A focus for faithfulness

The church to which I belong is going through a crisis: its membership is so diminished in numbers and income that it cannot any longer support the large number of constituent parish churches which provided Christian ministry throughout Scotland. Congregations are closing, uniting or being linked with others, and ministers of word and sacrament spread more thinly over the land. There are many causes for this, the most important of which is that not many citizens, especially not many under the age of fifty, are any longer believers; and even those sympathetic to faith show little desire to worship regularly or to support the church financially. The Church has responded honestly and creatively to this crisis, without however communicating to its members any focus of faithfulness other than participation in the re-ordering of local ministries. Perhaps it expects its local ministers to provide this.

I’ve asked myself, if at my advanced age (79) I have anything to offer the congregation to which I presently minister on Sundays. I think that some simple means of asserting individual and communal identity as believers, of living out that identity from day to day, and of imagining the future of faith, would be helpful.

My suggestion is that such a focus can be found in the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father, which has a number of advantages:

1. Almost all believers know it and use it.

2. It comes from Jesus.

3. It is a prayer, rather than a programme.

4. It is personal as well as communal.

5. St. Tertulian (b 165 AD) called it a “compendium of the Gospel.”

Obviously, all these advantages depend on how we pray it and how we understand it. I recommend that we pray it individually or with our families every day, and with our fellow believers once a week. But immediately there is an issue about what version of it we should use. Church tradition has selected the version found in The Gospel of Matthew chapter 6 verses 9-13, but then there is another question about what translation is best. Although older versions are well-known, it surely must be time to to use a modern one, or to alter our traditional versions to incorporate the results of modern scholarship. This is especially true of the familiar words, “ lead us not into temptation” where the modern meaning of “temptation” seriously misrepresents the Greek “peirasmon” which primarily means “testing” or “trial”. The best easily available modern version of the Prayer is the New Jerusalem Bible:

“Our Father in heaven, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us. And do not put us to the test, but save us from the Evil One.”

It is right to keep the language of “debts” which is broader than that of “sins” or “wrongs.” “Daily bread” is an arguable translation, and “the bread we need” might be better. Other good translations can be found in the REB, GNB, NRSV. I consider the concept of testing or trial essential to the meaning of the prayer, linking it to Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, and to his own testing by Satan.

So, ok, we have a useable translation of the prayer. Our next move might be to invite churchgoers to study it over a period of 6 weeks, during which they would meet once a week using the study material provided while praying the prayer every day, feeding their experience of it into the study. Seeing that the prayer is Jesus’ gift to every disciple, it will be vital to encourage every person to contribute to the discussion, and to record contributions briefly in each study session.

SESSION 1 THE BIBLICAL CONTEXT

Gospel writers used sources of information about Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark and also a collection of the Saying of Jesus, probably in written form. They both freely made changes to their source material as they thought fit, and added other information from other sources.

Matthew was particularly concerned to set the ministry of Jesus in a Jewish context, and to depict him as promised by Holy Scripture and greater than the teachers and prophets who had gone before him. He often compares him to Moses, not least by dividing his gospel into five sections, in imitation of the Pentateuch, the five Books of Moses.

The Sermon on the Mount is a compendium of Jesus’ teaching placed by Matthew in a particular place and time. Probably his sources gave him the material and he invented an appropriate setting. He puts Jesus on a mountain because he wants to compare with Moses at Sinai, bringing the Law from God. Here Jesus brings teaching for the new people of God. Luke sets this teaching on a plain, because he wants to emphasise Jesus’ presence amongst the people. Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is found at Luke 11:1-4, which is not part of the sermon on the plain. If you look you can see it only has 5 petitions, whereas Matthew has 7. It seems more likely that Matthew added to the source material than that Luke cut bits out. Matthew’s additions are a) your will be done etc. and b) save us from the Evil One, both of which explain the meaning of what goes before. The ending of the prayer in our usage- for yours is the kingdom etc. – does not belong to the original prayer in either gospel, but was added by the early church assemblies.

Jesus’ prayer draws from the Jewish Bible, as you might expect. The “name” of God was Yahwe, which was once used in prayer, but it became so holy that it could not be spoken at all. To do so was considered blasphemous. The kingdom or rule of God, was first of all Yahwe seen as ruler of the tribes of Israel when they had no king, then as the ruler of the king, and then gradually as the true ruler of the world. His kingdom is not a place, but an active persuasion towards justice, peace and goodness.

SESSION 2 THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The ancient manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel give no information about the author or the circumstances of its composition. Scholars have had to use a certain amount of guesswork to arrive at tentative conclusions. Mark’s Gospel refers to the destruction of the Jewish Temple and is therefore dated after 70 CE when the Romans put down a Jewish rebellion and destroyed their temple. Matthew used a copy of Mark, so his Gospel must be later than Mark’s. Scholars have guessed that Matthew was writing around 80 CE ( or between 75 and 85) for a Christian Assembly in Syria, and a more precise guess in unlikely to be made with the present evidence. The identification of the gospel writer with Matthew/ Levi the disciple of Jesus is almost certainly wrong, as this author relies on sources rather than on his own memories.

He was however, very likely, a Jew, writing at a painful time in the Jewish community, many of whom had been savagely expelled from its own lands by the Romans, leaving the centre of their faith, the Temple utterly destroyed. The Pharisee Teachers began to adapt their faith for use outside the holy land. They saw the Jews who worshipped Jesus as Messiah as a danger to their faith, and began to expel them from their synagogues. The anger of Jewish Christians at this treatment can be seen in the language Matthew uses to recount Jesus arguments with the Pharisees. Even families were divided.

The evidence available suggests that soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the good news about him began to gain new disciples, and also new communities of disciples in Israel itself and in the surrounding nations. The missionaries saw themselves as a new movement of Jewish faith, and with the missionary work of St Paul and others in Turkey, Greece and Italy, believers began to see themselves as a new sort of Judaism because they no longer awaited a Messiah but were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. Stories of Jesus’ life were memorised and passed on to the growing number of Jesus’ Assemblies. The language of these assemblies was the common Greek spoken by most inhabitants of the Roman Empire. In that language they were called Christ- ians using the Greek word meaning anointed or Messiah. Judaism was a “permitted religion” in the Roman Empire, so as Christian assemblies became separate from their mother faith, they became subject to Roman suspicion and eventually persecution. It was at this time that the Gospels were written, providing a resource for the small communities of believers, to support and guide their lives.

SESSION 3 THE FORMAT OF THE PRAYER

The prayer is directed to OUR FATHER. Jesus called God “Abba,” an Aramaic word meaning “dear father”. In this prayer he invites his disciples to share his relationship with God.

The first three petitions deal with God’s business: his holiness, his rule, the doing of his will on earth. The children cry out passionately for the Father’s honour – this is true worship towards God and a separation from the unholy ones who rule on earth and demand that their will be done. It also continues Jesus’ announcement of God’s rule by word and action.

The other four petitions concern the shared life in God’s spirit of Jesus’ disciples. The Spirit is communion: lives open to each other as God’s life is open to them. The children pray for bread, for life’s necessities, because they see them as a gift; and they pray for OUR bread because they know it must be shared. The open table is a good symbol of Jesus’ ministry and of the first assemblies.

The forgiveness of debts is a major theme of Jesus’ teaching, which he likely took from the Jubilee legislation in Leviticus 25: every fiftieth year, debts were to be cancelled, slaves set free, land returned to its original owners. Jesus expressed this liberating Spirit in his identification with the poor, his affectionate opposition to the wealthy, his forgiveness of sinners, and his friendship with outcasts. So the children pray to share that Jubilee spirit as God’s forgiveness of their debt to him, and their forgiveness of what they are owed by others. They want to live in a climate of generosity.

But they remember that such generosity took Jesus to the place of testing, where he asked his father to let him avoid suffering and death, but was refused and died on the stake. Only in and through his death was he saved from the Evil One. So, knowing themselves not greater than their master, the children pray not to be put to the test. Perhaps by the time Matthew was writing, already some Christian Assemblies had been persecuted by the Empire, and knew that tests were real and terrible. Their prayer identifies them with Jesus – like him, they are weak human beings- but they may be able to follow him into hard testing, if they can trust in the God who through resurrection saved Jesus from the Evil One. This too is part of the shared life of the Spirit.

As I understand the prayer then, it seeks the honour of the Father, and the shared life of the Spirit. Believers in the Trinity may ask, what has happened to the Son? The Son is praying this prayer. It is Jesus who prays it and who gives it to his sisters and brothers so that they may pray it in his shoes. To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to become one with Jesus and to stand before the Father in the confidence of being his children. So, yes, the prayer becomes trinitarian as it is prayed.

SESSION 4 BEING THE CHILD OF GOD

This is such an unusual idea that we should look at the Sermon on the Mount and see how its purpose is summed up in Matthew 5:45, as “so that you may be children of your Heavenly Father.” Here too Jesus invites people to stand in his shoes, by following his teaching. His relationship to God is not closed but open to all through the wisdom of his teaching and the power of his example.

St. Paul writes of people “growing up into the full stature of Christ,” and suggests that although no one person is fully capable of this, the Assembly of believers can be seen as Jesus’ body, each person a different organ with a special function. This too is stepping into Jesus’ shoes. Some questions may help an understanding of this idea:

I am me, how can I be The child of God?

I’m a serious sinner, how can I be The child of God?

I’m not very bright, how can I be the Child of God?

I can’t do miracles, how can I be The Child if God?

I don’t want to be like Jesus. Look what happened to him.

I’m more comfortable just being a follower. Isn’t that enough?

I’m gay, how can I be the Child of God?

Old fashioned religion was a bit more modest. Couldn’t I just be an ordinary half- convinced church member?

Can a child of God have fun?

The result of dealing with such questions might reassure us that the title Child of God” is meant for us. If so, that leaves a last question:

If you really believed you were a Child of God, what difference would it make to your life?

SESSION 5 BEING CHILDREN OF GOD IN WORSHIP AND OBEDIENCE

If we see how Jesus went about this we may be surprised by how traditional he was: attending pilgrim Feasts at the Temple in Jerusalem, and Synagogue worship on the Sabbath, as a means of honouring God, and opening himself to obey God’s teaching. In addition he studied the Bible, perhaps at the synagogue, which possessed scrolls of the Bible, and may have had a Rabbi/ Teacher who could assist understanding. Like the Rabbis, Jesus may have memorised large amounts of the Bible. For him, this was no dry as dust bible study but exposure to the will of his dear Father , his Abba, and an opportunity to honour him by sharing in communal worship, which was itself focused on understanding scripture and obeying it in odaily life.

Worship in Nazareth expressed Israel’s experience of being God’s child, its joys, its tests, its sorrows, its hope, above all its precious privilege. Worship among the first Christians did the same, but with a heightened sense of each disciple in the community being a child of God along with Jesus, the risen Master. Gathering together with Jesus was fundamental and the presence of Jesus was normally marked by bread and wine, with the memory of the last supper. It was a new meal with Jesus, attended by the children of God. In most cases, it would appear, this was also a real meal, shared by all. The separation of Sunday worship from Holy Communion is the ancient custom of the Church of Scotland, doubtless because its Calvinist founders wanted to avoid what they regarded as the superstition of the Mass. We should ask if perhaps the first believers were not right to see Holy Communion as the basic ordinary form of regular worship. Probably, when that first Assembly met, there were no distinctions, no minister/ priest, no deacon/ elder, no male or adult privilege; all were God’s children. By St Paul’s time there were different functions or roles, some could sing, some could organise, some could make a prophecy, and so on, but there were no differences of status. What would it mean to rebuild our weekly worship on that model? Certainly it would be a challenge to the enforced passivity of congregations and the privilege of ministers. I do not mean that there may not be a role for a trained, full-time minister – especially in the training of others- but this role should be seen as desirable for the wellbeing of the Christian Assembly rather than necessary for its very being.

Praying for God’s kingdom only makes sense in view of the Old Testament story of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the upshot of which is that God is always trying to persuade her human agents to rule for justice mercy and peace. God does not rule directly, but through judges, prophets and kings. Breakthroughs occur when a ruler like David or a prophet like Elijah acts faithfully as God’s agent. Jesus did not imagine that in the present age God would intervene to enforce her rule. Rather he emphasised the immediate availability of God’s persuasion and encouragement. Our prayer for the coming of the kingdom must be passionate but not credulous, childlike but not childish. It must be fuelled on the one hand by prophetic visions of God’s Rule, and on the other by our personal separation from the worldly powers that rule in defiance of God- a separation which is not easy because the persuasions of the Evil One are subtle and convincing. But this difficult separation is proof of our identity as God’s children with Jesus our brother.

Sometimes indeed we also have to separate our physical selves from all company, as Jesus did when he prayed alone. His instruction on personal prayer is very clear: it must not happen in public or in the midst of a worshipping group, but secretly where only God sees. We have to remove ourselves from every temptation to make a show of our faith. If our relationship with God is passionate it is also intimate. It is where we are delighted to be with the Father, who welcomes us, as he did Jesus, “you are my dear child; I am delighted with you.” This kind of prayer may be easier if we meditate on a Bible passage or the words of a hymn or prayer. Our speaking is not important, but our listening is vital. That doesn’t mean we expect to hear a voice, at least not in my experience, but rather that by attending with love we become conscious of who we are and what we are asked to do.

SESSION 6 THE SHARED LIFE OF THE SPIRIT

The second half of the Lord’s Prayer is about sharing the mutuality of God’s goodness. We pray for bread, that is for the necessities of life, because all that we are and have comes from God’s generous creation; and we call it OUR bread because the produce of creation is for all God’s children, which is to say, all living things, the complete ecosystem. Jesus refers to God feeding the birds, so our request for what we need in life is made with the complete ecosystem in mind. If our eating habits are destroying the ecosystem, we cannot pray this prayer. The life God shares with us is the life of all creation, as well as the life of the Scottish children who go to school hungry because their parents are poor. We cannot solve all injustice at once, but we can share what God gives as well as we can.

The extent of God’s sharing is seen in Jesus’ announcement of God’s forgiveness, which he offered with scandalous freedom. Yes, but as Jesus taught it, God’s forgiveness of our debts is a Trojan horse: once within our gates it attacks our selfish defences and demands that we employ it in respect of what we are owed by others. It includes wrongs and hurts and sins, and extends to any sort of debt. Of course if our neighbour owes us money we should expect to be paid- Jesus’ business must have been paid for joiner work -but if the debt is disabling them we must be ready to forgive. How much more ready we should be to forgive the trivial hurts of everyday thoughtlessness. The generosity of God, once received by us, won’t let us alone. But what about seriously evil actions, like child sexual abuse, torture or murder? Surely we are not expected to forgive these! We should explore the idea that God’s justice is one of the strategies of his forgiving love. Firstly, those who have done wrong must undergo a complete change of mind, before they can be forgiven: “change your mind and believe the good news,” Jesus says. God promises that forgiveness awaits the sinner, but it cannot happen without that change. Secondly, justice may involve a penalty. The rich young man has committed the sin of selfish enjoyment of wealth. Jesus loves him and wants him to have forgiveness but first he has to give up his wealth and become a disciple. If a person’s sin has broken human law, then they have to bear the right penalty, which in some cases may be necessary for a true change of mind. Oscar Wilde, reflecting on his fellow prisoners in Reading Gaol, wrote,

And thus we rust life’s iron chain/ degraded and alone./ and some men curse and some men weep/ and some men make no moan./ But God’s eternal laws are kind/ and break the heart of stone.

Ah, happy they whose hearts can break/and peace of pardon win!/How else may man make straight his plan/ and cleanse his soul from sin? / How else but through a broken heart/ May Lord Christ enter in?

We are not asked to forego justice but we are asked to share God’s forgiveness of us with those who have wronged us. As God’s children we live in God’s generosity.

But that generosity is threatening to those who enjoy power over others, who neither give, nor have compassion, but use moral, political or physical force for their own advantage. In Jesus’ case, the Jewish religious and the Roman political establishments were threatened enough by his gospel to cooperate in his death. The cost of offering God’s forgiveness is Jesus’ suffering and death on the execution stake. It is a goddamned lie that God imposed this suffering upon him; rather God suffered with him. Jesus experienced this as a test of his being the Child of God; and he prayed not to undergo this test. Earlier in his ministry he felt tested by Satan to regard his divine childhood as a means of privilege or to abandon it and seize the power that Satan could give him. These experiences explain why the prayer of Jesus asks God not to put us to the test. We are human children of God, not superheroes. Through the suffering of Jesus we become children of God, but we should not be any more confident of standing up to testing than he was. We may have to share his suffering, but like him, we should pray to avoid it.

God cannot control what happens to us, but can, by her persuasion in our hearts, by her sharing of her unconditional love, save us from the power of the Evil One, who wants us to deny that we are children of God and to become lovers of wealth, popularity, domination and violence. If we trust in our Abba we are saved from that, and God’s creative spirit, who raised Jesus from death, is promised to us also.

The first believers came to realise that the life-giving power seen in Jesus’ resurrection, had been active throughout his life, enabling him to attack the forces of death in his society, with courage, humour and wisdom. Children of God, therefore, are realistic about evil but optimistic that in partnership with God and each other, it can be overcome.

As children of God we enjoy the true wealth and splendour of life; the goodness of creation, the love and friendship of human beings, the joy of physical and mental activity, the building of true community, the fight for goodness in the world, and the hope of life beyond death. And we pray not be put to the test, but to be saved from the Evil One.

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