Text: Luke 11:1-13 (Jesus teaches his friends how to pray)
Prayer holds a central place in the life of people the world over. And yet, it remains a puzzle to many of us. As such, we may identify with Jesus’ friends when they say to Jesus, “Rabbi, teach us to pray.”
Like them, we may want to know why Jesus prays and why it is important to him. We may want to know to whom we should direct our prayers and what we should expect from those prayers. We may also wonder what will happen if we don’t pray and what benefits will come to us if we do.
In the text we heard from Luke this morning, Jesus responds by giving his friends one of the three sources of the prayer that Protestants call “The Lord’s Prayer” and Catholics call the “Our Father.”
The version of the prayer we just heard from Luke is the shortest. A longer version is found in Matthew 6. The longest is from a First Century book called the Didache, or the Teaching of the 12 Apostles. It includes the ending “for yours is the power and the glory forever,” which is used by many Protestants.
Despite the differences between these three sources, The Lord’s Prayer is probably the most unifying element of Christian worship. In fact, it is so well-known that we might be surprised when we look at it more closely.
I included the following quote about the prayer in the “What’s the Buzz” e-newsletter on Thursday and today’s bulletin: “The Lord’s Prayer is said by all Christians, but it never mentions Christ. It is prayed in all churches, but it never mentions church . . . It is called ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ but it never mentions ‘Lord.’ . . . It is prayed by Christians who split from one another over this or that doctrine, but it never mentions a single one of those doctrines.”
The quote is from a 2010 book called “The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer” by the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan.
The quote from Crossan continues as follows: “The Lord’s Prayer is prayed by fundamentalist Christians but it never mentions the inspired inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the miracles, the atoning death or bodily resurrection of Christ. It is prayed by evangelical Christians, but it never mentions the evangelium, or gospel.
It is prayed by Pentecostal Christians, but it never mentions ecstasy or the Holy Spirit. It is prayed by Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Roman Catholic Christians, but it never mentions congregation, priest, bishop or pope. It is prayed by Christians who focus on Christ’s substitutionary sacrificial atonement for human sin, but it never mentions Christ, substitution, sacrifice, atonement, or sin.
It is prayed by Christians who focus on the next life in heaven or in hell, but it never mentions the next life, heaven, or hell. It is prayed by Christians who emphasize things the prayer never mentions and also prayed by Christians who ignore what it does mention.”
Despite being short, the Prayer that Jesus taught his friends contains many elements. Today, I focus only on its first word. In the translation we heard this morning, “Pater,” the first word in Luke’s Greek version, is translated as “Abba God” and not “Father” as is often the case. “Abba” is an Aramaic word that means “Dad” or “Daddy.” This translation helps connect it with the prayer that Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14) and with two places in Paul’s letters in which he also prays to “Abba” (Galatians 4:6 and Romans 8:15)
In his book, Crossan notes — quite sensibly, I believe — that the only word that can ever be used to refer to God in a literal way is the word “God.”
Crossan also notes — quite reasonably, I believe — that “Abba” and “Father” are metaphors for God. As such, they need not imply that God is a male being who is gendered in the way that human beings are gendered. Instead, the word “Father” suggests that we are dependent on God as our Source in the same way that children depend on their parents for their existence and safety.
In today’s baptism of Isabella, I used the male-centered formula “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” I did so because the United Church of Canada has an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church that this formula must be used if our baptisms are to be mutually recognized.
I might prefer to say something like “God the Source, God the Healer, and God the Spirit.” But so far, I haven’t been bold enough to deviate from the rule.
The use of Father as a metaphor for God became controversial with the rise of feminism over the last 50 years.
I am pleased that when this congregation says the Prayer of Jesus we start with the words “Our Father, Our Mother.” This practice undercuts the notion that males are superior to females and it highlights that we are speaking of God metaphorically.
In his book, Crossan notes that Jesus could have used Monarch or Judge as a metaphor for God instead of Father. Thinking of our Higher Power as an ideal parent can be a comfort to many of us.
There are other ways to think about a Higher Power. Natural and human history are part of our Source as are physical forces like gravity and electromagnetism.
Some people see God as a Supreme Being among lesser beings. To me, this seems restrictive. I prefer to think of God as the very Ground of Being, Life, and Love. But regardless of what enters our hearts and minds when we use the word God, there is no doubt that we are dependent on a Source absolutely greater than us.
When I pray, I turn my attention to this Source to remind myself of how fragile and dependent I am and how thankful I am that all that is sacred about our small selves is eternally secure within that Source.
Prayer reminds me of the beauty of reality. It is shot through with light, grace and love despite all the difficulties we encounter in daily living.
Crossan’s book has much more to say about the Prayer of Jesus. It is filled with ideas about justice and love and how to navigate the contradictory threads in the Bible to motivate our work in family and community. I recommend it.
For now, I pray that when we participate in sacraments like baptism and communion and when we turn in need to our Source, we remember what Jesus taught us. Abba God is like an ideal Parent, a Great Spirit that lead us home to the Love from which we came.
May it be so. Amen