Intercession is always already bordering on forgiveness.
What is your ideal community? Is it your college dorm? A church you once belonged to? A group house?
If you have not yet sought intentional community, you are on the margins of American culture, where every generation since V-E Day has thrown its efforts into finding ideal group life: suburban block parties and bowling clubs, alternative commune, the 20-something group house.
Perhaps you are spiritual and you strive for the fellowship of the early believers in the Acts of the Apostles. Common food, common resources, a family-share cell phone bill. It’s compelling, for sure.
There is no community ideal greater than the Bible’s. In our earnest and right desire for it, you and I will soon enough be found sorry. We will cobble together our friends and we will host gatherings and we will share our souls and invite Jesus to define it all. If you have not experienced it yet, you must. It is great.
And then there will be wrongs, and offenses. Some will be bored, and the more authentic will rightly note that the rhetoric is somewhere above the reality. And we will go about asking, What happened to the love? The fellowship? The koinonia?
I submit to you that the early Christian community was not defined by its lack of internal squabbles. Its bonds were not forged by immediate harmony in decision-making. You could not even say that it unifying force was mission. No, what made it a Christian community was sharing the gift of God’s grace with each other – and particularly in praying for one another.
In St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he paints a beautiful and bewildering picture of fellow-feeling: As we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.
Read verses 3 to 7 and see if you can follow which directions the comforts and afflictions flow between God and Paul and the Corinthians. It’s tangled and it’s beautiful and it’s the community we are looking for.
The section concludes with an acknowledgement of where this all comes from: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”
In praying for one another, Paul and the Corinthians entered into each other’s hopes and efforts, and drew from each other’s exasperations, all of them seen in the comforts that flow from Christ’s sufferings.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer found the same to be true. “A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed,” he says. But it is not simply sharing: “I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me. In intercessory prayer the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died, the face of a pardoned sinner.”
Jesus knew that forgiveness would be the key: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” and immediately after this he reverses it: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you.”
In a sense, I do not have Christian community until I have been wronged, or sense that I am being wronged, or I hurt someone else. It cannot come until we have a chance to forgive and be forgiven.
That’s the path of Christian community.
So how can we be ready for it? In that self-consoled moment, we will forget these words and we will be hurt.
The rock of our common life must be prayer for one another. Intercession is always already bordering on forgiveness. It is always already putting yourself in her shoes. It is always already being filled with his concerns. Always already presenting my brother or sister before God in the same way I come before Him.
Praying for one another immerses us in their afflications and shares in their comforts. It sets the stage for forgiveness. It pre-empts forgiveness.
Let us pursue community. Let us pray for one another.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.