Our Father, who is in heaven,
let your name be made holy,
let your kingdom come,
let your will be done,
as in heaven so also on earth.
Give us this day the bread of Life.
And release us from our debts,
as we also have released our debtors.
And let our faith not be tested beyond endurance,
but deliver us from Evil,
for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours,
now and forever. Amen.
FUNDAMENTALLY, there is only one Christian prayer, known to us as the Lord’s Prayer. It is fundamental because it contains all that is essential in life. It embraces our needs and hopes, it communicates our longings and convictions, it roots us in the family of God and invites us to embrace a radical way of living imbued with beauty, integrity and fruitfulness. The Lord’s Prayer is as close as we come to a common currency – a universal language capable of uniting humanity at a profound level. It contains a grammar of life, defining the contours of our most vital relationships.
From what we can gather, this prayer has been at the heart of Christian worship from the beginning and continues to be so to this day. Strange as it may seem, however, the Lord’s Prayer is not specifically Christian in content. It contains no reference to Jesus or to the Trinity. It is not a prayer we pray to Christ, the eternal Son of God, nor through the mediation of his atoning death; rather, it is a prayer Jesus invites us to pray with him. The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer of Jesus himself.
It follows from this that when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray and he offered the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11.1-4), he was doing much more than giving them a new formulation. He was inviting them to inhabit his way of life: to share his relationship with God, to experience the world through his eyes, to engage with his vision of the kingdom and to work towards its fulfilment. This is where the transforming capacity of the Lord’s Prayer resides: in the gift of a new identity bestowed upon those who make this prayer their own and, through doing so, come to indwell the faith of its author.
For these two reasons, then, the Lord’s Prayer is fundamental for all Christian apprentices: (i) it gathers up in a few memorable phrases all that is essential to living with integrity in God’s creation; (ii) it is the prayer of Jesus himself and of those who find a common humanity in him.
What kind of identity does Lord’s Prayer bestow upon us? At least four characteristics are noteworthy. Firstly, the Lord’s Prayer encourages us to relate to Jesus as a brother, perhaps an elder brother. The ‘our’ in ‘Our Father’ and the usage throughout the prayer of the first person plural – ‘Give us this day the bread of Life. And release us from our debts, as we also have released our debtors. And let our faith not be tested beyond endurance, but deliver us from Evil’ – draws us into companionship with him. Just as the first community of persons who gathered around Jesus were influenced not only by what he did and said, but also by the profundity of his friendship and by his desire for them to embrace his orientation in life, so we can recognise here a paradigm to be emulated.
The Lord’s Prayer encourages us to travel with Jesus in the sense of allowing his prayerfulness to permeate our prayerfulness, his ministry to inform our ministry, his sacrifice to inspire and give significance to the offering of our lives. All this roots us in those models of discipleship expounded in the Gospels and throughout the New Testament. It requires us to recognize that Jesus did not conceive of his vocation in exclusive terms, but rather sought to embody a practice of faith that others could share, at least to a point, through serving an apprenticeship in his company. And one of the enduring qualities of the Lord’s Prayer is its pedagogical function – its character-forming, horizon-setting, relationship-building and life-orienting effects upon those who allow it to shape their human being in conformity to Christ. The Lord’s Prayer, then, draws us into companionship with Jesus himself.
Secondly, the Lord’s Prayer encourages us to relate to God as Father. One of the insights communicated by the gospel evangelists through presenting Jesus’ baptism by John as the launch pad for what follows is that ministry flows out of identity – who we are determines what we are capable of. As the heavenly voice celebrates so memorably, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1.11), the assurance of sonship and the demonstration of divine pleasure cultivates in Jesus a quality of life that finds its source in God alone. Like any Jew, Jesus knew himself to be a child of the covenant, chosen by God, born into the community of faith; for him, however, this was no accident of birth but an opportunity to experience the blessings of God personally and to extend those blessings to others in God’s name.
To pray the Lord’s Prayer with Jesus, therefore, is to be drawn into covenant with the God whose fatherly goodness is the source and sustenance of life itself and whose pleasure is the delight of those who discover their true identity in relation to him as they seek to trust in his providence and to go with the grain of his loving purposes. The Lord’s Prayer bestows upon us the dignity of being children of God and teaches us to call God ‘Father’.
We should note, however, this does not necessarily imply Jesus envisaged God to be a bodily person inhabiting a spatial heaven, but it does confirm that he related to God personally. This insight is fundamental, defining the nature and orientation of all prayer rooted in Jesus’ experience of God. It confirms that God cannot be known in an abstract or theoretical way – God isn’t something to be investigated and proved. Nor is God some sort of anonymous source of energy to be discovered and harnessed. Rather, God is a personal God who can only be encountered personally – through the dynamics, commitments and risks associated with relating to other persons.
So Jesus related to God personally, but more than that he related to God as a son relates to his father. Here, we need to pause and acknowledge that our understanding of sonship may be rather different from his. Relationships between men and women, adults and young people, wives and husbands, parents and their children, function differently today in the Western world. Further, we cannot simply assume that the nature of family and community life are comparable. As a result, a note of caution must be sounded when attempting to build bridges from our own experience to reach into that of a first century Galilean Jew. For instance, does Jesus pray ‘Our Father’ because he belonged to a male-orientated culture which projected the predominant gender onto its images of God or because there is something particular about the way a child relates to a father which corresponds to the nature of God and which would be lost had he prayed ‘Our Mother’ or ‘Our Parent’ or even ‘Our Father and Mother’?
Thirdly, the Lord’s Prayer encourages us to learn what it means to belong to God’s people, God’s family. There is an inescapable communal dimension to this prayer which rescues the practice of faith from being a private pursuit and anchors it within a framework of mutuality. The centrality of this unconditional commitment to belonging is reflected in the personal dynamics at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer where God’s forgiveness of us is linked to our forgiveness of others: ‘And release us from our debts, as we also have released our debtors.’
The point, as a number of Jesus’ parables confirm (eg Matthew 18.23-35; Luke 7.40-43), is not that God is no more generous than we are, but that our capacity to receive God’s forgiveness for the gift that it is flows from our willingness to allow that forgiveness to permeate our own relationships. This is a contentious area and one that has vexed many. The key, I think, is to differentiate between gifts and rewards, and between giving and offering. Gifts that have to be earned or are given with preconditions cease to be gifts and become the property of the recipient in the sense that they have earned the right to receive them – they become rewards. But gifts can only be offered, they cannot be forced upon us without becoming something wholly other; it is the prerogative of the recipient alone to decide whether or not to receive them in the spirit in which they were offered. And it is here that an important distinction emerges: between God’s willingness to forgive and our willingness to receive God’s forgiveness. The former is unconditional; the latter is contingent upon our readiness to live as God’s forgiven children – liberated to love God and to allow God’s forgiveness to permeate all our relationships.
But the Lord’s Prayer draws us into relationship not only through experiencing forgiveness, but also through active engagement with its broader agenda. For instance, to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom or for the performance of God’s will implies a process of corporate discernment through which the tasks God wishes to undertake in our time that his presence may be felt and his purposes furthered are able to emerge. To pray the Lord’s Prayer, then, not only introduces us to Jesus, our brother, to God, our Father, but also to the broader family among whom we must find our place and play our part.
This leads us onto the fourth and final characteristic of the new identity we inherit through the Lord’s Prayer. As God’s daughters and sons we are expected to be about our Father’s business – for such is the responsibility of those counted among God’s people and called to share in Christ’s vocation. It is a responsibility that comes into focus at the beginning of the prayer: ‘Our Father, who is in heaven, let your name be made holy, let your kingdom come, let your will be done, as in heaven so also on earth.’
Who is the subject of these petitions? Who is to bring about the hallowing of God’s name, the inaugurating of the kingdom and the fulfilment of God’s will? The one who prays or the one addressed in prayer? For Jesus, this would have seemed an artificial distinction in that his ministry bears witness to a God who invites his children to co-operate with him – an insight underpinning Jewish covenantal theology from the outset (‘I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.’ Exodus 6.7). God creates reconciling communities of worth and promise, shaped by the discipline of love, within which the blessings of living in God’s economy of forgiveness are concentrated and channelled out into God’s world.
In this respect, the Lord’s Prayer is an invitation to wholehearted covenantal living as God brings the best out in us and we bring the best out in God (in the sense of making God visible) that together we may bring the best out in others. And it is this reciprocity which is the pulse of intercession as human need and aspiration are touched by the life of God encountered within the communities he calls into being. For this reason, the definitive exposition of the Lord’s Prayer is Jesus’ ministry itself.
In brief, then, this is the new identity we inherit: learning with Jesus to call God ‘Father’, in the company of all God’s people, and allowing God to form in us a quality of life that reflects God’s own. And if we are to become proficient in the art of prayer, then we can ill afford to depart far from this pattern. The Lord’s Prayer is a remarkably simple formulation, but not simplistic; comprehensive, but not complex. It has a homely ‘lived-in’ feel about it, natural and instinctive, as befits a family prayer. It seems little concerned with how or why we are able to relate to God personally and intimately, or to know Jesus as a companion and guide, or to belong to a community encompassing the world and reaching through the centuries, or to be entrusted with furthering God’s causes. It leaves such mysteries in God’s hands and encourages us to do the same, as we attend to the business of becoming the persons who, in God’s eyes, we already are.
Let us, then, make the Lord’s Prayer our own: let it inform and orientate our worship, let it resonate through our lives and ministry, let it inspire our preaching and teaching, let it bring integrity to our church communities, let it draw us into God’s world, and let it be a source of joy.