Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Our Father - The Lord's Prayer

Now it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples." So He said to them, "When you pray, say:

Our Father in heaven,

Hallowed be Your name.

Your kingdom come.

Your will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us day by day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

For we also forgive everyone

who is indebted to us.

And do not lead us into temptation,

But deliver us from the evil one."

And He said to them, "Which of you shall have a friend, and go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me on his journey, and I have nothing to set before him'; and he will answer from within and say, 'Do not trouble me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give to you'? I say to you, though he will not rise and give to him because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him as many as he needs. So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. for everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!"

- Luke 11:1-13

In yesterday's reading, Luke gave us the story of Peter's confession of faith -- made for all of the disciples. We know that there were many rumors going around about who Jesus is -- is He Elijah returned? John the Baptist risen? Another prophet? First Jesus asks who do the crowds say He is. But then He asks the disciples, and Peter answers for them all (and for all disciples who will come even to the present day). Jesus' immediate answer, in Luke's Gospel, is to teach them about what is to come, about His Passion. And then Jesus goes on to teach each of them that each who seeks to save his life will lose it, that it is going to be the duty of every follower to take up his cross daily. He said, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me." In today's reading, the lectionary skips forward in preparation for Ascension Day.

Now it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples." In today's reading, we are given what we know as the Lord's Prayer. Many of Jesus' disciples were first disciples of John, hence the form of this question. We also take strong note of discipleship: they see Him always returning to prayer, and so they ask to be taught how to do likewise. My study bible says that the request "Lord, teach us to pray" expresses a universal spiritual need.

So He said to them, "When you pray, say: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name." My study bible points out that this prayer as it appears in Matthew's Gospel has a slightly stronger liturgical prayer -- and is the one used in liturgy. But here we begin with Our Father. Jesus includes us all in sonship by adoption, and also in His purpose as His disciples: God's "name" -- meaning all that is extending "in His name" is hallowed also through our actions as disciples. We seek a sacramental life, as we are those "in His name." The form of the prayer is interesting in its use of declarative statements: they are not only prayer but we also learn and grow through a lifetime of repetition of the prayer!

"Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." As disciples, we wish to bring that kingdom into the midst of this world, so that it "breaks through" as it has done with Jesus, with the preparation of John the Baptist, through revelation of many kinds. We hallow God's name, my study bible says, by doing God's will, seeking to bring this heavenly reality into the world. Clearly, we wish to see the kingdom of heaven in this world. All of Jesus' acts have been couched in the notion of spiritual battle, in casting out and having power over the demonic, He also heals us, feeds us, teaches us. So it is the will of God that we seek in order to bring the heavenly reality - the kingdom of heaven - into the world.

Give us day by day our daily bread. Let us think about what feeds us. This word translated as "daily" is epiousios in the Greek, which also means super-substantial, or "essential" in the sense that we are filled with the bread of spiritual sustenance, of the substance of this kingdom of heaven. We need God's word daily, God's teachings as disciples, and more: this also refers to the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is a word coined especially for the Gospels, and appears in no other literature. Perhaps we may best think of it as the sacramental food that we need for each day of our lives: that which brings us the kingdom even in this world, how that may come to us. This word may also be linked grammatically to a word that means "the next day" -- in my own opinion, we can see an allusion to what we look forward to, the future, perhaps even the life of the eighth day, the Resurrection, renewal of the kingdom of heaven in this world and our participation in that life now.

"And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us." I think that to understand forgiveness is perhaps the greatest gift we can be given in seeking God's will on earth. The word for "forgive" in the Greek is to "let go" or "send away." It is precisely like letting go of a debt off of a set of bookkeeping records. It does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the debtor, which is a different word in the Greek. But it does mean that we let things go in the sense that we don't endlessly seek retribution. We don't treat what is bad or evil or abusive as if it were the good, but on the other hand, we want our actions to be guided by what we pray for: the Father's will. Therefore we give up what troubles us to God, and seek God's way for handling all of our worldly situations, even those which harm or hurt us. In this way, we heal through forgiveness, and we help to bring the kingdom to the world. Our primary relationship is to Our Father - and not to those who have harmed or hurt us. We are not slaves to the payment of that debt! In some sense, this action is psychologically linked directly with the "next day" allusion in the word for our "daily bread" -- we look to the future, that gift we are given of a life with God as part of the kingdom in this world. We are not slaves to the past.

"And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." Clearly the problem of evil is essential for us to grasp; Jesus will, of course, suffer and die. Our Lord will be crucified in this world, and He has already faced the devil and the demonic as part of His work in the world. So while we practice forgiveness, what of the problem of evil that will seek to thwart the kingdom? We pray to be led from temptation as we seek to practice forgiveness, and to be delivered from the "evil one" (this is the true form of the world here in the Greek). We ask for God's help in all things, in discipleship, in seeking to hallow God's name in the world.

And He said to them, "Which of you shall have a friend, and go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me on his journey, and I have nothing to set before him'; and he will answer from within and say, 'Do not trouble me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give to you'? I say to you, though he will not rise and give to him because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him as many as he needs." Jesus praises the power of persistence in prayer to Our Father. It's not a one-time thing, just as we pray for our "daily bread" -- we need the sustenance of God each and every day. This is discipleship, as we consider with what food we need to be fed as disciples in this world who seek to work for the kingdom.

"So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. for everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened." In other references in this Gospel and elsewhere, the greatest gift for which we ask is to have the true food of the kingdom, the mysteries and understanding, to be opened up to us. As disciples we seek His Way to bring that kingdom into the world, we seek how we are to live our lives each day as we look to the next, to the future of that kingdom coming into the world through us, in His name. This demand is not just about the purely material -- the prayer has not been about a material-minded life in the world, but is a prayer of discipleship, a sacramental life, filled with the substance or essence of the kingdom, of Our Father. We seek a life lived "in His name."

"If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!" In these words is the affirmation that we seek a holy and blessed life, the life of the kingdom, a fuller initiation day by day into discipleship. A stone in this case can also be something we stumble upon, or hard like a hardened heart -- not the food we need for nurturing and sustenance in our lives. Serpents and scorpions are, in my opinion, references to evil, to the demonic. A "fish" here in the Greek is the root form of the word that would symbolize Christ's identity as Son of God. An egg is the promise of the new life, the life of the "next day." And clearly, the emphasis of the gift of the Holy Spirit teaches us surely that what we seek is the gift of the spiritual life, of blessedness as we lead our lives as disciples in this world. A sacramental life is one in which all of life, and all of the things we do and need and partake of in this world (bread, fish, egg) are also filled with that Spirit, are a gift to the Father. Just as in the Eucharist we seek also that sacramental life as part of His kingdom in this world, that we seek to be brought more fully into this world.

So let us think today about a sacramental life - a life lived in discipleship, returned to God. Forgiveness is a powerful concept that teaches us a part of what it means to daily give up our lives to God, and to seek His food for us. We exchange one life for another, one perspective for another, in the love of that kingdom and that Father. We seek to live in His hallowed name, and to further hallow it, to glorify Him, and we ask the gift of the Spirit to teach us how to do that in a deeper and more powerful sense. How do you give your life to God? With what food do you need to be filled? How is the world transformed through such a life - even all the elements of our life, including the painful ones of the cross we take up daily - and the fuller gift of the Spirit?