Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Lord's Prayer for All

Luke 11.1-13

As many of you will know, I consider myself to be somewhat of a refugee...a refugee, that is, from the more charismatic end of the church.  I have no doubt that in the 25 years since I was an active member of a charismatic church, many changes have taken place.  I'm sure that the whole charismatic movement has matured, and become wiser in the way that it communicates the things of God.

But when I left the charismatic church, there were many reasons why I needed to move on.  One in particular, was their use of language.  They spoke a form of English which a Christian singer, Steve Taylor, called "Christianese".   In other words, there were a number of stock phrases which Christians of that time used, to demonstrate to others that they were committed, faithful, members.  You know the sort of phrases I mean:

"I've asked the Lord into my heart"

"I was washed in the blood of the Lamb"

"Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?"

There was a sort of 'bumper-sticker' theology around in those days, which after a while I found to be just too simple...and frankly too 'cheesy'.  Driving around London, where I lived then, I would see stickers in car windows that said things like:

"Honk, if you love Jesus"

"God is my co-Pilot"


"Let Go and let God"

The trouble was, in those days, that unless you spoke these kinds of phrases, and lived your life in exactly the same way as everybody else, and prayed your prayers with the same intonation as everybody else, the rest of your church would wonder whether you were really a Christian at all.  Steve Taylor summed up this kind of thinking and language in a song called "I want to be a clone".  One verse of his song went like this:

"They told me that I'd fall away 
Unless I followed what they say
Who needs the Bible anyway?
I want to be a clone.

Their language, it was new to me,
But Christianese got through to me,
No I can speak it fluently,
I want to be a clone!

You're still a babe you have to grow,
Give it twenty years or so,
'Cause if you want to be one of his,
You've gotta act like one of us!"

It might not surprise you to know that I was a bit of a rebel!  I was not prepared to tow the line...either in the way I dressed, or the way I spoke, or my stubborn refusal to give up the small pleasure of tobacco.  Consequently, from time to time, church elders and leaders would take me to one side; and they would ask me those questions:  "Do you actually have a personal relationship with Jesus?  Are you saved?"

The problem with those kinds of questions is that they were too simple for me...too black and white...too one-dimensional.  They required a 'yes' or 'no' answer...and such answers eluded me.  Did I have a personal relationship with Jesus?  Well, sort of.  I had read a lot about him, I talked to him, I tried to follow his teachings...but was that a personal relationship?  Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything in the Bible that talked about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  It was too human a concept to describe the sort of interaction I was having with God.  It made Jesus out to be some kind of buddy, or lover...and that just wasn't the picture of Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, that I had in my mind.

As for the question "Are you saved?"...I wrestled with that one for a long time.  Was I?  How would I know?  Was my salvation something I could be sure of?  Or was 'being saved' a kind of process I was going through?

One day, I came upon a story about Archbishop William Temple.  It was said of him that when he was speaking in public - sometimes at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park - evangelicals would heckle him with the question "Are you saved".  His response, apparently quoting John Wesley, was fascinating to me.  He would reply, "I was saved, I am being saved, I will be saved".

For me, reading that story brought about a Damascus moment.  It was the moment I realised that my faith could not be defined in terms that were black or white, this or that, one or the other.  Rather, I discovered, faith was more like a journey...a road trip.  Faith was a process, in which each day I might discover something new and exciting about God or about myself in reference to God.

And today's Gospel reading contains many of the elements of that journey that I was beginning to discover.  Here, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray.  One of his disciples approaches him and says, effectively, "John the Baptiser has taught his disciples what to pray.  Will you teach us how to do it?"

Prayer, at that time, was a formulaic thing.  Devout Jews had set prayers, which they would repeat in the morning and again in the evening.  They were a sort of mantra, designed to please God, so that God would pour out blessing on the one who prayed.  They were set words, and set phrases, which had to be said in a set way...a little bit like the culture of the Charismatic church I left.   Another feature of prayers at that time...very much reflected in the Book of Psalms...was the prevalence of the word "I".  "Lord, strike down my enemies".  Lord, increase my prosperity" and so on.

But Jesus came at the whole issue of prayer from a different angle.  Rather than trying to get God to do things for me, through the recitation of a 'magic formula', Jesus encouraged his disciples to approach God in an entirely different way.

First, God is introduced as 'Father'...Abba...a word which can certainly imply a kind of relationship, but one which also is used of a Teacher.  (That's why, by the way, priests are sometimes addressed as 'Father' - it simply means Teacher).  And then, Jesus goes on to offer words of praise to God..."Hallowed - or holy - is your name"…reminding us of the glorious supremacy of God.

But then comes the really radical shift.  Rather than prayers to 'strike down my enemies' or increase my prosperity'...the first intercession that Jesus teaches us to say is "May your kingdom come".  The preaching of the kingdom of God was the driving purpose of Jesus' ministry.  Before individual prayers, comes the idea that God is establishing a new way of being that will benefit all people.  A new kingdom...a kingdom of justice and mercy for all.

And that idea of God's kingdom for all is captured in the next lines.  For Jesus did not teach his disciples to ask anything for themselves as individuals but rather as a Community.  In Matthew's slightly longer version of the same prayer, God is introduced as 'Our Father', not 'my Father'.  And in Luke's version, notice that we are taught to ask for our Daily Bread, not 'my' daily bread.  This is a prayer, rooted in the notion of the Kingdom, which asks for enough food for all God's people.  Give us this day our daily bread.

The Christian faith then, according to the way Jesus taught this prayer, is not about my personal relationship with God...but about the relationship of the whole world, as a community, to God.  God is our Father & Mother, and we are God's children.  Of course God loves each one of us individually...but it is the needs of the whole community which are enshrined in the idea of Kingdom.

The Lord's Prayer invites us into a relationship with one another, in community, before God our Father.  It invites us into a relationship of mutual forgiveness - God forgives us, as we forgive one another.  God invites us into a relationship which is marked by persistence...we keep on asking for the Kingdom to come, and by the way we live our lives of mutual forgiveness, and the sharing of daily bread, we find that our prayers are answered.  We ask, we seek, and we find...not Rolls Royces for ourselves, but the coming of God's kingdom.

Prayer then is not a time to list our own needs...God already knows what we need.  It is rather a time to meditate upon God's kingdom, and our role in bringing it to fruition.  It is the time to examine our own lives...and to examine how we are living them in the light of Jesus' teaching.  Of course we may ask for God's help for our personal problems.  What father, if his son asks for fish would give him a snake?  But that should not be, and must not be, the entire focus of our prayers.

Prayer, then, is the opening of ourselves to God, to God's purposes, and to God's ways.  It is the daily, persistent act of saying to God "Here I am...send me".  Or better perhaps..."Here we are...send us"...and then meditating upon the tasks of the Kingdom to which we are called.