The Prayer of the Kingdom
Ordinary Sunday 17: 25th July, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
The Lord's Prayer is the most famous of all Christian prayers. And yet, there are those who have great difficulty in calling God 'Father'. Often, this is because their only frame of reference is a silent, absent, perhaps even abusive, impossible-to-please father. The very word 'father' carries horrible connotations for them.
We should sympathize with this problem. Sadly, it is very real for many Christians. In teaching his disciples to call on God as Father, it is important to understand that Jesus has the perfect Father in mind. That is the reason for adding the qualifier, 'Our Father in heaven'. We are not to confuse God the Father with our earthly fathers, who invariably fail their children, sometimes dramatically.
Jesus is aware of this problem and it is significant that in Luke's account he immediately follows the so-called 'Lord's Prayer' by asking — 'Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him'. (Luke 11:11-13). Fr Brendan Byrne drives the point of this comparison home when he says that Jesus is not here telling his disciples about God, he is helping them to feel very deeply about God's love, and then he says, "That — multiplied a thousand and more times over — is how God feels about you! It is in the light of this knowledge that you should come before God in prayer."
But the prayer is not all about getting things from God. In his helpful little book, The Papa Prayer, Dr Larry Crabb points out how subtly and easily, self-interest rules in our prayer life. He says, 'In our busy life, our prayers pretty much consist of one-liner pleas for help: "God, keep my kids from drugs'; 'God let the doctor find no cancer'; 'God, don't let the deal fall through'; 'God, let my wife's plane land safely". Without realizing it, we've seen God as an ally in our purposes. We've lost sight of the fact that God sees us as an ally in His. "God give me the life I want" has become the theme of our prayers'.
It's not that petitionary prayer is unimportant. Our problem is often that we don't ask enough. It is sometimes said that we should not bring our shopping list of requests to God. I regard that as poor advice. The average Christian's problem is that their shopping list is far too short.
But our requests need to conform to God's will and that is why we must first seek God's face. It's not getting things from God but getting God that must come first. We must take good note of the sequence of the Lord's prayer.
In this respect, it sets the pattern for all our praying. Whether in private or public, you can never outdo praying along the lines of this model prayer that Jesus taught his disciples.
Luke has a shorter form of the prayer. We will look at the form in Matthew's 'Sermon on the Mount' that is the longer version that we say or sing in our liturgy.
Its overall structure is in two parts. The first half of the prayer is relational. It's about seeking God's face in aspirations. The second half of the prayer is petitional — seeking God's hands for our human needs.
A. Seeking God's Face
The first half of the prayer consists of an opening triad of aspirations that orientate us towards God. These are the three 'you' petitions — your name is to be hallowed; your rule or reign is to be extended and your will is to be obeyed.
Once again, it is important to notice that each of these three petitions is qualified by the phrase 'on earth as in heaven'. As Richard Bauckham has pointed out, 'presently God's name is perfectly hallowed, his rule perfectly obeyed, and his will absolutely done in heaven, but all are neglected or contested on Earth.'
We pray this prayer between one and the other. The 'new creation' has already begun in Jesus' life, death, resurrection, ascension and the sending of the Spirit. Our prayer is that we might make it happen all around.
The Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, makes a habit of asking, 'How many Christians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Jesus has already changed it; it's your job to go and switch it on'. We work and pray to grow God's Kingdom on earth between the fulfilment that has already happened and the fulfilment that is yet to happen. The Lord's Prayer is a Kingdom prayer of hope that has an ecological dimension, often overlooked in Christian spirituality.
The coupling of 'heaven' and 'earth' ought to evoke in our minds the thought of the whole creation. Again to quote Richard Bauckham, 'The Kingdom of God does not come in order to extract people from the rest of creation, but to renew the whole creation in accordance with God's perfect will for it'.
This means that a priority of prayer is to listen. To listen so that, even if we find ourselves slipping into 'we' petitions by asking for what we want, worrying about our little name; our own little empire; and our own silly little will — we shall be open, as we pray, to have the Spirit reshape the content of our prayer to bring it into harmony with our Lord's concern for God's name; God's Kingdom and God's will.
We are first to seek God's face in a triad of aspirations.
B. Seeking God's Hands for our Human Needs
In this half of the prayer there is another triad, this time, not 'you' aspirations but 'we' petitions, expressing our essential needs — 'Give us; forgive us; deliver us'. God is concerned for our total welfare — physical, moral and spiritual.
The first petition is for present material needs — 'give us today our daily bread'.
The need of 'bread' was deeply etched in the corporate memory of Israel from their experience in the wilderness and the provision of manna.
'Bread' represents the necessities rather than the luxuries of life. It is a symbol of everything necessary for the preservation of this life and it is an expression of our ultimate dependence on God. As Rowan Williams puts it, 'it is a prayer to be reminded of our need: let us never forget, we pray, that we have to be fed, and that we cannot generate for ourselves all we need to live and flourish. And at the same time, it is a prayer that we shall not be ashamed of our mortality, our physical and vulnerable being. ... Praying for our daily bread is praying to be reacquainted with our vulnerability'.
This is how one person expresses her utter dependence on God each day: 'Lord, this is my day. These are my tasks, and these are my problems. Please just be there and get me through it well and graciously. Got to go — we'll have a longer chat later'.
But this is not just a petition for ourselves. It is an intercession for the many who, like those who come each day to our Breakfast program here at St Peter's, need help. To pray to God to give the disadvantaged their 'daily breakfast' and then fail to accompany that prayer with action and support aimed at doing all that is within our power to bring about the answer to our prayer, is to condemn ourselves as hypocritical and to insult the One to whom our prayer is addressed.
The second petition is for our past moral failures — 'forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us'.
The Christian can address God as 'Father' yet only as one who stands in need of forgiveness. Forgiveness is as indispensable to the life and health of the soul as food is for the body. We come before God praying, 'Have mercy on me a sinner'. The wonder of it all, is that the Lord forgives our recurring sins — not 7 times but 70 times 7!
This petition also reminds us that one of the chief evidences of true sorrow for sin is a forgiving spirit towards others — not withdrawal from those who have offended us, but forgiveness that breaks the cycle of retaliation and hatred. Once we see how much God has forgiven us, we can often see how trifling in comparison are the sins that others have done to us.
And the third petition is to be preserved in the future from falling into future spiritual quagmires — 'save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil'.
Fr Gerald O'Collins makes an apt comment on this petition when he says, 'Reports on terrorist activities make it clear that the final petition of the 'Our Father' has lost nothing of its daily relevance. Reports on the environmental crisis also illustrate how timely that petition is. ... The environmental crisis has given a new edge to the prayer 'deliver us from evil', and to the drastic corrective actions that Christians and other human beings must take if we are to survive'.
Here then, are three petitions in which we bring the whole of our life before the whole of God. They cover, in principle, all human need — material (daily bread), spiritual (forgiveness of sins) and moral (rescue from the time of trial). As we pray this prayer, we express our dependence on God in every area of our life.
Many see here also an allusion to the Trinity because it is through the Father's creation that we receive our daily bread; through the Son's death on the cross that we are forgiven; and through the Spirit's indwelling power that we are saved from the evil one.
A generation Y Christian has summed up the Lord's Prayer, as you might expect, with a mobile phone text:
'God@heaven.org You rule, up and down. We need grub and a break. Will pass it on. Keep us focused. You totally rule, long term. Amen'.
That's it in a nutshell. This is a 'Kingdom Prayer' that encapsulates the essence of the teaching of Jesus in his parables and actions.
We seek God's face first in a triad of aspirations — the 'you' petitions — that 'Your name may be honoured', 'Your Kingdom extended' and 'Your will may be done'. We seek from God's hands in a triad of direct petitions — the 'we' petitions — food, forgiveness and deliverance.
First things and second things begin to sort themselves out, and we pray differently. We want different things. We want what God wants. We pray for first things with confidence and for second things with relaxed hope.
Again to quote Dr Larry Crabb, 'Whether my cancer comes back, whether I feel alive and vital and full of excitement — everything I want besides God is a second thing, legitimate in its place but an idol if it climbs into a higher place than God and God's glory'. Getting God is worth infinitely more than getting the things we want from God.
The sequence of the Lord's pattern prayer teaches us that the power of petitionary prayer depends on the priority of relational prayer. Relate comes before request. Seeking first God's face in relationship and then God's hands for our needs. It's a prayer that helps us put first things first, and to keep second things out of first place and in second place where they belong. This Kingdom Prayer rearranges our values.
May we treasure it and say or sing it with genuine devotion.
 Dr Larry Crabb, The Papa Prayer p.24.
 Op. cit., p.19.
 Op. cit., p.67.