I don’t know about you, but sometimes I resist praying because it doesn’t seem like real work. What I mean is, at the end of a time of prayer, I don’t have anything to show for it—there’s no sermon written, no Sunday School class prepared, no podcast recorded! I like how those things feel; I like the feeling of having something to show for my work.
When the early church gathered together under the leadership of Peter and the other apostles, there arose a problem. You see, at this point, the church hadn’t quite opened up to the Gentiles—that is, people who weren’t Jewish. But that didn’t mean that everyone in the church was all alike. There were real differences.
If you didn’t know, some Jews who lived in Jerusalem were Aramaic speaking. This is probably the language that Jesus and his disciples all spoke together. But there were also Jews who lived outside of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. In fact, there were Jewish communities all around the Roman empire and beyond, many of whom only spoke Greek. But many people from these populations abroad would travel to Jerusalem and the surrounding cities during the high holy days. When Peter began to preach the gospel of Jesus, many of them stayed and became a part of the church. And that meant that the very early church had two groups of people—Hebraic Jews from Judea; and Hellenistic Jews from the rest of the Empire.
In Acts 6, a controversy centered on these two groups began to brew. As it turned out there was a complaint from the Hellenistic Jews that their widows were being neglected while the widows of the Hebraic Jews were being favored. They were getting more bread in the distribution of food.
Now, what the apostles did to solve this problem was to gather the church together—everyone, the whole assembly—and to have them pick a handful of pious men, full of the Spirit, who could take up the practical matters of making sure that people were being treated fairly in the distribution of bread. Why? Was it because they were too good for that kind of practical service? No, actually it was because they had other work to do. Listen to Peter: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4).
For the apostles, the primary work that they were called to was the preaching and teaching of the word; but equally as important was another work—the work of prayer.
The reality is, prayer is real work. Prayer is often hard work. Just ask anyone you know whom you consider to be a “prayer warrior.” Prayer can exhaust you emotionally, drain you of energy. Often times people who are weary with life struggle to pray precisely because it’s hard work. Prayer often takes intense focus and a deep concentration. And it takes a lot of perseverance if you’re going to do more than just pray whatever comes to your mind in the moment. Praying for years about something takes dedication.
But more than all that, Jesus teaches us that prayer really is the primary work of the kingdom of God. How so? First, this is the way that Jesus practiced his own ministry. He would say things like, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” We often see Jesus going out to desolate places to pray so that he can be in tune with the Father. Jesus draws his strength, sense of identity, and purpose from the Father—and all of that is realized in his life through prayer. That’s why he prays all night by himself before he chooses the twelve apostles.
And Jesus teaches us to do the same thing with him. That’s the second way he teaches us that prayer is the primary work of the kingdom. In John 15, Jesus says to the disciples, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Whatever work we might do for the kingdom—a sermon, a hospital visit, a Sunday School class—is meant to be borne of prayer and grounded in prayer.
Prayer is real work. It’s the first work.
Pray with me. Father, thank you that you gave us the Son, that in him we might dwell with you and with the Holy Spirit in unity. We pray that we would learn to abide in the Son through prayer, and that we might learn to do the work of prayer for his name’s sake. Teach us to pray, Lord. And make us people of prayer. In Jesus’ name. Amen.