Wednesday, May 04, 2011

the Lord's Prayer and practical Christian unity


This week blogger Rachel Held Evans is hosting the Rally to Restore Unity. To join in, here is a short word on the topic that some people may need to hear.

The prayers of Jesus in the Gospels have a lot to say about Christian unity.
One might immediately about the 'High Priestly Prayer' of John 17, where our Lord utters words that ought to keep Christians up at night.
My prayer is not for [my disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23)

That's right folks, Jesus--whom we might expect to have other things on his mind just before his arrest--prayed for the unity of believers. He does not pray for right theology, strength amidst trials, that his followers keep themselves unstained by the world, or any number of other important things. The Son requests of his Father that "all of them may be one," and he implies that the proclamation of the Church--that Jesus was sent by the Father--hangs to some extent on the unity of the Church.

Unity is nice to talk about, but talking (even coming to some brilliant conclusions!) does not effect unity, bring together disparate communities, right?

Well, actually it can.

Blog posts about unity, books about unity, sermons, are meant to prod the flock towards action, but that may or may not bear any fruit. Those words don't effect anything in and of themselves.
But Jesus has given us some other words that do.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13)

Here Jesus doesn't pray for unity; he holds out words around which all his disciples may come together, unified in prayer.

Some Christians might chime in at this point that the Lord's Prayer is not meant to be prayed, but to provide a model for our own prayers. After all, Jesus says "pray like this" (6:19). Granted, this is what Christ says in the ESV--though other translations may shock you--in Matthew. In Luke, however, Jesus' teaching is a little different:

Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." And he said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name..." (Luke 11:1-4)

This is not a model; it's a command. 'When you pray, say this.'
Rather than looking at this as some tired, barren ritual that needs to be discarded in favor of contemporaneous prayers 'from the heart', maybe we should trust Jesus. Trust that he knew the right words to give us, that there is fruitfulness in this prayer beyond measure. I have found this to be so.

If, then, we can agree to take up the prayer Jesus has taught us, we'll suddenly find that we're with company. We're shoulder to shoulder with persecuted believers in China and Iran; we're flanked by 1st century believers in Jerusalem and 4th century monks in Egypt; our voices join with the believers in Calvin's Geneva, as they pray these words twice in every Sunday morning service. This is and has been the prayer of the Church from the ministry of Jesus to the present day. This is and has been the prayer of the Church from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. The Lord's Prayer gives Christ's followers one voice, even if just for a moment. We are united around our Father, his kingdom and his will, his gracious provision and forgiveness.
We may finish our prayers and go back to bickering about what these words mean today. I suppose there's no avoiding that. All we can do is trust Jesus yet again--trust that his Spirit will lead us in to truth. In the meantime, we are to love one another (John 13:34; 15:12, 17).

This is a small step towards Christian unity, but it is a practical one. This is a prayer the Southern Baptist and the Roman Catholic can say together; the gay Episcopalian priest and the Methodist with a traditional view of sexuality; the Anglican who recites the Creeds and the man who insists on 'sola scriptura!' The Lord's Prayer is Jesus' gift to all of us. Perhaps as we say it the world will see, even just for a tantalizing instant, "that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." It's a small step, but it is a step. Let's take it together.

1 comment:

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

If one were to use the tradition Sunday Service from the BCP or Wesley's "Sunday Service" (in which Holy Communion follows immediately after Morning Prayer) you would also say this prayer twice: at the beginning of the morning prayer section and at the beginning of the eucharist.

The ESV's translation of matt. 6:9 is a little surprising in that it is so different from the KJV