always hear about when we learn about the early church had begun, but they would continue to escalate as years went on. In the mid-50s, when Romans was probably written, all Jews, including Jewish Christians, had already been expelled from Rome by the emperor, Claudius, in the year 49 (Moo, 18). He had done this because of all of the infighting between the Jews who believed that Jesus was the Christ and those who did not. By the time Paul is writing here, these Jews and Jewish Christians had been allowed to return, but that respite would not last. They would be exiled again and, in some cases, they would be beaten or killed by those who would cast them out.
Paul, himself, had already tasted the first fruits of persecution. He had survived beatings and prison and turmoil and hate and hunger. By the end of the 60s, we know that his faith in Christ, and his unwillingness to stop preaching the gospel, ultimately led to his death. Paul knew a hard life as a result of the gospel of Christ. In writing Romans, he is trying to teach them what he had learned through his trials.
My friend, the one who invited me to climb Mount Whitney, had climbed it before. He knew what was down that trail. He knew the danger that lay ahead. As a result, he knew that I was in serious trouble before I did. He was a friend who could tell me to turn back, a friend that I could trust.
Paul is that friend to the Roman churches, but Paul doesn’t want them to turn back, he wants them to hold fast. He wants them to keep the faith. Paul was courageous, obviously, but he was concerned for Rome. He needs them to stay strong in the face of persecution, but he’s not sure about them and he knows that it is going to take prayer, and the intervention of God, for them to keep the faith. But he assumes, that their eyes are not upon God in prayer. He can see their worry. He mentions it in verse 36 when he asks them to consider the things that they think might separate them from God. He thinks they’re worried about “hunger, hatred, persecution, famine, poverty…” and on and on, as if any of it would take them away from Christ Jesus. No wonder they can’t pay attention to prayer, they have their focus upon all that might go wrong. At this point, though the worst thing that has happened to them is being expelled from Rome, they recognize that it could get a lot worse. Knowing their fear and knowing their focus, can we really expect them to continue living faith in Christ when the going gets tough? Can we really expect them to support one another with prayer when they are terrified for their very lives?
The good news is that Paul comforts them with the truth that the quality of our prayers is of little importance. He teaches them that it is the presence of prayer that matters most, because “God knows and searches the heart” and that “even when we don’t know what to pray, the Holy Spirit prays for us with groans too deep for words.” Even when we can’t find the strength to pray, God prays for us through the Holy Spirit.
When I first became a Christian, prayer was a hard thing to start. It felt like a huge waste of time. As I grew in Christ, I began to believe the “right” things and I felt good about helping the poor and being connected to the community. I was even okay with going to church regularly, but prayer took forever to learn to live with.
There is a famous scene in the movie, Cool Hand Luke, with Paul Newman, in which he stands out in the rain, staring at the sky in the middle of a thunderstorm, begging God to do anything. He says in his prayer, “Love me. Hate me. Kill me. Just let me know that you are here.” When nothing happens, he says, “I’m just out here talking to myself in the rain.” Because his prayer seems unheard, he feels let down by God.
That’s what it felt like when I tried to pray. I loved that movie back then because I felt the weight of what I thought was unanswered prayer in my life. But, the more I made myself enter into times of prayer, the less I felt like it was the content that matter and I began to feel like it was that time with God that mattered.
Eventually I stumbled across this verse, verse 26, the verse that says that the Holy Spirit will pray for us, and I found great comfort in knowing that even if I didn’t feel like I was praying right, or even if I never felt like my prayers were being answered, God was helping, God was even praying for me, no matter what. My faith and even my prayers did not rely upon me. Even prayer itself is an act of God’s grace! A free gift for me and for everyone.
This is what Paul was teaching so that the Romans might be convinced to continue onward. Paul had suffered a lot and he knew that death was likely. He had been present for Stephen’s death by stoning and was one of those who watched and approved. As a result of all he saw and experienced, I’m sure he lived his life in Christ like one whose neck was already through the noose, standing on the gallows. He lived like one who knew he was in trouble the minute he answered the call to follow Christ. Even still, he is able to write that “all things work for the good of those who love God.”
As the Romans heard this passage read by Phoebe, Paul’s patron and assistant, who took this letter to the Roman churches, they all knew what Paul had gone through. They knew the trouble that he had lived with. Yet, more importantly, they also knew that he was trustworthy and believed everything that he said. So they knew that he didn’t write these words because he thought that he could pray to save his life. He wasn’t praying to God for that reason. He wrote these words, these words of “all things work for the good,” because he had become like Christ, praying, his version of, “Not my will, but yours be done.” When we rely upon God to pray for us, we are praying for God’s will. The Spirit prays for us and God, the father, knows the mind of the Spirit.
Paul stared pain and struggle in the face and realized that, in spite of it all, God is good. He knew that people mistreat and hurt and crush and break each other. But God is good. And God will redeem everything. So Paul begged the Roman churches to look past their wants, their concerns, their struggles, their fear. He begs them to look beyond all of that and to pray the same way, to pray for God’s will so deeply that they don’t even need to use words, to pray as God prays with groans too deep for words.
Paul leaves us today with the picture of a good and faithful God who will never leave us. He says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not fear, not politics, not wealth, not poverty, not even anything that we could do: nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.
And so, may we go out today, encouraging one another and praying for one another. May we inspire one another to hold fast, being a friend like Paul, telling each other to take heart and keep faith, even when times are tough and we struggle. May we continue praying for one another in a spirit that says, “not my will but yours be done, O God” and know that the Spirit prays for us in that same way.
Recommended Based on the Sermon
Romans by Douglas J. Moo
Cool Hand Luke Rain Scene