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During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January, The Prayer & Worship Committee of the Vermont Ecumenical Council & Bible Society sponsored a worship service at First United Methodist Church in Burlington

The homilist was The Rev. Meredith Handspicker.  He is Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology and Evangelism at Andover Newton Theological School  in Newton Centre, MA.  He spent four years serving on the Secretariat for Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland

The Rev. Dr. Handspicker is a United Church of Christ minister residing in Bennington.  He is currently the Chair of the Faith & Order Committee of the Vermont Ecumenical Council & Bible Society.

The homily follows below.

Rev. Dr. M. B. Handspicker

Isaiah 55:609
I Thessalonians 5:12a, 13b-18
John 17:6-21

This year there are two anniversary celebrations for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  It is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the week in 1908 by Father Paul Wattson of the Anglican Graymoor Friars.  But it is also the 40th anniversary of the first time celebration of the week used material jointly prepared by the Secretariat for Promoting Unity of the Vatican and the Secretariat on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches (January 18-15, 1968).  As a member of the Secretariat for Faith and Order at that time, I can remember the great excitement and high expectations we had of that joint working group.  It was one of the first such cooperative efforts after the close of the Second Vatican Council.

It is fitting that this year the text for the week is “pray without ceasing”, for prayer is what this week is for.  But let’s ask in what context we understand such prayer, how we are to engage in it, and for what exactly we pray.

Paul exhorts his church in Thessalonica to engage in a number of behaviors, of which “pray without ceasing” is one.  New Testament scholar Pheme Perkins notes that these admonitions have clear parallels in other letters of Paul, especially in Romans.[1] It is significant that these admonitions are contained in both his first epistle and his last (undoubted) epistle.  These following admonitions the two books have in common: be at peace, help the weak, do not repay evil but do good, rejoice, pray without ceasing, give thanks.  It seems to me also significant that “pray without ceasing” he places between “rejoice” and “give thanks.”  To pray without ceasing he takes to be a joyous act of gratitude, not an onerous duty!

In Thessalonians, as in all Paul’s writings, we have the play between his “imperatives” and his “indicatives”—his admonitions are never given without resources of grace.  In this case he recalls that the Thessalonians have been gifted with the “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.”[2]

He is showing how the unity for which Jesus prayed, “That they all may be one,” is manifested in their behavior toward one another.  The unity for which we pray this week is not merely a unity to be achieved in the future: it is a unity that we effect among one another today, here, in our local congregations and dioceses.  If we cannot be unified in our local fellowships how can we ever expect to achieve the goal of ecumenical unity?  In all our relationships within the one (though divided) church we are to “be at peace among ourselves.” 

To attain and maintain this reconciled fellowship we are to “pray without ceasing.”  How?  What does it mean to pray without ceasing?  The adverb “unceasing” is important for Paul: he uses it in the first chapter of this letter to describe his remembering of the Thessalonians in his own prayers.  (And he follows through by ending his epistle with yet another prayer for them, asking them to pray for him in return.) Ben Witherington, in the preparatory material for this week, notes that it “does not refer to unending prayer but rather to prayer that is persisted in until a proper outcome transpires.[3]

Two vignettes help illustrate this. 

Cardinal Cushing of Boston, when he came home from the first session of Vatican II, told the press, “I knew I wouldn’t understand everything that was going on.  But I knew what I could do.  I prayed the whole time for the Holy Spirit to be with us in the Council.”  He was persisting in “prayer for a proper outcome.”  (When asked by the press what he did when it came time to vote on issues, he answered, “I just asked Father John (John von Euw, his peritus) how I should vote.”

The way the Quakers (Society of Friends) take on a “concern of meeting” gives a clear illustration of what is involved.  The story is told about a meeting in Colorado that was concerned about conditions in the local hospital.  They discussed for a long time whether they should make it an official “concern of meeting.”  Once they did, they were committed to pray (and work) for a solution until one was effected.  Their “prayer” kept them working unremittingly for over five years until “a proper outcome transpired.”

Both the Cardinal and the Quakers had specific outcomes in mind.  This leads us to consider, what is it for which we pray?  What is our “desired outcome”?  Of what, specifically, does it consist?  When I began working at the Secretariat on Faith and Order in Geneva, I asked myself this question so I could be clear about my work.  The description that I discovered, and which has energized me more than any other, was developed at the 1961 Assembly of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, India.  It is just one sentence long, but Bishop Lesslie Newbigin noted that the sentence “is of almost Pauline length!” 

We believe that the unity which is both God’s will and his gift to his Church is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Savior are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all, and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls his people.

We must have a vision.  (“Where there is no vision the people perish . . .” Proverbs 29:18 KJV).   We are to have a vision, work for it, but be open both to one another and to the further leading of the Holy Spirit, for as Isaiah reminds us, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)  We are to be visionary, diligent,    yet humble.  No wonder Paul admonishes us to “pray without ceasing.”  Thank God that Cardinal Cushing prayed as he did.  Without prayer we could not combine the virtues needed to effect the unity of the Church in the way God wills, in the time God wills.  To cite a homily preached upon the occasion of this week in 2006, “We cannot know where the cloud of the Holy Presence will lead, but we passionately want to follow.[4]

The unity for which we pray is both a gift and a task.  We are gifted with it already, for we are one Church, however divided we might be.  Our task is to work for, and be open to receive, the unity which Jesus described in John 17:  “that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe…”  What an intense intimacy our Lord desires for us: for us to be in the heart of God, in the triune unity.  Such intimacy is beyond imagining, yet try to imagine it we must.  The vision can create in us a longing which will motivate us to “pray without ceasing” for its realization.

And so we close with the same admonitions addressed to us Vermonters as Paul addressed to the Thessalonians:  “Be at peace among yourselves.  Admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.  See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.  Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ for you.” 


[1] Sermon preached on the occasion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2006, by the Rev. Gregory Smith in Essex Center, VT.

[2] Pheme Perkins, “I Thessalonians,” Harper’s Bible Commentary.  Edited by James L. Mays.  San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988.  p. 1231.

[3] Note the parallel here with I Corinthians 13, the famous “love chapter.”

[4] Ben Witherington, III, “Commentary on the Scriptural Text for the 2008 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (I Thessalonians 5:12-22)”, Ecumenical Trends.  Volume 36, No. 11, December 2007.  p. 3/163.


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