A sermon offered on the First Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; and Luke 21:25-36. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)
Perhaps you’ve heard about the recent advertisement that the Church of England wants to run in cinemas in the United Kingdom. It’s part of a campaign which includes the Church’s new website called justpray.uk (not to be confused with justpray.org) and which was conceived to encourage the British simply to offer prayer everyday. The website includes instructions and suggested short prayers. The advertisement is a video of a several people saying the Lord’s Prayer, each person or group shown says or sings a word or phrase of the prayer beginning with his Grace, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and including people of different races and ages in a variety of settings.
It’s just 54 seconds of the Lord’s Prayer. The advertisement was to begin running this week. The trade organization for United Kingdom cinemas, however, has declared the Lord’s Prayer unsuitable for screening. They believe it carries the risk of upsetting or offending audiences. This, in a country which, unlike the United States, is officially Christian, a country which has an established church and whose head of state is also the temporal head of that established Christian church.
Now, let it be admitted that I’m a liberal when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of commerce, and part of my liberal-ness means that I believe it’s entirely within a cinema owner’s rights to decline to screen anything he or she determines not to screen, including advertisements, including religious advertisements, including religious advertisements by the established church. On the other hand, as a churchman, I believe it is the church’s duty, not merely its right, to teach about prayer, to teach the Lord’s Prayer, in every place possible. In this instance, these two sets of rights and obligations come into direct conflict and, as much I applaud the CofE’s effort, I have to side with the cinema owners. The have the right to decline to show the advert and, furthermore, they are correct: the Lord’s Prayer is offensive!
As one British commentator put it, “The Lord’s Prayer is not mild, inoffensive, vanilla, listless, nominal, wishy-washy or wallpapery. If you don’t worship the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, in fact, it is deeply subversive, upsetting and offensive, from the first phrase to the last.” (Wilson, Andrew, The Lord’s Prayer Advert Has Been Banned For Being Offensive – Which It Is)
I think it was Mae West who said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and Oscar Wilde once quipped, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” This kerfuffle over the justpray.uk advert is getting the Church of England and the Lord’s Prayer talked about in Britain, probably more so than if the ad had run without objection from the trade association! That can’t be anything other than a good thing.
Interestingly, I had decided, before the English advertising issue cropped up this week, to do a sermon series for this Advent season about the Lord’s Prayer, because I do believe we need to understand it better. It’s become, for many of us, such a matter of rote memory that we say the words without really engaging with them. So for Advent, we’ll be using the second translation of the prayer, the so-called “contemporary” version, which is actually truer to the text of the prayer as Matthew and Luke record it in their gospels. Using words that are other than . . . slightly different from . . . those our automatic brains and mouths are used to saying will call them to our attention.
So let’s begin with some history about the Lord’s Prayer. First, of all, it’s not really “the Lord’s Prayer.” It’s not a prayer that we have any record of Jesus saying; it is the prayer Jesus taught his followers to say – it might better be called “the Disciple’s Prayer.” In the oldest Anglican prayer books, the presiding priest introduced the prayer saying, “As our Saviour Christ hath commanded and taught us, we are bold to say . . . .” Bishop N.T. Wright points out that this introduction stresses that the prayer is “a command and its use [is] a daring, trembling, holy boldness,” but he notes that it is also “an invitation to share in the prayer-life of Jesus himself.” (The Lord’s Prayer as a Paradigm of Christian Prayer, in Longenecker, R.L., ed., Into God’s Presence: Prayer in the New Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids:2001, p 132)
As I mentioned earlier, the Lord’s Prayer is found in two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke. However, their two versions are not identical, nor is either the same as the liturgical form familiar to us, either the one we are more used to or the newer form added in the 1979 Prayer Book. Here is Matthew’s version (as translated in the NRSV):
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
And this is Luke’s (from the same translation):
Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.
As you can see, they are very different. Luke’s is shorter, having no mention of the doing of God’s will, nor any petition for rescue from “the evil one.” Matthew’s addresses God more familiarly as “our” Father, but distances God by specifically placing God “in heaven;” Matthew’s version thus witnesses to both the immanence and the transcendence of deity. There are differences in verb tenses and slight differences in emphases; for example, Matthew’s prayer petitions for bread “this day,” while Luke’s asks for bread “each day.” Most strikingly, perhaps, are the petitions for forgiveness: Matthew’s seeks forgiveness of “debts,” while Luke’s seeks absolution of “sins.” The differing English words reflect the use of two different Greek words for transgressions, which I will discuss in a later sermon. And, I suppose, most surprising to many Christians is that neither Matthew nor Luke include what is known as “the power-and-glory clause,” the concluding doxology that rolls so easily from our tongues; that doxology was added in a late First Century church text called The Didache, or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.”
We know from archaeological evidence that the Lord’s Prayer was being said regularly by Jewish Christians in their synagogues as early as 70AD and from The Didache that the Lord’s Prayer was part of Gentile Christian practice, as well. In fact, The Didache enjoins the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (with the doxology which it adds) three times each day!
Two significant early church theologians, Origen and Tertullian, both taught “that the Lord’s prayer is a sketch or an outline for prayer. Origen, for example, says concerning this prayer: ‘And first of all we must note that Matthew and Luke might seem to most people to have recorded the same prayer, providing a pattern of how to pray.’ Origen summarizes what an outline on prayer should be: praise, thanksgiving, confession and petition. The prayer should be concluded with a doxology. Likewise, Tertullian indicates that the Lord’s prayer embraces ‘the characteristic functions of prayer, the honor of God and the petitions of man.’” (Kistemaker, S.J., The Lord’s Prayer in the First Century, in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, V. 21, No. 4, Dec. 1978, 327-28, citations omitted.)
So, now, let’s take a look at this prayer, its opening words of praise and its first petition: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
Right off the bat, Jesus invites (or, as the old Prayer Book said, commands) us to enter into the same “intimate, familial approach to the Creator” which characterized his own spirituality. (Wright) It gives us a sense of identity; it tells us who we are in relationship to God. As the bishop who ordained me like to say, “It tells us not only who we are, but whose we are.” We are not disconnect bits of matter existing in time and space separated from all other bits of matter; it asserts that humanity is not fragmented, but related one to another in that same intimate and familial way that Jesus and the Father are related. “We are created and loved and called into friendship with God who is our father and into community with our fellow human beings who are therefore our sisters and brothers,” wrote Dr. Steven Croft in an essay answering the cinema owners. “Only someone who has found this new identity can stand against the advertising culture which night and day seduces us to define who we are by what we spend.” (Seven Reasons to Ban the Lord’s Prayer)
But this isn’t any old father. This Father is “in heaven” and his name is “hallowed.” This is a typically Jewish affirmation of the holiness of God; in fact, to the most devout of Jews the Name of God is so holy that they will not even attempt to pronounce it. Whenever they encounter it in Scripture, they substitute the Hebrew word haShem, which means “the Name.” We Christians are not so reticent to name God, but in Jesus’ Jewish tradition we hallow God’s name. As the privilege to address God as “our Father” reminds us of God’s immanence, God’s intimate closeness with us, so the hallowing of God’s Name reminds us that God is transcendent: God is above, other than, and distinct from all that God has made.
The first petition of the prayer is “Your kingdom come.” This petition is the very heart of the season of Advent which we begin today; the longing desire and expectation for the final coming of the kingdom of God – “We await his coming in glory,” as we will affirm in our Eucharistic prayer this morning. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations . . .” (Lk 21:25) These will, he says, be signs that the kingdom of God is near. In Mark’s Gospel a couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus’ warning, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.” (Mk 13:7) These are signs that the kingdom is near, but they are not signs of its coming; they are, instead, the signs of endings – the ending of the kingdom of division, the ending of the kingdom of hatred, the ending of the kingdom where children go hungry, the ending of the kingdom where airliners are bombed out of the sky, the ending of the kingdom where restaurant patrons and concert goers are blown up, the ending of the kingdom where men with guns shoot up women’s health care clinics – “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” (Lk 21:10-11) But these are not the signs of the kingdom for whose coming we pray; we do not pray for the coming of a kingdom of distress, a kingdom of war, a kingdom of destruction or famine or plague.
The signs of the coming of the kingdom of God are those Jesus commended to messengers from John the Baptist who came asking “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus told them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (Lk 7:19,22) These are the signs of the kingdom for whose coming we pray: light and healing and good news. The kingdom whose coming we await is characterized by the cardinal virtues: “Faith, hope, and love . . . these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13) We pray for the coming of a kingdom of faith, a kingdom of hope, a kingdom of love . . . most of all for a kingdom of love.
Which brings us to the next petition and last that we will consider today: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” “The will of God, to which the law gives expression,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “is that men should defeat their enemies by loving them.” (The Cost of Discipleship, Touchstone, New York:1995, p 147) Love is the will of God. Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment might be. His answer was, “Love” – “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mt 22:37-40)
Love is the will of God for which we pray; love is the will of God which we are commanded to do. “All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness,” declared the Psalmist. The will of God for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer is that we be given the grace and power walk those paths.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your Name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Amen.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.