Scripture as prayer.
A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter
April 30, 2023 at Holy Communion
“When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken.” In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
Two weeks ago we heard that observing “the prayers” is a practice which keeps us rooted in the faith delivered to us by the apostles, the first leaders of the church. As a practical application of this lesson, I recommended saying Morning and Evening Prayer from the BCP or the BAS, which are the forms in which we receive “the prayers” from those who have gone before us.
This is an unfamiliar practice to most of us. But this week we get the rare privilege of seeing “the prayers” in action in the Book of Acts. Our second reading shows us what is at the heart of the apostolic way of praying: turning scripture into prayer. This is what Morning and Evening Prayer are all about.
Daily Bible reading is a habit that has been encouraged from this pulpit many times, and not only by me I’m sure. But what we see in our reading from Acts goes beyond just reading the Bible. The apostles let the Bible read them. They use biblical images and patterns to understand what is happening in the present and they use scriptural language to pray. For them, the Bible was not so much something to be understood to learn about God and their duty, but a light by which they saw and understood their situation.
When we treat the Bible as a book full of information only—information about God, information about what is right and wrong, information about the past—we rob it of its real power. The Bible is not a book out there, at a distance from us, and we take lessons out of it to apply to our lives as best we can. Instead, our thinking, acting, and praying are meant to take the shape of scripture. We are to live in scripture, and scripture in us. And the way we do that is by using it for prayer.
The story from Acts (4:23–31) takes place immediately after last week’s encounter between Peter and John and the temple authorities. Peter and John have now been released, and they return to the church, and the church prays with them. As they reflect on their experience in prayer, they use the language of Psalm 2: “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain, against the Lord and against his anointed?” Then they say that this applies to Jesus, and to their own situation: the nations did “rage” against God’s Anointed when Herod, Pilate, the Romans, and the Jews all conspired together to kill Jesus. And now, when the nations again “rage” against the apostles Peter and John, who were anointed by God to preach the good news, they see the same pattern.
The apostles were not exactly claiming that Psalm 2 was a specific prophecy of the events that took place in their own day, as if the meaning of Psalm 2 was hidden until Peter and John came along. Prophecy in the Bible doesn’t always—in fact, it doesn’t often—mean that a particular event in the future was predicted at some time in the past. Prophecy consists of images and patterns which apply to God’s people in different ways at different times, and which are most fully realized in the life of the Anointed One, the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
For a Christian, the images and patterns of scripture never apply to someone else in the past, even someone whose example we can learn from. All of scripture is about us, now, in the present. And that enables us to use scripture as prayer.
This is what Peter and John do. Their familiarity with scripture and their open heart guide them to Psalm 2 as a place in scripture which will illuminate their situation. They identify how the pattern it talks about—the nations raging against the Anointed One—describes the life of Jesus and describes their own lives in Christ. Then, considering themselves to be living with Jesus within the pages of scripture, they offer the language of scripture and language based on it back to God as prayer. They use the scriptures both to discover and to give voice to what they need to say.
Whatever your daily devotional habit is, whether it’s Morning and Evening Prayer or some other form of Bible reading, I hope that we can use scripture to pray. Don’t just read scripture and hope that you can learn from it; try to “get inside” scripture.
As you read, think of the Bible not as speaking to you, but as speaking for you. When you read a passage containing moral instructions, don’t think of it as guidance, but as an affirmation coming from your own heart about what you know to be right and wrong. (It is often helpful in this respect to read scripture out loud.) When you read a passage containing history, imagine it in your own voice, as if you were telling your own story and the story of your ancestors. When you read a passage which contains a prayer, think of it as your own prayer which you speak to God as you read.
Of course, this will be easiest when scripture contains, as we’ve just said, a prayer, which is why the Psalms have always had the central place in apostolic forms of prayer. In our reading, the apostles use a psalm. And many Bible reading plans—the best ones, in fact, including the plans in the BCP and BAS—encourage the use of a psalm or psalms alongside other Bible readings, for this very purpose: so that we can become familiar with using scripture as prayer.
St Paul says that, as a church, “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). Praying with scripture is how we acquire and deepen our share in the mind of Christ, so that we live with Christ as the Word of the Father. May the Spirit bless us to know the Father through his Word. Amen.