SERMON: “Teach Us To Pray”

The first in a new series on a line-by-line study of the “Prayer of Jesus” that will carry us through the beginning of Lent: How differently might Christianity look if we learned at an early age to ask with sincerity “Teach us to pray”?

Teach Us To Pray

The Rev. J. Carl Gregg

9 January 2011

Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

“Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”

Luke 11:1

For the nine Sundays that stretch from Epiphany to Lent, I would like for us to move line by line through the prayer — arguably the most famous prayer in Christian history — known variously as “The Lord’s Prayer,” the “Our Father,” the “Pater Noster” (in Latin), or “The Prayer of Jesus.”

This prayer is found in two different versions in the Bible: a longer version in Matthew chapter 6 and a shorter version in Luke chapter 11. We’ll be mostly using Matthew’s longer and more well-known version as a template, although we will be comparing Matthew’s version to Luke’s version along the way.

For this first Sunday in the series, I would like to begin by looking at the context for the two versions of the prayer. Matthew’s version of Jesus’ prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 is close to the center of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a long series of teaching that stretches for three full chapters from the beginning of Matthew 5 through the end of Matthew 7. Looking closely at this context, I am intrigued that although the “Lord’s Prayer” is perhaps most frequently prayed communally — out loud and in unison during Sunday morning worship — in Matthew’s Gospel the verses preceding the Prayer of Jesus could be read as advising against such public prayer. Listen to the open verses of Matthew 6, which immediately precede the Lord’s Prayer:

1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from God in heaven…. 5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to God in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for God knows what you need before you ask.

So, when Jesus then continues in verse 9 “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” perhaps we would be advised, at minimum, to pray these words of the Lord’s Prayer privately at least as much if not more than we pray them publicly.

Turning to the context of the Prayer of Jesus in Luke 11, I am equally intrigued by how Luke present’s the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer. Whereas in Matthew, Jesus’ invocation to “Pray then in this way” comes as merely one more teaching in a very long list of teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, in Luke the Prayer of Jesus is taught at the request of the disciples. Listen again to the scripture read earlier: “Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.’”

I find Luke’s version compelling because the disciples are prompted to ask Jesus to teach them to pray after watching Jesus himself prayer. Listen again to the verse: “Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, teach us to pray.” But the situation is more peculiar than you might predict. After watching Jesus pray, I would expect the disciples to say, “Rabbi, teach us to pray, as you pray.” Instead, the disciples say, “Rabbi, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” This phrase, “as John taught his disciples,” has caused a long and unending debate among scholars. Are the disciples asking Jesus to teach them the same prayer that John taught his disciples (among whom Jesus may have been counted at one time)? Or are the disciples worried about “keeping up with the Jonses” — saying to Jesus “John taught his disciples a prayer, so please teach us a prayer too.” There is no clear answer to this debate, but perhaps the larger point is that the disciples saw Jesus as an authority on prayer because they witnessed him praying so frequently.

Indeed, scholars have noted that “Jesus prays more often in [the Gospel of Luke], and he has more to say on the topic of prayer than in the other three Gospels combined”:

  • In Luke 3 we read, “When Jesus also had been baptized and was praying.”
  • In Luke 5:16, we learn that Jesus “would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”
  • We read again in Luke 9:21 that “Jesus was praying alone….”
  • A few verses later Jesus “went up on the mountain to pray” immediately before the Transfiguration.
  • At the beginning of Luke 18, “Jesus tells a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart” and then another parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” about the Pharisee and the Tax collector.
  • In Luke 21, Jesus exhorts, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place.”
  • In an often overlooked passage in Luke 22, Jesus — just before telling Peter that he will deny him three times that very evening — tells Peter that he has been praying for Peter’s long-term faithfulness in the wake of his short-term stumbling to come. The text reads “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
  • Famously, in the Garden of Gethsemane, echoing a line from the Lord’s Prayer, “Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed” fervently while the disciples drifted to sleep.

In this brief list, you can see a summary of the evidence that “Jesus prays more often in [the Gospel of Luke], and he has more to say on the topic of prayer than in the other three Gospels combined” as well as why the disciples would see Jesus as an authority on prayer: because they had witnessed him pray and teach on prayer so often.

Personally, the words that resonated with me most strongly as I have pondered the words of our scripture for today are the disciples request “Teach us to pray.” Whatever the disciples meant by the request and however Jesus’ reply was affected by the shape of their question, I am nevertheless struck by the request “Teach us to pray.” How differently might Christianity look if we learned at an early age to ask with sincerity “Teach us to pray”?

One of my primary motivations for enrolling in the “Art of Spiritual Direction” program at San Francisco Theological Seminary was the central emphasis both on the history of Christian spirituality and the practice of Christian spirituality — that is, both how people have prayed and actual instruction and practice praying.

One of the basic divisions I learned was between kataphatic prayer and apophatic prayer. Most simply, this separation is between prayers that use words and images and silent prayers that do not use words or images. The Lord’s Prayer is a classic example of kataphatic prayer using words or images. But as we begin our line-by-line study of the Prayer of Jesus that will carry us until the beginning of Lent, it is perhaps important to name that the most famous and ‘accomplished’ pray-ers in the Christian tradition — such as John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila — report that the result overtime of faithfully praying set prayers like the Lord’s Prayer or the Rosary is most often to begin to transition into a slower-paced, contemplative, silent prayer. This is the aforementioned apophatic prayer tradition, which does not use words of images, but practices various ways of simply resting opening in God’s loving presence.

Accordingly, Mother Theresa of Calcutta was once asked by a reporter “How do you pray.”  She said “Mostly I listen.”  The reporter then asked “What does God say?” to which she replied “Mostly God listens.”  Seeing his perplexed face she said, “If this doesn’t make sense to you, you may well never understand unless you try it for yourself.”

So this morning, if you are comfortable, I invite you to close your eyes. Sitting up straight — relaxed but alert — with your feet flat on the floor. I invite you to listen to the King James Version of Jesus’ Prayer. I will read the prayer twice slowly. As I read the first time, simply listen, allowing the words to gently flow over you, as if you are hearing the words for the first time:

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 debts, as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

As I read the prayer a second time, listen for any word or phrase that stands out to you. In the silence that follows this second reading, I invite you to ponder what meaning this word or phrase may have for your life or the life of those around you:

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 debts, as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Prayer for the Day after the Tucson Tragedy

(Adapted from Mark Sandlin at

thegodarticle.com/7/post/2011/01/a-prayer-for-the-day-after-the-tucson-tragedy.html)

Gracious and Loving God,

In the wake of the tragedy in Tucson, we commend into your hands Christina Taylor Greene, the young girl —born on the day of another national tragedy September 11, 2001 — who tragically lost her life yesterday in the cross-fire of hate.

We pray for Judge John Roll, who was no stranger to death threats.

We pray for the congressional aid, Gabriel Zimmerman, who was killed and the other aids who were wounded for simply doing their job.

We pray also for the other innocent bystanders who were killed: Dorwin Stoddard, a pastor at Mountain Avenue Church of Christ; Dorothy Murray, and Phyllis Scheck

We pray for Congresswoman Giffords, her friend, family, and constituents.

We give thanks for the skilled hands, which rushed to her aid, for her remarkable survival to date and her struggle to live.

May this event become a beacon, calling us away from the rocky shorelines of hatred.

We also pray for the shooter and anyone who may have help propagate this violence. We pray for them and for others like them. May the internal struggles they experience, which lead to such violent acts be lessened. May they know and experience your love — and the love of those around them — that they they begin a journey away from hostility, anger and violence and toward health, healing, and wholeness. May we all stand united, against hatred and against violence.

Loving God,

As we lift up to you all the fallen — the dead, the injured, those in custody, and their families and communities — embolden us to do more for the world we want for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. Teach us to live boldly in the pursuit of the world you dream, desire, and envision for us your children — that we may live on earth as it is in heaven.

God, in your grace, you hear our prayer.

Amen.

Notes

1 On the frequent theme of prayer in Luke, see Mark Allan Powell, Fortress Introduction to the Gospels (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), 92-93.

2 The prefix kata- means “with” and apo- means “away from” (as in “apostate”); the suffix -phatic means “image” (similar to the English word “photo”).

3 For an introduction to prayer, see Daniel Wolpert, Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices.

This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to SERMON: “Teach Us To Pray”

  1. Pingback: Carl Gregg » The Pragmatism of the Didache: Eucharist Like You’ve Never Heard It Before

  2. Pingback: Carl Gregg » Sermon Series Retrospective: “The Prayer of Jesus”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>