Every Sunday we recite the prayer that Jesus is said to have taught his disciples. It’s a prayer that many of us know by heart. There is, of course, a debate as to whether this is a model for us to follow or a prayer to be said as is. There are good arguments on both sides, but my sense is that this really isn’t an either/or situation. Instead, we will be blessed both by using the prayer as a model and by using it as our own prayer to God.
John Calvin suggested that while the form has value, we shouldn’t feel so bound to the form that we’re unable to change a word or syllable. The point is not the form but the meaning, but still the form has great beauty and meaning. And so he writes:
Truly, no other can ever be found that equals this in perfection, much less surpasses it. Here nothing is left out that ought to be thought of in the praises of God, nothing ought to come into man’s mind for his own welfare. And, indeed, it is so precisely framed that hope of attempting anything better is rightly taken away from all men. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, Trans. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960, 3:20:49.).
As Calvin puts it, even in its brevity there is such perfection in the prayer that we cannot surpass it.
Although it may be perfect and complete, the very fact that we recite it every Sunday could lead to it becoming simply rote and stale words that have little or no meaning. And there is spiritual danger in this, for as Jesus says concerning our prayers, don’t “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7). Therefore, so these don’t simply become words quickly mumbled, it is a good thing to occasionally stop and consider the meaning of these words. With that in mind, for six of the next seven Sundays, including Easter, we will attend to the prayer the Lord has taught us.
We will begin our journey with the opening sentence of the prayer: “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven; Hallowed be thy name.” As you can tell from Luke’s version, which we heard this morning, the statement is briefer. Just, “Father” and “Hallowed is your name.” Since Jesus tells us to pray in this way, I want to focus on two points this morning – our address of God as Father and the phrase that follows: “Holy is your name.”
1. Our Father
Although Protestants know this prayer as the Lord’s Prayer, the Orthodox call it the Jesus Prayer and Catholics know it as the “Our Father.” The question is, what does it mean for us to address God as “Our Father?”
Sometime ago, much was made of Jesus’ alleged use of the Aramaic word abba. If you read books on prayer you might find reference to the uniqueness of this usage, and suggestions that Jesus was using an intimate form of address – even that of a young child. Although I believe that we are invited into an intimate relationship with God, biblical scholars have raised significant questions about this usage, its uniqueness and how we should interpret it. It’s important to note that the Aramaic Abba is found only once in the gospels, and that doesn’t include either version of the Lord’s Prayer. In both accounts we will find the Greek word pater, from which we get words like patriarch and patron.
So, what does Jesus mean when he teaches the disciples – and us – to pray to God as our Father? I’d like to start with the word pater or father. To get a sense of what this means, we might want to think in terms of a patron or sponsor. Such an idea would reflect well Jesus’ own context. We’ve been watching Roman history movies lately because of one of Brett’s classes, and one of the themes present in these movies is patronage or adoption into a family. One needn’t be born into a family to have all the rights and responsibilities of a member of the household. One can inherit this by adoption. And in the Roman world, the Emperor was the Great Father of the people. So, one could say that in praying this prayer, the early Christians were signaling that their allegiance was with God, and not the emperor. While they would be obedient members of society, that obedience lasted only as long as it didn’t run contrary to the teachings of their faith. There was, for Christians, only one patron or sponsor, and that was God, who had adopted them into the household of God. So, as we pray this prayer, let us ask ourselves – to whom do we owe our allegiance? To God or to nation, family, or some other identity?
Although Luke doesn’t include the word “our,” Matthew does, and I think that this word is important, because it signals two things – first our faith has a corporate sense, not just an individualistic one. Second this word signals that God has invited us to join the family. When Jesus invites us to pray to “our Father,” he is including himself in that statement. He may be a son by descent, but we are children of God by adoption, and so God is our Father. And turning once more to Calvin, we are reminded that in praying this prayer as children God, we pray knowing that the one who hears our prayers can be trusted. Calvin writes:
By the great sweetness of this name he frees us from all distrust, since no greater feeling of love can be found elsewhere than in the Father. Therefore he could not attest his own boundless love toward us with any surer proof than the fact that we are called "children of God" (1 John 3:1). (Institutes, 3:20:36)
Pushing this a bit further, in his letter to the Romans, Paul says that having been freed from the spirit of slavery we can now cry out “Abba Father,” because the Spirit is speaking through us giving witness to our adoption as children of God. Yes, it would appear that Paul doubles-down on this relationship by combining the Aramaic Abba with the Greek Pater, to emphasize this change in status. Therefore, when we address God as our Father – recognizing the gender related problems inherent in that confession, we give thanks that God has adopted us into the family, making us “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:15-18). Whatever promises are made to Jesus, our elder brother, are made to us, and we can receive them in trust, knowing that God’s love for us is infinite in character and breadth. Therefore, we need not be anxious about anything (Phil. 4:6).
2. Holy Is Your Name
Having addressed God as “Our Father,” we turn to the first petition of the prayer, asking that God’s name would be made holy in our lives. This petition reflects the commandment, which was given to the people of Israel at Sinai –
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. (Deut. 5:11).
The commandment speaks of respect, reverence, and honor, and this sense is present as well in Jesus’ teaching on prayer. Perhaps this is why he says that we should pray in secret and not think that the wordiness of our prayers will impress God (Matt 6:5-8). Both the commandment and the instructions remind us that when we pray, our focus is directed toward God.
This sense of holiness and awesomeness, which is present in the prayer, is also picked up in our opening hymn. This hymn reflects the heavenly worship described in Isaiah 6 (Isa. 6:1-8) and again in Revelation 4 (Rev. 4:8-11). The hymn speaks of rising early in the morning to declare one’s allegiance to the God who is merciful and mighty, and to whom we bow in worship.
To get a sense of what is meant by this phrase, we might turn to Isaiah 6, where we find the prophet being overwhelmed by his vision of God’s throne. As the prophet envisions the heavenly scene, all that’s on his mind is his own unworthiness to stand before God. Or, as the hymn puts it – only God is holy, and whatever holiness we might attain is derivative, coming forth from our relationship with this living God.
As we consider the prayer and what we mean by these words, the phrase “holy is your name,” helps qualify our sense of being in relationship with God. I do believe that God desires an intimate relationship with us, for God is Love. But, this relationship also is rooted in God’s holiness. Consider that when God appears to Moses in Sinai in the form of a burning bush, God said to Moses
“Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place in which you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex. 3:4-5).
That is, not only is the heavenly realm holy, but since God dwells amongst us, the very ground we tread is holy ground. It is, as Michael Crosby, a Catholic priest, puts it:
If God’s name is going to be made holy on earth as it is in heaven, the consecration of God’s presence or name must begin in the ground of our being. In the power of this name everything in our house – be it at the individual, interpersonal, and infrastructural level – must be honored; everything that profanes that name must be resisted. Such is the task of those who belong to the household of that God whose holy name is revealed in the I Am. (Michael Crosby, The Prayer that Jesus Taught Us, Orbis, 2002, pp. 61-62)
God’s name is made holy, not just in our words, but in our very lives. It is for this reason, that even though our relationship with God might be intimate in nature, it isn’t one of equals, lest we seek to take advantage of God’s name and profane that name in the way we live.
With the prophet, we may my cry out to God, seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness, so that we might live anew this petition, that God’s name might be hallowed in our lives. And if God’s name is made holy, then with the prophet we may experience great joy and find our calling in life. With this as our starting point, we can continue the journey through this prayer, contemplating its meaning for our lives.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
First Sunday of Lent
February 21, 2010