Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, once said “If somebody said, give me a summary of Christian faith that I can write on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write out the Lord’s Prayer.”
It is perhaps the only piece of Christian liturgy used by Christians throughout the world, of almost all denominations or none. And while the form of words we use differs in detail from that found in Matthew’s gospel (or in Luke’s slightly shorter version), we all remain more or less true to Jesus’ words.
If you take the Lord’s Prayer bit by bit, take it apart, there’s not a lot in it that was really new, that you wouldn’t find somewhere in the Old Testament or in Jewish prayers known at the time of Jesus. Jesus, in teaching his disciples to pray, drew heavily on the tradition of faith he was part of. So again, as has been the case throughout the sermon on the mount, what we see is Jesus giving his own shape, and his own unique insight, to that tradition.
For one thing that is unique about the prayer is the way that it begins – simply with the address “Our Father. Nothing more elaborate, nothing grander. No “O Lord my God”, as so many of the psalms begin; no “Holy and mighty one” or “God of Abraham and Isaac” – but just an address as to a parent.
It’s the opening words, the salutation, and it puts the whole prayer into context. This is a prayer for God’s family, a prayer for God’s children.
Jesus, of course, consistently referred to God as parent – “I only do what I see my Father doing” – “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father” – “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” – “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”. And here in the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, we are invited to pray in that same way.
And as soon as you’ve said those first words “Our Father” you’ve already said so much. That you share in Jesus’ relationship with God. That you don’t have to work out a relationship with God from scratch, don’t have to climb a long ladder to heaven. That you’ve been invited into this family relationship. That’s the gift that every prayer begins with. The very words we start with tell us a huge amount about who we are as Christians.
Not just who you are as a Christian, either: who we are as Christians. For it is “our Father”, not “my Father”; the invitation of our faith is not just into the father-child relationship with God, but into the messy network of brothers and sisters that makes up family, this crazy mixture of people who may share next to nothing in common beyond the fact that have been drawn by the same call, the same invitation, the same love, to be part of the community of those who, together, call God Father.
But we cannot move on from these opening words without acknowledging that there are those among God’s people, perhaps those amongst us here today, for whom the language of “Father” is a problem, a barrier, a grief; for whom the word is laden with too many broken human meanings or gendered conceptions to be able to bear the weight this prayer places upon it.
Father is a powerful word, but in our love for others and for one another, let us never forget that it is not always powerful in a helpful way, and it is not the only word available to us to describe a loving relationship that draws us into community with one another. Human language can be no more than an imperfect analogy; sometimes, for some of us, “our mother”, “our leader”, “our guru”, “our friend” will be truer to the meaning of Christ’s words than “Father”.
Jesus adds one more phrase to his salutation: “in heaven”. “Our father in heaven”. It’s not like this is needed to avoid ambiguity – I don’t think that Jesus is teaching us to properly address our prayer as we would properly address an envelope, as if God might otherwise be unsure whether this prayer was addressed to God or to some human father.
But in the culture of Jesus’ first followers, far more than for us today, who your Father was determined more than your name or family, more than who you were: it determined your citizenship, where you belonged. Your father’s hometown was your hometown. So, when we continue in the words of the Lord’s Prayer “Our father in heaven”, we’re saying Heaven, God’s place, God’s home is also our home. “Our citizenship”, says St Paul in one of his letters, “is in heaven”; that is, heaven is where we belong.
And if we skip ahead just a little, “your kingdom come”, the line of the prayer that echoes the opening words of Jesus’ public ministry “the kingdom of God is at hand”: that citizenship is not for a future life – or rather, not just for that – but is a reality that we pray and work for, and that can be ours, here and now. Because of Jesus heaven is on earth, in that restored web of relationships that is named the kingdom of God, the family of God, and into that we are invited to enter.
But before we pray those words, we add first “Hallowed be your name” – now that’s one of those phrases that’s most strange to us. It really only makes sense if we set it against the background of the Old Testament understanding of the name of God, the idea that the name of God is not just a label but is something in itself immensely beautiful and powerful and significant. The name of God is God’s word, God’s presence.
And to ask that God’s name be hallowed, that God’s name be looked upon as holy, is to ask that in this world people will understand the presence of God among them with awe and reverence and will not take that presence lightly.
For the presence of God, in our world, in our Church, in our lives, is not something that we should ever treat as if it were unremarkable. God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s strength and guidance, God’s power incrementally changing us – these might be everyday miracles, but we should never forget that they are everyday miracles. Never to be taken lightly, never to be taken for granted, or (worse) treated as if they were our due.
It would be possible to continue through the Lord’s Prayer – every line holds a sermon hidden inside it – but if I haven’t yet worn out your patience, I’m certainly close to the end of mine. So let me close by just bringing together the two deep truths of Christian (and Jewish) theology that lie in this opening line – for together they create a tension, a revelation, that is greater still.
That this God – this holy one, this one to be venerated and approached only with reverent awe and holy hesitancy – is the same one that we are invited to name as Father.
It is the same tension that is to be found elsewhere in our faith, and especially in the mysteries of our faith: that the God omnipresent is also the one incarnate; that the God omnipotent is also the one dying helpless on the cross; that the God all holy is also the one found embracing the sinner.
“Our father in heaven, hallowed by your name”.