Jesus Prayer, Formative Source
Updated: Jul 31, 2022
7th Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. Cameron Partridge
July 24, 2022
Good Morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. We are now in the heart of the summer season up here in the fog, even as other parts of our region and the northern hemisphere more broadly, bake with heat. And while our gospel passage this morning says nothing about the weather and relief from it, I do note that when the disciples see Jesus emerging from a “certain space” where he had withdrawn to pray, they seem to want what they could observe that he received in and from prayer (11:1). The Gospel of Luke in fact highlights Jesus’ prayer and its effects repeatedly. It was as he was praying that the Holy Spirit descended upon him “in bodily form like a dove” at his baptism (3:21). It was as he was praying on a mountain that his appearance changed and he was transfigured (9:29). A chapter before ours, at the joyous return of the seventy disciples Jesus had sent out, Jesus rejoices prayerfully in the Holy Spirit, appreciating all God had revealed to “infants” while much remained hidden to “the wise and intelligent” (10:21). Now, after Jesus has shared the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37) and extolled the virtue of Mary of Bethany, who in last week’s gospel passage had sat and listened intently to Jesus’ teaching (10:38-42), his disciples want him to teach them to pray. Let this source of so much strength and power not remain hidden from us!, I imagine them thinking.
And so he teaches them in words specific and deeply familiar (11:2-4):
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.’
This prayer is known to many as the “Lord’s Prayer,” “the Our Father,” or simply “the prayer Jesus taught us,” as our liturgy prompts just before we break and receive the bread of life each week. It is a prayer many of us were taught as children. I can remember my mom helping me memorize it as a middle schooler when my family returned to church a few years after we had gotten out of the habit. In fact, upon that return, it was this prayer that had immediately struck me, because it had formed such a deep, original impression on my kindergarten-aged mind. There I had been years before in the pews between my parents, taking in all the adult voices as they prayed aloud in the same distinct cadence, ripples of patterned sound flowing over me like a gentle wave: thy kingdom come, thy will be done… and especially the sibilant sound of the Ss: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. I had been formed by this prayer, week by week, and when we returned to that place, that people, that formation was reactivated. I knew it immediately, even as I also knew I didn’t understand it. Even as I knew I wanted more. And so, at some point, I suppose I asked as the disciples had, “Mom, please teach me how to pray.” Teach me how to join this collective process in which I (in some unspoken way) know I am already caught up. Teach me to engage my own ongoing, life-long formation. This was an active joining in what scholars of liturgy refer to with the phrase lex orandi, lex credendi, literally “the law of praying, the law of believing,” often with the verb “shapes” supplied to render the phrase “praying shapes believing.” We pray day by day, week by week not only in powerfully personal and spontaneous ways but also in specifically patterned ways so that our worship of God can also form us for the life to which God calls us, can also inspire us “to reshape the world around” as the hymn “the Summons” expresses our call to join God’s mission. And so, having been taught this prayer, praying it week by week with some variety of translation, we step back and look at it more closely, asking how this prayer works upon us.
Turning to this passage on Jesus’ prayer in its gospel setting for the only Sunday in our three-year cycle (we aren’t assigned Matthew’s more familiar version 6:9-15, and Mark and John do not have it), I am struck by how it is embedded in a network of relationship. It begins by addressing God with an intimate parental term. Father, Abba, is the language Jesus used in his own prayer, not only in this instructed moment but in many others. It recognizes a parental, nurturing, caring, creative relationship while refusing distant formality—it could be translated as “daddy.” This prayer hallows the ultimately unpronounceable name of the God from whom all creation unfolded, the source of all being. Much ink has been spilled on the question of whether one needs to say specifically “father” versus another gendered parental term for God in this context, such as “mother.” It probably will not shock you to hear that I feel strongly that it is not necessary to refract this relationship through an exclusively masculine lens, and so I favor renditions of this prayer that use a variety of gendered parental terms for the first person of the Trinity. Such renditions are not disrespectful of Jesus’ teaching, in my view. The heart of this prayer is the relationship – the loving, abiding, intimate connection with God our Parent, signaled by and deepened in this prayer.
In the midst of that deep, relational connection, we ask for God’s kingdom to come. Again, as with “Father,” the word “kingdom” can signal patriarchy, or as the feminist theologian and biblical scholar Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza termed it, “kyriarchy,” in connection with the Greek term kyrios, usually translated as “Lord.” A tremendous amount of writing and debate has unfolded for decades on this topic, lifting up the power of words to shape our hearts and imaginations, and indeed our actions. Kingdom has been rendered in a variety of additional terms including God’s reign, the “dream of God,” the Commonwealth of God, the Beloved Community, or the kin-dom of God. All emphasize the content of Jesus’ vision, his announcement of God’s righting of relationship, the healing of brokenness, the centering of the marginalized, the enactment of divine justice, the promise of peace. May that vision be realized, we pray. May it come. May we participate in it.
And as part of that realization, that coming of the divine dream, we ask God to give us bread. In his commentary on Luke, Justo Gonzalez reflects on a long-noted question about how to translate the ambiguous description of the bread in Luke: ἐπιούσιον. Is it “daily bread,” “bread for the morrow” as it is sometimes rendered, or perhaps even “heavenly bread”? Gonzalez recalls the manna of the Exodus story, which God gave to the Israelites just for that day, not for the next one (with the exception of the sabbath). If we pray to be fed with “the bread we need for today,” as our current translation from the New Zealand Prayer Book puts it, we are praying to be fed in this present moment, for this day, to be sustained as we participate in the reign of God for whose coming we pray. We pray to be nourished with the bread of God’s justice.
We also pray for forgiveness. More specifically, to be forgiven our sins “for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Unlike Matthew, Luke uses two distinct words here – sins and debts. As Gonzalez comments, “the implication is that our sins are like unpaid debts – perhaps even unpayable debts – and that while we pray God not to collect on us, we also commit not to collect on others.” Jesus wanted his disciples to be reminded each time they prayed this prayer that they were to forgive debts, and not to hold those indebted to them in a vice grip of power imbalance, a clinging to control. Unlike Matthew who adds an ominous sentence about not being forgiven by God unless we forgive one another (6:14-15), Luke’s prayer calls us into God’s liberation. Forgiveness is at the very heart of the gospel, its reverberations profoundly economic in the oikos—as in household-- relational sense. Free us from our shackles, we pray, and in as Bishop Barbara Harris would so often pray, let us not be agents of our own or another’s oppression.
And in that prayer for liberation, we also ask to be saved from the time of trial. The term here can also be read as “test” or of “temptation,” all of which evoke Jesus’ wilderness journey, tested as he was by evil assaults. May we not come into a time of trial. May we not succumb to temptations to more security than the day can grant us. May we not hoard bread, preventing the access of others. Strengthen us to come through the struggle of this moment with the divine integrity and dignity into which you have called us, O God. May we stand before you in the fullness of time, embracing the truth that sets us and all creation free.
Luke finally adds a story of friendship and hospitality that we are meant to hear as a frame for understanding this prayer he has just taught. We are invited to imagine ourselves in a network of friendship, a communal kinship of sharing. And in this network a scenario occurs in which one friend knocks on the door of another in need of bread. As I read this parable, this Jesus prayer epilogue, the knocking and asking we are invited to imagine ourselves into is the friend who is embedded in between the sleeping friend and the needy friend. That is, the one who has been asked show hospitality for a friend but who does not have sufficient bread to do it. This person’s knocking – persistently rendered – is a knocking on behalf of ourselves and others at the same time. It is a form of prayerful advocacy, of extending a sense of home, of safety, of family. This story embeds the Jesus Prayer in a great chain of knocking, of praying collectively, of being constantly formed and reformed together as family in and for each other, responding to need, rising to the occasion, even through the annoyance of lost sleep. Give us together the bread we need to nourish each other, that we might participate in the coming of your dream.
Friends, in this moment of ongoing peril, we are invited today to turn once again to this simple yet profound prayer, the yearning Jesus taught us to join him in expressing. We pray this prayer on our own, in the daily office, in our individual prayer, at our bedside, in various places and circumstances. And we say, and sometimes sing it, together, joining our voices in a cascade of prayer that echoes through the ages, taught by the One who pitched the divine tent in our midst, came among us to proclaim the nearness of God’s dream. May this prayer continue to carry our loving, our longing, our hallowing of God’s name to the One who created us, and may we be opened anew to our ongoing formation as God’s people in this world, called ever-deeper into God’s mission in this world.
 A classic text on this is Leonel Mitchell, Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on The Book of Common Prayer (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1985). Justo Gonzalez also references this phrase in connection with this prayer in Luke: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 142.  “The Summons” by John Bell in Iona, Heaven Shall Not Wait (Glasgow, UK: Wild Goose Publications, 2004) #102  Though as Anna Case-Winters notes, scholars of the New Testament now question whether this term adequately captures the Aramaic abba. Matthew: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 109.  For example, Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973); Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Fortress Press, 1982); Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992); Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: A Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013).  Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992)  On the language of the “dream” see Verna Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call To Return (New York, NY: Seabury Classics, 1992, 2006). On the “reign” of God, see Anna Case-Winters, Matthew: A Theological Commentary, 111. Martin Luther King is famous for his use of the phrase Beloved Community, influenced by his mentor Howard Thurman. Marc Andrus traces the term to Josiah Royce as well in Brothers in the Beloved Community (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2021).  Gonzalez, Luke: A Theological Commentary, 143-144.  A New Zealand Prayer Book (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 1997), 181.  Gonzalez, Luke: A Theological Commentary, 144  Gonzalez, Luke: A Theological Commentary, 144-145