— Andrew McKearney’s sermon for Sunday 22-March, on the Lords Prayer —
We come now to the last of our four key texts that we’ve been looking at this Lent – the Beatitudes, the Summary of the Law, the Creed, and today, the Lord’s Prayer.
Every religious teacher has at some point taught their disciples to pray. John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray, though nowhere is his teaching on prayer ever recorded. With Jesus we are more fortunate. Alongside a number of occasions when we overhear Jesus himself praying, we also have the only prayer that he actually taught his disciples, the prayer that we’ve come to call the Lord’s Prayer.
It has come down to us in two versions, one in Matthew and one in Luke. Mark and John never mention it, nowhere in Paul or in any of the other letters is it quoted.
Behind these two versions that we have lies a history that includes translation from Aramaic to Greek and also use in the worship of the early church before any gospels came to be written. Matthew and Luke place the prayer in different contexts, Matthew whom we heard from this morning, as part of the Sermon on the Mount, Luke on the way to Jerusalem. The intention with which it is given in each of the two gospels is slightly different too. And while it is recognisably the same prayer, the differences are particularly striking when you hear Luke’s version.
So here is Luke’s version:
“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.”
So not exactly the same as in Matthew, but do the exact words matter? I don’t think so. And the reason is that it is a model that Jesus offers us, a set of themes rather than a fixed prayer.
Michael Ramsey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote:
“‘Pray like this’, says Jesus…and this we can do
with heart and mind and imagination focussed upon
the Father, the Kingdom, the will, the daily bread,
the forgiveness of sins and the deliverance from evil.
‘Pray like this’.”
And that is what Christians have done for nearly 2,000 years!
It is astonishing to think of the range of different people who have used this prayer over the last 2,000 years and in such a variety of contexts – people terrified in battle, a king dying a peaceful death, a monk in a chapel, a couple getting married, a criminal awaiting the gallows, congregations Sunday by Sunday, at every funeral. And in our own lives, we too will have prayed this prayer in a whole range of different situations and contexts.
It’s the only prayer that we know that Jesus taught his disciples; and while it may never have been intended as a compendium of Christian prayer, nevertheless over the centuries, that is what it has become. Saint Augustine, when asked for instruction on prayer, wrote:
“And if you go over all the words of holy prayer, you
will, I believe, find nothing which cannot be
comprised and summed up in the petitions of the
So the majority of the great Christian thinkers and teachers have at some point written about the Lord’s Prayer – Saint Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa writing about 400 AD – the former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, writing a short book on the Lord’s Prayer in 1996.
And there’s an incredible richness of thought and devotion which we unknowingly are part of whenever we say this prayer. Tom Wright at the beginning of his book writes:
“When you take these words on your lips you stand
on hallowed ground.”
There’s a very moving example of this in the poet Edwin Muir’s autobiography of what happened when he took the words of the Lord’s Prayer on his lips and found himself standing on hallowed ground. I’ve referred to it before but it bears repetition.
Just before the Second World War Edwin Muir was living at St Andrew’s in Scotland. It was not a happy period of his life, made worse when his wife fell ill and went into a nursing home. He wasn’t a religious man yet this was what happened one evening when he returned from the nursing home where she now was. He wrote in his diary:
“Last night going to bed alone I suddenly found myself (I was taking off my waistcoat) reciting the Lord’s Prayer in a loud emphatic voice, a thing I had not done for so many years, with deep urgency and profound disturbed emotion. While I went on I grew more composed. As if it had been empty and craving and were being replenished my soul grew still. Every word had a strange fullness and meaning which astonished and delighted me. It was late; I had sat up reading and I was sleepy but as I stood in the middle of the floor half undressed saying the prayer over and over, meaning after meaning sprang from it, overcoming me again with joyful surprise; and I realised that this simple petition was always universal, and always inexhaustible, and day by day sanctified human life.”
It’s a most moving account of this poet, caring for his wife as she comes to the end of her life, discovering the huge depths of this prayer as he stood half undressed one evening before going to bed:
day by day sanctifying human life.”
This has been the experience of using the Lord’s Prayer. And thinkers and writers, theologians and mystics have all tried in different ways to explain how the Lord’s Prayer, which is so brief, can carry such a depth of meaning.
Tertullian, in about 200 AD wrote the first known commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. He was an African theologian and he noticed that this prayer:
“In proportion as it is restrained in wording, so it is
copious in meaning.”
In modern jargon we would say something like “less is more”!
Cyprian, another north African theologian much influenced by Tertullian, wrote in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer:
“What wonder, dearly beloved brethren, if the prayer
which God taught us is of such character, for by his
teaching he abridged all our prayer in wholesome
How then does such an abridged prayer work? How come less is more?
Tertullian explained this depth of the Lord’s Prayer when he wrote that it embraces:
“as it were the whole of the Lord’s discourse, the
whole record of his instruction: so that without
exaggeration there is comprised in the prayer an
epitome of the entire gospel.”
The trouble is Tertullian was prone to exaggeration! There are obvious features of the gospel that aren’t present in the Lord’s Prayer – Christ’s death and resurrection, for instance.
But what Tertullian is suggesting, and I think he is right in this, is that the Lord’s Prayer works so well and has such depth because it sums up, in a concentrated way, Jesus’ own life of prayer.
Many aspects of Jesus’ life lead back to a clause or a phrase in the Lord’s Prayer; and equally a clause or a phrase in the Lord’s Prayer leads out from the prayer and touches in a number of places Jesus’ life and teaching.
Take that simplest of phrases in the Lord’s Prayer:
“your will be done”.
The doing of God’s will was a central theme in Jesus’ ministry.
When once Jesus’ mother and brothers were wanting to see him and they couldn’t because of the crowd surrounding him, Jesus used the opportunity to stress how provisional earthly ties are and how total our allegiance to God must be:
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asks.
“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and
sister and mother.”
Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cried out:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will
enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who
does the will of my father in heaven.”
Doing the Father’s will is what leads Jesus to journey from Galilee to Jerusalem together with his fearful disciples. There in that holy city not just an echo but some of the words of the Lord’s Prayer are heard on Jesus’ own lips in the Garden of Gethsemane. The prayer that he had taught his disciples is now very much his prayer:
“Abba, Father, for you all things are possible;
remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but
what you want”.
Jesus’ life culminates in this prayer in the garden before his betrayal and arrest. There he subordinates his will to his Father, just as he has taught us to do in the prayer that he has given us:
“your will be done.”
The Lord’s Prayer: as we use this prayer we are sharing in the same life of prayer that inspired Jesus. Pray like this – focus on God, his kingdom and doing his will – don’t ever forget the importance of forgiveness – and stay close to your own needs and the needs of the world.
“Pray like this”, Jesus says to us.
When we do, we too shall find, as Edwin Muir did, that we are standing on hallowed ground.
Some questions for reflection which you can discuss with others at IFFLEY DAILY
- Have there been any places or occasions that you can recall when you have recited the Lord’s Prayer with special significance?
- Have you found that your soul has grown still reciting the Lord’s Prayer?
- When you pray this prayer do you feel that you are standing on hallowed ground?
- Why do you think the Lord’s Prayer has such depth?