“Lord, teach us to pray,” (Luke 11:1).
Sermon in a Tweet: Prayer is a relationship that (re)forms our will.
As religious people it is not difficult to presume that we know what prayer is all about. Even those of us who have been Christians for some time may be tempted to think that prayer is something that we have a solid grasp of—we know how to pray and we know to whom we pray and why all of this is generally a good idea.
The first disciples of Jesus would have been like many of us in this regard. As faithful Jews they would have been familiar with the life of Jewish liturgical prayer both in the synagogue and at home. And yet here they are in today’s gospel reading asking, “Lord, teach us to pray,” (Luke 11:1). Last week we prayed for Hudson and Joseph at their baptism that Christ would give them an inquiring and discerning heart.
There is a holy curiosity that marks the life of Christians. Let us not lose that curiosity in the presumption that we ought always know what to do and how to do it for it is good always to be asking, “Lord, teach us.”
And so this morning, along with the disciples we inquire of the risen and living Jesus Christ, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Before we begin to explore Jesus’ response to the disciples it is worth noting how the question arose. Luke tells us that Jesus himself was praying in a certain place and that when he had finished the disciples approached him with their request. Indeed, prayer punctuates Jesus’ entire ministry in Luke.
And so we learn straightaway that Jesus himself is modeling for the disciples then and for us today a posture of prayer. In Christ we see that human creatures are called to a life of prayer, that in fact our whole life is prayer, offered unto God in response to His great goodness and love towards us in His Son.
“Lord, teach us to pray.” And what does Jesus teach his disciples about prayer? That it is absolutely central to life with God and the working out of God’s purposes in the world.
First, prayer is central to life with God. Too often prayer is of little importance in our lives. After all, a great many things rise up each day to crowd it out and so prayer becomes an additional thing that we do if we have time. And please know that I am speaking to myself here! It takes real effort to punctuate my day with prayer lest the day is overrun by emails or meetings or study or other such duties as assigned! It is easy to lose sight of the reality that there is no life at all apart from the nearness of God in prayer.
Let us be more willing to set aside what may well be good things in order to create the room necessary to grow in love and friendship with God in Christ.
Another way of talking about the centrality of prayer to our life with God would be to say that prayer is relationship. “When you pray,” Jesus told them, “say: Father.” The Living God who is the object of our worship is not some abstract reality “out there” but is a personal reality with whom a relationship can be established. And this relationship has been established for us in Christ and opened to us in baptism where we become members of Christ and therefore sons and daughters of God. And the Eucharistic meal nourishes us in this great mystery. If we lose sight of this then prayer can become rote and dry, an intellectual exercise as opposed to a deep and personal knowledge and love of God from which our whole life of faith flows.
Think for a moment of a treasured relationship that you have with someone. Perhaps a sibling or friend, spouse or neighbour. Treat your relationship with God like this and value it in the same terms with which you value that treasured relationship which came to your mind. There are some human relationships that are so intimate and loving that we can simply sit in silence together and be happy without feeling the need to blather on.
Words are important in prayer. Jesus teaches his disciples these words in particular and the Christian tradition is rich with the prayers of the saints including beautiful treasures from the Anglican family such as the Book of Common Prayer which provides a cycle of morning and evening prayer each day. The Psalms are another wonderful resource for prayer that are central to Christian worship.
All of these expressions are important, but they are only expressions of that which is essential—a deep and abiding communion with God in Christ. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom tells the story of a French saint in the 18th C. who saw a peasant sitting for hours in the church, seemingly doing nothing at all, and so he asked him what he was doing. The peasant replied, “I look at him, he looks at me and we are happy together.”
We must learn to feel happy with God in silence and to know Him as our Father.
If we want to see renewal in the Anglican Church of Canada and a great re-evangelization in the West it will not come as a result of tinkering with externals but only as our hearts grow in intimate and loving communion with God our Father. For this intimacy will inspire our words of prayer and our proclamation of the gospel and invigorate our love of neighbour. So let us be bold! Let us ask, seek, and knock for this gift of friendship with God our Father. Let us ask this for ourselves, for one another, for our whole church, and for our neighbours. If a father knows how to give good gifts to his children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
“Lord, teach us to pray.” In addition to teaching his disciples that prayer is a relationship with the Father, he also teaches them that prayer—that this loving relationship—is central to the working out of God’s purposes in the world: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” And in Matthew’s version which we use we find the words, “Thy will be done.”
When we pray, “thy kingdom come,” we name the deepest and most profound longing of all creation, the longing to behold Christ the Saviour of all rising again upon the world, no longer as a humble babe but as judge, in the glory of God, surrounded by such a great host of angels (Cyril of Alexandria). O that God’s kingdom would come within us and that we might be found within that kingdom! That the love of God would transform our hearts and minds in prayer so that the will of God would begin to work itself out in our midst and even through us in the world.
And so, really, the Lord’s prayer is not simply a prayer that we utter but a whole way of life expressed in the form of a prayer. It is our gradual ascent, with Christ and in Christ, from bondage to freedom (Bloom). An ascent that happens as our own wills are liberated from slavery to sin and death for obedience to God’s will.
Recall with me the moment in Luke’s gospel right before Jesus is arrested. He is on the Mount of Olives and again, “he withdrew,” from his disciples, “knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done,” (22:39ff). In Jesus we see man’s will and God’s will in a perfect union of self-giving love. In a similar way prayer forms our will to love God above all else. Prayer, we might say, re-orders the world and anticipates a time when every action shall be an act of worship. For in God’s good creation all things are ordered towards the glory of God and even the stones cry out, “glory to God in the highest heaven!” (19:38-40).
And yet, through sin the world has fallen into disorder. Our desires, our inclinations, our loves are disordered and turned in on themselves. Even the good things that we desire and love we often desire and love for themselves, missing the greater truth that all is gift and all is meant to be returned to God in praise and thanksgiving, drawing us deeper into the knowledge and love of God.
All of this means that our wills cannot necessarily be trusted. We cannot simply presume that our desire and our love is ordered towards God. And so we must learn.
We must ask our Lord, “Teach us to pray,” and learn from him, the one whose will was perfectly one with the Father, and thus the truly free one, the truly human one.
This is why we pray for forgiveness. This is why we pray for daily bread, the bread of Christ’s body in the Eucharistic feast which nourishes us and sustains us and works out in us God’s good purposes. This is why we ask with persistence for the Holy Spirit! Because in these gifts Christ sets us free from the sin that ensnares us and brings our wills into harmony with the divine will that we might dwell with God the Father in love, as the Son himself does.
This is perfect freedom. To know God our Father and love him as sons and daughters in Christ Jesus, forever. To be a community transformed by God’s kingdom for the good of the world. This is Christ’s life of prayer and our life of prayer with him. And so, let us pray:
Heavenly Father, in your Son Jesus Christ you have made us sons and daughters and revealed to us the way of life. Give us your Holy Spirit that our hearts and minds might be re-ordered, that your church may be renewed, and that our neighbours might come to know your saving name. Nourish us with your body and blood. Teach us how to pray, that we might be happy with you and in you, now and forever. In the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.