Preparing for a new chapter in our church's life
“Our Father in Heaven,
Hallowed be your name”
“Words of faith are too well known to believers for their meaning to be knowable.”
As we prepare for a new season in the life of our church we’re going to undertake an exercise in seeing afresh. We’re going to spend some time looking at two things that are well known to us and attempt to see them both with fresh eyes, discovering a fresh perspective on them both.
We’re going to look at the Lord’s Prayer and our own church with fresh eyes over the coming 2 months in readiness for a new chapter in our church life beginning.
Rowan Williams’ words in my view capture something profound; that we can be so familiar with something, so sure of its meaning, so comfortable with its shape and contours, that we can only know it in a particular way, and that this means we struggle to know it fully.
So, over the coming 8 weeks we’re going to spend some time looking at two old friends with fresh eyes, searching for new perspectives and new meanings to enrich and encourage our life of discipleship.
Introduction to the Lord’s Prayer:
There are 4 versions of the Lord’s Prayer; two in the New Testament (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4), one in some writings called the Didache (a first century document summarising some of the teaching of the 12 Apostles), and one in our liturgical books. For this series we’re going to look at the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew chapter 6.
Although the Lord’s Prayer is familiar, the context in which Jesus taught it to his disciples perhaps isn’t. So to help us look at the prayer with fresh eyes we need to sketch out some of what was going on in and around Jesus’ ministry and first century Galilee as he spoke the words.
As Jesus sat on the grass and spoke with his disciples Galilee was in a terrible state. For almost 800 years the region had been under occupation of some form or another, and as each successive oppressor had exploited the Galileans and become rich, so the native people had become poorer and poorer. The peasant farmers and artisans of Jesus day had lost ownership of the land (a bigger deal than we can possibly imagine when you think about the role the land played in Hebrew life as the inheritance of the people of God…) and had become increasingly trapped by debt and poverty. Day to day existence was hard and resentment and anger was rife.
It’s perhaps not surprising that revolt and uprising was a regular part of life in Jesus day, as people struggled to live under the burden of absent and exploitative rulers. During Jesus life-time there were numerous small scale revolts and uprisings, and he lived between two dramatic rebellions – one in 4BC and another in 66AD.
The prayer itself then picks up the fears and frustrations as well as the practical needs of the people to whom Jesus speaks and it also speaks about the God to whom the prayer is addressed.
Unlike the rulers that the Galileans were familiar with, this is a conversation directed to a ruler who is benevolent, kind, and who gives bread to his people rather than taking bread from them. It speaks of an alternative rule, a new kingdom in which things are very different, and a hope that this rule might be established on earth as in heaven.
The Lord’s Prayer then is not prayer for the sake of prayer. It’s not a prayer that is concerned only with the heavenly, but rather is deeply concerned with the here and now, and in particular how the things of heaven might become the things of earth. As such it is a prayer that demands some things of us and that has a purpose beyond itself. The opening verses (5-8) echo the prophetic tradition of the Hebrews which demands not just religious observance and ritual but even more importantly that justice and righteousness might be established. So, the Lord’s prayer explicitly rejects prayer for the sake of ritual or long and rambling, outwardly impressive prayer that was primarily to be seen and noticed by others.
Instead the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples is true prayer. Given that this is the case, the Lord’s Prayer has so much to teach us about what true prayer is and its content and purpose.
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name”
Our Father in Heaven
From the start we see that this prayer must be communal, that is it acknowledges the wider community and does not claim God as ‘My Father’ but rather ‘our Father’. Implicit in this is an acknowledgement that God is Father to many and we cannot claim him as our own, but must if you like ‘share him’. One commentator says that this prayer is personal, but personal-in-community rather than personal-in-privacy. We may pray it when alone, but we are never alone when we pray it.
At the start of this prayer, taught us by Jesus, we’re reminded that we are one of Gods many children. That we take our place within a family of faith in which God is the householder. It’s a reminder of our own belonging, but also the responsibilities that we have towards the other members of the household. We cannot pray this pray for ourselves to the detriment of others. A good householder does not prejudice one child over another, meeting the demands of one if they would cause harm to another in the household.
What does a well run household look like? For the people of Jesus day the answer was obvious. The fields would be well prepared, the livestock well fed. Dependents in the household, from slaves to children would have food, shelter, and clothing. The sick or vulnerable would receive extra care and concern and everyone would have a fair share of everything that was needed to live.
The people of Jesus’ day viewed a good householder as just, righteous, fair and equitable. And what’s more the people of Jesus day viewed the household as a microcosm of the world. The well run household mirrored the well run world.
With this in mind we read the first line of the Lord’s Prayer “Our Father in heaven…”
In calling God ‘Father’ Jesus presents God as the “householder of Earth” – the Father of the great household of all creation. A father / householder who is just, righteous, fair and equitable. Who ensures that peace and well being is available to all who live under his care.
We tend to think of the term ‘Abba’ as implying informality and warmth, the sort of term that a child use to address a parent. And it surely is this, but its meaning is so much greater. It has implicit with it, alongside the intimacy, a sense of respect for proper authority, a recognition of status – both of which would have been attributed to the ‘householder’ of Jesus day.
So if we think of this term as speaking of a ‘householder’ what can we learn about God from this form of address? We can learn several things:
The householder was a protector: A saviour, a redeemer, a liberator. The householder protected the household from attack and danger, and ensured the safety of those within it.
The householder was a provider: The one who ensured that all had enough, and that fairness and justice was done for all.
The householder was a model: For the young of the household, the householder provided the model of good care. Sons and daughters learn how to become good householders by the example of the parents. “be like me” and learn how to be a good householder.
And so in calling God ‘Father’ we not only use a term of affection, but we acknowledge God as our protector, our provider, and our model. If this is the nature of the one to whom we pray, then our prayer should demonstrate concerns and requests that are in keeping with Gods nature.
For discussion – Looking at the Lord’s Prayer with a fresh perspective
As you read the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer, what meanings and images does the word ‘Father’ bring up for you?
To what degree are these images and meanings conditioned by your own experience of ‘father’ and to what degree are these informed by the picture of ‘father’ as householder in the scriptures?
As we read the parable of the prodigal in Luke 15 , what does this have to say about how we understand the term ‘father’ as applied to God?
What new insights might you gain from the notion of God as Father as ‘householder/protector/provider/model?
How do these new insights bring fresh perspectives on the prayer?
For discussion - Looking at our church with a fresh perspective:
As we prepare to look afresh at our church at the start of a new chapter in our life, how important is this reminder, that God as householder ensures fair and equitable treatment for all in the household and will not prejudice the interests of one over another?
In what ways does this challenge us and how we behave towards one-another at this time and into the future?
How can we guard against expecting God to grant our wishes at a cost to our brothers and sisters in Christ?
What might we learn from God as the model of a good householder with regards to what we seek for our own ‘household’ / church?
“Hallowed be your name”
Let’s just say it, surely this line doesn’t make sense?
‘To hallow’ something is to make it holy, or to sanctify it. OK?
Well, how can the name of God, the creator and sustainer of all things ever be anything but holy? After-all, we know from scripture that God is just that – Holy, and that he cannot be anything but holy.
So what does it mean to ‘make holy’ what is already holy? And who does this? Is it God who makes his name holy or is it us, you and I who make his name holy?
What’s in a name?
One’s name was of course for a 1st century Galilean far more than a simply label by which one was known. ‘Name’ was about face, public reputation. We’re familiar with the term ‘trading on his/her name’ – name is about standing, reputation, honour. In the ancient world name as reputation was about a deep identity rather than a superficial image. One’s name was one’s publicly acknowledged identity and a reflection of character.
So too is God’s ‘name’. God’s name is God’s character and his publicly acknowledged identity.
Hallowing Gods name then is about ensuring that he is publicly acknowledged as holy and that his character too is seen for what it is.
For discussion – looking at the Lord’s Prayer with a fresh perspective
How do you understand this line in the Lord’s Prayer?
What do you think it means in practice?
Who hallows what?
It is surely true to say that we play a part in ‘hallowing’ the name of God. There must be a link between the actions of Gods people and the degree to which his name is regarded as holy. Ezekiel 36:16-23 picks up this very idea. In this passage Israel has defiled the land through its worshipping of idols and shedding of blood. God’s response is to drive the people out of the land and as he does so his holy name becomes defiled in the eyes of the Gentile nations because God seemed to weak to save his people. But, as well as suggesting this, the very same passage also suggests that God himself is the one who make his name holy saying in verse 23 “And I will make holy my great name.” In numerous other places in Scripture the same can also be seen.
So what is the connection between the hallowing of God’s name and the holiness of God’s people?
If it is purely the work of God then we sit and wait for his intervention.
If it is the work of God’s people then we have a burden and a duty to collaborate with God.
In all reality it seems to be a bit of both. God as usual takes the initiative, he is the one who is holy and therefore whose being makes his name holy, but as is the model throughout scripture, divine holiness is to be modelled in the community of Gods people as they live and embrace the outworking of his holiness. And as this human holiness is lived out so the holiness of God’s name is recognised, and in the eyes of others, his name is ‘hallowed’ / made holy and his character is demonstrated and publicly acknowledged.
Here’s the question then…
How do we make the name of God holy? When we pray ‘Hallowed be your name’ what are we committing ourselves to do exactly?
Dominic Crossan, in his book on the Lord’s Prayer ‘The Greatest Prayer’, suggests that to hallow the name of God entails us doing several things perhaps the most important of which can be summarised as ensuring that the justice and righteousness of Gods kingdom is established in the way that live with one-another. Holiness for Crossan is not simply personal and devotional piety, but rather actions that cannot be disassociated from the relationships and structures that form our lives.
If we interpret the Lord’s Prayer in the light of the opening address to God as Father / householder then the hallowing of God’s name is worked out within the household and wider community as the peace, justice, and righteousness of God is demonstrated by himself and then embraced and mirrored by his people.
Hollowing Gods name then involves several things, all of which we see modelled in the call of Isaiah in Isa 6.
The first is to see the ways in which God himself ‘makes his name Holy’ – i.e to see and observe the ways in which God demonstrates his holiness.
The second is to recognise our inherent lack of holiness and to cry out to God in confession
The third is accept the purifying and cleansing work of Christ daily transforms us
The fourth is to be sent out as a representative of the holy God to make his name ‘hallowed’ – to ensure that his holy character and identity are publicly seen and acknowledged.
For discussion – looking at our church with a fresh perspective
As we look afresh at our church – in what ways might we be called to collaborate with God in making his name hallowed within the church?
Likewise in what ways might we be called to collaborate with God in making his name hallowed in our local community or the communities in which we spend a lot of time, whether work, school, university etc?
If Gods holiness is demonstrated in justice and righteousness, in what ways can we as the church collaborate, both individually and corporately?
Do we need to repent of a failure to take this divine mandate seriously at times?
In what ways can you see God at work demonstrating his holiness?
What is your response to this?
In what ways do you embody and live this call to holiness and hallow Gods name?
Simon Butler, 05/09/2014