Today, I will talk about what might be the most familiar aspect of the Christian liturgy and personal devotion - the Lord’s Prayer. In Matthew 5-7, Jesus and his followers escape the crowd for a moment, and Jesus teaches them to pray according to this pattern; but, it is only after he gives them a whole range of other lessons, known together as the Sermon on the Mount. This is his longest continuous discourse that contains, among other teachings, the Beatitudes. In Luke, Jesus engages in this discourse as well (ch 6), but we call it the Sermon on the Plains, as Jesus comes down from the hills to teach the crowds and disciples together – and that’s not where the Lord’s prayer appears because in Luke it’s a stand alone passage in chapter 11 - a shorter version, lacking “your will be done" and "deliver us from evil". There, Jesus first prayed by himself “in a certain place”, then his disciples asked him how they could pray also, and he gave them this sort of a template for prayer.
It seems that Jesus preached similarly on many occasions – to the crowds and to his students separately, and to include the Beatitudes as an approach to life, and the Lord’s Prayer as an approach to spirituality. His words encompass most of our concerns – practical, emotional, and spiritual – and give us blue-print for a response to whatever circumstances we face in this world (while not being fully of this world!). Most Christian use the Lord’s prayer in personal and corporate worship in the Matthean form, as we will in a few minutes today, and have done so from very early on. As nearly all elements of the prayer have counterparts in the Jewish ancient texts, its roots, in fact, reach much further back than NT. The concluding doxology, however, is a Protestant addition, incorporating the words that appear only in later manuscripts. Still, memorizing and reciting the prayer gives us a sense of solidarity and belonging to the tradition that has existed around the globe for over two millennia.
Many people today are able to recite the prayer from memory even if they can’t quote any other texts or don’t attend church. I wonder if either Jesus or the evangelistis possibly imagined that millions of people would be saying these words verbatim long after their time! But what does this prayer mean to you, on a personal level? A magical incantation or a formula to follow? Would you say it if it wasn’t for its familiarity or liturgical use? What do you believe about the power of prayer in general? In your understanding, do you lean towards “everyone who asks receives, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” as in Luke, or to "our Father knows what you need before you ask him” as in Matthew? Jesus used both of these, nearly contradictory, statements to contextualize the Lord’s prayer, and I encourage you to think carefully about your own theology.
You might believe that prayer truly changes our circumstances, especially in dire need, or simply that it is a way of maintaining a relationship with God by sharing our hopes, and most importantly, a way of not talking but rather listening to him. St Augustine of Hippo, the 4th century North African bishop, said: “We need to use words when we pray so that we may remind ourselves to consider carefully what we are asking. … Whatever other words we may prefer to say… we say nothing that is not contained in the Lord’s Prayer.”
I personally believe that the power of these particular ancient petitions isn’t only in saying, but in living them. I’d like to share with you an approach to meditating on the Lord’s Prayer that I found helpful to foster a deeper relationship with it, and to help the awareness of these lines last past the few moments it takes to say it. So, what I’ll offer now entails taking a whole week to walk through; thereby, establishing a routine without overwhelming us. It might look as follows. On Monday, let us give thanks to God for being our shared parent who is with us and within us, immanent and transcendent (i.e. Our Father in heaven”), and consider making a truly holy space for his presence (i.e. “hallow” his name). On Tuesday, let us meditate on the need for change in the world, consider our contribution, and rejoice in the hope of the eventual unity of heaven and earth (i.e., “kingdom come”). On Wednesday, half way through the week, let us pray for the practical “daily bread” at home, work, and in the world. On Thursday, we might spend time taking stock of what needs to be confessed and/or healed in ourselves (“our trespasses”), while Friday, the day of the crucifixion, is in many Christian traditions already the day to focus on forgiveness (to those who “trespass against us”). Saturday is in many traditions a day of waiting (i.e., between the Passion and Resurrection) - so, perhaps, it’s a day to spend in rest and gratitude for deliverance from evil. On Sunday, consider reciting the final doxology to affirm our belief in God as the ultimate source of all goodness.
This is only one way in which we could incorporate praying “as Jesus taught us” into personal spirituality. You may adapt it, or find other ways – please share them with me and others! I also hope that you strive to formulate your own theology of prayer, and make a habit of noticing its effects on daily life and spirituality. Amen.