Thursday, July 28, 2022

Pray the Jesus Way

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'Pray the Jesus Way'. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity.

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Luke 11:1-13

In St Luke’s Gospel particularly, Jesus is regularly described as praying. In our reading, Jesus has been praying ‘in a certain place’; we are not told where. This prompts one of Jesus’ disciples, we are not told which one, to ask him to teach them to pray ‘as John taught his disciples. ‘John’ here is John the Baptist. Some of Jesus’ followers had previously been disciples of John the Baptist, so they would have known first-hand what John taught his disciples.

Prayer was an essential part of Jewish society. Jews prayed three times a day, and prayer was a central part of synagogue and Temple life. The disciples, then, would have been used to praying. The key part of this request to Jesus lies in the phrase ‘as John taught his disciples’. What Jesus’ disciples are asking is for Jesus to teach them what to pray for. They want to know what the subject or content of their prayer should be. In reply, Jesus gives them a prayer to say.

This prayer became known as the Lord’s Prayer, and it is one of the best-known of all prayers, although it is more accurately described as the Disciples’ Prayer. This is a prayer for those who have become followers of Jesus. The Lord’s Prayer exists in three versions. This version in St Luke’s Gospel is the shortest. The longer version in St Matthew’s Gospel is the version we are most familiar with. There also exists another version in a document called the Didache (Didache 8).

The Didache is most probably a late first century text. The full title of it is, ‘The Lord's Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations’. The version of the Lord’s Prayer in the Didache is essentially the same as that in St Matthew’s Gospel. The Didache tells believers to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day. The importance of the version in the Didache and the teaching that goes with it, however, is that it shows how quickly the Lord’s Prayer became an integral part of the prayer life of believers, both corporately and individually. Nowadays, the Lord’s Prayer is prayed everywhere, often by people who have little connection with the Church or the Christian faith.

When I was growing up in the UK, every child would learn to say the Lord’s Prayer by heart, and it was said together by the whole school at the school assembly every day. This is less common today, but the Lord’s Prayer is still taught in church schools, and many remain familiar with it more widely. Despite this familiarity, however, very few would be able to tell you what it means. Even amongst church-goers, many would struggle to explain what it is they think they are asking for when they pray the Lord’s Prayer. Its use is more symbolic. We pray it because it is the Lord’s Prayer. It’s what we should do. And so it is, for example, prayed in every church service, prayed, that is, but not understood.

This lack of understanding when praying the Lord’s Prayer is somewhat ironic, as in St Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 6:5-15), Jesus, in his introduction to the prayer, tells his disciples not to heap up ‘empty phrases’ as the Gentiles do. Jesus warns against using ‘many words’. There is no need for them, Jesus explains, as the disciples’ Father knows what they need before they ask him for it. It is after saying this that Jesus teaches the disciples the Lord’s Prayer, which is itself a short prayer. The version in our reading from St Luke’s Gospel is even shorter than the version we typically use.

All of this seems very straightforward, no matter how hard it might still be in practice. It is, however, not quite as straightforward as it may initially seem. Firstly, especially in St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus himself is portrayed as a role model in prayer (Luke 5:16). Jesus prays regularly and often all night (Luke 6:12). It is seeing Jesus pray that leads the disciple in our reading to ask Jesus to teach the disciples to pray. So, what did Jesus himself pray, and how could it take all night?

Secondly, Jesus also teaches the importance of persistence in prayer. This is one of the points of the teaching that Jesus gives in our reading following Lord’s Prayer. The disciples are to ‘ask, seek, and knock’; they are not to give up. Then later, in chapter 18 of St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable of a widow who gets justice from a judge, not because the judge thinks her cause is just, but because she persists in asking him for it. The judge gives her justice just to get her to leave him alone!

So, Jesus gives a short prayer and warns against many words, but he then encourages his followers to be persistent in prayer and to keep praying. There is both a paradox and a challenge to us here when it comes to how we should pray.

In seeking to understand the Lord’s Prayer itself, we should note not only its brevity but that it is a prayer for those who are Jesus’ followers. In the past, the Lord’s Prayer has been taught to everyone routinely without also teaching people about the importance of having a relationship with God in Christ. The prayer begins, ‘Father’. It assumes that a relationship with God has already been established. Now some may ask whether God isn’t everyone’s father naturally, and the answer from a New Testament perspective is, no.

In chapter ten of St Luke’s Gospel, when the 70 (or 72) return from the work Jesus has given them to do and have reported their success, Jesus rejoices in the Holy Spirit and prays thanking God for revealing these things to them. Jesus continues to say:

‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ (Luke 10:22)

As his chosen people, the Jewish people did see God as their Father, but Jesus takes seeing God as our Father to a new level. Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and the word he used in Aramaic for father is ‘abba’. St Mark records Jesus’ actual use of the word ‘abba’ in addressing God in Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane on the night he is arrested (Mark 14:36). Jesus’ use of this word impressed itself on his disciples, and so special was it to them, that they continued to use it in Aramaic even in a Greek-speaking environment. St Paul uses it in his letters to both the Galatian and the Roman believers (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15).

It is sometimes said in sermons that ‘abba’ was the word used by very young children at the time of Jesus and was the equivalent of ‘daddy’ in English. This is not true. It is the word that was used by all family members whatever their age; what is true is that it is an intimate word speaking a close relationship between a son or daughter and their father. The Lord’s Prayer begins with and is rooted in our relationship with God as our Father.

Turning to the Lord’s Prayer itself, there are 5 petitions in the version in St Luke’s Gospel. Using traditional language, they are:

1. Hallowed be your name

2. Your Kingdom come

3. Give us each day our daily bread

4. And forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone indebted to us

5. And lead us not into temptation.

Let us look briefly at each petition:

1. Hallowed be your name

Keeping the traditional language highlights at once a problem we have with the Lord’s Prayer. The very familiarity of the words obscures their meaning. Does anyone talk about hallowing things nowadays? To hallow is to treat something as holy, but that does not add much clarity. One translation has, ‘Honoured be your name’ (NET Bible), which is much better, but what does it mean to honour God’s name?

The thinking behind this is that the name represents the person. God’s name is about who he is. The Lord’s Prayer begins not with us and what we want of God but with God himself. The Hebrew prophets express the importance of God’s name being honoured. What is more, it is God himself who will cause his name to be honoured. For example, in an important passage in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, which is worth quoting in full, God says through the prophet:

‘So I poured out my wrath upon them for the blood that they had shed upon the land, and for the idols with which they had defiled it. I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries; in accordance with their conduct and their deeds I judged them. But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that it was said of them, “These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.” But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came. 

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.’ (Ezekiel 36:19-23)

Likewise, Jesus wants his disciples to make God’s honour a priority. We begin the Lord’s Prayer by praying for God to be treated with the respect he deserves.

As a mark of respect, many Jews won’t use the name of God, not even when writing it. They will write G-d. You can see an example of a Jewish writer being careful in their use of God’s name in St Matthew’s Gospel where St Matthew changes references to the ‘Kingdom of God’ to ‘Kingdom of heaven’. We can learn from this. But there is more to honouring God’s name than not using it lightly or flippantly as a swear word, although that in itself would be a start. The popular exclamation, ‘O My God’, for example, is not one that we should be using as believers.

People are not honouring God’s name even more, however, when they deny or question his existence, for example. Or when we fail to take him seriously or accuse him of wrong-doing. Nor are we honouring God’s name when we see the worship of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as just one option among many. To honour God’s name is to exclude all other names.

This is a much-needed petition, as God is not treated with respect in our world, and the sad thing is that we as believers contribute to this lack of respect by our behaviour and failure to keep Jesus’ commands, not least his command to love one another. One day, God will cause his name to be honoured. Until then, we honour it by taking God seriously, worshipping him alone as those who belong to him.

2. Your Kingdom come

This petition would have had a great deal of meaning to the first disciples, but, again, to us, not so much. In the first place, Kings, seen as supreme rulers over a kingdom, are now largely a thing of the past. What is more, a longing for God’s Kingdom is not an intrinsic part of our life and the focus of our hope as believers in the way it was for those who had previously been disciples of John the Baptist and who had become disciples of Jesus because they thought he was the One John spoke of who would bring about God’s Kingdom on earth.

What the disciples were looking for was for God’s rule to come in this world and for everyone to be subject to it. For them, God’s rule wasn’t something that existed solely in a heavenly realm that would only be experienced after death. God’s rule was about God ruling on earth. God’s rule, they believed, would mean peace on earth and an end to sickness, suffering, and death. But it would also mean the defeat of Satan, the punishment of wrong-doers, and an end to sin and its effects.

God’s rule, the Kingdom of God, was at the heart of Jesus’ preaching. Jesus in his ministry gives a preview of what this will look like. This is what Jesus’ miracles are all about. They are not just supernatural acts designed to impress, but signs of what God’s rule on earth will mean in practice. God’s rule will ultimately only come when Jesus comes again, when, as St Paul puts it, ‘at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).

In the meantime, by praying for God’s rule to come, believers also commit themselves to living under it now. This means obeying God and following Jesus as our ruler as we live our lives in a world that is not yet subject to God’s rule. Not only as individuals but also together as a Church, we are to embody God’s rule and demonstrate what it means in the practical day to day business of life. We hope that as we demonstrate what God’s rule looks like that some will be drawn to it, while realizing that, sadly, many will rebel against it.

3. Give us each day our daily bread

At first sight, this seems one request that is clear and which we can understand. We are asking our Father to provide us with the food we need to live. Later in St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will teach his disciples not to be anxious about their life, what they will eat and what they will wear (Luke 12:22-34). Their Father, Jesus will tell them, knows they need food, drink, and clothing, and he can be trusted to provide it. God will, however, provide what we need, not what we want. As we will see next week, Jesus teaches people not to store up riches in this life (Luke 12:13-20) and warns of the dangers of doing so.

Our prayer as Jesus’ followers, then, is a simple one that God will provide us with what is essential for life, knowing that he has promised to do so. Given, however, that God has made such a promise, do we need to ask him for even the basics? Can’t we just take it as a given that he will do as he says? The answer is that by praying for our food, we are accepting that we don’t have a right to it, but that it is graciously and kindly provided for us by God.

But more than that, by asking God to provide for us, we are recognizing that we need God to give us our food. We are acknowledging that we are not self-sufficient in anything. Everything we have is given to us as a gift from God our Father. We do not even provide for our own most basic needs. St Paul writes to believers in the Church at Corinth:

‘What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?’ (1 Corinthians 4:7)

The petition in the Lord’s Prayer for bread is not just a request for food but is an open statement of our dependency on God as the One who gives us everything we have.

4. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us

Sadly, we don’t honour God’s name as we should; we don’t submit to his rule in our lives; and we don’t want to depend on him for everything, preferring instead to assert our self and our claim to independence and freedom. In other words, we sin. Sin, in the first place, is against God. The Psalmist writes:

‘Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight …’ (Psalm 51:4)

It is as we pray the first petitions of the Lord’s Prayer that we become aware of just how much we fail as followers of Jesus.

All sin is sin against God, but we don’t only sin against God, we sin against others as well, even hurting those we love the most, whether simply by an unkind word or by a more serious betrayal.

The good news of the Gospel is that forgiveness is not only at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, it is at the heart of what Jesus came to do and of what he now offers us. In Jesus’ ministry, we see him offering the forgiveness that will become the message the Church is entrusted to preach. Whether it is to the paralyzed man let down through the roof (Luke 5:17-26) or to the woman who washes his feet with her tears when he goes to dinner with a Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50), Jesus offers forgiveness to all who need it. None are excluded. After Jesus’ resurrection, when he appears to the disciples, Jesus will tell them that ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’ (Luke 24:47).

The forgiveness we see Jesus offering in the Gospels and which he makes possible by his death, we are now to offer people in his name.

We do this with no sense of moral superiority. We are all sinners who need forgiving. We fail, but we are not overcome by our failure, as we know that forgiveness is offered by God to all those who confess their sins. But not only are we to tell other people that Jesus offers forgiveness, we too are ourselves to forgive those who sin against us. We are to model forgiveness in our lives.

Let’s be honest, it can be difficult to forgive, especially when the sin against us has gone deep and caused real pain, but those who are aware of their own sins and the hurt they have caused, not only to others but more especially to God, cannot refuse to forgive. A failure to forgive others means we don’t really appreciate the reality of our own sin and how utterly unworthy we are to receive God’s forgiveness.

5. And lead us not into temptation

Which brings us to the final petition. It seems an obvious enough request, but this petition has proved to be one that many people have difficulty with, including Pope Francis no less. It is argued that for us to ask God not to lead us into temptation, we are suggesting that it is possible for God to lead us into sin, something that our Lord’s brother rejects out of hand. St James writes:

‘No one, when tempted, should say, 'I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.’ (James 1:13)

Concerns such as these have led people to try to interpret the phrase in a way which avoids any suggestion that God is responsible for us being tempted. Some have argued that a better translation is ‘time of trial’ and the request is to be spared the final trial that they believe will happen at the end of this age before Jesus returns. If that is what Jesus meant, it isn’t very clear from the text and context. Others argue that what Jesus has in mind is not temptation to sin but testing of our faith. Translating the Greek word ‘test’ rather than ‘temptation’ may appear to soften the request, but in the Old Testament not only does God test his people, he tests them by putting them in situations where they are able to sin. We should accept the translation ‘temptation’ and ask what it means, rather than trying to side-step the issue.

Firstly, we need be clear that however we understand this petition, Jesus does not tell us to ask God not to tempt us to sin. We are to ask God not to lead us into situations where we may be tempted to sin, which is very different. St Paul expresses well the nature of the temptations we face. St Paul writes:

‘No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.’ (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Secondly, the Lord’s Prayer expresses negatively what is in fact a positive sentiment. It is because we are aware of our weakness having just asked God for forgiveness that we ask God to keep us from situations where we might be vulnerable to sin and find ourselves in spiritual danger.

In the same way that by praying for God to give us our daily bread, even though he has already promised to do just that, we are expressing our dependency on God, so too by praying for God not to lead us into temptation, we are acknowledging our weakness and dependence on him to keep us from falling. By asking God not to lead us into temptation, we are in reality asking him to lead us out of it!

The final petition in St Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is, then, a recognition of our weakness and an implicit prayer for protection.

The Lord’s Prayer is both a prayer for us to pray and a template for us to use for our prayers. This then is the answer to our original paradox. As a prayer to pray, the Lord’s Prayer is short and reminds us that prayer is not about how many words we use, but the God we address them to. As a template for our own prayers, the Lord’s Prayer gives us enough to keep us up all night!

In answer to the disciples’ request for Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus gives them words to use and guide them. Jesus immediately, though, goes on to talk about what their attitude should be when they pray. As he often does, Jesus first tells them a parable. Jesus invites them to imagine that one of them has a friend that they go to for help at midnight. Another friend has turned up unexpectedly, and they have no food to give them. In the cultural context of the time, this was a social disaster. Showing hospitality was taken very seriously. Jesus then asks them to imagine what will happen if the friend who has been turned to for help, at first refuses to help because it is so late, and the friend and his family are in bed. Jesus says that although the friend won’t help out of friendship, because of the sheer cheek of the one who asks for help, the friend will get up and help them. The one who asks for help is desperate, and they are not prepared to let even the late hour stop them seeking help.

So, Jesus tells the disciples, they are to ask, seek, and knock. Jesus is wanting to stress the seriousness and persistence with which they should pray. Such seriousness and persistence, Jesus tells them, will be answered: those who ask will receive; those who seek will find; and those who knock will have the door opened to them.

Jesus then says something that is at first sight somewhat puzzling. Jesus asks them which of them if their child asks for a fish will give a snake, or if their child asks for an egg will give a scorpion. If, Jesus continues, they who are evil know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more, Jesus asks, will the Heavenly Father give … give what? How would we expect that sentence to finish? Having observed that they who are evil know how to give good gifts to their children, the obvious way for it to finish would be: how much more will the heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him? Indeed, that is basically how a similar passage does finish in St Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 7:11).

It is not how it finishes here, however. Jesus actually says: ‘how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?’ There has so far been no mention in what Jesus has been saying about prayer of the Holy Spirit. Why does Jesus suddenly mention the Holy Spirit now?

This is perhaps the most exciting part of Jesus’ teaching about prayer. The answer to our question is provided by St Paul in his letter to the Roman believers. St Paul writes:

‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God …’ (Romans 8:14-16)

We are to approach God as our Father, but for us to approach him as our Father, he must first become our Father, and the way God becomes our Father is through the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to begin our prayers by calling God our Father, both meaning it and knowing what it means. As we cry out to him as our Father - for having God as our Father is an emotional experience – the Holy Spirit assures us that this is exactly who he is; he is our Father revealed to us by the Son through the Holy Spirit.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus has told us that we are to pray that our Father’s name be honoured and for his rule to come; we are to trust him for our needs; ask for his forgiveness, while extending our forgiveness to others; and to seek his protection from spiritual danger. All of which is another reason we need the Holy Spirit. St Paul, again, explains why. St Paul writes:

‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought …’ (Romans 8:26)

To be able to pray the Lord’s Prayer as it should be prayed, we need the Holy Spirit to help us in our weakness. St Paul goes on to tell us that the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:27). We need to align our prayers with the Spirit’s prayers for us.

As I said in my podcast for Pentecost, our most urgent need is to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and then, having received the Holy Spirit, to allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit.
May our most earnest and serious prayer, therefore, be for the Holy Spirit, knowing, as Jesus says, that the Father wants to give him to us.
All we have to do is ask.


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