Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Lord's Prayer

Today, the Lectionary invites us to contemplate St Luke’s stripped-down version of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.  The longer version of the prayer – the one we say or sing in our services - is found in the Gospel according to Matthew, as part of the Sermon on the Mount.  Strangely, Luke’s account comes somewhat later in the chronology of the texts…so it’s possible that Jesus himself sought to edit-down his original teaching into something really simple, and really fundamental to the faith he was sharing.

The Lord’s Prayer is essentially the Gospel, wrapped up into a neat package – which is why it has had such longevity, and why, incidentally, that we sing it sometimes.  This is more than just a prayer for help.  It is a statement of who God is, it is a reminder of the coming kingdom, it is the cry of a spiritual child reaching out for help, it is a promise of forgiveness, and a commitment to live holy lives.

In fact, The Lord’s Prayer contains so many complex ideas, that we could easily have a sermon on each one of its lines.  But let me try to outline some of the basics for us to ponder:

And, so quote the famous philosopher Julie Andrews, ‘let’s start at the very beginning’…

Father.  Our Father.  Our Father in heaven.  Our heavenly Father.

We take the idea of God as ‘Father’ for granted these days.  But to Jesus’ first listeners, God was the awesome creator of the Universe, the rumbling God of the mountain and of the Holy of Holies.  He was so far beyond human understanding, that they would not even utter his name.  And whilst all those things remain true, Jesus chooses as different word, entirely.  Not just ‘father’, but ‘Abba’ – Daddy.  An intimate word.  A word designed to help us to see God as the one who cares for us like a parent. By using the word Abba, Jesus de-emphasises the stern, masculine stereotype into something much more nurturing, much more loving.  The God who made all of us in God’s image – male and female – is given a title which points us towards a feminine, nurturing, life-giving identity.

This is a Gospel message.  It’s good news.  We don’t worship a distant God on a cloud, or a terrifying Warrior-God on a mountain.  We are called into relationship with a nurturing, caring, Daddy in heaven. 

And that essential insight gives us a hook by which the rest of the prayer can be understood.

Hallowed – or Holy - is your name.

This loving, nurturing, parent God is nevertheless holy.  He is not to be taken lightly, nor gently ignored like some geriatric parent left in an old folks home.  The idea of God is generally still revered today, but few people take the trouble to really spend time with the ‘old fella’, or to listen to his ancient wisdom.  So in just two lines, Jesus shows us the Daddy – the Father/Mother God – but he also warns us not to confuse gentleness with uselessness, or omnipotence with impotence.  This gentle loving God still has power.  He is still a force to be reckoned with.

Your Kingdom Come

…and to which Matthew’s account adds those lovely words about God’s Kingdom being about his will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is Jesus opening our eyes to God’s cosmic vision of the universe, and God’s over-riding desire for his children.  God’s whole being is bent towards the redemption of the world, so that everything in our physical realm might be as holy, just, peaceful and glorious as it is in the spiritual realm.  And by putting that hope into our mouths, and onto our tongues, Jesus invites us to co-operate with God in God’s mission. 

Give us each day our daily bread.

This is a prayer of dependence.  Jesus invites us to ask only for daily bread.  Not monthly bread.  Not to long term security of any kind.  Only for enough for each day.  In other places, Jesus reminds us that we should let tomorrow take care of itself, or that the Son of Man has no-where to lay his head, or that those who store up wealth for themselves on earth will one day lose it all.  For the Kingdom to come, and for God’s will to be done, Jesus wants his army of ordinary people to be fleet of foot, ready to answer his call to action at a moment’s notice.  He wants people who are not shackled to earth by the possessions they carry, but ready to fly for the Gospel.

Forgive us our Sins – as we forgive everyone who sins against us.

Forgiveness is, of course, the heart of the Gospel.  But what good is it for God to forgive us, if we are unwilling to forgive others.  In this one line, Jesus opens us to an ever-rotating circle of forgiveness.  As we find ourselves forgiven, each week in this Eucharist, we then forgive others.  A virtuous circle of forgiveness rolls out from this building and from every church, bringing healing to all. 

And let us be in no doubt…such forgiveness needs to be real.  When we forgive others, we give up, we for-give, any further possibility of being hurt by the person we forgive.  Such forgiveness may do nothing for them.  It may not change them, at all – and we would be wise to always treat them with caution.  But forgiveness does allow us to move on, unshackled by bitterness, ready to do the work of the Gospel.

And lead us not into temptation…

to which we might add Matthew’s insight “but deliver us from evil’.  We need to understand this line carefully.  This is a much contested phrase.  You may have heard of recent debates at the Vatican, where the translation of this line has generated a lot of discussion.  The essential premis is this:  that it is not God who leads us into temptation.  God’s whole will is bent towards our redemption.  Why would he then tempt us away from his love?  As the Pope has said, “I am the one who falls.  It is not God pushing me into temptation to then see how far I have fallen’.  So various other ways of rendering the line have been tried – including ‘abandon me not to temptation’.

For thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever Amen.

This final line, not included at all in Luke’s account, is what’s called a doxology…essentially a hymn of praise to wrap up a prayer, or a psalm.  It actually doesn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel, which is why Cranmer excluded it from the version of the Lord’s Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer.  It was probably added at a later date by well-intentioned editors.  Some might even suggest that by focusing on God’s Kingdom, power and glory, this was an attempt to balance out some of the more ‘touchy-feely’ aspects of the rest of the prayer.  It was an attempt to draw us back to the utter majesty of God, reminding us that this is not a God with whom we should trifle.

Time is against us – but here’s one last thought.  In Luke’s account, this prayer comes in the context of Jesus’ story about the persistent friend, who keeps banging on his mate’s door for bread in the middle of the night.  That’s because, above all, Jesus wants us to get that persistence in prayer is at the heart of our relationship with God.  If we pray nothing else each day, let us never cease from at the very least praying this simple Lord’s Prayer. 

Prayer is unlikely to change God, who already knows what he wants to accomplish.  The Lord’s Prayer is not so much a petition – an attempt to put the right prayer coins into a heavenly slot machine of answers.  But rather, it’s a kind of basic catechism of the Gospel.  It is not intended to change God’s mind, as Abraham sought to do over Sodom and Gomorrah, but rather to remind us, over and over again, of the simple basics of our faith.

We serve a loving, parenting God, who must nevertheless be taken seriously.

This God has a plan for the world, to being about his Kingdom.

Each of us needs ready to carry out God’s mission, needing only our daily bread.

The engine of that mission is forgiveness.

We need to stay on course, and not be tempted off the narrow path.