Preached 8 July 2007 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
Last week, David introduced the topic of prayer and, at one point, talked about the need for Christians to pray, not only for themselves, but for others. And this week it falls to me to talk about a particular area of “prayer for others” that (it seems to me) is surrounded with misconceptions and misunderstandings – the area of “prayer ministry”.
What is prayer ministry? Essential it is praying for another person face-to-face, with them right there in front of you, rather than praying for them at a distance, when they are absent and probably quite unaware that they are being prayed for. So let me pause here and ask a question. Has anyone here ever prayed face-to-face for another person in that person’s presence? Have any of you perhaps prayed over a sick child: “Lord, please make him/her better” … or perhaps over a dying relative: “Lord, please give my mum, my dad your peace. Please relieve their pain.” … or perhaps over a husband or wife about to go into surgery: “Lord, please bring Tom, Dick or Mary through it.” Anyone? Ever?
Yes? … Well, you have exercised prayer ministry. And you probably exercised it with the laying-on of hands. For, instinctively almost, whenever you pray for someone one-to-one, you reach out your hand to them, to make physical contact. Which is why I have entitled my talk this morning “Hands-on prayer” because that is, literally, what most prayer ministry, formal or informal, really is. It’s hands-on prayer.
And this hands-on prayer is a form of prayer that has a deep and strong and powerful theology about it that I passionately want each and every one of us to grasp this morning. Because if we do grasp the truths that lie behind it, it will change the way we both regard, and get involved in, (a) the laying on of hands that is, from time to time, available in our services here and (b) the between-services prayer ministry that takes place each Sunday over there.
Perhaps the best place to begin our study of hands-on prayer is with Jesus himself. We could go back into the Old Testament – right back almost to the beginning even, when Jacob laid his hands on the sons of Joseph and prayed for God’s blessing on them – because that’s how far back the practice of hands-on prayer goes; but instead, let’s start with Jesus himself because we can really learn all we need to know by watching him.
In Luke 4:40, right at the start of Jesus’ ministry, we are told that: “When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.”
Then, in Luke 13:12 we are told how there was a woman in the synagogue who had been bent double by a spirit of infirmity for 18 years and “When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, ‘Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.’ Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.”
In Mark 6:5 we read how Jesus visited his home town of Nazareth but encountered such a lack of faith that “he could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.”
Then, in Mark 8:22 we are told that, when Jesus came to Bethsaida: “some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spat on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?” He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”
In that last passage, you’ll note that people asked Jesus to touch the blind man. They knew from watching him in action that the touch was important: that when Jesus laid his hands on people something wonderful always happened. It might happen without the touch – they didn’t know about that – but it always happened with the touch. So similarly, in Matthew 9.18, when Jairus comes to Jesus to tell him his daughter has just died he says: “But come and put your hand on her, and she will live.”
The touch of Jesus brought healing … it even brought the dead back to life. So was that the only sort of hands-on prayer that Jesus practised? Was it always and only prayer for healing? Actually, no, it wasn’t. And there is one particular text that shows it wasn’t. For in Matthew 19.13 we are told that “little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them” and that he willingly did so. And here there is absolutely no suggestion that any of the little children were sick. No … what their parents wanted was simply a blessing on their children’s lives, prayers for their safety and good health and happiness and so on. And Jesus clearly saw the laying on of hands as being just as appropriate for such prayers as for healing prayers.
So much for the very clear example of Jesus. People are sick? People are in need? People need blessing? Lay hands on them and pray for them. Yes … that’s what Jesus did. But who says that the followers of Jesus, either then or now, should or could follow his example?
Well, according to the Scripture we had read to us this morning from the end of Mark’s gospel, Jesus himself said so: “And these signs will accompany those who believe … they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” And I urge you to note one thing in particular about that passage. It does not say: And these signs will accompany an elite few who are specially gifted and specially trained and specially commissioned for the task. It says: And these signs will accompany those who believe. Those who believe.
This is not to say that prayer ministry is not a ministry that can become more effective through training and through following rules of good practice; but it is to say that hands-on prayer ministry is quite simply the privilege of every Christian who has faith … Faith in the power of the risen, ascended and glorified Lord Jesus to touch people today at their point of deepest need and to bring them wholeness and healing of body, mind and spirit. Mark 16 says as much.
Yeeees. Those people here this morning who know their Bibles well might well be applauding my conclusion while being a bit unhappy about how I got there. Because, you see, that passage from the end of Mark’s gospel is always either printed in italics or put in brackets or consigned to a footnote in modern versions of the Bible. Why? Because it doesn’t appear in the earliest Biblical manuscripts, and the suspicion is that Mark didn’t write it but scribes copying the earliest manuscripts added it at a later date. So … you shouldn’t really rely on that passage, Neil.
Shouldn’t I? On the contrary, if it was added to the gospel later that makes me happy to rely on it even more. Can you not see why? If it was added later it can only have been that the signs it talks about were accompanying believers everywhere they went and people were seeing them and asking what was going on. Mark 16 is the explanation: Jesus told us to do this stuff and told us this is what would happen when we did. After all, Nobody would have been daft enough to tag that passage on to Mark’s gospel if the things it describes weren’t happening, would they?
And indeed we do see them happening from the very beginnings of the church in the book of Acts. Paul is struck blind on the road to Damascus and after three days the Lord speaks to a Christian in Damascus called Ananias: Acts 9.11 says: “The Lord told him, ‘Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.’” So Ananias goes and engages in hands-on prayer ministry that is immediately effective.
We had another example – though it is only one of many – in the passage that Christine read to us from Acts 27 and 28: the account of Paul’s shipwreck on the island of Malta. You’ll recall that, after his rescue, Paul became the guest of Publius, the governor of the island, but Publius’s father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. So, Acts 28 told us, “Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured.” More hands-on prayer ministry.
And mention of this kind of prayer ministry is not confined only to the Gospels and Acts. It’s in the Epistles too. In Hebrews 6.1-3, teaching about the “laying on of hands” is described as elementary teaching: a fundamental doctrine of the Christian church … but unfortunately the writer of Hebrews does not tell us what that elementary teaching was.
Might it not be, however, that we have part of it in the reading from Mark 16?
Is not the fundamental doctrine that is being referred to simply this … that all Christians who have a living faith in the continuing power of Christ to save and heal should be ready and willing to pray for anyone who is, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness or any other adversity” … And not only ready to pray for such persons but ready too, if the persons give their consent, to lay their hands on them, that through their hands the individuals concerned may experience the touch of Christ himself to comfort, help, heal, rescue and restore them?
Note carefully the last bit of that: “that through their hands the individuals concerned may experience the touch of Christ”. Here is where these gloves come in. Every Christian believer is a glove. Gloves come in all shapes and sizes and colours and materials and Christian believers are all very different too. But we are all gloves. And we can all be filled with the hands of Christ. And that is indeed what happens when believers engage in prayer ministry. The gloves that they are become filled by the hands of Christ.
People who get involved in prayer ministry are not a spiritual elite and they do not have special powers. Indeed, if anyone involved in prayer ministry does think that they are part of a spiritual elite that is reason enough for them to step down immediately.
People in prayer ministry are not necessarily fantastic prayers. Some of them have difficulty finding words at all. People in prayer ministry are not necessarily outgoing, bubbly extroverts. Some of them are very shy and quiet. It really doesn’t matter, don’t you see. A knitted glove or a rubber glove is just as much a glove as a suede glove or a leather glove. What matters – and all that matters – is the capability of the hand that fills it.
Well, in prayer ministry, the hand that fills the glove is the hand of Christ, which means that the gloves concerned become, by no merit of their own, very useful indeed to the church and the world. It is the very touch of Christ, nothing less, that anyone who comes for ministry will receive and should expect to receive. And in that lies the enormous power of this ministry.
So, in closing, I have a twofold plea. First, that as possible recipients of prayer ministry, we all take what is going on in such ministry very seriously indeed and recognise the amazing and wonderful opportunity it represents: the opportunity to have Jesus himself, through whatever gloves happen to be on duty, lay his hands upon us and touch us at our point of deepest need. I do get the impression that many people coming to this service do not see what is going on over there when they arrive as anything to do with them. It’s part of the 9.30 stuff. No it’s not. It’s just as much for you as for anyone else in this church. Is it only people who come to 9.30 who need the touch of Christ on their lives? I think not.
And the second part of my pleas is this. That all those here who believe in the power of Christ today to bring healing and wholeness to those in need but who are not yet part of the prayer ministry team or the laying-on-of-hands team in this church, offer themselves this morning as gloves to Christ and hold themselves ready and willing and available – however unworthy they feel and however scary it might seem – to become part of that ministry should they be invited to do so. All Christians are meant to be hand-in-glove with Christ. He the hand, we the gloves. And where that is the case, the conditions are set for effective prayer ministry – both public and private, both in the church and in the community. Through us, Christ can and will and does continue to lay his hands on all in need. And how both the church and our community need that touch of Christ today.