Audio is available here: Lord, Teach us to Pray
“Lord, teach us to pray,”
Text: Luke 11:1-13
Today, we’re beginning our Fall Sermon Series on the Lord’s Prayer, and we are taking Luke 11:1 as our beginning. And that means we need a little clarification right at the start. The Lord’s Prayer appears twice in the Gospels. Here and also in the Gospel of Matthew. And while they are clearly similar, the differences are so significant that some scholars think Jesus gave the prayer twice while others think that, if Jesus gave it once originally, it has been shaped by the evangelists to suit their own narratives. I’ll talk a bit more about that later. For now, it’s enough to say we are not reading as historians seeking to ferret out what actually happened, but as disciples seeking to hear The Gospel of Christ. And today, that Gospel comes to us in the words penned by St. Luke. Now, on with our story.
The disciples, after watching Jesus pray, jostle with each other until one approaches Jesus with the words, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” This request is significant. It is significant in the Gospels because it only appears in Luke. What we call the “Lord’s Prayer” appears also in Matthew, but only in Luke is it given as a response to a disciple’s request. It is the only place in the Gospels where the Lord Jesus teaches his followers to pray.
This should not be surprising to careful readers of this wonderful third Gospel because both it and its sequel, the New Testament book of Acts, are suffused with private prayers and pray-ers. While Matthew and Mark, with Luke, regularly speak of Jesus withdrawing to pray, for Luke praying seems especially important: Only Luke tells us that at the time of his baptism, Jesus was praying after his baptism when the heavens opened, his identity declared, and his mission begun. Only Luke tells us that Jesus prayed before choosing the twelve, and that that prayer lasted an entire night. Only Luke depicts Jesus as praying alone before his transfiguration. Only Luke includes three parables that take prayer as their focus. Only Luke presents Jesus’ last words as a prayer and it is in response to that dying prayer that the temple veil is ripped from top to bottom. And in the book of Acts, the disciples are regularly depicted as following Jesus’ example. Praying praying praying. Why?
It is, I think, Luke’s way of presenting Jesus own life as an example after which we are to follow if we would continue in his mission. Which is to say three things. Luke gives us this prayer as an example of private prayer, a matter of private devotion; Luke gives us this prayer as a matter of discipleship—to be Jesus’ disciple is to pray as Jesus did; and Luke gives us this prayer because prayer does not come naturally to disciples. It needs to be taught. Let’s unpack each of these.
First, The Lord’s Prayer in Luke is given as an example of private prayer. When we come to Jesus with the disciple’s request on our lips, Lord, teach me to pray, we are asking that we be drawn into the Lord’s rich private prayer life that Luke describes for us.
Luke assumes here that if disciples are the heirs of Acts—and we are—if we share in the continuation of the mission that the Holy Spirit gave to the disciples on Pentecost Sunday –and we do—we will, like our Lord, be people of prayer. And not just public prayers—the beautiful prayers that make up much of our common worship are neither exclusive nor dispensable. Luke’s concern, as I understand him, is private prayers. The prayers that happen in the lonely places. The prayers uttered in the wee hours. The prayers uttered when words fail us. The private prayers—may I say this here?—uttered in a language known only to God.
So when Luke presents this unnamed disciple—the everyman, the everywoman who is you and me—coming to Jesus and says, Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples, Luke is concerned with continuing an activity that was a hallmark of the mission of Jesus. Luke wants to see Jesus’ prayer life continued in the lives of those to whom his mission has been bequeathed. We will, if we have been united to Christ in baptism, if we feast on his life by faith and with thanksgiving when we come to the altar, continue in his life of prayer when we are alone.
So it is that when Luke gives us the disciple’s request, Lord, teach us to pray, he does not give it to us as St. Matthew does, as a refined set piece meant to be prayed in public. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that! I am not pitting Luke against Matthew or against our own liturgy! Let me say a little more about that.
The Lord’s Prayer remains an integral part of our public Eucharistic worship. In the Book of Common Prayer, it begins and ends the service to remind us that it is only through the prayers of Jesus, who has gone before us into the heavenlies, that we might first come to the throne of his Father, and then be sent into the world. In the Eucharistic Prayers of the Book of Alternative Services, the Lord’s Prayer is said in common right before the fraction—the breaking of the bread—right before the climax of the Eucharistic prayer, to remind us that the entire prayer is something the community prays, not something the priest does. To remind us that the bread through which we receive the life of Christ is itself daily bread and is therefore meant to take us back into the world where our daily bread is given.
All of this is rich and important and powerful. But it is not what Luke is about. Luke gives us the Lord’s Prayer as an example of how to pray when no one is looking, no one except the Father who, as Matthew says, sees what is done in secret and rewards openly.
Now, can I be frank here? Anglicans, at least the ones I know and among which I include myself, are not adept at private prayers as perhaps some other Christians are. Catholic spirituality and Pentecostal spirituality, to pick two very different expressions, both have deep resources when it comes to thinking about private prayer. We seem to think the corporate prayers will do the job. So it might be worth saying here that the framers of the Anglican liturgical tradition never intended that tradition of public worship to be a substitute for private devotion, and there are examples of Anglican spirituality that we can and should be willing to draw on, from the private prayers of Bishop Hugh Latimer all the way up to the devotional writings of Archbishop Rowan Williams. It is wrong to expect that our public liturgical tradition to do the private devotional work for which it was never intended. Our public worship, our public prayers are not a substitute for the deliberate and careful cultivation of our own lives of prayer in emulation of Jesus.
Luke gives us the Lord’s prayer as an example of private prayer. But an example for whom?
We are wise to notice in the disciple’s request that it is taken for granted that such prayer is a matter of discipleship. If we would be disciples of Jesus, then we would pray as he did. “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” Whoever this disciple was, she or he took it for granted that discipleship to this teacher meant praying as Jesus did. Keep in mind that the disciples here were well familiar with Jewish practices of public prayer in synagogue. So this is not a blanket request about prayer in general. This is a request that is unique. It is unique insofar as it comes from a disciple of Jesus, pertains to the prayer life of Jesus, and reflects a desire to be more like Jesus. Could it be, wonders David Jeffrey, that the disciples are beginning to give voice to an emerging knowledge of Jesus’ distinct identity? Could it be that, while they are and will remain Jews, they are beginning to sense that they are at the same time a new community oriented toward this Person who is at once very familiar and altogether new? Whatever the reason, the disciple takes it for granted that if she or he is going to be a disciple, a follower, a student of Jesus, then she or he is going to pray as he does.
Personal private prayer as a part of the life of discipleship. It is one of the great strengths of the revivalist tradition in which I was raised, and I will always value, that this was stressed. The cultivation of a life of prayer, I was taught from the first, is simply one of those things that disciples do. Not slavishly, as a duty enforced upon an unwilling subject by a harsh task master, but as an expression of love for him to whom we had been united. It is simply part of that life to which we have been called.
Sometimes, I wonder whether we can, like that disciple, take it for granted that praying like Jesus, praying with Jesus is close to the heart of our discipleship to Jesus? No doubt we ought to, whether or not we are capable. And yet, we need to admit—well, maybe not you, but me—I need to admit that my discipleship is definitely on shaky ground if it is to be measured by my life of prayer. Which brings me to the last point that Luke, I think, wishes us to hear: Prayer is something that can be taught.
That, it seems to me is, the good news to take away. The Gospel which would invite us into a further exploration of this prayer. The disciple’s request, “Lord teach us to pray,” not only assumes that prayer and discipleship are intimately related, but also that such prayer is not something that comes naturally to us. It is, rather, something that can be taught. We can learn to pray. Not to avoid a punishment, surely, but to open ourselves more fully to the leading of Christ in our lives, to become more attuned to the presence of God’s Spirit.
Learning the Lord’s Prayer is no mere act of memorization—that would take very little teaching indeed. Learning the Lord’s prayer is, rather, learning to turn “all things of the self into the freedom of the Will of God.” And in this sense, the prayer functions, David Jeffrey writes, as “a summary of all the Jesus has been teaching, by his words and by his example, so that once again the disciples are invited by the very form of this prayer into an action of the imitation Christi, imitation of their Lord.” The Lord’s Prayer, continues the English mystic, Evelyn Underhill, “looks towards a goal in which every action shall be an act of worship; an utterance of [God’s] Name.”
A turning of the whole self? Every action an act of worship? Goodness. That is a very high bar. But the work that needs doing here, thankfully, as we learn the prayer, is not simply our own. The work that needs to be done is in fact God’s work. Do you recall the tension in St. Paul’s advice to the Christians in Philippi? Work out your own salvation for it is the work of God in you. Here is the same tension. As we learn the prayer, God is working in us. Here is Underhill again, “God comes to the soul in his working clothes, and he brings his tools with him.” It is my conviction that the most subtle and versatile tool at the Holy Spirit’s disposal is the regular, attentive praying of this prayer. As we learn this prayer together, as we learn to pray together, let us open our hearts to this craftsman who has refused to leave us marred by sin and hindered by the inability to pray. He has work to do. And that work will begin as we say, Our Father in heaven.